Mastering the language of the Facebook generation
MD Sonia Flynn is responsible for more than 500 staff and Facebook’s largest office outside HQ
Sonia Flynn joined Facebook Ireland in 2009 after undergoing 10 interviews to secure the position of director for community operations. She was appointed managing director in 2011. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Flynn herself isn’t from a technical background and she is one of the youngest people in Europe leading an EMEA technology headquarters.
As managing director of Facebook Ireland, she says her parents were bemused when she first got a job at tech company Google given that her background was in languages.
From Newbridge, in Co Kildare, Flynn completed a degree in applied languages at the University of Ulster, in Coleraine, before undertaking a masters in German literature at Queen’s University Belfast.
Her first real job was at supply chain manufacturing firm Modus Media, where she worked as a credit controller on the Microsoft account.
Looking for a career change in 2003, she applied for a job at Google. She didn’t even get an interview. All that came back was the standard “thanks, but no thanks letter”, she says.
She joined Taxback.com instead as an executive programme manager in eastern Europe.
In 2005, a job advertised by a recruitment company caught her eye. She applied not knowing what the company was, and got an interview. It turned out to be Google.
“I did 22 interviews for Google. At times I wanted to stop as there were so many. I was thinking there isn’t anything more to know about me.”
The search giant had just 70 employees in Ireland when she started working there in 2005; Facebook had even fewer when she joined in 2009.
“There were only 40 or 50 people working for Facebook in Ireland at the time. We would have weekly meetings and everyone knew each other. Gavin Prendergast from Urban Picnic would cook all our food and bring it in.
“We just occupied the second floor. There was huge excitement when we got two more floors.”
Flynn says the Facebook interview process was a much less stressful affair. She underwent 10 interviews before securing the position of director for community operations (EMEA, Asia-Pacific and Latin America) in November 2009. Facebook had only established its EMEA headquarters in Dublin a few months earlier.
“I did 10 interviews for the job – seven in person and three on the phone. A lot of it was meeting team leaders in the US. I wasn’t 100 per cent sure the company was going to be right for me.”
At the time the social network had 100 million users globally. As of the third quarter of this year, it had 1.35 billion monthly active users worldwide.
“I remember being told (back in 2009) to be ready for when we have over a billion people. I thought the person was joking when they said it.”
Flynn, who was appointed managing director of Facebook Ireland in November 2011, says growing the company was a big challenge, as there was no example to follow.
Cope with changes
With the exception of Google, she says she has never really worked in a company which is in the headlines a lot. And when she worked at Google, it wasn’t her who was in the limelight.
More recently, Facebook has been in the news for halving its corporate tax bill, despite rising revenues.
Facebook Ireland grew its revenues to €2.97 billion in 2013, which represented 47 per cent of the social networking giant’s global revenues of $7.8 billion (€6.34 billion) that year.
Despite that, the company more than halved its Irish corporate tax bill from €5.2 million in 2012 to €2.3 million, after its administrative expenses increased by €1.1 billion to €2.9 billion.
It was a similar story the previous year. In 2012, Facebook Ireland grew its turnover by €737 million to €1.78 billion, but only generated an Irish corporation tax charge of €1.9 million.
These expenses included royalty payments of €770 million to its immediate parent, Facebook Ireland Holdings, an unlimited company registered in Ireland but not believed to be tax-resident here.
On the issue of tax, and what impact any tax changes could have, Flynn simply says the company is in Ireland for the long haul.
“We have just moved into a new building. I think that speaks for itself. We wouldn’t be making these investments if we weren’t happy in Ireland. You don’t make snap decisions when building a base out of Dublin.”
In February 2013, Facebook announced it would be moving to a new office at Grand Canal Square, Dublin, with capacity for 1,100 employees.
The company moved into the new building in June 2014.
The building spans some 120,000 square feet and was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, who is best known for buildings like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“I brought my parents into the new building. They walked along a couple of floors. My dad kept saying: ‘Are you sure you need all this space?’.”
Facebook currently employs more than 500 people in Dublin, representing more than 50 nationalities.
The office has the largest community operations team of any Facebook office globally, and the social network’s global gaming division is also run from Dublin.
Flynn says the growth of Dublin’s tech and start-up scene in recent years has led to an increase in the pool of tech workers from which the company can hire.
“We had to visit a lot of countries to get talent when we started out in Dublin. Now we have a good pool of people in Dublin to choose from.
“We like to stay competitive on salaries but we don’t like to inflate the market. We are cognisant that we are part of the tech community.”
She says the company doesn’t over emphasise education when hiring, but does use it as a good indicator.“We want people to have an interest in our product and ideas for the future. It’s the kind of company where you can start in one area such as community operations and then move to another such as SMB [small and medium business] sales.
“We are a very mission-driven company. I do an orientation with people when they come in. I ask them if they know the mission of the previous company they worked for. Often they don’t.”
“We have a saying here – nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.”
Flynn had her first child last year, taking eight months maternity leave and keeping in touch intermittently.
“I am a rubbish cook. I missed the food [at Facebook] a lot when I was on maternity leave. It is very good food.
“There is a downside though: it’s hard to lose weight. There is a thing called the Facebook 15 – when you join Facebook you gain 15lb.”
She says tech companies offer a lot of flexibility, which can be family-friendly, adding that working there is about results and not sitting in the office for “face time”.
Though she wouldn’t change anything about her job, she never thought she would be responsible for more than 500 staff and Facebook’s largest office outside of its California headquarters, when she took a position at the company five years ago.
“I go to the hairdressers a lot for hair colour – the stress of managing 500 people gives me grey hair.” CV Name: Sonia Flynn. Position: Managing Director, Facebook Ireland. Age: 39. Lives: Sandymount, Dublin. Family: Married with one son. Education: BA in Applied Languages from the University of Ulster at Coleraine, and MA in German Literature from Queen’s University Belfast. Something about her that might surprise readers: She is an amateur DJ in her spare time, and used to present a show called Artbeat on Anna Livia. Something about her that readers might expect: She has only written two tweets ever. Both were to Stephen McIntyre, managing director of Twitter Dublin.