Published on 10 June, 2007. By John Reynolds
It’s a damp Dublin morning outside Google’s offices in the fast-growing tech mecca that is Grand Canal Dock; Imagine broadband and BT are a stone’s throw away and Accenture has an office on the other side of the dart line.
Having signed in, I resist the temptation to wheelie around the reception on one of the Google bicycles. In the reception there’s a massage chair, a selection of newspapers and a fridge full of water, soft drinks and smoothies. Employees walk briskly past speaking a variety of languages. It feels more like a designer hotel or a university building than a multinational’s European headquarters.
Currently valued at about €111 billion, the internet giant occupies 200,000 square feet of office space in Dublin. The old gasworks – now a vast towering expanse of glass and metal – and Gordon House next door are home to about 1,300 staff, who helped to generate profits of €2.2 billion on revenues of €8bn last year.
For my first meeting of the day I’m joined by two other business journalists. We grab drinks before setting down in a small meeting room for a talk with Peter Fleischer, Google’s head of privacy. He’s been in Dublin to meet with the Irish data protection commissioner and help train a few hundred Googlers. As he outlines the company’s stance on privacy issues, aided by a presentation on a flat screen monitor, I struggle to keep up with talk of geolocation, server logs, IP addresses and anonymising search data.
“Privacy issues provoke a lot of extreme views,” says Fleischer, “but we don’t want Google services to become the tools of a surveillance state. We talk to policymakers, journalists and privacy advocates all the time and have challenged the US Department of Justice in the past when it issued us with a wide-ranging request for huge amounts of information. We won our case and it established a legal precedent. We’ll challenge any government if we feel we have to.”
When it’s not helping to raise people’s consciousness – aid agencies link to its imagery of Darfur, environmental groups to images of deforestation and forest fires in the Amazon, Google Earth’s satellite photos occasionally prompt angry responses. “Governments have asked us not to show ministers’ holiday homes. Sometimes cities have provided us with their own imagery, because it might be better than ours. There isn’t a Google satellite…yet,” says Fleischer.
He adds that the imagery of some towns is better than others. “What’s that town in The Simpsons who are rivals with Springfield?” asks the Irish Times journalist beside me. “Shelbyville,” replies the business editor of the Sunday Tribune. Us business journalists aren’t just news junkies, but we’re fans of those hilarious and lovable yellow cartoon characters as well.
Fleischer prepares to return to his Paris office – perhaps after pausing for a massage in one of the two on-site massage rooms. On the way out, I pass a group of Googlers playing table football by the lift and head down to the cafeteria for lunch. Passing through the reception once again, a young French guy kisses goodbye to his female colleague before relaxing in the massage chair.
Fionnuala Byrne, Google’s facilities and workplace manager joins me as we’re surrounded by a multinational melée of Googlers. Different themed dishes are on offer every day: today there’s Mexican and Portuguese food, along with paninis, sushi, sandwiches, salads and other delights. “We got through half a million bottles of water last year, which are recycled and we’re installing motion detector light switches throughout our offices to save energy. Dublin was the first office to give employees subsidised bicycles. Now they’re free for every employee because so many of our offices are in city centres,” she enthuses.
Every new European employee comes to Dublin for several days’ training in the learning and development centre. Byrne came to Google after working at Canada Life for seven years. “The culture here is very different,” she says. Her job involves managing offices in Sweden, Poland, north and western Europe.
I overhear a Googler on the table beside us saying he’s going on a “roadshow,” taking in London and Amsterdam. Has Google looked at carbon offsetting all the air miles involved? Not yet, it seems. Google could be greener. “We govern ourselves through feedback from the bottom up. There’s not really a corporate hierarchy here; it’s more about the wisdom of crowds, so if someone suggested it, we’d look at it. Our philosophy is not to ask why?, but why not?” Byrne assures me.
There’s a microkitchen on every floor of the open-plan offices, complete with cupboard space, a kettle, drinks fridge and other utensils, tables and chairs and bowls of fresh fruit. It has the feel of a studio apartment. Taking pride of place in the microkitchen on the IT engineers’ floor is a coffee maker; they each brew their perfect cuppa using personalised settings. Shelves full of sweets, crisps and fruit and nuts add to the effect of making employees feel appreciated and I felt like a kid in a sweet shop.
