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Q&A with Google CEO Benelux Pim van der Feltz​

151 days ago

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With Digital X Groningen in full swing, the Groninger Forum welcomed Google’s Benelux CEO Pim van der Feltz on Wednesday evening, for a special audience Q&A hosted and led by Jarno Duursma. Van der Feltz discussed Google’s take on the world and its role in it, with topics ranging from privacy, ethics and how a little company from a small village near Groningen became really big.

Pim van der Feltz studied Economics at the University of Groningen and started his career at Google back in 2008. Before that, he worked as a manager for companies like Shell, Ben and T-Mobile.

 

GOOGLE & THE NETHERLANDS

Google has an office in Amsterdam, and of course a data center right here in the Eemshaven. So how does Google operate in the Netherlands? “We’re actually pretty autonomous in a lot of ways”, van der Feltz explains. “Google functions as a meritocracy it’s not top-down decision making, and it’s really about what’s relevant for users and coming up with good ideas to do just that. The what is more important than the how.”​

“The Netherlands is the only country for example where Google has all the public transportation data in real time”, van der Feltz continues. “It matters because the Dutch are pretty much the most mobile people in Europe. It’s relevant for our users.”​

Van der Feltz thinks the Dutch already have a very impressive track record when it comes to anything digital: “The number of small and medium companies discovering the potential of going online and looking across borders is amazing. Just look at Booking.com. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”​

He points out a specific example from Groningen too. “Who of you has heard of the small town of Winneweer, not far from the city? The company Winparts is located there, selling car parts. Great guys. They now sell their parts online and are now internationally successful.”

 

THE COMPANY CULTURE & GETTING HIRED

Getting hired at Google is notoriously difficult and a never ending subject of speculation. “The hiring process used to be a big secret, but we can talk about it a little more now”, van der Feltz says. We use 4 algorithms and have 4 separate interviews before we decide to hire someone. And that’s really based on 4 different competencies, but someone also has to fit in the company culture.”

“What about gender?” someone in the audience asks. “Equality is really important and not just gender of course. But talking about gender, in a lot of departments I’d say it’s about 50/50 in male and female employees. Unfortunately not on the tech side, that still very male dominated, simply because there are not enough women we can hire.”

So what’s it like working at Google? “The company culture took some getting used to for me at first”, van der Feltz smiles. “I remember it was in my first week, and I was still used to doing things a certain way. With the previous companies I worked for, things were fairly centralized, as in, everyone was informed about things before decisions were made.”

“So in my first few weeks, the office in Munich implemented a new feature for the Netherlands, and I wasn’t informed at all”, he continues, laughing. “So I called their office and asked them why they didn’t tell me about it, and they said: ‘Why? What would you have added?’”

 

MOONSHOTS AND CRASH LANDINGS

Google employees spend a third of their time working on their own projects, no matter if it’s work related or not, with Gmail being the textbook examples. And for the really ambitious projects, there’s of course Google X. “It’s not about making money either, it’s just starting something and take things from there.”

“I don’t believe Google really thinks money isn’t an issue”, Jarno interjects. “Well, it really isn’t. In my 9 years of working at Google, I never had to make profit projections or analyses, timelines, and I have yet to write a business case. And yes of course there’s a commercial component, we make our money with advertisements. But believe it or not, there’s a sincere belief in trying to make the world a better place. That being said, some projects are successful, but some of them fail too.”

 

A GAME OF GO

Last month, Google’s specially trained A.I. algorithm beat one of the world’s best Go players. “That was really revolutionary”, van der Feltz. “With chess, there are a limited number of options. That comes down to simple math and you only need a lot of processing power. But with Go, there are an almost infinite number of options, so we proved A.I. was actually 10 years further along than people thought.”

“So what will Google use A.I. for? Better advertisements?” Jarno asks. “Sure, that’s one thing. But we’re also working on a different A.I. project for specific photo recognition. People suffering from diabetes can go blind in certain cases, and not everyone in the world is able to go to an optometrist for a check up. We’ve trained an algorithm to do an optometrist’s job, so all people need is a photo of their retinas.”

 

PRIVACY AND ADVERTISING

A much-debated issue is Google and privacy. Google knows exactly where you are, what you do and like and the company certainly has paid its fair share of fines. “But we also give people the option to share exactly the information they want in the privacy settings. We need data to give users relevant information, but we also give you the option to share.”

“Would there ever be a version of Google possible without advertisements?” Someone in the audience asks. “No”, van der Feltz answers. “But advertisements are not necessarily bad if they’re relevant. We have very rigid quality control to make sure of that. And it also really helps smaller companies, because it’s not about who pays the most, gets the most advertising. And you only pay if the advertisement is clicked on. It’s really a great thing that you can be very good at a very specific thing, and become internationally successful. Which is also why we host the digital workshops, to give small businesses the tools to do just that.”

 

 


151 days ago

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