Google’s Irish boss: ‘We don’t get it right all the time’
Interview: Fionnuala Meehan on moderating web content, micromanaging, and finding right work-life balance
Fionnuala Meehan at Google Docks, Barrow Street in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Things could have been so different for Google Ireland boss Fionnuala Meehan if she had stuck with her original career plan.
“At one point I thought I might go into academia,” she says, sitting in a 13th floor boardroom with a sweeping view of Dublin city. “I came to the end of the line with that and wanted to get out and do something a bit more practical.”
That turned out to be a job with hospitality group Best Western International, where she used her college degree in European studies.
Getting to grips with customer services and operations in that role later led on to something with more of a technological theme – working with AOL in the run up to the launch of broadband. That was a massive change for the industry, and kickstarted her digital career.
“That was where I earned a lot of scars and learned a lot of things,” she says. “What was narrowband? I mean when you say that to people now they look at you and ask what the hell is that?”
The woman who describes herself as “a huge swot” in school has gone on to head up the internet firm’s Irish subsidiary, currently responsible for about 7,000 jobs and €800 million in capital investment with the opening of its latest building in Dublin.
Meehan took over the Dublin office in 2016, following Ronan Harris’ appointment to the managing director of UK and Ireland role. He had succeeded John Herlihy as head of the Irish arm of the business.
She had been with Google for almost 11 years at that point, and was its vice-president of EMEA for Google marketing solutions.
When she joined in 2005 it was relatively early days for Google, with around 250 people in the company.
“It certainly was a big brand, but it wasn’t as big as it is today,” she says. “A lot of it was about customer services, sales but it was in that fast-paced online environment - I had both of those.”
Meehan has seen much of the change that Google has undergone in the meantime. Google’s premises now forms the heart of what is now known as the Silicon Docks. This week represents something of a milestone for Meehan, with the opening of the Velasco building.
Google is using the addition to its Barrow St campus to house its Google Cloud Hub. “It puts us at the forefront of one of Google’s biggest bets,” she says.
Public cloud is an integral part of Google’s strategy, with Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai saying ithad reached “meaningful scale” – a $1 billion-dollar-per-quarter business. Quoting publicly-available data for last year, Pichai said Alphabet believed Google Cloud Platform, which includes its G Suite products, is the fastest growing major public cloud provider in the world.
Having Dublin at the forefront of this development is an important achievement for Meehan, and she will continue to work hard to secure additional investment for Ireland.
Meehan won’t say what form this extra investment will take. There have been reports that Google is looking at the Treasury Building next, but nothing has been confirmed.
“We continue to try to stay in touch with what are the big priorities for Google Inc as it were, what role do we have to play, and plan ahead,” she says.
The issue of tax always features prominently in conversations about multinationals in Ireland.
Are they just here for our low corporate tax rate? Are they paying enough tax? What impact will Donald Trump’s sweeping tax reforms have on US foreign direct investment into Ireland? What about calls for tax harmonisation across Europe?
When you think about a business today and all the things it has to get right it didn’t have to think about 20 years ago, that presents some challenges
Meehan is clear about Google’s position: “We stand where we’ve always stood. We would welcome clearer rules and the work being done by the OECD [the base erosion and profit sharing project] to simplify rules for companies. We pay all the tax we are required to by law, and when that changes we will comply with that [new] law.
“The US conversation is really about US tax and doesn’t really have anything to do with the amount of tax we pay in European countries.
“The reason why we’re here is because we have to do business in the region [Europe, Middle East and Africa]. We feel we help businesses across the region, from Capetown to Reykjavik, Galway right over to St Petersburg, across that entire region, we in this hub are representing users, consumers, advertisers, publishers, app developers.
“That’s the reason for our presence here. We are that growth engine and we are helping all kinds of businesses stay ahead. Regardless of what tax is being paid, we have to do business in the region. Dublin is a huge part of business in the region.”
Google has a large footprint in Dublin, leading some to suggest it should consider a campus outside the city centre for its growing operations.
Meehan says staff like working in a city centre environment, and Google’s central location is a key pull when seeking to attract new hires.
“Sometimes I don’t think we realise that as Dubliners ourselves, it’s a great place to raise children, it’s a great place for families and there are great amenities in the city centre and you don’t have to go too far to get out into the countryside or to the seaside. I hear that as much as I hear that it’s a capital city and we have to spend a little more time finding somewhere to live.”
There is also the danger that Google, along with the other tech firms, will come to be viewed as pushing the local community out by driving up property prices.
