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Wael Fakaharny: Feeling Lucky

Regional Manager of Google Egypt & North Africa, Wael Fakharany is the George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey of the tech-world combined. Despite never having seen CairoScene, he agreed to come into our offices for the ultimate Geek Corner interview...

For years now, rumors have been rife that if you google Google, you may just break the internet. While it has occurred to us that an easy solution to this global-conundrum would simply be to try, we decided to go right to the top and personally ask Wael Fakharany, the regional manager at Google Egypt and North Africa. Having been a professional nerd for the last 20 years, he is a leading voice and driving force in the regional tech sector empowering millions of Arabs to get online. He’s responsible for developing the internet ecosystem across Egypt and North Africa, partnering with key players to develop the internet as well as advancing digital advertising platforms in the region. This, boys and girls, is the ULTIMATE geek and the ultimate Geek Corner… 

How long have you been at Google?

Six years.

Have you always been based in Cairo?

Yeah, and to be honest, I don’t want to leave. My mum and dad are here, my whole family is here and I’m the happiest person in Egypt. Which is really strange because everybody wants to climb the corporate ladder but I don’t. I’m very happy where I am.

You graduated as an engineer. How did you get into the online world?

I had no clue about the online world, to be honest. I worked for 10 years in technology. I worked for IBM, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and then started my own company. For me, Google was just a nice search engine to work with. I then sold one of my companies and was basically retired. Then I found an ad for Google. I started searching what Google does and I immediately fell in love. I didn’t understand that this nice, but basically empty, webpage has so much technology and impact behind it. So I applied and started reading and studying about Google. I studied the advertising and publishing system and I went to the interview very prepared because I don’t typically fit as an ‘online person’. They saw a lot of enthusiasm in me and I guess that’s why they hired me.

We’ve heard that the Google interviews are rather odd and kooky…

Well, I did 15 interviews in three countries! The main things they’re looking for are cognitive abilities (so you obviously have to have had a good education and good grades) and also what we call “role related knowledge”. So it depends on what you’re applying for. If it’s in publishing then what do you know about the publishing world? If you’re in advertising, what can you do? They’re also looking for leadership skills. It’s the ability to work with different people in different worlds and cultures during different times. We are comfortable with people that are like us, but not everybody is like us. Finally they’re searching for “Googleyness”. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie The Internship but it’s about where your passions are. So assuming we’re going to fix everything in your life; you’ll have all the money and resources in the world, if everything is available, what would you do? The concept is abundance rather than scarcity. What would you really do? Where does your passion lie? Is it in helping other people? Is it in technology? Is it in knitting?

Ours would be knitting. But what was your answer to that question?

Well, I’m a bookworm. I’m one the biggest fans of books, actual printed books. I’m driven by challenge and knowledge. The key to making me happy is to pour knowledge on me. Just keep on giving me information and that’s it for me.

We heard a rumor that if you’re able to hack into Google, they will try to get you to work for them. Is this true?

There was an ad a couple of years ago, where there was actually a billboard on an interstate road. It was an algorithm, an equation of sorts, and if you were able to solve it, you earned yourself an interview. It was a huge billboard with nothing but a mathematical formula so probably only five people in the world would understand it. But these are the five people that Google wants.

Have you tried something like that in Egypt?

In the early days of Google, we used to hire a lot of engineers, globally. We only have four engineers in our Egypt office now. Engineers are the most important assets in Google because we are a technology company. We also hire a lot of brilliant marketing and sales people. At the end of that day, if you’re not comfortable in the interview process, it means that it’s probably not a good fit. We try to hire as much as possible with these four skills - good education, leadership, role knowledge and “Googlyiness” - but also people who are different with a different view on things. I personally love the vibe of our Egypt office, filled with liveliness, young energy and lively spirits.

Isn’t Google’s motto “don’t be evil”? What is the most evil thing you’ve ever done?

I always like to humiliate myself.

Within the Google office, have you ever caught someone in the bathroom using Yahoo?

No. I think the whole idea is we really like our products. This is one of the interview questions we ask people: “What is your favourite Google product?” If they say for example, “Google Maps,” you take the lead and ask “Why? Have you tried other map products before?” It shows you part of their character. We love our products and I think they’re great. Having said that, we allow people to use whatever they want. I still use Facebook and so do my colleagues.

What’s your favourite Google tool?

My favourite Google tool is actually YouTube. I spend hours and hours on it. Especially in the past few years YouTube has moved from cats and birthday parties to really good content. I’m a huge subscriber to a lot of university curriculums. I think the power of sight, sound and motion is literally unbelievable.

So what was the first thing Google did when it took over YouTube?

