Serious without a suit

Projects that provide people with the opportunities to change their lives for the better excites Luke Mckend
Luke Mckend Pic 2.jpg

A young Luke Mckend arrived in the UK in 1998, with the intention of exploring the continent. An English and Philosophy major from the University of Stellenbosch, he was like any other young person yet to find their niche. Young and ambitious, he became involved in several internet companies, gaining invaluable leadership experience along the way.

In 2007 he returned to South African shores where he became the country director of Google SA. “Ending up at Google was not a straightforward career path for me; I tend to think of my career as an accumulation of experiences that has helped me become the person I am today”. Indeed, with a whirlwind career that has taken him across South Africa and to Europe and back, Google SA’s country director, Luke Mckend, has certainly taken the road less travelled.

Born in Cape Town, Mckend spent his formative years in Fish Hoek before relocating to Phalaborwa and eventually graduating from Stellenbosch University. His degrees in English and Philosophy would seem ill-fitted to the tech-savvy nature of Google SA, yet even as a young man, he displayed the foresight and intellect to join the tech revolution which in the late 1990s, was still very much in its infancy.

“I arrived in the UK with a backpack and my bike and about £900, with which I had aspirations of travelling around Europe. Before I left, I taught myself basic coding, enough to know my way around a website which, as I soon found out, became a very useful tool.”

These self-taught skills saw Mckend join T&T Worldwide, before launching his own start-up company after the crash. Growing the company from six employees to over 40 in a short space of time remains a personal high- light for Mckend, and being at the coal-face of things would stand him in good stead for the leadership role he was soon to acquire.

So just how did an English and Philosophy major end up as country director of Google Inc.’s South African office? “After my start-up company was sold, I ended up working for the acquiring company for a year or so. When I left, I had to decide whether or not I was going to remain in the internet industry or join another start-up. At the time (2007), Google was the internet company to work for and I applied online as one does and went through the interview process and luckily enough, I was given the job”.

Mckend stated how Google’s seemingly infiite capacity to affect world-wide change was a calling card to good to refuse. “There are very few companies that you get an opportunity to join that really have a global impact and have the ability too change the way people go about finding information, whether they’re finding information for themselves, or whether they’re just doing their daily jobs. I think that was one of the key drivers for me, to see what it was like to work for a company that had that kind of ability and responsibility.

Indeed, with projects such as Google Street View, people are getting access to information few would have deemed possible a decade ago. It is a testament to the exceptional work Google has been doing; that everyday people can essentially see the world from their desks at home.

Mckend credits the success of the Street View project in South Africa to a work environment that is centred on fostering innovation among its employees. “Innovation is a key principle at Google and it’s actually rewarded. We’re trying to create a culture where people aren’t just paying lip service to the innovation of a project. Everybody is encouraged to express themselves as best they possibly can. In South Africa we also have a unique culture that is different to the UK, that is different to the US and I’d like to believe that the staff at Google South Africa are able to express themselves in a way that is uniquely South African.”

Google Street View has  also provided  a platform to showcase the sights and sounds of South African culture – a rich diversity lauded the world over. “South Africa is an incredibly diverse country and has a huge number of things that we’d like to showcase to the world. Street view has given us the ability to literally show off everything from the Kruger National Park all the way through to the streets of Cape Town."

Building on the success of Street View, Google launched Google Map Maker, a project that has been successful not only in South Africa, but in the wider African context, according to Mckend. “Google Map Maker enables anyone to basically help build the map and so they can create roads, as well as point out local interest points, schools, and shops. You can actually map your entire local community and that’s once again amazingly empowering user technology because in a lot of these places maps simply did not exist before and now we are able to use the power of the citizenry to basically go map their own communities.”

It is these sorts of projects that excite McKend as they provide people with the opportunity to change their lives for the better. “A simple thing like maps, which is closely connected to public policy making decisions about where people are. How do you get people from A to B? Where do you actually put all your public amenities? The sorts of things which on the face of it are relatively small, but when you look at the implications, it actually changes the way people live and work.”

