The Mosaic Culture:
Shannon Deegan’s 2014
Business 100 Keynote Address

Shannon Deegan, Google's director of Global Security Operations, delivers the 29th Annual Business 100 Keynote Address at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan. Photo: Nuala Purcell.

Posted by Irish America Staff,
December 15, 2014

On Friday, December 12, 2014, Shannon Deegan, Google’s director of Global Security Operations, delivered the keynote address at the 29th Annual Irish America Business 100 Awards Luncheon. Touching on his childhood in Irish Montreal, the influence of hockey in his life, what he calls the “Canadian mosaic” of immigrants, and Google’s extraordinary culture of remaining relevant and innovative in a constantly shifting technological cyberscape, Deegan’s remarks were a welcome addition to the history of exceptional keynote addresses at the event. A transcript of his remarks follows.

For a complete list of the 2014 Business 100 honorees as well as photos from the event, click here

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In the Irish America magazine interview this month I talked about first learning about US hockey scholarships, which is the educational route I eventually took.   I was ten years old, had cut school, sneaked into a Montreal Canadiens practice and was standing by the players bench when all-star and future hall of famer Ken Dryden emerged from the locker room.  At 6’3 and on skates, he towered above me as he paused on his way to the ice.   Looking down at me he asked why I wasn’t in school.  After learning I wasn’t a bad student and a pretty good hockey player, he said: ‘Get back to school, work hard in both school and hockey and go get yourself a U.S. scholarship.’  My family, friends and I had never really heard of scholarships at the time but I decided then and there that if Ken Dryden thought it was the way to go, then that was what I was going to do.

When I was 13 I watched Jack O’Callahan – who’s here today – and his Team USA Miracle on Ice, which solidified my desire to go the US college route as Jack and his teammates did.  So Jack, you didn’t only inspire American fans, but also some Irish Canadian kids not from South Boston but instead from the Montreal neighborhood of Verdun.  And there were a lot of us.

Indeed, it’s often surprising to my American friends that Montreal is home to a strong and vibrant Irish community.   The Province of Quebec – where Montreal is – has 8 million people, and 40% of those Quebecers have Irish roots.

Many French Canadian surnames are derived from the names of Irish settlers from the 1700s – Sullivan to Sylvain, O’Brien to Aubry, Moran to Morin.  These 17th century Irish were often Catholic nobility, soldiers and clergy who served the Catholic monarchs in France after the Reformation.

The next big influx to Canada of the Irish was during the famine in the 1840s.  Interesting, as Niall pointed out to me prior to lunch, this second wave of Irish immigrants was the only other wave of Irish to Canada so unlike the US, where the Irish continue to emigrate, Canada’s strong Irish roots are kept alive by Irish Canadians whose ancestors came to Canada more than 150 years ago, at the most recent.

In 1847 alone, at the height of the famine, more than 100,000 Irish arrived and most were quarantined for a time in Grosse Isle, Quebec.   Many left the quarantines and made their way downriver to Montreal, other cities, and further south to the US.   Indeed, Bill Ford, who spoke at this lunch two years ago, detailed how his great grandfather, inventor Henry Ford, passed through Grosse Isle on his way to Detroit.

While many thrived and prospered, thousands also died.  Catholic Church leaders across Quebec encouraged their parishioners to adopt the orphaned children into their families and those children accordingly became Québécois, both linguistically and culturally.   As a wonderful aside, many of these adopted children were allowed to keep their Irish surnames, and even today, it’s not unusual to meet french speaking Quebecois with some of the most common Irish names.  I remember going to a hockey tournament in Quebec City when I was 11 or 12 and being billeted at the home of a kid named Patrick Cleary.  He didn’t speak a lick of english.

My great grandparents came to Canada from Ireland as part of the great Irish exodus of the 1840s.  They survived the Atlantic sail and like many of their fellow travelers, settled along the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal, forming the Irish community of Point St. Charles.  Both of my parents were born and raised in The Point, and I grew up a few blocks away, in the similarly tough and working class neighborhood of Verdun.

The Point – with its Irish pubs, churches and street names – symbolizes to me that connection to roots, to family, and to our Irish heritage.  It’s not always about where you’re going, but also about where you’re coming from, and as our children grow my wife and I are making sure they understand and appreciate the breadth and history of their families and their place in them.  We want them connected to all of that.

