“On the day, I had quite mixed emotions because, while part of me was really sad and thinking about how to help fix this, there was also an element of me that was looking around and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is our culture at its best’, because of the solidarity.”
This glass half-full approach to leadership is peppered through Silva’s conversation. She will need to maintain that positive mindset as she pilots Google Australia through a unique period of its history.
Where previous Australian bosses have been greeted with excited questions about what Google would do next across its varied portfolio of products and services, Silva has arrived as serious questions are being asked about some of the tech giant’s negative impacts on society.
Google is facing numerous controversies, including the thorny issue of its tax structures, its impact on the health of the media, its potentially anti-competitive conduct against smaller rivals, its plundering of users’ data, its development of censored search for China, and its facilitation of fake news.
It had earlier been fined €2.4 billion by the EU in anti-trust findings that it was artificially promoting its own shopping product over others in searches. That record penalty was surpassed last July when Google was fined $US5 billion for bundling its apps on Android to the detriment of its competitors.
Silva accepts that the way people view Google has shifted, but believes the aura of a company doing special things remains – to an extent.
“I think the reality is that [when Google employees go to a barbecue] the conversation has changed,” she says. “But I wouldn’t say it’s doom and gloom and ‘get in the corner, we don’t want to talk to you any more’.
“Scrutiny is going to come with size, and I think there’s a lot more knowledge and curiosity. People do genuinely see the value of the products and services that Google provides, but they have a little bit more insight into the broader context of tech.”
Despite its enormous size, Google (and its parent company Alphabet) is still growing at an impressive clip. At the end of 2018 it had 98,771 employees, up by 23 per cent on the previous year. Its tentacles stretch into more areas of business and life than five years ago, so questions about its impact are perhaps inevitable. It continues to invest heavily in YouTube, and its autonomous vehicle unit Waymo is embroiled in a costly battle for the future of motoring.
Silva says morale among staff is high, and the challenges in Australia are no more acute than elsewhere.
Finding her feet
Before becoming the boss, Silva worked in Google’s Australian operation for nine years in senior roles then had a two-year stint in Singapore. Before that she worked as a digital executive at Fairfax Media and in marketing leadership roles at financial services firms Citibank, ING and AMP.
She has a naturally outgoing and cheery persona, and says she was determined to be an approachable leader, open to others’ ideas but also following her own instincts.
Silva says she knew it would be a mistake to approach her new role as if she was a returning hero who knew everything about the local operations. She needed to earn the workers’ respect as much as they needed to earn hers. This meant she needed to learn a lot, as quickly as she could.
Her strategy was to hold a whirlwind of meetings with Google’s multitude of advertising and small business customers, and conduct an internal “Tell Mel” survey to understand how staff felt.
“It was actually a really conscious decision of mine to kind of go in and pretend like I didn’t know anything,” Silva says. “I think it’s important to come in and make it feel fresh, and it was great for me because with a fresh set of eyes you sort of notice the efficiencies here and there.”
Unlike the local offices of most of the big US tech companies, which are essentially sales and delivery operations, Google Australia is a fully functioning, 1300-strong, scaled-down version of its Mountain View, California, headquarters. It has 700 engineers working on new products, led by its global head of photos and communications tools, Anil Sabharwal, who relocated to Sydney from the US last year.
With a top global executive leading the product development side of the operation, Silva says she views her role in two main chunks. First is the commercial side of the business, involving advertising, a vast array of partnerships and its attempts to crash the lucrative cloud computing market.
Second is the internal and external leadership, which includes advocating for funding from Google HQ and holding together the company’s many moving parts.
Silva says her leadership style is to be approachable while giving firm direction where required. It sounds a tricky act to pull off, but her predecessor, Jason Pellegrino, believes she is well equipped to deal with the challenge.
“Mel knows how to navigate Google and she is deeply trusted and respected by the most senior leaders in the business,” he says. “I have seen her use this influence to tremendous impact to raise the profile of [Google] Asia and get incredible support for the teams, clients and users in the region.”
Pellegrino worked with Silva for more than a decade and says she has the requisite mix of friendliness and steel to inspire diverse teams and make tough calls when needed.
“Mel and I disagreed a lot, but it was always a constructive process … she is respectful but not afraid to call out issues that she sees or approaches she believes can be improved.
“I love this about her, and I can honestly say I can’t recall a disagreement that we had that wasn’t resolved in the form of a better outcome.
“She is incredibly fun to spend time with and brings a lot of energy to everything she does. She is witty, sharp and able to cut to the heart of an issue quickly. She keeps you on your toes.”
Silva had to draw on this ability to rapidly get to grips with issues in December when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission published a draft report on digital platforms, seeking to tackle the huge impact that Google, Facebook and their ilk are having on the media and broader society.
Google has faced regulatory scrutiny in various jurisdictions, but the competition regulator’s 378-page report was globally significant in its depth and strong recommendations for potential regulation.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims made clear his intention to crimp Google’s market dominance: “Australian law does not prohibit a business from possessing significant market power or using its efficiencies or skills to ‘out-compete’ its rivals,” Sims said. “But when their dominant position is at risk of creating competitive or consumer harm, governments should stay ahead of the game and act to protect consumers and businesses through regulation.”
The stats were eye-watering. The report said Google has 94 per cent of all online searches in Australia and, with Facebook, accounted for more than half of the country’s $8 billion in digital advertising revenue in 2017. Google reportedly earned about $2.5 billion of that total.
Silva says overall she was happy with the consultation provided by the ACCC, and she agreed with some of the key points.
