Veterans Day: Q&A with Terradepth about mapping the ocean floor, the final frontier on Earth, with Google Cloud
Editor's Note: November 11th is Veterans Day—a day for us to recognize, celebrate, and honor military veterans of the United States Armed Forces. Today, Shannon Sullivan, Director, SCS Public Sector at Google, will be having a conversation with Terradepth and its founder to learn how they are using Google Cloud to grow their business and serve their customers. This feature highlights Terradepth and its founder, Joe Wolfel.
Shannon: Hi Joe. It’s great to talk with you about Terradepth and your pioneering work in ocean floor mapping. Tell us about the business and what led you to found the company.
Joe: When we founded Terradepth in 2018, we were inspired by the opportunity to make a positive difference to the planet. Judson (the other Terradepth founder) and I previously served in the U.S. Navy SEALs, so much of our time in the military was spent surrounded by the sea. When we moved into business, we were struck by how little we know about this environment and the lack of data that exists to support fast decisions if your business involves subsea activity. We were determined to expand people’s knowledge of the oceans.
We’re one of the world's only vertically integrated ocean data companies. We help people collect, manage, and deliver ocean data to support faster decision making. Our cloud platform makes it easy to use, share, and disseminate data. This helps to make up for the fact that people really know very little about the ocean floor—only 23% has been mapped so far. Because we use unmanned systems in the ocean, our technologies can go deeper, farther and for longer periods of time, which opens up entirely new areas.
Shannon: That’s fascinating. Can you tell me a bit more about your customers? Where do they work and what challenges do they face?
Joe: Our customers are anyone who cares about the ocean from the public to professional hydrographic surveyors who supply data to offshore wind companies, submarine telecommunications, and others.
We're collecting a repository of scalable, cost-efficient data that will inform every industry with a connection to our oceans. It can also help tackle the critical environmental and social issues facing the planet. This includes predicting atmospheric weather patterns, building underwater energy and telecom infrastructures, and protecting the future of our coastal communities.
We've designed our Absolute Ocean data platform to be simple so that most anyone can use it to explore the ocean, but also sophisticated enough for a professional hydrographic surveyor responsible for annotating, analyzing, and delivering data.
Shannon: Ok, so that sounds like the choice of platform has been critical to deliver on your vision. What led you to choose Google Cloud for your business?
Joe: The reason we chose Google Cloud to host Absolute Ocean is that we know just how powerful and useful Google Earth is and we wanted to try and do something similar for the ocean floor. When it comes to our infrastructure, Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) is our orchestration platform, and we use Google Cloud SQL as our relational database.
GKE is especially important for the growth of the business. It has a modern, flexible software architecture that doesn’t really exist yet in the maritime sector where most software solutions are PC-based. By pushing the boundaries and moving to the cloud we can give our clients the flexibility to use the platform in the ways they need.
Shannon: That’s great. We hear this a lot from start-ups in sectors that haven’t yet adopted the cloud, especially the point about giving the customer greater choice. Can you also tell us a bit more about the Google for Startups Cloud Program. How helpful was that?
Joe: We had a great experience. Leveraging the financial support and credits from the program is ideal because it enables us to make the most of limited resources when we’re starting out. We were also impressed by the support for developing on Google Cloud. Whenever we had questions, the Google startup experts answered them quickly and helped keep us on track.
Shannon: This is good to hear. Thinking again about the maritime sector and ocean mapping, can you tell us more about how Google Cloud helps you solve challenges facing this industry?
Joe: It’s helped us take a big leap forward. People might be surprised, but most maritime data is still transported by mailing hard discs back and forth or emailing PDFs. With Google Cloud we have a modern solution for capturing and managing data that enables individuals and businesses to make smart, fast decisions with respect to the ocean. Best of all, we didn't have to build our infrastructure, it was already there. We just had to add on top of what Google Cloud already provides.
This is critical from a vertical-integration standpoint. We’re collecting ocean data but we’re also offering the platform infrastructure. Google Cloud massively reduces the effort we need to build the Absolute Ocean platform, so we can stay focused on continually adding to the data from subsea surveys.
Shannon: The other thing I’d like to focus on is your journey as start-up founders. You’ve already been able to accomplish a lot, and what you’re doing is game changing for businesses, communities, and environmental stewardship. I’m curious: are there things that you’re particularly excited about or proud of right now?
Joe: The team at Terradepth is what inspires me the most. We have an outstanding group of people working incredibly hard to widen our understanding of the last unexplored frontier on the planet. The oceans contain 98.5 percent of the Earth’s habitable volume yet we know hardly anything about it. It also supports a highly valuable economy that comprises everything from marine fishing to ship building and maritime freight transport. This is estimated to be worth $3 trillion by 2030.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoy working at Terradepth. There is a broader, larger mission that could literally change the way we interact with the ocean.
Shannon: Shifting away from technology, and focusing again on Veterans Day, can you tell me more about your journey from serving as Navy SEALs to founding Terradepth?
Joe: I think there’s a lot in common between serving in the military and founding a business. Being a Navy Seal gives you the confidence to problem solve and figure things out in unknown situations. You also acquire lots of stable, simple mental models that allow you to calculate, make good decisions, and accept risk. Other things that translate from combat situations include, how do you lead a team, and how to take care of people. There's a certain amount of stress tolerance too. When things get really bad, which they can in a start-up, you can always sit back and think, "Well, I’ve seen a lot worse in combat.”
The veteran network has also made a big difference, including our personal contacts and people who are in similar situations running their own companies. Although we haven’t used them ourselves, The Honor Foundation, The Station Foundation, and The Commit Foundation do great work helping veterans transition to the civilian workplace. I also had the unique opportunity to work for McChrystal Group, a consultancy led by Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star army general.
Shannon: Going back to everything that you said, are there any other challenges that you had to overcome as a veteran entrepreneur?
Joe: In the military, you acquire a community and a culture that starts day one of your assessment and training. But when you launch your own business, you've got to create that culture by yourself. You can’t lift and shift the SEAL culture and just apply it to a private company. People tried that, and it didn't work. You've got to be able to adapt and think critically about what you can retain from your military training to make your business team successful.
Shannon: You touched on the importance of culture in the military and the civilian workplace. Could you expand on that?
Joe: The one thing the military really taught me, specifically in combat, is how to tackle highly complex or chaotic situations. The way to succeed is to get multiple diverse, but informed perspectives weighing in on a problem
We’ve taken that iterative thinking around how to attack complex problems and transferred it to Terradepth. We've created a cloud-based ocean data platform that enables different perspectives to collaborate on common problem sets and get to solutions instead of passing data back and forth between different stakeholders.
Shannon: What other advice do you have for veterans looking to start their own business or their own company in the technology space?
Joe: Be confident, but not overconfident. You’re not going to have deep subject matter expertise in technology so don’t let that lead you into making expensive mistakes. The flip side is that as a veteran you have a lot of the tools for success including leadership and decision-making.
This really matters when pitching to investors. Most are used to seeing younger people with a wealth of subject matter expertise. We had to look hard for the right investors who were prepared to back generalists, such as us, with other strong skills. We played on our personality strengths, experience at building teams, and an ability to lead people through a series of challenges.
One last piece of advice. Your learning doesn’t end when you leave the military. You’ve got to take responsibility for discovering more about your industry. This will make you credible with your investors, your customers, and your team as it expands. It won’t guarantee success, but it will certainly increase your chances!