Belfast man with Lust for the Google life
Google is on a mission to change the world, explains its European director of operations, Belfast-born Stephen LustyStephen Lusty
Almost everybody I know uses Google.
Whether it is for email, checking the latest news, getting directions, finding a plumber, researching a holiday, online shopping or finding the answer to trivial questions like what song was at number one the day you were born, Google has become part of daily life.
Started by college friends Larry Page and Sergey Brin while still at California’s Stanford University, Google quickly demolished the competition with its search engine technology, in the process changing the way the world looks for and consumes information.
Today it has branched out into advertising, added applications like maps and email, and more recently moved to take on its biggest rivals in the battle for world technology domination — Microsoft and Apple — with operating system software and mobile phones.
The company set up its European headquarters in Dublin in 2004 and it now employs 1,500 people, making it the most important Google office outside the US.
Belfast-born Stephen Lusty (right) is the company’s director of operations and online sales in Dublin, responsible for the support architecture of Google’s advertising business and managing the customer base and revenue for small and medium sized clients through Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“It is a truly international office,” he says. “We have staff from 46 countries that speak 60 languages, which is essential because we are there to communicate with our clients.”
Apart from himself, he estimates there are a couple of dozen Northern Irish among the 1,500.
Lusty began his career as a student apprentice with Harland and Wolff in Belfast, moving into the high tech sector in 1986 with Nortel Networks.
Despite its unfortunate demise last year, he says Nortel was very much the “Google of its day” and the place everyone wanted to work.
He had spent three years working with electronics manufacturer Flextronics before being headhunted by Google in 2008.
Even then he says the process of becoming a “Googler”, as employees are known, was not like other organisations’ interview processes.
“We work very hard to get the right people and we look for people that are slightly different. We are not after your traditional alpha types, we look for team players,” he says.
“I was headhunted, but I still had to meet about 16 people on the interview process because they wanted to know about my interests and what I was like as a person,” he adds.
Google’s Mountain View headquarters in California is famed for its informal and collaborative corporate culture and Mr Lusty says this is replicated in Dublin.
“It’s a core part of the DNA of the company. It is very levellist, there is no real hierarchy. We all eat in the same canteen,” he says.
“This is a fun place to work and a nice place to work. There are very few multinationals you can really say that about.”
The idea of employees treating each other with respect is, says Mr Lusty, something Google tries to also do with its users — developing products and processes that benefit them first and also make money, rather than the other way around.
Google's much repeated mission is to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Initially the company’s philosophy was “Google does search” which, though it has expanded, remains a key pillar of the business.
Focused on “disruptive” products, things which change the game rather than improve existing ideas, this means large investments in R&D and a percentage of many employees’ time being set aside for their own projects.
“If you hire the sort of people we |hire you have to give those people a chance to be innovative,” he says.
Google also has a history of acquisitions — most famously with YouTube — and Mr Lusty says that it is “not proud” about bringing expertise in-house if it finds someone producing work that is better than what its own teams have. He is often the one who oversees interaction with local entrepreneurs.
Outside of Google, Mr Lusty sits on the board of a number of start ups and developing companies — including Belfast based DJ software and training business Sonic Academy — and is chairman of the Northern Ireland Engineering Policy Group as well as supporting initiatives such as the Northern Ireland Science Park’s Tech Exiles programme, which aims to leverage local expertise working offshore.
“We have some fantastic talent in Northern Ireland. The ICT sector is continuing to grow, probably at a faster rate than other areas of the UK,” he says. “Northern Ireland is no longer an island off an island off an island.”
Developing this sector will take greater access to venture capital funding, and the Google executive is full of praise for e-synergy, the venture capital firm which runs the Invest Growth Fund for investment in start-up and early-stage businesses based in Northern Ireland.
“In my view it is the best thing that has happened for years to help drive entrepreneurial growth,” says Mr Lusty. However, he believes that while the province is blessed with two great universities — he studied at University of Ulster — we are worryingly short of people studying STEM subjects, particularly on the physics and maths side, which could place limitations on the development of the local tech sector.
He believes there has been “a dumbing down of the syllabus in the last 20 years” and that if there are not moves to address the shortage of new tech-savvy talent then “business will solve its own problems”, either by importing people from elsewhere or moving operations away.
Much of the work he is doing with the Engineering Policy Group and also the Institution of Engineering and Technology is geared towards driving the STEM agenda and he believes groups such as these are slowly raising awareness and helping foster a more aspirational attitude among schools and students.
Sadly for all local technology whizzkids Google has no plans as yet for a Belfast office.
“The business will take us where it takes us, but we have no plans to expand in Europe,” says Mr Lusty.
But with more and more people around the world going online, the rise of social networking and the cloud computing concept — storing information on the Internet rather than a hard drive — gaining ground among both large and small organisations, he believes there is still huge opportunities for Google’s business to grow.
“In 20 years time we believe cloud computing will be the accepted way |of working for most organisations,” |he says.
“The future is boundless. Less than 2% of the information in the world is online or in digital form. So making more of that information available is a vast task.”
As for the much documented rivalry with Microsoft, he says Google doesn’t pay it much attention.
“At management meetings Microsoft is rarely mentioned,” he says.
“We view it as a company that does software in a box and that is very different to what we do.”
While Google has almost constantly been in the ascendency since being founded in the late 1990s, Mr Lusty says all its operations including Dublin know they cannot rest on their laurels.
A key philosophy of the firm’s founders is to never settle for the best that’s available at any given time but to search for ways to improve.
“We know we have to keep being innovative,” says Mr Lusty.
“We know we are always only one click away from people using our competitors.”