Monday 1 May 2017

Status update: Facebook Ireland making room for 800 more staff

Our technology editor talks to the company's Irish boss, Gareth Lambe, about further investment here, changing trends, and the fight against 'fake news'

Facebook's Irish boss Gareth Lambe says he expects more Irish growth. Picture: Adrian Weckler
Facebook's Irish boss Gareth Lambe says he expects more Irish growth. Picture: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'I can confirm that we have taken a lease on a new building in East Wall." Facebook's Irish boss, Gareth Lambe, is finally ready to talk about what has been rumoured for weeks - that the digital giant is on the verge of becoming one of Dublin's biggest private industrial employers.

"In our existing building, we have the capacity for 2,000 people. But we have now reached over 1,600 and we're growing so fast that it's filling up. So we've taken space for another 800 desks in a new building in East Wall with growth over the next few years in mind."

A workforce of 2,800 people would place Facebook among a handful of mega-employers between Dublin's two canals. Throw Google's 6,000 workers into the mix and a new picture of Dublin emerges, where a growing percentage of the city's entire private sector workforce clocks in to one or other of the two firms.

Facebook's expansion will also help to allay one of industrial Ireland's most vocal anxieties: that President Donald Trump's high-octane industrial nationalism might freeze investment projects by US multinationals in this country.

"It certainly has had no impact on our investment decisions for now, as evidenced by everything we're doing around our buildings and acquisitions," says Lambe. "We're a global company and we need to service our regions within those regions and languages and with knowledge of the cultural norms. You know, you can't do a lot of what we need to do from the US midwest."

Officially, Lambe has two jobs in Facebook. One is as country lead, making local decisions about staff, buildings, HR and communications. His other role is running the company's sales planning and operations for Europe, Africa and the Asian Pacific regions.

"That basically means forecasting our revenues, setting our quotas, organising our sales teams, choosing what industries or verticals to go after and where we open new offices," he says. "So it's a little bit of a chief operating officer role to the regional leadership position. I've teams all around the world to support me on it."

Read more: Exclusive: Are you the type of employee Facebook wants? An interview with EMEA HR chief

In this role, Lambe is well placed to figure out how and why the Irish operation's presence in Facebook is getting bigger.

"It's no longer just Facebook," he says. "It's now also WhatsApp and Instagram and Messenger. WhatsApp has 1.2bn users. Messenger has over a billion users while Instagram has 600m. We've monetised Instagram and our business is growing pretty dramatically. Our last earnings showed growth of over 50pc year on year. When you're growing users and business as fast as that, we [in Ireland] need to scale up. We've been very successful here in Ireland at delivering results for Facebook. So we continue to get investment."

Facebook's main source of income is advertising. In this, its growth is staggering: it now hoovers up somewhere between 15pc to 25pc of all the world's online ads. (Google is the only bigger company, with over a third of the entire market.)

Its ads are successful because of the time people spend on Facebook. In Ireland alone, some two-thirds of adults have a Facebook account with more than half checking it every single day. Globally, it's a similar story. Facebook has an astonishing 1.8bn users - one-in-four of all the men, women and children on earth. They're spending longer every day on the service and using it for more diverse purposes.

With such scale comes great power. Facebook has become the de facto news delivery service of the world. Twitter may dominate breaking news headlines, but it is Facebook that boasts unprecedented depth and reach, used by virtually every major news organisation as its main secondary platform to target audiences.

This hasn't been without its difficulties. Facebook's position as the online resource most checked has led to increasing calls for it to be acknowledged - and perhaps even regulated -as a media company. Alongside this are similar demands for Facebook to do something about what critics call its 'fake news' problem, where made-up news reports are given some of the same algorithmic boosts as legitimate, properly sourced news articles. This became an especially charged issue during the recent US presidential election, when a number of made-up news stories achieved wide circulation on Facebook, with headlines such as 'Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump'.

Dealing with fake news is not Gareth Lambe's day job. But the Ireland boss still doesn't believe that the 'media company' tag levelled at it is a proportionate one. He also says that Facebook is trying in earnest to deal with the proliferation of 'fake news'.

"We don't consider ourselves to be a media company," he says. "We consider ourselves to be a technology company. But we do acknowledge our responsibilities in that [media] space. Take fake news, for example. I think that term encompasses a lot of things. At one end of it is hoaxes, the part that's easiest for us to address. That often relates to the second part of fake news, which is financial scams where people use clickbait to bring you into ad farms and manipulate you. We're really aggressively going after that. But the third part of what people are calling fake news is not necessarily a question of something being fake or true, but of something just being incredibly charged or biased. And whether that's fake or true depends on the receiver. We do not intend to be the arbiter of that truth and I don't think anyone else wants us to be.

