DETROIT -- It's a key question facing automakers as cars evolve into autonomous computers on wheels: How to recruit young software developers? The answer usually starts and ends with Silicon Valley.
So it might have come as a surprise to Wall Street analysts this month when, instead of citing that epicenter of technology, General Motors' global product chief Mark Reuss name-checked an institution nearly 3,000 miles away: the University of Waterloo, near Toronto.
Waterloo has a highly rated software-engineering program and happens to be located near GM's Canadian engineering hub. The school "is rapidly becoming a great pipeline for us of young, creative and talented people eager to join this company," Reuss said at GM's annual investor conference.
The Waterloo connection highlights an approach to recruiting young tech talent that diverges from GM's rivals. At a time when Ford Motor Co. and most other major automakers are rushing to establish beachheads in Silicon Valley or fortify existing ones, GM CEO Mary Barra says she's in no hurry to expand GM's modest presence there.
"What's the right number? Is it 50 [employees]? Is it 100? Is it 300?" Barra said in an interview this month. "You've got to build relationships and understand the mindset. I can put up a building ... but it's not like it's in the water."
GM's Silicon Valley staff of fewer than 10 people works out of a nondescript office in Palo Alto, led by Frankie James, a Stanford University Ph.D. in computer science. Opened in 2007, its purpose is to scout new technology and ideas, essentially serving as a listening post for innovations and trends that could have automotive applications.
That headcount is a fraction of that of Daimler AG or Volkswagen AG, which have a few hundred employees each in the Bay Area. Ford is rapidly adding to its Palo Alto innovation center, which opened in January and is on track to house about 125 by year end.
Right now, though, Barra is prioritizing relationships over boots on the ground.
A Stanford MBA, Barra visits the Bay Area about once a month for meetings at her alma mater: She is a university trustee and a member of the business school's advisory board.
Barra has leveraged those connections to arrange face time between GM executives and Stanford professors and students.
Last year, for example, GM started a program for about 30 of its executives to meet every few months in various locations with Stanford business school professors to work on "real life" projects, many tied to autonomous driving or mobility solutions, a GM spokesman said.
The growing automotive ambitions of Apple Inc., Google Inc. and other big tech companies have prodded many automakers to move beyond the listening-post approach to establish more substantive development centers in Silicon Valley, says Chris Gerdes, a Stanford engineering professor and director of the school's Center for Automotive Research.
"That's changed the tenor a lot," Gerdes said. "The trend is toward [automakers] having groups of significant size, with some specific focus or the ability to put together complete projects."
Still, that approach can have pitfalls, Gerdes says. It can be tricky to integrate the work being done in California into the company's engineering hub, whether in Michigan or Germany.
"As soon as you say, 'OK, we're going to build up an office in Silicon Valley,' you need to give those people something significant to do," he said. "But how does that fit back into the company's main engineering center? It's tough to find that balance."
A primary way that GM keeps tabs on ideas flowing from the Bay Area and beyond is GM Ventures, its in-house venture-capital arm, which has invested in roughly two dozen startups since it was formed five years ago.
One is Tula Technologies, a San Jose, Calif., firm that makes software for an experimental engine technology that would improve the efficiency of GM's cylinder-deactivation systems.
Partnering to access technology is a more efficient model than stationing engineers in California, says GM spokesman Dan Flores.
"The important thing is having access to the ideas and technology and small startups," Flores said. "We don't want to own these companies and run them. We want to help them along so eventually we can become their first customer."