Business Technology

Sunday 23 October 2016

Is Google hiding what it does here in Ireland?

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Head of Google in Ireland, Ronan Harris Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Head of Google in Ireland, Ronan Harris Photo: Colin O'Riordan

What does Google actually do in Ireland? Is it some sort of innovation university? Or is it a giant call centre that is subservient to its London counterpart?

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The issue cropped up last week at the Barrow Street European headquarters of the world's most valuable company.

Its Irish boss (and vice president) Ronan Harris was setting out what the company does here. For the first 45 minutes, the presentation went as normal. Sales. Language support. Education. Fostering start-ups. And more of the usual non-technical stuff.

But then the guy in charge of Google's European data centres got up to talk. Google, he said, has 400 engineers in Ireland. They work on a variety of things up to, and including, new ways of technically doing things for the company.

"Our data centre in Finland, for example, uses technology that was developed here in Dublin," he said.

Tech development? 400 engineers? Wait a second - what?

Some 400 engineers at Google Ireland might come as a pleasant surprise to some. Especially those who are used to hearing Google Ireland dismissed as a glorified sales-and-support centre.

But it is also puzzling. Why do we rarely hear about this type of activity at Google in Ireland?

In London, Google has built a palatial new office complex with 800 engineers. The average employee there earns €175,000, we are told. The facility is positioned as a brains trust, an elite work environment within the tech giant.

For those of us interested in Dublin's tech credentials, this contrasts with Google's Irish image in a slightly jarring way. While London boasts Google's R&D swagger, Dublin is the chirpy, plucky support and maintenance centre.

Terms like "talented workforce" and "highly educated young people" too often feel like a pat on the head rather than the terminology of peer respect.

But here's the thing. If Google really is bolting on intelligent layers to the core framework of its global services from Dublin, why isn't it telling anyone about it? Why is Dublin still publicly thought of by so many as London's low-end fulfilment centre?

That this is a view held by many is not in doubt. Indigenous start-ups talk about the multinationals as helpful but strictly middlebrow.

For example, Google is regularly talked about as operating a high-end sales operation in the UK, with order dockets filled out in Dublin to avail of lower Irish corporate tax rates. This is a largely unflattering portrait of Dublin's function. Ironically, it may now be a little off the mark.

As a company, Google can show enormous initiative when it wants to. Last week, in the same set of results that helped push it ahead of Apple to be the world's most valuable company, the tech giant revealed that it spent over €3.1bn in 'moonshot' research and development activities in 2015 with less than €500m in return.

This includes stuff like balloon-based broadband, self-driving cars and research into making human lives longer.

It's really interesting, visionary, fun research. Google, it turns out, has both imagination and guts. It's not in business simply to sell ads. And it's willing to bet large sums of cash chasing big ideas that could change the world.

Why, then, is it so conservative in characterising what it does at its Barrow Street facilities?

Is it afraid that Mountain View might think it is pushing the edges of its charter? Is it some sort of tax designation thing? Or what?

Google isn't alone in not wanting to go over the nuts and bolts of what it does within its Irish operations. But it's an opportunity lost.

Google needs talented engineers and thinkers every bit as much as any smaller company does. If there's a general impression that its technical jobs are more utilitarian than creative, that hurts its chances of recruiting the sharpest people.

Recruitment boards only get you so far. There isn't much buzz about the notion of being the digital engineering equivalent of a lift mechanic. So if Google is engaging in more than this - and it looks like it is - it should shout it from the rooftops.

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