Q & A: Head of Google SA on free speech, local content and life at Google

Google’s new country manager for South Africa, Luke Mckend, recently sat down with Memeburn for an exclusive interview. Larry Page’s role as CEO, Google’s Africa plans and behind the scenes activity at the search engine giant were some of the issues we engaged new Google’s exec on. Though Mckend only joined the company a mere three and a half years ago, he has moved quickly through the ranks.

Joined by Communications Director Julie Taylor, Mckend had no hesitation in giving us a window into Google that only an insider could.

MB: There has been a large change at the very top of Google in recent weeks. What sort of impact is that likely to have?

Luke Mckend: With Larry Page taking over as CEO, the impact is fairly limited as it was prepared for. 10 years is a long time for anyone to be at the helm of such great growth, so I think the timing was right for Eric.

It has been in the works for a while. They still operate as a team, as they always have. It’s not like Eric will be any less involved. In fact, if anything he is more senior than he was. He is now Chairman. And Larry Page is CEO. Larry has taken himself from entrepreneur to global business leader.

MB: Why did you choose to work at Google?

LM: I joined three and a half years ago. I have been involved in a range of internet businesses over the years, including building a company of up to forty people and selling it. After that, I decided that if there was anywhere I wanted to work in the world, it would be Google. It was my first choice and a position came up.

MB: What’s the worst thing about working for Google?

LM: [laughs] As a consumer it’s hard not to use Google. When you work there, you are also a consumer. It’s like most companies in the news all the time, it is hard to escape. But the fact of the matter is that it’s a cool place to be, if anything because the South African internet environment is growing and changing fast.

MB: The company has opposed internet regulation by the UN. You are also reviewing your China policy. Is Google really standing for the last line of defence for free speech? Or did you never claim to be doing as much?

LM: Free speech is a core part of who we are. Access to information is what we stand for. While we are getting involved in the push for democracy, we also have a lot of people offering that in their own right. Take for example the case where a few employees got together and created the voice-to-tweet service for Egypt.

It’s an important part of our existing mission. We’re very lucky to occupy that position in the public perception. Some of the things we are doing include co-ordination between a number of service providers to make that level of free speech happen.

MB: What will Google be offering your children’s generation in 2030?

LM: Hard to know. I have a five year old daughter and what is amazing is that she is growing up with the technology right now. And she is so familiar with the touch screen it’s frightening. It is almost impossible to foresee even five years from now. We are involved in a range of initiatives internationally that are focused on education.

MB: 5 billion people use a mobile service of some sort. What is Google doing to take advantage of that?

LM: Android is the answer to that. If you look at what Android has done around smartphones, it’s become a key part of Google. Some of the things are coming to fruition. For example, there is a phone in Kenya which launched at just over US$100 dollars. That discussion around entry level pricing has been very important to us and we are very close to making it a reality. To a large extent, that has been facilitated by the success of Android.

MB: This year, Google employs up to 31 000 people. Will you be a bigger global team than Microsoft by numbers. Is exceeding Microsoft even a consideration?

LM: Not really. It’s about what are we delivering, where we are as an organisation where very person is utilised. We operate in that way. It is integral to our culture that everyone contributes.

MB: What is the one thing users think they know about Google that is just partially or completely wrong?

LM: People always want to know how Google makes money. That is the number one question. I think the consumer does not necessarily connect the search we perform to the ads. The question we always get is, “Do people really click on those ads?”

MB: China or India: Where does Google put more energy and why?

LM: We never left China and in same way India is a market that has attracted a huge amount of attention. I think conditions are great in both markets. We have a lot of engineers in both countries.

MB: What particular role does Google fulfil in South Africa?

LM: Google SA has a couple of focusses that simply aren’t there in developed markets. Firstly, we have a developing understanding of what would really drive South African business in 2011 and 2012. That is important. Secondly, we want people to migrate towards digital, and we are working closely with agencies to achieve that.

Probably what differentiates us is our close connection to rest of Africa. What we are doing in the rest of Africa is quite different to other Google offices; there are many initiatives around developing access. It’s very different to what you find in other developed markets. Creation of local content is also a key component, which ties in with Baraza. We need to make sure that our product is relevant to local users. We need local content, what we are trying to focus on is creating ecosystems where people have an incentive to create local content. So education is key. You can see that in our outreach phase.

Finally, South Africa offers a commercial space. We want a commercial presence that makes sense for the businesses we have here. Local content is important and we want to make sure we are relevant to local community.



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