As country director, Mckend is tasked with applying the universal problems that Google is trying to solve the South African context, chief of which is access to the internet which in South Africa, is a luxury afforded to a small minority. “If you think about how empowering the internet has been it would be amazing if it was not just the 20% of the South African population that’s online right now. How we get everybody in South Africa online is a Google size problem and a problem we’re actually encouraged to think about from a local point of view.

We’re one of the two countries in the world where Google is running a trial project called ‘TV Wide Space’. “The project ensures we use all of the TV spectrum that’s available efficiently and make it available to distribute on the internet rather than just television signals. We’re running a trial down in Cape Town at the moment with a number of schools. Our problem in South Africa is that we have vast areas that can’t be covered by cables and are perhaps too far away to actually do that cost effectively. This sort of TV Wide Space technology might be used to connect the rural population more effectively than current technology. It’s a great example of how we’re able to take a universal problem like access to the Internet and bring a technology solution to South Africa that is geared towards solving these problems in a South African context.”

Laid-back, charming,  but  with  a  steely determination, Mckend seems opposed to the rigid way that large companies handle their employees. “I very often think that people are over managed and as a result are sometimes constrained. The advantage of having a fantastic team is that you literally can provide a broad sense of direction, get out of the way and let them do what they do as best as they possibly can and really manage by exception rather than anything else.”

This is a philosophy that has served Google well as they are making great strides in not only making the internet more accessible in South Africa but also fostering local business opportunities by using Google AdWords to provide the advertising space for local entrepreneurs to kick-start their fledgling businesses.

Niel Du Preez, whose company produces specialised trailers (Rikshas) that can be attached to any bicycle, allowing children to accompany their parents on outdoor trips, started using AdWords in September 2011 and soon after, his marketing expenditure decreased by 15-20%.

Previously, Niel was advertising in magazines, using social media and promoting his product at sporting events. “Magazine advertisements pale in comparison to the number of hits our website has generated via AdWords. AdWords is easy to use and there are many resources available to help you through the process.” Niel is elated about the number of foreign customers he has visiting his website, especially because his goal is to expand his advertising internationally.

The Rose Well Spa is another local business that has benefitted from the use of AdWords. Rose Well Spa and Guesthouse opened its doors to guests back in 2008, and started using AdWords a year later. Previously, the company used travel agents to promote their romantic country getaways, but found AdWords so effective that they dedicate their entire marketing budget to this tool.

Ryan Marsden, owner of Rose Well Spa, explains: “When we worked with travel agents, we had to pay them commission on every booking, but with AdWords, we can control our maximum spend. The commission we used to pay for 10 travel agent bookings was equivalent to our entire monthly outlay on AdWords. We spent just R2 000 per month on AdWords, and generate up to R100 000.” Since using AdWords, their bookings have gone up by 150%.

“Thanks to AdWords, we have survived the recession, while other guesthouses in the area have had to close down,” says Marsden.

The success of AdWords, Mckend explains, is its ability to identify the people who are searching for a service that a particular business is providing. In this way, the business is able to reach its target market a lot quicker and more efficiently. “In the Ricksha case it might be that somebody is looking for a bike buggy for children. The idea would be that your advert is actually triggered by particular keywords. That means that every time somebody actively looks for your service, you put your business in front of them and that’s why AdWords has been so important to the growth of these small businesses.”

Luke Mckend’s success is centred on the dynamic and innovative team that he surrounds himself with. Having held several leadership positions, he understands the value of not tampering with a winning formula. Google is famed for adopting a more hands-on and dynamic approach to business than many other billion- dollar companies and Mckend is keeping with that ethos by valuing ideas and innovation over appearances, a culture he sums up as being “serious without a suit”.

“On the Google campus, or anywhere else where Google operates, you will very rarely see people wearing anything more formal than a pair of jeans. That’s because we’re comfortable with the notion that people should be respected for the contribution they make as opposed to assumptions based on their appearance. It is important to have fun!

“Being serious without a suit feeds into the idea that work is a place where you make an active contribution because of who you are and what you can say.”

Joseph Simon



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