Among the measures proposed by the ACCC were a new regulatory body to pass judgment on contentious issues such as the fair display of news stories and ads, as well as new requirements for the global giants to warn the ACCC about plans to buy out local companies.
Google could also face a digital platforms ombudsman with the power to rule on disputes with local companies, such as the case of tech start-up Unlockd, which collapsed last year after Google banned its apps from its marketplaces.
If all the ACCC recommendations are enacted, it will also be ruled by more stringent European Union-style data protection rules, which give consumers a “right to be forgotten”.
Silva accepts that new regulations related to privacy controls and its dealings with rival businesses are likely.
However, she says opening up Google’s algorithms to show the world how it places news stories and adverts would be a step too far. If you reveal the secret behind search rankings, she says, companies and news providers will make it their business to game the system, distorting results.
Silva is happy with the ombudsman proposals, and as “a human being with two kids”, she would welcome greater data privacy controls, such as Australia replicating the EU’s GDPR rules. Under these rules, companies can incur massive fines if citizens are not given sufficient control of their data.
Leading high performers
Silva clearly enjoys talking about the prospect of leading a large team of high achievers and says her strategy is to listen as much as possible and take action on what she is told.
For example, last November’s walkout over allegations of sexual harassment and bullying has led to subtle changes in a bid to reduce the problems identified.
“We have a few different training programs for managers and onboarding new staff, and some sessions which focus on the right way to deal with harassment claims,” Silva says. “However, we realised that there was a whole bunch of managers who were managing interns that weren’t getting that training. So just making that available to them is a small, easy thing to change. But there’s obviously a long way to go.”
She says Google has published a new action plan that overhauls how its handles inappropriate behaviour, including more transparency on how it deals with complaints.
“Our goal is to build a workplace that doesn’t tolerate any forms of harassment and to make sure we are supporting our employees and empowering them to do their best work.”
Silva says she is fortunate to have served under numerous female bosses, and has never suffered any harassment.
“While I am OK … I understand that’s not everyone’s experience, so I don’t dismiss the responsibility of that aspect of my position. But I also don’t want to turn it into something more than it is,” she says.
Silva says it can be a difficult balancing act to be a role model for younger women in the industry and not become defined by the fact that she is a “woman in tech”.
She is a big believer in the importance of sponsorship and coaching, and tries to get to know employees when she sees a “spark” in them.
“I’ve had a really successful career, I’ve had a lot of impact and I was a worthy competitor for the job which I got. So, you know, at the end of the day I didn’t get it because I’m a woman,” she says. “But I’m also happy to play a role to inspire other women if it makes them feel like one day they can do something like this that they didn’t think they could do before.”
Changing nature of work
Through its development of collaboration tools and artificial intelligence applications, Google is driving many of the changes to the way people work, and Silva says it is important for her to be engaged in the issues arising from these shifts.
Last year, her colleague Sabharwal spoke in depth about how the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities that he was helping to create would change work.
In its submission to a Senate inquiry into the future of work, Google said that automation would result in the Australian economy reaping gains of up to $1.2 trillion by 2030. However, large groups of workers face being displaced by AI, such as the drivers eyeing the development of driverless technology, including in Google’s Waymo division.
Silva, unsurprisingly, looks at the positive side of the equation. She says AI will greatly assist businesses of all sizes, ranging from cucumber growers in south-east Asia using machine learning to identify the best time to start picking to multinationals dramatically improving their operations.
“I think Australia – business and government – has to be a bit firm on what their position is here, because there are some risks we need to mitigate, but also a huge amount of skilling we need to do,” she says. “The nature of our workforce is fundamentally different to some other countries in Asia, so by no means is this a copy and paste exercise.”
There is no reason, she says, that Australia can’t be a global leader in AI.
Silva says she regularly thinks back to her childhood and the influence of her mother, who ran a catering business, and father, who was in the air force.
She grew up in what she describes as “really humble beginnings” in the western Sydney suburb of Kings Langley. She attended high school in Parramatta and earned an economics degree from Macquarie University.
The “hunger to do more” that was instilled in childhood has led her to adopt a fierce work ethic, which she combines with a busy family life with her two children, aged nine and five, and husband, who is trying to get a tech start-up off the ground.
“I like to be home for dinner with the kids, that’s a really important time for me,” Silva says. “And if that means that I have to flip open the laptop and do a bit of work while watching Serena [Williams] play tennis on the TV, then that’s fine with me.”
To manage it all, she has to be a “total gun at prioritisation”, although this does not incorporate the tech productivity tools you might expect of someone in her position. She has a “highly innovative” system of notebooks, scribbling down details of projects and issues and reviewing them each night. She prefers hand-written notes to organise her day.
“I’m a kinesthetic learner, so I actually need to write it down before it sticks in my brain. I’m very analogue in that way, but you do have to be militant about what you give time to.”
Looking ahead, Silva says that as well as its cloud computing expansion plans, Google Australia sees great opportunity in working with businesses to implement AI and machine learning. The company also has ambitious internal targets to significantly increase the global profile of Australian YouTube content creators.
The only time the shutters come down is when Silva is asked if she thinks staff will continue to express displeasure about Project Dragonfly, a controversial move to reverse Google’s stand against censorship of the internet in China by working secretly with its government to build a censored version of its search engine. “Unfortunately, I have nothing to add on the China piece whatsoever,” she says with a wary smile.
Pressed on whether staff have come to her with concerns about it, she suggests there is no sign of any Australian uprisings. “To be honest, I haven’t heard anything.”