Meehan says the company is keen to integrate with the “vibrant, historical” community that it has found itself a part of.
“As we expand the campus, we also think about our investment in the community around us,” she says. That’s not just about supporting local start-ups, but also being a good neighbour.
The company has taken part in local festivals, and it opens its doors to its neighbours, too, inviting pensioners living in the surrounding area to come in to watch movies, or take part in some karaoke.
“They come in and they own the place. We love that because it’s a great way of getting our multinational employees to interact with locals from the region,” she says.
Google also focuses on digital skills, including educating schools and teachers on basic computer science.
Meehan sees helping SMEs to grow their businesses – through Google’s advertising programmes, support for start-ups and now its new machine learning product, and the recently-launched Marketfinder that helps businesses pinpoint what markets they should be interested in – as a key part of her role.
“When you think about a business today and all the things it has to get right it didn’t have to think about 20 years ago, that presents some challenges but for me it presents huge amounts of opportunities,” she says.
I make no excuses for the fact that I’m running a really big business and I like to know what’s going on
One challenge coming down the line is Brexit, but Meehan was keen to stress Google’s commitment to Ireland would remain. And encouraging smaller businesses to think global might help them weather the Brexit storm.
Meanwhile, Google and its parent company Alphabet have their own storms to weather. Its YouTube unit has found itself in the firing line on more than occasion.
Monetisation of channels
Last year, it was when advertisers withdrew from Google’s ads programme because their advertisements were appearing alongside extremist material. This year, it was down to the monetisation of channels where content that was questionable in taste – Logan Paul’s now-deleted video of a dead body in a so-called “suicide forest” in Japan, for example.
YouTube has cracked down on both the monetisation of channels and the presence of offensive content by hiring more content moderators to help flag unsuitable videos on its platform.
The promised crackdown led to a second controversy. Last week, The Sunday Times reported that contract employees working for recruiter Hays as content monitors for Google were being paid less than the living wage, which was somewhat embarrassing for the tech company.
Meehan isn’t going into too much detail about how Google will deal with this issue, but said Google demands the highest standards from its contractors and said it will be looking to address the concerns raised.
Google is also facing scrutiny in the coming months about how it deals with the various elements in the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment to the constitution.
The impending referendum is shaping up to be a contentious battle, and given the spotlight that tech firms have found themselves under in the past couple of years thanks to the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump to the White House, it is likely attention will turn to Google, its search engine and the massive reach of its ad network.
“It’s a spectrum. There’s content you mightn’t agree with and there’s content that misrepresentative, and it’s important to make that distinction,” Meehan says. “We don’t get it right all the time, but when we get it wrong we put our hands up and put measures in place to improve things for the next time.”
When asked about her biggest business mistakes, she says it was letting personal development for teams drop lower down the list of priorities in favour of results.
“Being results-focused and getting the right results for the business but not thinking about the personal development in your team was a big mistake,” she says. “People will work with you for a certain amount of time, but they won’t stay with you longer term. Earlier on in my career I didn’t have that balance right.”
Finding a balance between work and life is difficult for many people, but Meehan appears to have it somewhat in hand. She has three children, the eldest of whom is 19, and her husband has always been what she calls the lead parent.
I try to be close to the business in a way that doesn’t drive people crazy with lots of pesky questions
“That’s been a huge part in my being able to do the job I do,” she says. “I think it’s really important in a household that you have a routine, and that you’re home, that you are getting to chat with them every evening. I prioritise time to switch off, I prioritise sleep, I try to get regular exercise. I’m not breaking any records but I get out for a run a few times a week.”
Meehan took two months of parental leave last year, and ensures that she has time to switch off and interact with her family once she’s at home. She doesn’t want to have one eye permanently on her smartphone.
“It’s easy to pick it up and scan it,” she says. “I make no excuses for the fact that I’m running a really big business and I like to know what’s going on. My team have got used to that over the years.
“I try to control the worst part of that. I try to be close to the business in a way that doesn’t drive people crazy with lots of pesky questions. But I do think it’s responsible to know what’s going on in the business and with the customers I support.”
But Meehan has an effective way of dealing with it: two phones - one work, one personal - and she switches the work phone off when she is off duty.
“I think you need to set boundaries for yourself. But you need to do that – you’need to decide what those boundaries are.”
Name: Fionnuala Meehan
Family: Married with three children
Something that you might expect: She likes to stay involved in every aspect of the business, although she is working on keeping on her micromanaging tendencies under control.
Something that would surprise you: She likes heavy metal music, notably Bad Religion and Faith No More.