Read more: Why 1,000 new Facebook jobs in Dublin could spark fears of a fresh housing crisis

"So one way we're tackling this is by having our users decide. We've introduced a new product in the US, Germany and France where, if an article is disputed by enough users, it goes to a third party fact-checker. And if they deem it to be on the wrong side of fake versus true, it's flagged as such. We don't remove it, but it's flagged as disputed and so people can click on the link that explains why they it's flagged as disputed. So that's a real users-up mechanism way to try and reduce fake news rather than us saying 'that's false or that's true'."

Lambe also points to digital literacy projects being undertaken by Facebook to try to increase awareness of online standards and processes.

"We have acknowledged that there are issues there," he says. "We're focused on the worst of the worst. The other parts, which are disputable, are hard - and it's not just Facebook's accountability. It's also the job of industry, the internet and the media to help get that right.

"We think there's a digital literacy job to be done, which is what we're working closely with the journalism profession to do."

Despite such protestations about not being a media firm, Facebook is forging ahead with media partnerships that bring it closer in form and function to many current media companies. Last week, it signed a deal to broadcast 22 Major League Soccer (MLS) matches live in the US. It also has eyes on commissioning or broadcasting original content of its own in future.

Again, though, this is not inconsistent with Facebook remaining a tech company says Lambe.

"We consider ourselves very much as a tech company," he says. "But we understand that we have a large role in the media space because so much content is provided on Facebook. One of the biggest developments for us here is video. Video is exploding on the internet and on Facebook, in particular. What we've done is a deal for 22 MLS games but it's a mobile-first product, so it's going to have tighter video angles.

"We're experimenting with ad breaks during live video but overall it's about collaborating and extending their reach and, for us, harnessing the power of video and content. Sports is inherently social."

Facebook's Dublin headquarters - which serves parts of Asia as well as all of Europe and Africa - does a few main things. It has a huge safety and policy section, looking after things such as abusive content and bullying. It also has a massive sales staff, dealing with ads and campaigns for small firms and big corporates. And there is a sizeable engineering and data centre cohort located here.

None of the new features we see rolled out on our phones - such as Instagram Stories or Messenger Day - are coded from Dublin. But the Irish operation feeds into almost everything else.

"We now have over 50 functions here," says Lambe. "It's by far our largest footprint in any country outside our Silicon Valley headquarters. If the business and platform continue to grow, we expect to continue to grow pretty substantially in Ireland."

The new Facebook building, which won't be ready for a year, is close to Dublin's Point Depot on the northside docklands. Big tech companies are notorious for turning down northside city locations. But Lambe sees a different future for Dublin 1.

"I think us moving there is a statement for the area," he says. "We see this area as having a lot of potential, a lot like the current area [Facebook's current home in the Grand Canal basin] 10 or 15 years ago. We considered places with lower costs on the outskirts of Dublin. But because we'll be moving some people from this building to the new one, we wanted to keep disruption to a minimum."

These days, planning for the capacity to add an extra 1,000 jobs comes with certain challenges. Where to live is close to the top of such challenges. Dublin is currently undergoing a housing crunch, with soaring rents a symptom of a chronic lack of supply.

"It would be a concern for the future, both in the affordability and the availability," says Lambe. "In five years time, will we have the infrastructure to accommodate future growth? That said, it hasn't been an issue to date in that we've managed to scale effectively here. We were 30 people in 2009 and now we're 1,600 with plans for expansion. But it's certainly something we're watching for the future."

The new building will take close to a year to fit out. By the time, company founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg will have just about finished his 50-state tour of the US.

Might he drop in to Dublin?

"Yeah, I expect him to come by in the next year or so," says Lambe. "He was here a few years ago but hasn't been in a while. We have a lot of very senior people like Sheryl Sandberg coming all the time. David Fisher, who runs our sales and marketing function, is over here regularly as is Jay Parikh [vice-president of infrastructure engineering] who has an engineering team here.

"Mark is a busy guy and tends to focus his travel on initiatives that only he can have the impact on, like Internet.org. But he also does an 'all hands' video-conference every Friday to the whole company where people can either submit questions anonymously via a tool or ask them live. So he's pretty engaged."

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