Saturday, 12 November 2016

Google moves to new office in Singapore to house fast growing team of engineers

Google's growing team gets a new home
It has 1,000 employees now, and hopes to get more overseas-based Singapore engineers to return home
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 11 Nov 2016

Google yesterday officially opened the doors to its new office at Mapletree Business City II in Pasir Panjang, where it occupies two entire office blocks to house its "fast-growing" team of engineers.

The tech giant hopes to attract more Singapore engineers working overseas, especially in Silicon Valley tech firms, to return home. It now has 1,000 employees, including an undisclosed number of engineers, in its new Singapore engineering hub.

The expansion supports its goal of reaching the next billion Internet users. There were an estimated 3.2 billion Internet users worldwide as of last year.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was at the opening along with Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran, hopes Google and Singapore can benefit from each other - especially in a world where technology is rapidly changing the way business is done.

Highlighting the country's Smart Nation initiative, and its energy and buzz, he said "we will be able to add something to Google".

"Tech is disruptive and your objective is to disrupt the world," he added. "We expect to be disrupted but we want to... come out on the right side of disruption." Turning to a crowd of more than 100 Google employees, Mr Lee said: "And we depend on you to help us to do better."

Mr Caesar Sengupta, Google's locally based vice-president of The Next Billion Users, told The Straits Times the nation is a good place for "long-term bets" due to its business-friendly policies.

He would not disclose new hiring plans, but said that the engineering team here is "growing very fast" and that "we are starting to see a lot of Singaporeans coming back".

"The tech industry here is very vibrant now with a lot of start-ups, and it is a very good place to source for talent," added Mr Sengupta, who became a Singaporean 10 years ago.

It is also strategic for the company to base an engineering pool here because it wants to be close to Internet users in South-east Asia, he explained. The Next Billion Users division works on products to bring Internet content to more people. Besides translating content into Asian languages, his division enables Google Maps and YouTube for offline use in places where mobile access is limited or expensive. Virtual reality and augmented reality projects will also be done in Singapore.

Google's local engineering hub is the latest addition to a growing list of similar facilities in Hyderabad in India, Sydney in Australia, and Mountain View in the United States, among other locations.

Mr Iswaran said it is important for Singapore to establish leadership positions in digital segments, such as software, devices and infrastructure. The digital economy is expected to contribute US$2 trillion (S$2.8 trillion) in additional output globally by 2020, and Singapore wants a slice of this. "One important reason for our focus on the digital economy, and the partnership with leading companies like Google, is the new opportunities it will create for local SMEs and Singaporeans," said Mr Iswaran.

In particular, small and medium-sized enterprises can enter online and global markets without requiring a huge investment. There will also be new jobs for Singaporeans, he added.

An estimated 53,000 new jobs in areas such as data analytics, software engineering and cyber security will be created by 2018, according to an Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore survey conducted in June last year.

Subsidised coding classes
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 11 Nov 2016

In January, Google will roll out a Code in the Community programme, with the goal of training some 3,000 children from needy homes over the next three years.

The programme will subsidise the cost of coding lessons to bridge the digital divide.

Mr Caesar Sengupta, vice-president of Google's The Next Billion Users division, said: "Google can play a part to inspire students to take up technology as a career. We need more engineers and product designers coming out of local schools."

This is in line with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's pitch earlier this year for more students to consider a career in engineering and technology to keep public infrastructure projects going.

The value of Google's sponsorship has not been disclosed.

But the cost of training 3,000 children is estimated to be at least $1 million, going by the existing rates for coding lessons. For instance, classes at coding school Saturday Kids start at $350 for an introductory 10-hour course in Scratch, a programming language.

Google will work with self-help groups such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), Mendaki, Sinda and the Eurasian Association to identify the needy homes.

Code in the Community will target children aged eight to 15. The 10-week course - to be conducted by 21C Girls and Saturday Kids once a week on weekends - will take place twice a year.

Applications will open next month, when more details will be announced.

Non-profit organisation 21C Girls already offers free coding classes to underprivileged girls in Singapore.

Coding school Saturday Kids also has its own tie-ups with community centres and the CDAC to conduct subsidised classes targeted at low-income families in their district.

Google Singapore chief wants more locals in its 'kampung'
She wants firm's new office to convey idea of community spirit and is also looking to invest heavily in talent here
By Lee Xin En, The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2016

The world's biggest Internet company wants to welcome more Singaporeans into its new "kampung".

Being Google, its facility that opened last Thursday is big on tech, of course, but the firm wants to add a homely local touch.