In the centre of the building is a glass-roofed atrium area. The floor has been designed as a map of the world and the room is quiet an airy; it’s ideal for yoga or pilates sessions. Nearby, an impressive auditorium is still having the finishing touches put on it.
On my way to meet Michael O’Shea, European Director of Inside Sales, I pass through another open plan area. Photos and other decorations are on the desks and there’s a photo wall with a collage of people and recent events. Magazine racks around the office accommodate the latest Irish and international newspapers, and various current affairs and trade magazines, such as The Economist and Campaign.
“Traditional advertising might take a month to design and plan. With Google you can do it in four hours. You don’t need to do market research. You can do it with the internet. For advertisers who want to target new markets, we can do it very quickly, in your chosen languages and at very low cost. We’re evangelists rather than hard sales people. We’re approached by thousands of new advertisers every month,” says O’Shea.
Does Google hire people with backgrounds in “old media” advertising? “We hire primarily on intelligence and we value people with languages and country-specific knowledge. We recently hired a guy from Greece and another from Israel. We’ve trained them up and we’ve entered those new markets.”
To the Tech Stop next, where IT support staff Kevin Moran and Kerrie Power are bubbling with enthusiasm, looking after an assorted treasure trove of shiny new computer equipment. This cosy office is staffed 24-7, looking after Googlers in the US, Ireland and across the Asia Pacific region. A guy from the other building video calls for a piece of equipment, saving himself two lift rides and a walk through the Dublin drizzle. Between them the staff here have a vast knowledge of IT issues, from apps (applications) to Macs (Apple Mac computers).
“All staff have visited the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California and we’ve also travelled abroad to help set up the IT facilities for conferences and in new office locations, so we’re not desk-based all the time,” says Power. On the way out, I notice photos of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin hanging from the ceiling, adding a touch of rock and roll to the place.
Rachel Mooney, Google’s European head of HR can only spare 15 minutes to talk to me. In that time, another dozen or so CVs will have landed in her inbox – last year Google received 27,000 CVs. She seems surprised when I mention I applied for a job in advertising sales here several years ago – I didn’t get past the first task and telephone interview. “It’s a very rigorous, typically lasting several weeks, involving telephone interviews, tasks and then further meetings on-site before you’re offered a job and then get trained up.” I forgot to ask if they Google every candidate. So who is the average Googler? “They’re well-educated, typically with postgraduate degrees and are intrinsically motivated, high energy, creative and net-savvy. They need to be able to learn, adapt and absorb information and absorb complex information and make it meaningful to you quickly.”
Bill Kipp’s colleagues have got him a birthday cake. He’s a consumer operations manager, working with a small team of people on products such as Book Search, Earth and Maps applications. The company has just signed up Trinity College: Trinners’ email will now have Google functionality but with a Trinity email address. “There’s a strong sense of camaraderie here. My team includes French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Turkish and Arabic speakers,” he says.
Next stop is the IT engineers’ floor. As Andrew White shows me around, we pass a Scalextric racing car track. There’s a chillout room complete with mini guitars, a keyboard and a big screen projector for movie nights. These guys are IT gods and when they’re not playing with Lego technic, customising Segways to ride around the office or flying remote control helicopters, they also do the odd bit of work.
Contrary to the stereotype of IT workers, there are several women members of White’s multinational, multilingual team. “We’ve held coding competitions, given talks to the public and gone to Linux conferences. There are more than forty engineers here and about 80 in total in Dublin. Google interviewed thousands of people before choosing us,” he says proudly. In a corner of the office, there’s even a tent so they can have a nap after long spells in front of their PCs.
My last meeting of the day is with John Herlihy, Google’s Irish manager and its European director of online sales and operations. A graduate of UCD, he worked in chartered accountancy with KPMG and then for a number of technology companies in California in the Nineties. “Our key competitive advantage is that we look after our customers in 42 countries and in 49 languages. We serve them from this single location.” But isn’t Google only here because of the lucrative corporation tax rate? “We re-invest as much as possible back into the business, but our profits from individual locations are confidential,” is his guarded response.
Staff who I spoke to used the word ‘evangelising’. Must all employees worship the founders of Google? “We all hold Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google’s founders) in very high regard and we’re all a bit envious that we didn’t come up with their idea. They’ve built a business and technology model from a ballsy decision, but they’re also putting a lot back into the world,” says Herlihy.