‘Somebody saw something in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself’

Adaire Fox-Martin returned to hometown Dublin to head Google’s European cloud wing

It is an interesting time to be a head of Google’s European cloud services. On one hand, the world has woken up to just how much we depend on such services, prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic and a mass relocation of workers from the office to the home “office”. On the other, we are asking harder questions of the toll on our country’s resources, specifically the impact on the energy grid.

But Adaire Fox-Martin doesn’t seem the type to shy away from a challenge. It is that mindset that has taken her from education into tech, and to the other side of the world.

Google's new Irish executive comes with an impressive list of accomplishments to her name. There is her career progression, where she worked her way up from a training role at Oracle through to head up SAP's global sales, before departing to take up the Google role. There are also the professional accolades that she has notched up over the years: Fortune magazine named her one of the 50 most powerful women four times, and she was named the recipient of SAP's Distinguished Leader Award for the Asia-Pacific-Japan region.

She has also been at the forefront of social entrepreneurship programmes at her former employer, founding the One Billion Lives programme that fosters social entrepreneurship.


Secondary school teacher

But things could have been very different. Fox-Martin didn’t start out focused on tech as a career, but started out as a secondary school teacher. The Trinity graduate moved to London during the dark economic days of the 1980s to find a job, and taught in a secondary school in London for three years.

“I learned a lot in that classroom,” she said. “Suddenly you are in charge of 30 individuals and it is the only job in the world where you are almost an immediate CEO of 30 people and your role is to keep them engaged and impart knowledge.”

The job taught her a lot: managing time, how to teach effectively, decomposing complex tasks into something simple and explaining it in an engaging way. About three years into her teaching career, a friend told her about an IT company that was looking for teachers for an experiment at a time when technology was changing and it was moving to English-based syntax in the code.

“The intent was: if we took teachers, and gave them the technical skills, rather than try to take technicians, and give them the teaching skills, would we get a better outcome in our learning environment?” she explained. “It was one of those quick decisions; I literally had a teacher’s resumé – when you’re a junior teacher there’s not a lot that you have in terms of responsibility.

“Somebody saw something in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself. They took a risk on me; I was a high-risk profile for that transition,” she said.

“The person who interviewed me told me they had a notebook of interviews, and that most of the people in that book had all of the product knowledge, the technical knowledge, the skills, but she gave me the job. And she gave it to me because she felt there was an attitude, an aptitude and a willingness and a desire for the role, that I probably wanted it more than the others.”

That experience has coloured how she approaches things in her own career.

“It makes me think about our recruitment processes and how open-minded, you have to be in your recruitment process because, you know, on paper, I was not a good fit, but that gave me a start to an an incredible career in it that I never imagined for myself.”

That career included a move to Australia – a personal rather than career move – with Oracle, followed by Singapore and a subsequent move to head up SAP's Asia Pacific business. In total, she spent 17 years in the region.

“The pace of change was incredible. The speed of innovation was incredible,” she said.

Move to Google

Fox-Martin was promoted to the SAP board, prompting another move closer to home, to Germany. She was the second woman to be appointed to the executive board, making it a noteworthy event, and took over responsibility for SAP's global sales.

In January 2021 it was announced Fox-Martin would be leaving the German company, prompting a reshuffle of its board. Six months later, she joined Google to head up its cloud operations, at a time when the company is still largely working remotely.

“Finally, after all that meandering around the world, I find myself back in my own hometown, which is wonderful,” she said. “Dublin has changed so much as a city in the time that I’ve been away. When I left it was quite monocultural, now that I’m back it’s hugely multicultural and I love that.

“But there is an element of feeling a little bit like a tourist in your own home city because there are buildings that weren’t here when I left and parts of the city that have been redeveloped that just wasn’t done when I left. The one thing that’s you know so wonderful that just hasn’t changed is just that Irishness – the friendliness, the hospitality, the people who stop to have a chat with you, the chats that you can have in the shops. So I’m really glad to be home.”

Her decision to join the company wasn’t just due to the location of the role; it was also down to impact she could have. Google may be an international powerhouse, but there is plenty of work still to do. The company is increasingly focusing on cloud services as digital transformation picks up pace in an almost-post-Covid world.

Finding her feet

“It was more about the growth of the business, the opportunity for impact, and the opportunity really to – because we have this fast-growing business in the cloud – really be in a position where we can make a tremendous difference, not just to economies that are recovering post-Covid but also to companies and then to the individuals in the communities that we would that we live in and serve.”

Joining the company in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t easy, but it has allowed her to find her feet more quickly. “I think it’d be difficult if you’re a brand-new hire and this is your first job and you’re not really sure of how to navigate networks. But from the point of view of joining as an experienced leader, I was able to meet so many people so much faster than I could have done if I had to be on the road, even though my region is smaller than the global region that I had in the past,” she said.

“You know, you can have short, sharp engagements with so many people, and it’s been pretty effective that way. I did have the opportunity a few weeks ago to meet my team in 3D for the first time, so we were able to get together in London and that was really lovely. But I think all of us have learned to navigate so many different aspects of our lives now in a digital way. You have to try and look at the positives of it.”

Having found her feet in the role, Fox-Martin now has plans to get stuck in to the job as the focus on digitisation continues.

"Even in the short time that I've been here, the dynamics of the European market are amazing," she said. "When you look at the impact of the pandemic it has accelerated the acceptance of digitisation, in many economies right across Europe. From a timing perspective, I think this is Europe's moment. There's a real opportunity for Google Cloud, and the team in EMEA to really support economies as they're recovering.

Energy use

“There is an incredibly, incredibly vibrant and relevant set of technology in the Google Cloud portfolio, much broader and much deeper than I initially imagined when I did my own due diligence before I joined. And so when I look at the relevance of these solutions that touch topics that are so important to our customers – scaling their business, topics of sustainability, topics of security – when we address that in the context of relevancy of our customers, understanding their industry, then couple that with this great team that I’ve inherited, I think all three elements are there.”

However, the increase in cloud services will also mean increased demand for data-centre services, and in turn data centres. With an increasing focus on energy security at home and further afield, the future development of data centres is coming up for debate.

As head of cloud services in the European region, it is something that will inevitably be put to Fox-Martin numerous times in the coming months.

It’s a complex issue. She points to the phenomenal growth in cloud services versus the energy use associated with it, which has remained relatively flat. However, concerns about it cannot be ignored.

“This is a very complex issue and across so many different elements of the industry, the public sector, in government and of us as individuals,” she said. “I think all of us have a role to play, and Google as a responsible energy steward will have a role to play.

“Only last year [Google] made a commitment that we will be carbon-free everywhere, every single day, by 2030. Already five of our data centres are above 90 per cent in terms of achieving that outcome but we still have work to do, and we want to be part of this solution because this reliance this explosion of data is going to continue. I don’t see that it’s something that’s going to slow down.”