"Rather than calling these offices, we thought - let's call them kampungs," said Briton Joanna Flint, Google's Singapore country director.

"So we've got kampungs everywhere and we've created them like little villages."

Ms Flint, who is in her early 40s, told The Straits Times in an interview last week that the idea of the kampung came from wanting to build an office rooted in South-east Asian culture, conveying the idea of the kampung spirit and its sense of community.

"We want to bring the community into Google," she said, citing its newly launched "Code in the Community" programme which aims to conduct weekend classes for 3,000 children.

She added that the company will be hosting mentoring sessions at the new office, which occupies two entire blocks at Mapletree Business City II in Pasir Panjang.

It will also partner organisations to run events there.

The tech titan, which has been in Singapore for nine years, is ramping up its presence here.

In January, it announced on its website that it plans to set up a "large engineering presence in Singapore".

Ms Flint noted that Singapore is the company's fastest-growing office in Asia, with staff numbers doubling from 2013 to its headcount of 1,000 today.

She said that while the company has engineering sites across the globe, having a presence here "is a massive breakthrough".

One area of focus in engineering in Singapore is looking at the "next billion users", said Ms Flint.

This next wave of Internet users is expected to come from emerging markets like India and Indonesia, and they have different consumption habits, such as preferring to access the Internet mostly through their mobile phones.

The "next billion users" team will focus on building products for these mobile-first users in emerging markets.

Singapore has the advantage of being near several emerging economies, but the facility here can also build products for more advanced markets, she added.

While Ms Flint did not disclose the number of engineers Google will be hiring, she noted that the company is looking to invest heavily in talent.

That will likely please Singapore graduates, who often rank Google at the top of their most desirable employers.

But Ms Flint said that it is taking her "longer and longer to find the right talent".

"What I'm finding lacking is getting people who can problem-solve. Critical thinking, as well as being able to communicate, is the most important thing we're looking for."

She said that while roles used to be very specific in the past, she is now hiring around "foggy areas" and looking for people who might have to take on a different role from what they were doing six months ago.

"Hiring people who can only do one thing is going to be an issue. The company is moving, changing and evolving as the world is evolving, and that skill is becoming a critical piece."

For Ms Flint, a politics and philosophy major from the University of Manchester, dealing with "fogginess" and being open to new challenges have taken her to the top.

She started as a fresh graduate at British Airways in a global communications role, but ended up in the e-commerce division, responsible for taking the company's frequent flyer programme online. This was a pioneering and daring move at a time when physical mail for members was the norm.

"I had no technical background but I was fascinated with technology and could see what it was going to do," she recalled.

While prevailing sentiment about digitisation was simply to make statements available online, she pushed for the company to go further, allowing customers to do redemptions and check on statements on their own.

Her pioneering foray online got her recruited at age 27 by Singapore Airlines, which was looking for people with digital management.

Ms Flint jumped at the opportunity to fulfil her dream of living in Asia, where she first visited as a 17-year-old backpacker.

Her job at SIA was to make a then "irrelevant" website more relevant.

She spent three years there driving digital strategy, including encouraging the airline to release fares and marketing campaigns online, before moving to Ogilvy to advise big consumer brands on e-commerce and digital strategies.

When Ms Flint returned from maternity leave in 2008, she was approached to join Google, which had been in Singapore for only a year and was operating out of serviced offices.

While most new mothers might have hesitated to jump into a more uncertain environment, Ms Flint said she was "excited" by the incredible people she met during the interview.

"I wasn't sure I wanted the job because I wasn't sure what the job was. It was so vague, it was to lead MNC partnerships but it wasn't clear who or where they were."

The interview process, which she described as "teasing you and letting you reflect on who you are", and the conversations she had with seven of Google's head honchos reeled her in.

As country director for Singapore, a role she has had for almost three years, she is responsible for Google's sales and business development operations here, working with larger businesses as well as managing partnerships with the Government and media agencies.

Ms Flint's passion for Singapore comes through in her interview with The Straits Times.

She recounted how she serendipitously landed here on National Day 15 years ago, got "emotional" at last year's SG50 celebrations, and proudly professed to have spent 14 of the last 15 National Days in Singapore.

She summed up her leadership style with a nod to the little red dot.

"My leadership philosophy is to always think big. One of the things which I always challenge my team on, is that people always say Singapore is such a boring market, that it is so small. I say - it is only as small as your imagination."

With a laugh, she said, "I always give people Mr Lee Kuan Yew's book, Third World To First World, when they come to Singapore, because if you actually understand what this country has done... don't ever tell me that something's not possible."

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