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Google Ireland: 15-years-a-growing

Google Ireland chief Fionnuala Meehan talks about data privacy, trust, values, the talent pool in Dublin, gender equality and the company’s 15 years in Dublin

It's been a busy few months for Fionnuala Meehan and Google. The company celebrated its 15th birthday in Ireland, reached the milestone of 8,000 jobs supported in this country, and saw an unprecedented global walkout by staff who were protesting over sexual harassment.

Meehan took over as Google Ireland boss and vice-president for EMEA Google Marketing Solutions two years ago when her predecessor Ronan Harris moved on to take the helm at the UK and Ireland operation. Since then, the headcount has grown by 2,000, with 2018 marking the company's biggest year for hiring in Ireland.

This makes the Dublin operation Google’s sixth largest globally and the second largest in the EMEA region, vying with London for the title of largest. “It’s sometimes first, sometimes second – it depends on hiring at the Dublin and London sites in any particular year,” says Meehan.

But what do all these people do? “What sets us apart is the range of things we do here,” she says. “Some sites are mainly sales and others are mainly marketing. We have a lovely mix.”?


The majority, 70 per cent, are involved in sales, which basically boils down to the advertising end of the business. "We are working with all types of businesses, from the very smallest to the largest, helping them with their ads, ensuring they are using the right keywords, helping them manage their brands online. Our customers' YouTube presence is increasingly important to them and we help them with that too."

The rapidly growing cloud team falls within the sales group. Other teams work with developers who are creating new apps for the Play Store and with publishers who subsidise their content with ads.

“We also have our customer centre, the Foundry, here in Dublin. We hold breakfast briefings for Irish and overseas customers there.”

Trust and Safety team

The Trust and Safety team is quite noteworthy given the recent issues around data privacy and advertising contents which have arisen for the internet giants of late. “This is a large and growing team,” Meehan explains. “They develop and enforce all of the policies in relation to what we do and do not allow online, what types of ads we permit and so on. It’s about keeping consumers safe as they use our products as well as keeping children safe online. A lot of thought leadership comes from that team.”

The Irish site also includes legal and finance teams, and technical support and a 500-strong engineering group, some of whom are part of the global Google Maps team.

And then there are the site-reliability engineers. These are responsible for making sure Google services are up and running all the time, Meehan points out. “The team here wrote the book on site-reliability engineering. We are very proud of that.”

She attributes at least part of this variety to the availability of talent in Dublin. “Dublin is unique in being able to access talent. We are able to source a lot of talent internally. That’s great for scaling quickly.”

Interestingly, she says, the company has no difficulty in sourcing talent externally either. “Dublin is a great source of talent for cloud and engineering. We have no problem with talent.”

With the online industry generally taking something of a battering in the age of fake news and allegations of interference in the democratic process through data misuse, the existence of a Trust and Safety team is interesting.

“The company has values,” Meehan says. “There are ads we will show and not show. If something happens like a tragedy or a shooting, the team look at the ads showing up across the platforms to see if there is anything inappropriate appearing.”

The team also looks at Google policies and recommends changes where necessary. “They are experts on how our platforms are being used. But there are always some bad actors out there. We are looking at advertising and other content during elections. Our main goal is to ensure that users understand where an ad is coming from. We want to offer that transparency. We started doing that in the US and it’s coming here now.”

In the era of “alternative facts” the company is also taking steps to ensure users have access to authoritative sources of information. “The way I think about it is that we are giving users as much transparency as possible around the provenance of the ads. We start with what’s legal. That’s the baseline. After that, we are looking at giving users a way to access authoritative sources of news. We are also working with fact-checking organisations.”

The difficulty lies with dealing with a medium that is both viral and instantaneous. One solution, according to Meehan, is to give more weight to authoritative sources in breaking news on search results.

Data concerns

Data concerns represent a different issue. "The kind of data we have is very different to the data organisations like Facebook hold – we are not a social network," she says. "The other big difference is that you can take your data out of Google at any time. If you go into My Activity, you can see all the data we hold on you. There is complete transparency and control."

But there is a purpose to organisations collecting and holding data. “Each consumer has to trade off convenience for privacy,” she says. “For companies to personalise, they have to know something about you. How much data do you want to give? The user is in complete control with Google. Millions of people look, edit, and delete data held with us every year. They can ask not to see ads. We have been doing a lot of things like that, even before GDPR.”

She also makes the point that data-sharing is often mischaracterised as intrinsically bad. “It’s not all bad,” she says. “Take our Market Finder tool, for example. We just launched it in Ireland, the first outside of the US to get it. It helps companies find potential customers around the world. That’s an example of using data for good. We are making that available to small businesses, helping them export and sell into other markets.”

Not enough businesses are making the most of online opportunities, however. "A lot of businesses are online, about 70 per cent have websites but only 30 per cent of them are transaction-enabled. The sites are there, they are mobile optimised, but they don't allow customers to complete transactions. We are getting out and about around the country to help more businesses get online. We have been to Limerick, Shannon and Cork this year. We are helping small businesses think more globally. You can go global instantly online. There really are lots of upsides for Irish small businesses going online.

“We see small businesses as micro-multinationals,” Meehan continues. “You can be small and still reach out to many different markets. We see fantastic entrepreneurs and new business models working from home using our tools and online tools to reach global markets.”

