By Ronan Lynch.
Administration and ‘process’ not innovation drive Irish operation
It’s been a bad twelve months for Google. It began with the growing awareness of Google’s tax avoidance, and continued with Google being forced to deny that it participated in the PRISM spying project. It also suffers ballooning costs and falling ad rates. So Google doubtless welcomed the summer movie ,The Internship, which portrays Google as the world’s best workplace. Google boss Sergey Brin puts in a cameo appearance, and the Google logo is omnipresent. Forget the story – but check out the funky sleeping pods, brilliant minds at work, the working rooms that look like playgrounds, the free food, slides between floors, and the bicycles for getting around the ‘campus’.
The icon of Google as super-employer is pervasive. A recent RTE news report from Google’s Irish headquarters on Barrow Street in Dublin finds normally reticent George Lee marvelling at his surroundings on the eleventh floor. There are “pretty funky sleeping pods, cowprint rugs, beanbags and snooker tables and a whole lot more,” gushes the economics hardman. “It really is some workplace”.
Google has been in Ireland since 2003, and employs close to 3,000 workers. In 2012, it earned worldwide profits of $10.4 billion on the back of revenues of $50.2 billion. Revenue from Europe, the Middle East and Africa is channelled through Google Ireland Ltd ,and on to Google Ireland Holdings which is based in Bermuda for tax purposes. In 2011, Google paid a little over €8 million in taxes in Ireland on revenues of €12.5 billion. It’s little wonder that the company targets so much emphasis on its reputation as a great employer, but is Google the glamorous employer of popular apprehension?
Some former Google employees and contractors with significant experience at the company think not. Permanent staff are well taken care of, they say, but even many permanent staff are overqualified, overworked, and perform relatively menial tasks. In addition, entire layers of hidden contractors and temporary workers do much of the work without the benefits or opportunities accorded to permanent staff.
The area around Barrow Street is sometimes referred to as ‘Silicon Dock’, a nod to the importation of ‘Silicon Valley’ values to Ireland. Writing in the London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit observed that “Silicon Valley has long been famous for its endless work hours, for sucking in the young. for decades of sixty or seventy-hour weeks;…and the much celebrated perks on many jobsites – nap rooms, chefs, gyms, laundry – are meant to make spending most of your life at work less hideous… The tech workers, many of them new to the region, are mostly white or Asian male nerds in their twenties and thirties”. So how does Dublin measure up as a high-tech wonderland?
For a start, the imputation ‘high tech’ may be inaccurate. Much work in the Irish ‘high tech’ sector is actually customer service work requiring language skills. Google’s Irish operation deals mainly with advertising sales and technical services, handling Google’s business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. One former Google employee estimates that 20 to 30% of the permanent workforce is Irish. The remaining 70% to 80% are hired abroad and re-locate to Ireland. (Google did not respond to inquiries about the make-up of its Irish workforce.)
For its permanent staff, Google generally hires people who are educated to Masters level, and for most of its employees, Google is their first job after graduation. “The pay is okay, median level for the industry, but you can make an extra 20 to 40% in bonuses”, says a former employee. “The people hired by Google are the best in their classes: alpha personalities, highly competitive and highly driven. Most people would come from an arts or business background. In Ireland, they probably hire mostly from Trinity and UCD. There’s class politics at the heart of this all. It’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t come from a middle-class background to end up working for a tech giant as they select from the top universities. Even with a great degree from one of the ITs, most multinationals won’t look at you, as they are looking for graduates of the ‘best schools’ in the country”.
After working for Facebook, US enterpreneur Jeff Hammerbacher acidly observed that “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”. At the Dublin headquarters, Google’s employees learn how to use internal software systems, and then start working on dealing with incoming emails and checking ads to see if they meet internal guidelines. They also work on copywriting and editing. It’s one of the reasons that employees eventually move on if they can’t move up.
There’s a reason for all the free food and benefits beyond sheer magnanimity, says the former employee. “In principle, the working hours are from nine to six, with an unpaid lunch hour, but I was regularly going home at nine or ten at night. It’s what’s expected. If you go home at six and everyone else goes home at nine, it’s noticed”. The on-site restaurants and free food encourage workers to stay in the building. “At first it sounds brilliant. Free food! But it minimises the time away from work. On paper, you have an hour’s lunch break, but you end up grabbing something to eat and going straight back to work without leaving the building”.
A decent balance of working time and outside life is prejudiced as a result, he says. “So, you have 70% of the people coming from abroad, they don’t know anybody else here in Dublin. There is a collegial atmosphere and people share houses and flats and their whole social life revolves around Google. The culture is such that you work till late, go home, switch on your computer and check your email to communicate with your colleagues in America. It consumes your life without you realising it”.
