Interview: Matt Brittin, Google
A year since it opened, Google’s brightly-coloured shopfront has become something of a curiosity, nestled among the mix of shops and bars in Edinburgh’s west end. It sells nothing, but is offering something that is now central to all our lives: advice and training in digital skills.
The self-employed are here seeking new routes to market, start-ups building a business strategy, and those who simply want to know a bit more about the new technologies. Among the small clusters gathered around the team of instructors at one session this week was the man responsible for setting up the Digital Garage network.
Matt Brittin, president of the company’s European, Middle East and Asia business, was visiting ahead of a meeting with ministers at the Scottish parliament and he joined one of the groups attending a workshop to hear what they thought of the service.
“We are learning, too,” he says. “There is no substitute for getting people together.”
Brittin, a former GB Olympic rower, was in Edinburgh after meeting members of InGAME, a creative research and development centre for gaming in Dundee. “It was very impressive. There’s a lot happening in the city,” he says.
He has been 12 years with Google and introduced the Digital Garage concept four years ago as a series of pop-up high street shops around the continent. They have been attended daily by a seemingly inexhaustible flow of individuals, many of them running their own small enterprises, or unemployed and looking for a route back into work, others simply keen to ensure they’re not left behind by the digital revolution. About 10 million have passed through the network.
“The EU said there were not enough people to fill the digital jobs being created,” says Brittin. “It was a personal project for me about how we could make a contribution. So we launched this programme. We were blown away by the demand.
“About 45% of those who have been through the scheme have started a business or have got a job afterwards. The average age is over 40, including people re-inventing themselves, often after leaving or losing a job.
“We were surprised by the demand and the number of women, showing that tech is not a male thing. It shows that these are tools that can benefit everyone.”
The garages focus on local circumstances: in Spain there is a lot of youth unemployment, in the UK it is about “getting out of the middle class bubble and finding people not getting access to the digital world and feel technology is not for them.
“The tech sector in Scotland is about 3% of the economy, but it is growing twice as fast as the wider economy. It shows how we have to do more to train people.”
The workshop going on behind us includes a young man setting up a marketing agency, another selling fine chocolates and a woman promoting her maths classes on YouTube.
“We’ve trained 13,000 in Scotland and we’ve learned a lot ourselves,” says Brittin, adding that the main thing that people want is confidence about accessing digital. Those more familiar with it want to know about how to use the vast amount of data available.
The first Scottish garage was in Glasgow. There have been Google bus tours around the Highlands. Brittin says the Edinburgh facility has been another big success, but will close as planned on 1 June. Touring roadshows will continue as well as partner arrangements with colleges, the Scottish Government, and community centres.
“I would love to keep this [the Garage] going, but it is expensive. Everything is free,” he says.
Brittin came to the business from a commercial role at newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror and is aware that Google is a business which has its detractors. He is lead spokesperson for Google on its announcements in Europe about digital skills, as well as on issues such as controversial content and corporation tax.
“People want to see Google being responsible so it is right that we ask questions about how we operate and that the digital world is a positive one in terms of privacy, data, cyber security, extremism and so on. We have a role to play in making the web work for everyone.”
He reflects on the way digital has impacted on his own life and work, noting that this year is the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee inventing the worldwide web.
“He invented it in the year I graduated. For the past 15 years I have worked in jobs that depend on the internet and that shows the need to invest in skills all the time.”
Occupation: President EMEA, Business and Operations, Google
Educated: Cambridge University (Geography and Land Economy)
Career Highlights: Worked in real estate, London Business School, consultant with McKinsey, and commercial roles at Trinity Mirror before moving to Google
Other interesting facts
Rower with the British team, participated in the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988