Thursday 19 April 2018

LinkedIn chief out to make connections

Sharon McCooey reflects on the early days as the tech giant opens a new HQ, writes Business Editor Samantha McCaughren

Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland and senior director
international operations. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland and senior director international operations. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

In 2007, Sharon McCooey made a huge career decision, one which she describes as "beyond massive". After years of working in high-level positions for multinationals and high-growth companies, she decided to take a career break to focus on her two children, both aged under two.

"It took a huge amount of soul-searching. I remember somebody telling me at that stage, 'As long as you're not going back in a recession Sharon you'll be fine'," says McCooey, now head of LinkedIn Ireland.

Of course three years later, when McCooey's second child was starting school and she was ready to go back to full employment, the country was in very bad shape.

Undeterred, McCooey decided it was her chance to chase the type of job she really wanted. "I had a eureka moment - it was relationships and technology and the combo of those two things is what gets me out of bed in the morning."

She wrote down the companies which she believed would fit the profile, ending up with a list of just two, one of them being LinkedIn. She had read in November 2009 that the then-fledgling professional networking site was setting up an operation in Ireland.

"From that minute and until May 2010 when I signed a contract and started with LinkedIn, I was in the interview process.

"I picked up the phone, I used LinkedIn, I went through a very long interview process involving an economy overnight flight to America and back - not for the faint-hearted - nine interviews in the US, three or four in London."

She became the third employee of LinkedIn Ireland, spearheading its expansion over the last seven years into a company employing 1,200 people.

When she joined, the group employed only 600 people worldwide and on the face of it, the job spec wasn't exactly the role McCooey wanted. "I saw potential in the job, that's probably the best way of describing it," she says.

Her hopes for the role and company's potential in Ireland were well-founded. Last week, LinkedIn Ireland officially opened a €85m high-spec office building in Dublin 2, the group's only piece of real estate outside the US. It represented a further deepening of the company's commitment to Ireland.

McCooey says that LinkedIn's presence here has grown on the back of the Dublin team's hard work. "It's always about delivering results and as long as you're delivering the results the growth will come," says the no-nonsense Monaghan woman.

Although many multinationals have complaints about aspects of the Irish system, McCooey brushes off any concerns. "I would say from an Ireland Inc perspective it's been very good in that there is limited bureaucracy, it's easy to do business, we're part of the EU."

She also says that the Government is willing to fix problems when they arise. "We've talent from 55 countries working here so and there's been significant improvements in regard to the whole visa process for non-EU worker.

"There were issues up until a few years ago on visas and, to be fair, the Government listens and implements change."

And it is little wonder people are coming from all over the world to work in Dublin's LinkedIn office. The new building is bright and airy, modern and fun. The centrepiece is a quirky, angular staircase, which is designed to make people go into areas which they have no reason to visit. McCooey says the whole ethos of LinkedIn is built around human interaction and making connections.

On the fifth floor is a cafe and bar, which is not dissimilar to some of the some of the city's trendiest rooftop bars. As well as top-class coffee, Hop House 13 is on draught, while another set of taps pours out Pinot Grigio and other wines. There is, of course, a gym while 'micro kitchens' with healthy snacks are scattered around the building.

The building is a reflection of the buzz around tech companies such as LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft. But it is a competitive space with new challengers emerging all the time in the fast-moving digital world. For example, Facebook last year introduced a 'job openings' section, which was seen as its attempt to eat into the space occupied by LinkedIn.

McCooey takes a pragmatic view. "Where at all possible we keep our eye on our own vision," she says. "You control what you can control yourself, I can't control what any other company does."

"Probably our most likely competitor is somewhere today in a garage in China and you or I don't know their name and this time next year we'll be saying 'Oh, what about that company'."

McCooey's own interest in technology stems from her old science teacher, Mr Brophy in Our Lady's Secondary School in Castleblayney.

"He introduced me to computers and that was in 1985," she says.

"At 1pm on Friday in the school we did a sort of 'the week in review'. We would video sports matches, edit them using the computer, put a top 10 together using graphics, do up the credits and that totally sparked my interest in computers."

McCooey, whose father who was in business and whose mother was a nurse, went to UCD to study commerce and also did some additional computer courses - graduating in 1988. "Ireland was in very different place than it is today, so I still have my bag of rejection letters," she says.

She trained as an accountant in the evenings and then joined UK multinational, the Ranks Hovis McDougall food group. She continued to find herself drawn to automated processes and technology.

In 1993 "the connection was made in my head" that technology was where she wanted to be and she found here first 'dream job'.

She worked for years in US multinational Informix Software, rising to the position of director of finance for EMEA.

"I had done a lot of travel during those six years and I spent a lot of time in the US and I put my hand up a lot for projects in terms of things that were transformative in the business. I like those seismic shifts that happen in business."

She went on to work for Siebel Systems and then moved to a small company in Dublin, Zarion, which she describes as "the only career move I made that was a personal relationship choice" as she was getting married to Dublin man Colum Twomey (of Zendesk).

She then joined software company BusinessObjects as general manager of the Irish operation, which she grew to almost 200 staff.

"I'd set it up from scratch. It was an interesting mix of a French tech company which was quoted on the New York Stock Exchange so you had the French influence and the US influence. I really enjoyed that."

Through her career she said that putting herself forward has been key. "I'm a great believer in lifelong learning . There's new skills to be learned and developed and that's extremely important in the technology industry where there's transformative shifts going on at all times."

In terms of getting women into Stem, she believes a mix of organisational culture and more formal structures are needed. "I think it's a combination of a good cultural ethos and some active programmes where active programmes are needed.

"I had a realisation about three years ago. I normally have about 20 mentees at any one time and I realised that I was mentoring 20 men and I then one thing LinkedIn has taught me is that you have to look at yourself sometimes rather than think 'I'm sure it's the 20 men's fault'.

"I realised all of those men asked me would I mentor them. So now I actively go and make sure that I'm going to the high-performing females and saying, 'I would like to mentor you' because what I found having asked females, is that they didn't think that they could come and ask me to be their mentor. And that is the confidence piece."

Among the other issues on McCooey's radar is Brexit, although it shouldn't have too much impact, apart from freedom of moment. "With the exception of our brand-new building, people are our main assets, so it would truly depend on what happens."

She is watching issues such as housing and infrastructure but isn't overly concerned. "I'm always keeping an eye to the future. There isn't an issue today but what happens in the future would always need to be on the radar of someone like me."

McCooey often mentions the culture in LinkedIn in explaining how it does business. "We use cultural values at LinkedIn nearly as a decision-making tool," she says. "So it means you can work, you're fully empowered, you understand the company's cultural values."

Pinning down what those cultural values are is difficult.

"They're not on a wall and they're not on plaques, they're something you start to intuitively understand. So I'll give you an example: one is transformation.

At LinkedIn, we talk about transformation of self, company and world. And you're thinking that sounds super lofty but LinkedIn's vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce."

It does indeed sound quite lofty to those in more traditional businesses but it has served the company well to date.

When asked about LinkedIn's ambitions for the future McCooey says: "It's very much about connecting people and so we've 500 million members today,"

"When we talk about the global working force that's three billion people, so again there's a significant amount (of potential) there from a connections perspective."

Sunday Indo Business

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