Essentially to ensure it stays the same. YouTube was a popular platform as it empowered anyone with a video camera and an Internet connection to share their opinion and become part of the global dialogue. YouTube still maintains that aspect till this very day. The slogan “Broadcast Yourself” was kept as a testament to Google’s decision that YouTube remain as a hub for content creators worldwide. We also worked on creating the right infrastructure and trying to help everyone in the ecosystem from content creators, to ISPs, to advertisers. We realised early on that people would like to watch videos and learn, be entertained and benefit from the whole YouTube ecosystem and you can even make money off of it.

So why did you have to get rid of Google video and bring in YouTube? Weren’t you able to accomplish the same things with Google video and make it more serious than YouTube?

YouTube is our video platform and with Google+, it’s a very interesting combination. Let me give you some incredible statistics. We keep on throwing these numbers out but you just don’t take time to realise that more than 100 hours of video are being uploaded every single minute worldwide and two hours per minute are being uploaded from the Middle East alone. It’s just incredible. We’re talking about more than one billion unique users per month. This is massive when you think about fragmentation of TV and content. These hundreds of millions of people range over numerous demographics. This is a very interesting audience for an advertiser. Say an advertiser wants to target women between 19-28. They assume that these women are the same, but they’re not. People are different; they watch different things, and this is the power of YouTube. It can create this connection.

Apart from advertising, do you use this data in any other way?

No, we actually don’t use it for advertising. We look at trends. We’re not interested if you’re Manal or Soha or if I’m Wael or Ahmed. We’re interested in you as an IP address in a certain location watching this video. If we have 10 million viewers for a specific video in greater Cairo, it means that the video is a massive hit and advertisers would kill for something like that.

How much of the Internet would you say Google owns or operates?

Google doesn't own the Internet but we know that when cool events happen online, for example through YouTube, we consume a sizeable amount of the bandwidth.

For example the Red Bull Stratos Mission saw 8.2 million concurrent viewers - the highest ever on YouTube. The Royal Wedding between Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (April, 2011) was live streamed 72 million times around the world to 188 countries.

How does that make you feel?

It just goes to show how we all live online and how much the Internet is part of our daily lives.

Speaking of interesting content, we want to know if you’ve heard of The Marvelous Bread Fish?

No, what’s that?


I love it! 

What’s the kind of ad that could be related to this video?

There are so many ways of targeting content. Advertisers would say for instance, “I want to target every copywritten video that is played in Egypt.” The advertiser doesn’t care what you’re watching, just that you’re in Egypt and he wants to show you his ad. This is one way. The other is called “contextual targeting.” It’s basically about content and context. If you’re reading an article or watching a video about tourism, then a hotel ad is there. We started March 9th 2011, so it’s basically been two and a half years of putting content online. The third way is called “behavioral targeting” which is basically targeting the behaviour of the user. Depending on the user’s profile and how they use the Internet, we show him ads that are relevant. The fourth is “interest marketing.” We put users in lists based on their interests. All this is incredibly insightful data to them

So, how much does Google know about us?

We take our users privacy very seriously. We have numerous privacy policies and measures in place to protect our users. These policies can be reviewed in detail by visiting www.google.com/policies/privacy/

So, you’re saying computers run Google?

Absolutely.

Are you ever worried about Google becoming self-aware?

I don’t know but all I can tell you is we take privacy, security and user information very seriously. We have policies and procedures and checks and balances. If there’s a court order for your information, there is a thorough internal review process after which we make decisions regarding compliance for such requests.

But now with the NSA scandal, how can you reassure people that their information is private? We were surprised when one of our team member’s birthday came up and Google had a birthday cake! That’s obviously private information…

She has a Google+ account and her birthday is on it so we saw it and did the cake for her. If you’re in a restaurant having dinner and you pay with your credit card, you obviously don’t trust that person with your credit card. We live in a very different world right now and I think part of connecting to this world is using your credit card, your phone and the Internet. Do you leave footprints? Sure, you do.

Speaking of society and what technology can do for it, using the information you have, has there ever been an instant when you were able to predict something that’s going to happen in the real world?

We have tools that are available for use by anybody such as Google Insights and Google Trends. These tools can give you a pulse about what people are interested in therefore allowing you to make predictions. The tools highlight rising searches for specific search terms over a particular period of time. Take the Oscars for instance, the increase of searches for Jennifer Lawrence as evident by Google Trends indicated that people thought she was most likely to win the award for Best Actress - which she did!

If you could ask Jeeves one question, what would it be?

We’re not the first search engine, I’ll give you that. What’s beautiful is, I think we’re the eighth or ninth but we really focused on one of the four Ps of marketing which is the product. We focused very hard on creating one of the best – if not the best – products in the market. Before I started working for Google, when I’d ask my family of friends, which search engine they used, they’d always say Google. It was a no-brainer. The reason people use Google isn’t because they want to click on ads, but because it’s a better product. Think of Android… it’s a very successful mobile platform and we are now activating more than 1.5 million Android phones every single day.

Speaking of your products, would you say Google+ is a success or a failure?