My extended family were, and often still are, members of the Montreal Irish Society, the Harp and Thistle, the Knights, the Erin Club, and the AOH.   The crowning engagement for the Irish community each year is the St. Patrick’s Day parade, held in Montreal every year since 1824, and to this day one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the world.   The parade is the clearest manifestation of the celebration of our culture.

One of the things I’m most proud of about being a Quebecer is the way the French Canadian and Irish cultures meshed together  so wonderfully in so many beautiful ways.  For example, just as those Irish orphans were adopted, the music of Quebec has also adopted, and adapted, the Irish reel as its own.  And as Judy Collins – who I’m so delighted is here today – knows so well, one of the greatest unifiers of a culture is the art of music.

We pride ourselves as Montrealers, Quebecois, and Canadians in the way we celebrate our diversity and our cultures.   Different than the American idea of a Melting Pot, in Canada we hold to the idea of a mosaic in which each cultural group retains a distinct identity and still contributes to the nation as a whole.  This Canadian Mosaic is the foundation of our immigration policy.

Our shared Irish culture helps form invisible bonds between members in the community, holding people together and connecting them to social values, beliefs, and customs.  It helps foster a sense of unity and belonging and allows us to better understand previous generations and the history of where we come from.

In business, and in particular at Google, I’ve also  spent a lot of time thinking about culture, and am proud of the role I’ve played in helping foster and maintain Google’s unique – and celebrated – culture.   Patricia asked that I spend some time talking about that culture and why we at Google believe it’s been so key to our success as a company.

First a little about Google.   Google was founded 15 years ago by two friends, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  When I joined 7 years ago, there were 3,000 employees; today, there are 55,000 spread out in more than 40 countries.

Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.    How is it going?  There are 3 billion searches on Google every day.  4 million hours of footage are watched on YouTube each month, and Android phone software sees 1.5 million activations a day.  So we’re doing ok!

Our culture is well known for being a creative and fun one.  There’s free food – 3 meals a day and fully stocked micro kitchens – for all employees.  We have game rooms, massages, beach volleyball courts, gyms, and folks are encouraged to bring their dogs to work.  But it’s about passion not perks.  We work hard and play hard, and we are excited and passionate about technology.  The perks and benefits and office space are all designed with the goal of creating an environment that fosters innovation because innovation is the reason for our success and it is key to our continued survival.

As our IPO letter said in 2004: “Google is not a conventional company.  We do not intend to become one.”  We want folks to think big, take risks.  We want them to invent solutions that aren’t yet possible.  We call some of these moonshots, efforts that are so grand in scope that they have the potential to change the world.  For example, one cool project we’re working on is the development of a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip.  The lens could monitor and then warn the wearer – like my late grandfather who suffered from diabetes for years to the point of having to have both of his legs amputated – of concerning changes in glucose levels.

Project Loon is our effort to improve Internet access to areas of the world with limited access at this point, to help the Internet reach its maximum potential to make people’s lives better. That’s why we’ve always invested in projects that help the Internet grow, from Chrome to Google Fiber, and why we continue to develop new technologies that have the potential to bring hundreds of millions more people online in the coming years.  For example, Project Loon is a system of balloons, carried by winds in the stratosphere, that can beam Internet access to rural, remote and underserved areas down on earth below at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster.   The world needs more people trying new approaches to Internet access—2 out of 3 people on the planet are still not online. Most people think current approaches will get us there, but they’re not. That’s why we thought Loon was worth a shot.

Finally, the self-driving car is another of these moonshots.  We believe a fully autonomous operating car could significantly reduce road injuries and deaths. Over 1.2 million people are killed in traffic accidents worldwide every year; in the US alone, it’s like a 737 crashing every weekday all year long.

These moonshots underscore our desire to do big things.  While it’s tempting to carry on doing what you have always done, with incremental change, we believe that that’s guaranteed to make you obsolete over time, especially in technology where change is revolutionary, not evolutionary.

Innovation is expected and supported in all segments of Google – from software developers to childcare providers – and from people at every level.  We make product development everyone’s job.

