Liberal arts set Vaver on Path to Google

John Vaver ’89 is, by any measure, near the top of his field. As a senior quantitative analyst at Google, he is part of Google’s Advanced Measurement Technologies team, which is primarily composed of Ph.D. statisticians and software engineers.

Jon Vaver '89
Photo of Jon Vaver ’89 by Nick Cote

Vaver leads a group of analysts who develop mathematical models, algorithms, and analyses that help advertisers understand how their Google ads influence consumer behavior. He has written research papers that describe these models, and he works as a bridge between Google units and their constituencies to refine how the effectiveness of Google ads are measured and communicated.

Vaver, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Cornell College, says he came to the Hilltop not knowing what his major would be. “I was interested in math and science, but I wasn’t certain that I’d end up working in those fields.”

Vaver says a suggestion from his advisor, math professor Jim Freeman, had a significant impact on his life. “In planning my senior year of coursework, I told him I was going to register for an optics class,” Vaver says. “Professor Freeman suggested that I consider something different. He told me that some courses would determine what I would do in my life, and others would determine who I would be. It was a formative moment.”

Vaver registered for a course taught by English Professor Stephen Lacey ’65 in England, and it was his first overseas experience. “This trip changed the way that I viewed the world, which is what liberal arts education is all about. Sometimes you can appreciate an experience in the moment, and yet it may be much later that you realize the true impact or context of that experience. This off-campus course made me realize how much value there is in seeking new learning opportunities in unfamiliar areas, and I have a more fulfilling life as a result.”

After Cornell Vaver pursued a doctorate in applied mathematics at the University of Virginia. Once he received his doctorate he spent three years working for the Department of Defense as a cryptologist, mostly on confidential projects, before heading to Colorado and taking a job with US West-Qwest (now CenturyLink). Seven years later he accepted a position with Google, which he describes as his ideal job. “Google has a workforce that is highly technical, innovative, and creative,” he says.

“It helps to have a liberal arts background that prepares you for working with people with such a wide range of talents.”

During his career there’s been a revolution in consumer marketing, with online advertising growing from a $9.6 billion industry in 2004 to $125.82 billion in 2014 and to an estimated $220.38 billion by 2019.

“Online advertising came with the promise of better measurement due to improved visibility into ad spending, ad serving, and consumer purchases,” he says. “The complexity of online advertising has grown rapidly because of the growing number of ad formats, ad serving systems, devices, web browsers, media providers, etc., as well as more protective privacy policies.”

His job is to help develop “scientifically principled” measurement methods that help advertisers understand who they are reaching and whether their customers are responding.  

When he’s not working Vaver and his wife, Kristin, spend time with their sons, ages 16, 14, and 11, and enjoy sports and the outdoors. He sneaks off regularly for a solitary trail run or mountain bike ride, which he describes as his “thinking time.”

“Sometimes spending time alone is the best way to make progress on a problem or make sense of a situation. Solitude is also a time for reflection. I do try to understand how I came to be where I am,” he says. “My experiences at Cornell certainly played an important role in this regard.”