Trend-spotting Google exec Colin McKay says A&S education prepared him for dynamic career path

May 25, 2022 by Peter Boisseau - A&S News

Colin McKay, who built an impressive career in government and industry by analyzing data and spotting trends, sees a strong link between where he is now and his time as an Arts & Science student.

The decades since then have seen McKay work for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada before joining Google, where he heads government affairs and public policy in Canada for the multinational tech giant.

“There is a clear trend line in my life because the work I was doing for my undergrad and graduate degrees was really about information collection, analysis and communications,” says McKay, who earned a bachelor of arts with distinction in history and international relations as a member of Trinity College in 1994 and a master of arts in history from U of T in 1996.

“What I studied in terms of information and intelligence analysis translated into my early jobs, and that flowed into an opportunity with the privacy commissioner.”

That was in 2007, as social media exploded with new offerings such as Twitter, YouTube, podcasts and alternative forms of communication, sparking debate about balancing the interests of consumers with those of the private sector and government.

“I felt I had insights into that policy dialogue, as well as the specific work, based in part on the studies I had done at U of T,” McKay says, adding that it also helped he was an early adopter of social media.

“The work at the privacy commissioner helped me take a deep dive into the other side of information use and analysis, which added to the collection of skills that got me the job at Google.”

McKay was attracted to studying international relations because of his father, a Canadian diplomat whose job took the family all over the world.

“I also liked the multidisciplinary nature of being able to jump between economics, political science, history and specialist courses,” says McKay.

“And I took my time at U of T, because I was taking all the courses that appealed to me intellectually, but also because I was viewing the subject matter from a variety of perspectives and disciplines.”

One of McKay’s main roles at Google is understanding the evolving regulatory environment around privacy and data collection and how that affects his company and consumers. He’s also charged with navigating that landscape with policymakers, researchers and politicians drafting new policies and legislation.

His U of T education is an important foundation for that work as well, he says.

“There's a lot of conversation at the moment about how exactly we create a regulatory framework designed for 2022,” says McKay.

“It all goes to the multidisciplinary nature of my international relations degree. Whether it’s political science, economics or history,” he says.

“You have to work hard to understand the environment, the problems to be solved and the specific communities you deal with, to evaluate and execute decisions. That makes my role very interesting.”

He says his focus on following his own personal interests and professional challenges throughout his school years and career also gives him insights into the changing expectations of younger Canadians in the workforce.

“I'm not as confused as some of my peers about people being willing to abandon jobs or to fundamentally rethink what they want to do with their skills and their time. Because that's how I was initially trained and how I've behaved since then,” says McKay.

He takes a special interest in media literacy and the importance of ensuring tools and training are easily accessible to users. He wants Canadians to appreciate the benefits and potential risks of accessing those technologies.

“I think the overlap with the media literacy work I’ve been doing is that there is a level of expectation and burden on the individual to understand the implications for them of the technology they're using, both in the moment and in the future.”

But he says support must also come from the companies that provide the technology, literacy organizations and advocacy groups, and governments incorporating technology and media literacy skills into traditional education.