Right now, I think it’s a success. We failed a lot along the way like Google Buzz and Google Wave. One of our core values in innovation. So we don’t kill products; we morph them into different things. We love the saying, “we never fail to fail.” We love failing as long as we learn from our mistakes. I think Google+ is something good. We have more than 500 million users worldwide and it continues to grow.

What is your stance on the idea that technology, especially the Internet, is detaching people from the real world?

My mum and dad used to always complain that I’m watching too much TV and I’m doing the same with my kids. But I think they’re a different generation. They’re extremely well read. I love books and my son, who’s in his third year in university, doesn’t even own a notepad or a pen, but he has a tablet. He has textbooks, but ends up reading them all as e-Books.

How old were you when you first used the Internet?

That was back in 1995, so I was 28. I still remember that day; I was doing my MBA and I had emails and somebody said, “Come and see this browser.” I didn’t know what a browser was and he said, “This is something where you can type things in and information will flow.” I will never forget that day because I went home and asked myself, “What does it mean to have something like that that connects you to so much information?” I just want you to marinate for five seconds on the word ‘information.’ The Queen of England and Bill Gates have the same information as my janitor. The poorest person in Egypt probably has a mobile with computing power that George Bush had back in 1992. The idea that you and me have access to the same information is just a revelation to me. I love information; I used to ask my father to bring me the last 12 issues of Time. I’d read them all and go to my friends in school and say, “Did you know that six months ago there was an earthquake in China?”

What impact would or should a resource like Google have on the way we educate our kids? After all, what is the point of going to an exam and “knowing” information when you have it at a touch of a button?

This is a huge idea that I’m obsessed with. Technology's greatest impact is on education. The web levels the playing field and gives millions of people the chance to learn. Schools are really embracing technology. The web allows students to discover, connect and enjoy learning like never before..

My young nephew would memorise the world countries and their capitals and my mother thought he was brilliant, but I don’t agree. I think he can use his brainpower in something else. It’s nice to know the capital of Guatemala but it’s nice to push your brain to do something better and think about deeper questions. I don’t think the Internet is making us more stupid. People think we’re always reading headlines but we don’t know the authenticity of the news. I think we should teach our kids two very simple things. First of all: look at the source and understand. The second is be good with statistics and numbers. I think a statistician is an incredible job for the future. There’s so much information and a great job for the future is to be able to differentiate between the noise and the signal. Look around you in Egypt, there’s so much noise everywhere. You need to be able to filter it out and put it into perspective.

Do you think the next evolution of data is a kind of biotechnology where you’re actually inserting the information into the brain via microchips?

That seems a bit Star Trek-like to me, but what I do think is that we have not seen the future yet. we are just getting started. Things like Google Glass and wearable technology is only the beginning. I am very excited to see what’s coming next.

We think a lot of people in Egypt want to know the answer to this question: when you go on YouTube and it says, “This video is not available in your country.” What’s going on there and what are you going to do about it?

First of all, this means that we haven’t signed a copyright ownership in the country. Secondly, before March 9th 2011 we didn’t have local YouTube domain for Egypt. Having a local domain for Egypt means when you log onto YouTube.com you get locally relevant videos of Egyptians Vs. the US home page for YouTube where you would find content which is locally relevant to US based users. Third of all, it could mean there’s a law prohibiting it in Egypt.

Is Google itself working with the government in Egypt and/or the Middle East?

We have a government relations’ team that works with governments, civil society and NGOs to see how technology can support their work

Is the copyright problem a big deal in Egypt?

We want to protect content creators and publishers. We signed something called “gam3yet 7e2oo2 el mo2alefeen w el moghanyeen” (The Association for the Rights of Composers and Singers) that became a liability to pay copyright owners for certain things. Having said that, we’ve added more than 1,000 copyright owners in the Middle East last year alone. People in these industries have accepted the fact that YouTube is a great platform where they can display their original content and monetise it to their benefit. Even if you don’t want to monetise, we have a great technology called ‘content tagging’ which means you have the right to release or monetise anything on your own.

What’s your favourite viral video?

I’m not really a big fan of viral videos.

How did you feel about the Harlem Shake?

I didn’t understand it!

Do you remember the first thing you ever Googled?

I can’t say it in Ramadan!

Address this rumor: if you Google “Google” you will break the Internet.

No, you’ll just have millions of searches.

Are there any hidden messages in Google searches?

Millions of people use Google. The wisdom of the crowd cannot be wrong. When you Google something and the first result isn’t a paid ad that means that the result is the best that technology can offer you.

Is Google invincible?

Google is turning 15 in September so it’s pretty young. The beauty of it is everybody has the chance to make a better search engine and better technology. This keeps us paranoid and on our toes. Our success isn’t in our advertisers; it’s in our users. If you stop using Google as a search engine, I won’t have an inventory to sell. Never say never. You never know what’s going to happen and this keeps us on our toes.

Finish this sentence: Bing is…

Something I Googled before. 


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