Perhaps the most critical element of a culture of innovation involves maintaining the ability to respond to opportunities when they present themselves.   Such flexibility often sluffs off of organizations as they grow larger, and while we’ve certainly experienced some coordination pains at Google, we don’t believe that the end of innovation is an inevitable consequence of getting bigger.

To maintain that ability to respond to opportunities we do several things, which I’ve divided into 3 distinct areas.

I. Create only as much structure as necessary

Flat organization structure; small teams and little hierarchy makes things faster.  Transparent decision-making and open communication fosters trust which allows people to take creative risks.

The clearest example of this is our weekly all-hands meeting.  Every Thursday afternoon, Larry and Sergey – our founders – get on stage in front of the entire company and talk about our strategy, about our new products and projects, and they also answer questions for 45 minutes.  Throughout the week leading up to the all-hands meeting, folks write questions on a website that the whole company has access to.  People vote on the questions they think are best, and when Q&A starts with Larry and Sergey, they go through the list, answering those questions getting the most votes. The questions are often hard-hitting and Larry and Sergey face the questions straight on, clearly enjoying the give and take and intellectual debate and discussion.  It’s inspiring to see.  Most companies I’ve been associated with, you may see the President or CEO get up and talk to employees once a year, or, if you’re lucky, every quarter.  At Google they do it every single week.

We also have loosely defined job roles and responsibilities and work outcomes, giving flexibility and creative license.

And our physical spaces like shared offices, long café tables, and food lines are designed to encourage collaboration and conversation.  You are never more than 200 feet from a micro kitchens- a physical space with free drinks and snacks designed so that people will come together and chat with each other.  We believe it’s these casual collisions where the innovation happens.  You don’t say to someone, “Let’s meet in the boardroom from 2 to 3pm and innovate.”  It doesn’t work.  It works when people are relaxed, and meeting new people and interacting and talking about their interests, their passions, and making those connections.  We build our organization to maximize the opportunities for those things to happen.

II. Hire people who are good at many things

Google hires people that have demonstrated innovativeness in prior jobs, in their educational pursuits, and in their volunteer or extra curricular activities.   We have big plans for people. We aim only to hire people that we expect to outperform in the job they initially fill.   We hire people who think like owners. At Google, permission is assumed. People care, and they own the environment.

III. Make managers resources, not bosses

A manager’s role is to ensure that team efforts align with company goals, and that teams have the resources they need. Managers don’t dictate — they work for their teams, not the other way around. My job as a manager is to get out of my team’s way and to make sure that barriers and obstacles are removed.

We believe leaders are the drivers of innovation.  They set the example and are expected to be creative in their own work, not simply to manage the innovation of their team.   We insist they create and sustain norms of open communication, collaboration, and sharing of ideas.

And finally,  what leaders reward and recognize indicates where the company places value.  So if we truly value innovation and understand that to be truly game changing innovative, we need our people to take risks, then we need to reward and recognize that risk taking.   To show how much we value risk taking, we decided to celebrate failure.   It’s not uncommon for Larry and Sergey to recognize a team of Googlers who may have taken on a new project or product which subsequently failed.  I’ve seen folks on failed products feted, given bonuses, and then given even greater responsibility.  We want to ensure everyone feels the freedom to innovate, to take risks, without an overwhelming fear of failure.

And just as the freedom from oppression and famine for many of our Irish forefathers ultimately led to some of the greatest inventors and leaders the world has ever seen – Henry Ford and JFK to name but two – and some of the greatest artists – Joyce, Yeats, Van Morrison, U2 – at Google we believe giving people freedom to be themselves, the freedom to take risks, the freedom to innovate, the freedom to take that moonshot, is key to ensuring our continued prosperity as a company.

Truly, as I like to think both Google and the Irish have demonstrated time and time again all over the world and in so many endeavours, if you give people freedom they will absolutely amaze you!

NOTE: This post has been updated. Google celebrates “failure,” not “mistakes.”

2 Responses to “The Mosaic Culture:
Shannon Deegan’s 2014
Business 100 Keynote Address”

  1. Helen Deegan says:

    Very Interesting Shannon, very well done. I was anxious to read it. I have the magazine Irish America, will read it at length.

    Tante Helene

  2. Fatma Haji says:

    Congratulations Shannon.
    Very proud of you.

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