Ireland is the data capital of Europe, says Google (video)

4 Feb 2016

Ronan Harris, head of Google in Ireland. Photo: Connor McKenna

Ireland stands at the intersection of the global data revolution and currently holds Europe’s data crown, says the head of Google in Ireland, Ronan Harris. The next big question is: can Ireland hold onto this crown?

Google employs 5,000 people in Dublin, making it one of the largest private sector employers in the city.

Speaking with Harris on the 11th floor – known internally at Google as Ocean’s 11 – of Google’s international headquarters in the Montevetro building on Barrow Street with panoramic views of Dublin in every direction, Harris is adamant that Dublin is Europe’s digital capital, but other countries are doing their damnedest to take the title away.

Dubliners refer to the tallest office building in Dublin as the black box, but the complex actually straddles both sides of Barrow Street. On the other side of the road is the Foundry building, where more than 30,000 Google customers have crossed the threshold.

The gleaming buildings and phosphorescent walkway bridging Barrow Street are all a far cry from Google’s humble origins in Dublin when, as a four-year-old start-up, it came originally to create 50 jobs in Dublin 13 years ago, first at a serviced office on Harcourt Street before taking two floors on Barrow Street.

What has followed has been a virtual explosion in digital opportunities, as Google was swiftly followed by Facebook, which has 1,000 people just down the street, and other born-on-the-web giants like Dropbox, Twitter and LinkedIn, to name a few. Established tech players, including Accenture, IBM and Oracle are busy ramping up their cloud presence in the city, and Google’s two data centres in west Dublin are neighbored by the multi-billion euro data centre operations of Microsoft and Digital Realty.

‘There is a great opportunity for Ireland to capitalise on the fact that it is at the intersection of data for Europe and we can build on that and turn it into a strength’

“I think Ireland is at a fantastic juncture and for a country that has no natural resources of any huge quantity, we find ourselves at the intersection point of the most important natural resources of the next decade if not longer. And that’s data.

‘There is a great opportunity for Ireland to capitalise on the fact that it is at the intersection of data for Europe and we can build on that and turn it into a strength.”

We spoke to Harris just a day after the US and the EU agreed to establish Pthe new EU-US Privacy Shield, which will replace Safe Harbour, after a case led by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems led to Safe Harbour being declared invalid by the European Court of Justice. The legal saga highlighted deficiencies in Ireland’s data protection apparatus, which has resulted in Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon being provided with added resources and a new headquarters. Ireland also appointed Dara Murphy TD as the country’s first Data Protection Minister.

Harris said Ireland holds Europe’s data crown by virtue of the sheer number of data-focused companies on the ground here.

However, he also pointed out that Ireland will only hold onto the data crown if it properly resources its Data Protection Commissioner and realises that data is a natural resource for the country.

This means changing the perception in Europe that Ireland hasn’t the resources or the political will to enforce data protection in Europe. However, Harris is optimistic that under Dixon’s leadership that perception will change. It has to.

“In Google, I often talk about our Dublin offices being the point where the rubber hits the road for our users, our publishers and our advertisers right across EMEA. Because it is where all the data flows.

“It is where all of the teams work with the stakeholder groups to make sure they get the very best out of the web.

“We are just one company down in Silicon Docks. All of the largest born-on-the-web companies that operate in a similar space have their operations here and are finding themselves in a similar situation.

“So there is a great opportunity for Ireland to capitalise on the fact that it is at the intersection of data for Europe and we can build on that and turn it into a strength.”

The early morning of the web

For a country that missed the industrial revolution of the 19th century and the global resurgence after World War II, Ireland has been dealt an amazing set of cards to capitalise on the digital revolution of the 21st century. It’s up to us how we play them.

This week, Google’s parent company Alphabet became the most valuable company in the world by market cap, unseating Apple from the position. Apple employs 5,000 people in Cork and is about to hire 1,000 more people in the city. Think about that for a second – two of the most valuable digital giants of the 21st century are among the country’s biggest employers.

Research earlier this week indicated that 29pc of Ireland’s workforce are involved in STEM-related enterprises.


‘The rapid changes we have seen in technology in the last 16 years are slow in comparison to what is coming next’

As far as Harris is concerned, we are only at the dawn of this revolution. “The thing about Google globally is we still think of ourselves as a start-up. We are just at the early morning of the web. The rapid changes we have seen in technology in the last 16 years are slow in comparison to what is coming next.

“In 10 years time, we will be wondering how we managed to make so many decisions with so little information at our disposal.”

The 5,000 people at Google in Dublin straddle a vast amount of roles, but Harris breaks this down to five key communities: shared functions, including HR and finance; engineering, where a 400-strong group of engineers keep the lights on at Google globally; operations supporting Google’s business customers; a team focused on supporting publishers all over the world, and ultimately, resources supporting the gigantic advertising machine that Google has become.

“We are now in a position where we can have a material impact on users, publishers and advertisers and help them on the internet journey.