Having worked at Google for several years, he observed that many people coming from abroad left after three or four years in Dublin. “They came with the hope of returning to their home countries after a few years and working for Google there but in reality, they don’t get offers back in their own countries as most of the work for Europe, Middle East and Africa is done in Dublin. Google has only a few employees in these countries who deal directly with the blue-chip companies, but all of the sales are closed in Ireland”.
Trade union and Google rarely appear in the same sentence, except in confrontation. Enda Brophy, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, researches labour and collective bargaining in media and communications industries. According to Brophy, Google’s reputation as a good employer is “totally undeserved”. He cites instances where workers manufacturing touchscreens for Google and other phone companies at Young Fast Electronics in Taiwan organised a trade union in 2009, only for several of the organisers to be fired for highlighting poor work conditions.
He also mentions the case of Andrew Norman Wilson, a young video worker sub-contracted to work for Transvideo Studios in California, on Google’s Mountain View campus. Curious about Google’s hierarchy – white badges for full-time employees, red badges for contactors, green badges for interns and yellow badges for unskilled workers – he filmed yellow-badged contract workers leaving a building on the campus. These contractors (or ‘Scanops’ workers) were scanning books for Googlebooks and were not entitled to the free shuttle bus, free food or other Google perks. Wilson was fired but the video went viral and raised issues about the employment hierarchies in Google.
Not all of Google’s Irish workers share the cowprint rug-laden offices. According to the LinkedIn profiles of Google Maps’ managers, the Google Maps project is based in East Point Business Park. While the ‘Street View’ of Barrow Street on Google Maps features balloon-waving employees, the ‘Street View’ East Point stops at the security gates.
One former Google contractor explained that projects such as Youtube and Google Maps are outsourced to contract workers, with recruitment agencies CPL and Manpower doing the hiring and firing for Google. The contractor, fluent in a number of European languages, was hired by CPL on an 11-month contract, and found out that he would be working for Google. Initially, he hoped that the temporary contract would lead to a full-time position at Google, but he was let go after a second 11-month contract. He reported directly to managers worked for Google, though he was technically working for CPL. “I never worked in the main Google office where they have the sleep cocoons and all that fancy stuff”, he says. “I don’t know anyone from my office who then moved into a full time position with Google. The workers were unhappy because you can’t put on your CV that you worked for Google. When you finish your job, your references are going to come from CPL or Manpower”. These temporary contracts are offered for 11- or 23-month periods.
“Most of the people where I worked had language skills so there were very skilled people working there, doing very menial work”, he said. During the course of his job, he came to realise why there was no need for Google to hire permanent workers. The jobs, he said, involved checking data and making edits. “The workers had to make edits in a certain way so the algorithms running in the background could pick up on the changes. Down the line, the algorithms will be able to do this work so they won’t need people to do it!”.
Some young software developers advise those interested in development careers to avoid the big tech companies – but to avoid the trap of burning out in start-ups. Ger Kelly from Galway is a developer who has worked in several start-ups in Dublin since graduating from UCG in 2007. “I ran myself down working a huge amount of hours”, he says, but he has learned from the experience. “I believe you do your work and then you’re out. I’ve a few friends in Google and they love it, but it’s hard work from what I can tell. They do put on your dinner but they expect you to have your dinner and go back to work. I don’t believe in that any more. My issue with Google, Facebook and Twitter is that they don’t do any development in Ireland. People hear about all these tech companies coming in – and they do come with tech jobs, but they don’t facilitate or encourage development in Ireland. I think it’s a tax haven here and that’s why they’re really here”.
There’s no question that the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Paypal provide thousands of badly-needed jobs in Ireland. “There are a large number of employees in the multinationals here but they are not being taught to innovate”, argues the former Google employee. “They are working on internal processes and administration rather than the creation and development of new ideas in the same way that employees in California are doing. So it is not a breeding ground for innovators or entrepreneurs. Our education system is set up to produce call-centre workers rather than hotshot developers”.
“In our current austerity process, where education is being cut, class sizes are being increased, and university funding is being withdrawn, that is not going to happen. It’s a disincentive and it will hurt us in the long run. If we can’t educate people that can think for themselves and have the skills to be able to innovate, we’re just going to continue to be a nation of call-centre workers, and service-industry supporters. We will continue to be just another tax haven for the multinationals”. Google’s motto is do no harm. In Ireland, it could at least do a little more good.
Village Magazine July 2013
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