Facebook and Google’s real battle will be talent

4 Jan 2011

In his look back on the week, Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy believes Google and Facebook’s real war in 2011 will not be over astronomical valuations, but vital development talent.

Last year at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, along with some fellow journalists from the UK, I shared a few beers with an interesting young chap from Google called Eric. He revealed very little about himself but was delightful, engaging company and peppered us – for a change – with questions about the internet at large, particularly the mobile internet.

You could imagine my surprise the next day when during Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s keynote at the Congress he introduced on stage one of his protégés from Stanford, one Eric Tseng, head of Android development at Google who went on to demonstrate Flash on Android, augmented reality, future games, voice search and much more.

When I caught up with my UK colleagues later in the evening, I’m not sure they believed me.

Months later, around May, Tseng had departed from Google to become head of mobile products at Facebook.

Astronomical valuations

In recent days, much has been said about the astronomical value attached to Facebook – a whopping US$50bn. Facebook shares are already trading on the private market and in a similar pattern experienced by Microsoft and Google in their time the frenzied private trading will drive Facebook to a public IPO.

In recent weeks, Facebook, which has a user base of at least 500 million, surpassed Google for the first time in terms of overall traffic.

Analysts, bloggers and press are trying to make sense of this and depict the entire Facebook/Google thing as a battle for the future of the internet. I agree, particularly when it comes to the online advertising cash cow. From a technological perspective, each of these hot properties will be the lens or the filter through which many people will use the internet for business and pleasure. Each is distinct, there will be many areas they will complement each other, but ultimately the future versatile internet, driven by mobility, will require individuals to have a safe, trusted, filter through which they can make sense of the volumes of data and services they will consume.

The mobile internet is just one overwhelming facet and that’s why there was so much excitement when rumours emerged of a Facebook phone. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quashed these rumours, pointing out it is more interested in the services it can deploy across any device.

The future internet won’t solely be about mobile. It will be ubiquitous on any platform, even in vehicles. Internet TV will be the next apps platform that will drive a development frenzy and you can be cocksure Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and rising platforms like Zynga and Groupon will be looking at ways of integrating internet advertising with standard TV programming. Yes, it’s very exciting.

Months before I met Tseng, I met Schmidt at a Google powwow in Killarney where he openly professed his belief that Google will become a US$100bn a year player. Facebook, which has estimated revenues of between US$1bn and US$2bn a year, has its work cut out getting to this level, but it’s rising fast and who knows what the situation will be over the next three to five years.

It’s easy to get caught up in the figures – Groupon, which recently rejected a US$5bn takeover from Google, recently raised US$950m in venture capital – and I have expressed anxiety in the past about these massive valuations.

Forget valuations, the real war is over talent

While many analysts are drooling over the numbers, I think there is a more immediate battle on these companies’ hands and that is talent. Google is currently recruiting an additional 2,000 people worldwide, including 200 in Dublin, where it has 1,500 staff. Facebook has a staff of 1,500 people and employs 200 in Dublin. It, too, is recruiting a further 100 people in Dublin.

But what kind of talent are we talking about? Software developers will no doubt be the kings of the talent pool for the foreseeable future as the appetite for apps for PCs, smartphones and internet TVs will drive a more complex internet tapestry.

But these are complex emerging businesses that will require not only technological talent but content creators, business analysts, statisticians, HR people, accountants, salespeople, you name it.

Google’s European head of operations John Herlihy – who believes that in two years the desktop will be irrelevant – once told me that as well as skilled engineers, it takes all walks of life to make a dynamic internet player, including people with humanities degrees. Ex-Googler and current director of Facebook’s user operations in Dublin Sonia Flynn told me she has a degree in German literature, for example.

In Ireland, homegrown e-commerce powerhouse Paddy Power is creating 500 new jobs for a diverse range of skills, including areas such as e-commerce, technology, quantitative research, online marketing and risk management.

Twitter, which is expanding in the US at a massive rate, is not only looking for skilled technologists and business folk, but people who can engage in creative teamwork and bring all kinds of experiences to the table. Microsoft’s Paul Rellis told me one of the key traits sought at the software giant is the ability to work and communicate as part of global teams and multiple cultures.

Time to get serious about technology talent

More than ever I believe valuations and explosive revenue gains will serve as a smokescreen for these firms’ real immediate needs – talent.

For a country like Ireland that is playing host to the European headquarters of many of these aforementioned internet stalwarts, the time is right to ensure that the nation’s universities work closer than ever before to ensure we have not only the right calibre of engineering talent but strive to create hybrid degrees.

The result – a pool of talent that will not only serve these firms’ talent needs but also entrepreneurial flair. Equipping engineers, scientists and humanities graduates with business savvy, especially online business savvy, would be a very clever step forward.

I was shocked recently to discover the number of Irish firms that have embraced e-commerce has grown just 3pc since 2000. Considering the internet is the biggest gift to businesses since the invention of the printing press, we need to accelerate e-commerce capabilities if firms are to secure a future.

In a country where we are faced with the spectre of exporting talent, the best gift we can give to future workers and employers – local and not just multinationals – is savvy, articulate graduates adept not only at technology but future business skills, too. Bring it on!

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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