“We have tried to set ourselves apart by growing our expertise and being innovative. As a result we have tried to be ahead of the game within industry and within Google itself by having clever teams of people working on unique problems and making an impact across the ecosystem.”

A key dimension to Google’s activities lately in Dublin involves start-ups and, recently, Google selected Dublin as the location for its third Tech Hub in Europe through a partnership with Dogpatch Labs.

Google’s Foundry has been the home to numerous start-up weekends and a frenetic Adopt a Start-up programmes encourages Googlers to work closely with new companies. Last week, Google hosted the prestigious SVOD Europe event, which saw venture capitalists and start-ups from Silicon Valley and Europe congregate at the Foundry. The top European start-up competition winner at SVOD Europe was Ourobotics, headed by Jemma Redmond.

‘We still see ourselves as a start-up – just two people in a garage – and we feel we owe a debt to people doing start-ups’

“We still see ourselves as a start-up – just two people in a garage – and we feel we owe a debt to people doing start-ups,” Harris said.

According to Colin Goulding, head of SMB partnerships EMEA at Google and who spearheads the local start-up outreach programmes with Paddy Flynn, some 2,500 people have attended Google start-up events in Dublin in the last year and more than 300 Googlers have given their time to working with start-ups.

That ecosystem is also about education and, according to Fionnuala Meehan, Google is keen to see the Irish government add computer science and coding to the schools’ curriculum. This increase economic opportunities for future generations of Irish schoolkids, particularly for girls.

“Education is in our DNA as a company,” said Meehan, who by day is managing director of Google EMEA Sales (SMB) heading up a 500-strong workforce, but in her personal time is a passionate advocate of getting more kids to code.

In Ireland, Meehan spearheads Google’s education outreach programmes including CS (computer science) First, which is aimed at equipping teachers with the skills to teach coding to 9-to-14 year-olds and the Call to Code national competition.

She believes adding computer science to the school curriculum in Ireland is a critical step in order to ensure people are prepared for the jobs of the future.

“Although policy is the preserve of Government, having computer science on the Leaving Cert curriculum will help with skills and the perception and exposure among the female population to opportunities in technology,” Meehan said.

Google’s international headquarters in Dublin is also proving to be a job creation magnet among European start-ups. Anthony Nakache, head of online partnerships at Google, said that the Google headquarters is working with more than 500,000 publishers and developers across Europe to help them make money.

A key aspect to this is a new App Hub in Dublin that Google will use to interact with more than 600,000 app developers worldwide.

“According to the EU Digital Single Market Commissioner, the European app economy will be worth €60bn in 2018 and will generate 3m jobs. The opportunity is there for developers to capture that.”

This opportunity has already benefited Dublin in the form of 100 new jobs being created in the city by Russian developer and Manchester United’s casino games partner Kamagames over the next three years because of its partnership with Google and the new App Hub.

Writing the book on site reliability engineering

One of the little-known facts about Google’s operations in Dublin is that it has been the lynchpin of the company’s global data and connectivity strategy since 2003. Under the leadership of Terence McGoff, some 400 engineers have set a global benchmark for data centre design, software defined networks and site reliability engineering.

“All those great products from Search to Calender and Gmail, it is our job to make sure they just work quickly and every time. That sounds simple but try doing it on another vector where billions of people globally are doing the same thing at the same time.”

‘If you have to do something twice you are doing it wrong. We have to write software each time we do something right to ensure it happens right the next million times’

“In Dublin, we have a long history of doing disruptive things on an engineering front, building the core technologies that support search, ads, infrastructure, storage layers and all the technology that underpins Gmail, the Google Cloud.”

The key to making this happen is not only state-of-the-art data centres but writing chunks of code. “If you have to do something twice you are doing it wrong. We have to write software each time we do something right to ensure it happens right the next million times.”

You could say McGoff has pretty much written the book on site reliability engineering. Well, in fact, he has. The definitive book on the subject is due to be published in the coming months.

“I am responsible for all of Google’s data centres across Europe. As well as the 400 engineers we have to run everything, over 400 jobs were created to construct our newest data centre and I’m proud to say that many of those people have gone on to win similar projects in constructing data centres in Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands. So it’s a nice story for Irish companies too.”

McGoff and his Irish team have also spearheaded unique engineering projects aimed at power usage efficiency (PUE), which involves reducing the amount of energy used to cool data centres. “That is the holy grail – zero power to cool computers – and we have embarked on unique projects for data centres all over Europe. For example, in Finland we have used undersea cooling to cool data centres and pump slightly warmer seawater back into the Gulf of Finland.”

So can Ireland hold onto the data crown of Europe? Harris believes we can so long as we make bold decisions at a government level around skills, education, regulation and infrastructure. And as long as Ireland continues to attract start-ups building the enterprises of the future.

According to Harris, Ireland will hold onto the data crown of Europe, not only because of companies like Google, but because digital is embraced at all levels of society and the economy.

As Harris puts it:“Data is in our DNA.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years