Social entrepreneurship is also high on the agenda. “Another thing we are very excited about this year is the Google Impact Challenge, which we launched recently. That’s an example of us giving something back to Dublin. We are offering €1 million in grants to not-for-profits and social entrepreneurs in Dublin with ideas on how to improve their communities.”

The company hit the headlines in November for what must have been one of the most unusual worker walkouts in history – one supported by the company and its management. At issue was sexual harassment and its perceived prevalence within the company. Workers at Google sites around the world left their desks at a prearranged time in a co-ordinated protest with the blessing of their managers, who joined them on the streets outside the buildings.

“This was a grassroots initiative supported by the management and leadership,” says Meehan who doesn’t believe the idea that a protest like this could be supported by management is all that unusual. “I think it says a little bit about the Google culture. A key part of that is feedback and listening. People here have a voice and are happy to use it.”

The response from the top was swift, with Google chief executive Sundar Pichai announcing through his blog that there would be changes to the arbitration process, more support for those affected by harassment, and improved reporting procedures, among other things.

“No workplace is immune from this,” says Meehan. “But we are committed to improved reporting and greater transparency; giving more support – more care and empathy; and doubling down on our commitment to have a more representative workforce. But it is a tough one. There is no silver bullet.”

Diversity and inclusion

Google was already active in the diversity and inclusion space before this, she adds. “We were among the first companies to publish diversity statistics and our female representation has gone up significantly in the past five years. There is no one thing you can do to solve this overnight. We are focused on helping and promoting and supporting underrepresented groups. We are also working externally to start conversations with businesses in Ireland on how we can inspire and challenge future female leaders.”

But the statistics speak for themselves in an industry which is still male-dominated at many levels, and especially the upper reaches. “We need to start early, Meehan says. “We need to talk to girls and boys while they are still in school.”

She refers to 2015 research into what led girls and boys to choose certain subjects. This pointed to peer-group acceptance as being of key importance and to the need for informal as well as formal engagement to promote STEM choices.

“It’s not just technology for coding games,” she explains. “It’s also about using technology to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. It’s helping doctors make better diagnoses. It’s about helping treat and cure breast cancer and other diseases. Technology is an enabler for a whole range of different things. Those are the kind of messages we need to start with.”

Google’s CS First – computer science –programme is aimed at delivering those messages to children by teaching them the basics of coding and its different uses. “Technology has worked its way into other disciplines as well,” Meehan adds. “It’s not just STEM any more, it’s STEAM as well with art being part of it.”

Specifically in Ireland, Google has supported the Camara Education Ireland, the Irish NGO which runs the national TechSpace network, with a €530,000 grant to deliver computer science training, equipment, and ongoing support to more than 300 youth workers and 48 senior managers in 60 Foróige youth groups around the country.

“Camara TechSpace programme inspires young people to get creative with technology and to gain new skills,” says Meehan.

Having spent the past 13 years with Google, Meehan has no immediate plans beyond her current role. “I’m not one of those people who plans ahead,” she says. “I like to stay open to serendipity.”

The thread that has run through her career so far is customer service. "I did a BA in European Studies and German at TCD and then joined Best Western Hotels group. I worked in hotel reservations before people used the internet. I was working in German and I learned about international opportunities there. I started on the phone and moved up through to management. Learned about customer service while there."

Her next move was to AOL which she describes as a “bit of a culture shock” in comparison to the hotel world. While there, she was involved in the rollout of AOL’s broadband product in the UK. “I moved to Google in 2005. That wasn’t such a shock, having come through AOL.”

She has worked in a range of different areas over the years. “We had just 500 people in Dublin at the time and it was quite an informal structure. I took on more management roles as time went on.”

Meehan has been managing director SMB Sales North and Central Europe for the past five years, managing director EMEA SMB sales for the last three, and she has combined those roles with heading up Google Ireland for the past two.

If you think those roles require her to spend excessively long hours in the office, you’d be wrong. “I’m very good at personal boundaries,” she says with a hint of pride. “I leave here at 5 every day. And that’s not a myth I invented. I couldn’t possibly do the job without switching off at night. You need clarity and calmness. I get home for dinner and spend time with my husband and three children. I try to go for a walk or a run when I can. I like to come in at 8 in the morning and be fresh. It’s a good thing to go home and sleep on things. If you let things marinate overnight, they don’t seem as big in the morning. That’s the advice I give everybody.”

Giving something back

The Google.org Dublin Impact Challenge is a new €1 million fund to support non-profit innovators and social entrepreneurs whose innovative ideas for change are making an impact locally.

Google is currently considering proposals from non-profits, social enterprises and educators throughout Dublin on how to grow economic and social opportunities in their local communities. Google will select 15 proposals, each receiving €50,000 in grant funding to bring their ideas to life. Of the 15, four projects will be selected by Google’s panel of judges and receive an additional €50,000 of grant funding.

“We’re looking to fund projects that are tackling some of the biggest social challenges in our communities across Dublin,” says Fionnuala Meehan. “The winning organisations will be creating a better future and working in areas such as community, employment, healthcare, education and the environment. It was important to us that we share our birthday celebrations with the city and its communities. Dublin was the first overseas location for Google and it is very much our home. We want our city to share in that success.

"This is our biggest outreach yet to supporting local community endeavours," she adds. "We want to tap into innovation across the city to support great ideas to build stronger communities. We've seen great social action on our own doorstep in Ringsend and Irishtown and this is an opportunity for us to partner with community groups and social entrepreneurs in order to bring their ideas to life."

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times