While the rest of Google was recognising the company’s achievement in reaching a quarter of a century, the Irish office had its own reasons to celebrate.
Not only was the company marking 20 years in Ireland – Google opened here in 2003 – but it was also celebrating the opening of the Flour Mills building, the first phase of the Bolands Mills development on Barrow Street. The historic, long-neglected location now extends Google’s presence even further in that part of town, stretching its offices to both ends of the street and beyond.
For Google’s chief marketing officer, Lorraine Twohill, there was cause for a double celebration. Not only was the Carlow native able to get some family time in with the business trip, but she was celebrating her own 20th anniversary with the tech giant.
Twohill spends most of her time these days at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, California. The DCU graduate has risen through the ranks of the tech company to become one of its most senior executives.
She was there for the company’s first days in Dublin after Switzerland had been beaten to the punch and the decision was made to house Google’s European operations in Ireland. A clear tax regime and the prospect of unused data centres had sealed the deal earlier in 2003.
In those early days, Google didn’t have the vast offices it now occupies in Dublin. Initially it had desks in a shared office space; in 2004, it upgraded to two floors of Gordon House.
“I remember standing on the floor where we did a little launch event, and I just thought, never in a million years would we fill this floor. I just couldn’t imagine that we’d ever be 9,000 people; that would be inconceivable,” she says.
That launch event has become part of Google’s history in Ireland. It was scrappy, Twohill says, and done on a shoestring.
“We had no budget so I got the builders to put up a wooden ‘I feel lucky’ sign on the wall. I had [Google co-founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] come in with then-tánaiste Mary Harney and press this fake wooden button and then it popped up the St Patrick’s Day doodle on the screen. And that was the official launch of the Dublin office in 2004.”
The Irish celebration for the 20th anniversary was held in the nearby RDS, a far cry from those early lean days.
And even more significant is the role that Ireland plays in the overall company. Despite speculation that tax rates are the only anchor for multinationals in Ireland, the Dublin office punches above its weight in terms of influence within Google. It is, Twohill says, a powerhouse of innovation.
“What’s been very interesting to see is the role of the Irish within Google, and Dublin as an incubator of talent for the whole company,” says Twohill. “There’s a whole force of Irish now in the US who’ve come from the Dublin office, and there are a number of big global jobs being done from Dublin. But in the beginning, we would never have thought that.”
Getting started in Google wasn’t easy, though. It was a completely different culture from the one Twohill had been used to. There were multiple interviews to make it through, and the different office environment to deal with.
“There were dogs. We were sitting on all kinds of weird chairs and things. You were always being fed something,” she remembers. “There was a barbecue – we were in the heat, trying to eat a burger, with no sunglasses while being interviewed with quite tough questions. It’s another world.”
It was all a far cry from her early days in Bord Fáilte, where her first big ad campaign was for Tourism Ireland – the ads that featured sweeping shots of Ireland’s landscape to a soundtrack of The Cranberries – and her subsequent experience with travel company Opodo.
“It was really about building a more helpful Google for everyone, building tools to help people. And to this day, you can really see that mission-led philosophy. Back when I first met everybody, it was really the people and what they were trying to do that I thought was amazing,” she says. “And that’s what has kept me there for 20 years.”
The company is coming out of a tough period in Dublin. The tech industry boomed on the back of Covid restrictions that fuelled demand for digital services, but an inevitable correction has followed. It saw tech companies big and small trim costs – and staff – to adjust to the new economic reality. That included Google, which earlier this year let go more than 250 people in Ireland, following several weeks of uncertainty.
That was a difficult time, Twohill acknowledges. “It’s been tough on all of us. And I think it’s been a bumpy start to the year. But I think we’ve got a spring back in our step,” she says. “There’s so much excitement, especially around AI. I think that has helped bring momentum back in the company.”
The adoption of generative AI in particular has been a bit of a double-edged sword for Google. Rival OpenAI surprised the tech world when it made its ChatGPT chatbot available to the public.
The general feeling was that Google had been caught on the hop. The tech giant has been developing and using AI for years in its products, but suddenly here was an upstart company with a product that caught the public imagination.
“I think it helped us understand that people were ready to play with some of these newer, more explorative tools,” Twohill says.
Backed by Microsoft, ChatGPT quickly notched up 100 million users. There were stumbles and missteps – issues around privacy and data protection, for example, and concerns over the sources of information ChatGPT was citing in its answers – but the genie was effectively out of the bottle and Google followed quickly with Bard in March.
That will usher in a generation of jobs requiring AI skills, and also leaves the door open to bias through underrepresentation of certain groups at the table. To try to address this, Google has also announced €1.5 million in scholarships to help people from underrepresented communities study courses on AI and data analytics.
“It’s certainly a concern of ours, not just here in Ireland but all over the world, that as humanity benefits from all of these great technologies – AI being just the latest wave – we don’t leave people behind,” Twohill says. “We want to make sure that, as Ireland plays a really important role in AI and the future of technology, it is accessible to everybody.”
The company is also keen to make sure that it is part of the community, rather than being seen as an interloper that has forced up property prices and consequently priced many members of the community out of living in the area. While Covid has changed how people work – hybrid working is a more common arrangement these days – most Google staff work three days a week from the office, leading to increase in demand for accommodation nearby.
When Google bought the Bolands Mills development, it came with a number of apartments. But rather than use them for staff or rent them out for market rates, the company has decided to turn them over to a not-for-profit housing body that will allocate them as affordable housing. The final decisions are being made on who will take that project on.
In the meantime, Google is working on the remainder of the site, which will include retail units and a food market in the Flour Mills, and public squares and community spaces in the rest of the development.
For Twohill, the chance to be in Dublin to officially open the first phase of the new development is a milestone moment, a fresh start that may be looked back on in years to come as a significant step for Google in Dublin.
“It’s full circle,” she says.