Jenni Aldrich: There isn't one culture or one way of doing things in Singapore


Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

There really is no one culture nor one way of doing things in Singapore; you just need to adapt to the varying expectations and approaches that you will experience from day to day, and to also appreciate the privilege and opportunities that are available here.”

Responsible for leading the legal services for Google in the Asia Pacific region, Jenni Aldrich aptly describes her life as “never boring”.  

Working at the helm of a company famous for its innovation and originality, Jenni is forever working to stay ahead of the curve, and there’s no better place to do that than in Singapore.

Advance spoke to Jenni about what is involved in her day-to-day duties at Google, why Singapore is a good choice for Australians who are considering relocating, and whether it’s necessary to explore professional opportunities outside of Australia for career progression.

You were at Google in Sydney before moving to Singapore – what was the biggest cultural change you experienced when moving cities with the same company?

I think everyone would experience some sort of cultural change moving from Australia to any country in Asia, but I must admit that the change wasn’t particularly significant moving to Singapore. Singapore is a very international city; English is used as the language of business, and there’s a large professional expat population, so there was a lot that felt familiar and expected.

If there was any specific noticeable change it was simply that from the start I was aware that I was living in a truly multicultural society - with many different languages, foods, ways of dress and religions. The majority of the population has a Chinese ethnic background, so my neighbourhood has plenty of Chinese signage, products and delicious noodles and dumplings, as well as a huge Buddhist temple. My neighbourhood also celebrates Hindu, Muslim and Christian festivals, various languages are spoken, the local restaurants and food stalls serve anything from Chinese cuisine to burgers, satays and (the best!) roti prata in Singapore, and the relative socio-economic positions of people within the community can vary significantly.

There really is no one culture nor one way of doing things in Singapore; you just need to adapt to the varying expectations and approaches that you will experience from day to day, and to also appreciate the privilege and opportunities that are available here.  

Can you describe your day to day duties at the Director of Legal APAC for Google? 

My role is incredibly interesting as Google’s range of businesses is so broad and can often involve high impact issues or completely new areas where there is not a lot of law yet. At its core, my team and I need to support Google’s online services such as Search, YouTube, Maps, and our B2B businesses such as advertising, cloud and content licensing. But we also need to support Google’s data centres, mobile devices, X projects and many things in between. Some areas can feel completely out-of-left-field at times, such as creating a balloon-powered internet in remote or disaster-struck regions, or building free public wifi access in railway stations across India.

All of this means that no one day is the same, and I tend to focus my time on the edge cases and the escalated issues for whichever product or project warrants the priority at the time. Much of my time can involve internal debates around our product content policies, or key principles such as freedom of expression or privacy, or the use of machine learning and algorithms. I spend a lot of time on internal video conferences, collaborating across functions and regions, acting as an escalation point in resolving regional issues, and advocating for regional considerations in global decisions. A lot of my “downtime” is spent reading up on developments in an attempt to keep across the latest.

I also need to make sure that part of my day is reserved for supporting efforts to build out the team’s expertise, as well as strategies and tools that will increase our capacity to support the huge work volumes and need for scale. The volumes and scale can feel unrelenting at times. Eight of our products are used by more than a billion people around the world, there is something like a trillion search queries a year, and hundreds of hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. For my team, this translates into thousands of contract negotiations and hundreds of product launches and contentious issues a year, as well as 24/7 content and data access escalations which require immediate resolution.

It can be exhausting at times, but I think I’m quite addicted and motivated by the high pace environment and intellectual challenges of my job - it’s definitely never boring!

Working for a company that’s famous for innovation – how do you constantly stay creative and ahead of the curve? 

I don’t think anyone can avoid focusing on innovation when working at Google. I think both its culture and its scale pushes each of us to stay creative and forward thinking.

It seems to be a lot easier to take risks and be creative in the work environment if you feel that there is a clear purpose for your ideas and if you know that you will be supported in coming up with new ideas even if some of them fail. I think that Google provides me with that sense of purpose and vision through its company mission, and it also provides a fun and supportive work environment which tends to remove some of the fear or hesitation that can come with proposing new ideas. We are all encouraged, and indeed expected, to frequently re-think our initiatives, support new ideas and accept that there will be some failures along the way. Google is famous for innovation, so when you see that its founders and other leaders achieved that by challenging themselves, making big bets and tolerating some failures, it is easy to be inspired to adopt a similar approach.

The other thing that I think helps me stay creative and forward thinking is that I’m not sure that I could manage Google’s legal support demands if I stuck to a fairly conventional approach. I think the scale and diversity of legal work at Google forces the need for innovation, as I have no choice but to come up with creative ways to ensure that my legal team can keep up with such high growth, as well as the range and scale of our product initiatives. This involves being open to any promising ideas, encouraging brainstorm sessions within the team and experimenting with various approaches. I have a great team that feels as engaged and invested as I do, so often it is a collaborative effort that leads to the more creative and innovative solutions.

For someone in your profession, is it true that you can only get “so far” with your career in Australia? Are there far more opportunities to succeed overseas? 

There are certainly great opportunities throughout the world, so being open to moving overseas will naturally increase the number of potential career opportunities.

However, I genuinely don’t think it’s true that you can only get “so far” with your career in Australia. Australia has a reputation around the world for building competitive businesses, developing best practices, and leading in certain fields, so with this comes strong career opportunities within Australia itself. I also think that measures of success can be very subjective - so whilst some roles overseas may offer greater geographical reach or larger markets, some Australian roles may offer elements which you find to be a more important measure of your own success, such as greater autonomy or greater scope to make an impact.

Although I have worked in a number of countries during my career, I can say that my overseas moves were never prompted by a feeling that my career options were limited in Australia. Rather, I have only pursued overseas opportunities in order to satisfy my personal interest in experiencing new cultures and embarking on new life adventures.

For me, I ultimately want to return to Australia and I feel positive that there will be good career opportunities back home.

Why is Singapore a good choice for Australians who are considering relocating? 

If you identify some good career opportunities in Singapore, I think it is a great country to consider as it gives Australians an opportunity to gain better insights into the Asian region, both through living in Singapore, but also through being so close for travel to many other Asian countries. Such insights should be valuable in many careers given the impressive economic potential and increasing business in various Asian markets. Singapore is also the regional hub for a range of industries, MNCs and other major companies so it provides access to a good business network.

Personally, I see Singapore as a good international choice for a bunch of non-career reasons. Living in Singapore is relatively easy: English is one of the main languages spoken, it is safe, well organised with good public transport, healthcare, outdoor life and a great range of delicious cuisines! For families, the international schools are well-regarded and the kids get the chance to study Mandarin and travel to some wonderful places around Asia. My kids really have had some tremendous experiences since living here, and whilst we miss Australia at times, I have no regrets with moving the family here.

Why do you think it’s important for Australians abroad to have access to a network of other Australians? 

I see great value in building a number of networks. As wonderful as it is to live abroad, it can be unsettling or be tiring at times to live in a country with a different culture, language or lifestyle, and it can also be more difficult to navigate new challenges. So, getting that support and guidance from a network of business and personal friends is really helpful.

I haven’t intentionally pursued an Australian network as such, but I guess it is true that it can be often easier or quicker to build connections with fellow Australians and to feel that comfort of familiarity and trust when you’re looking for support or helpful insights. I do find that I also keep in touch with many Australian contacts who move back home, so that provides me with a grounding and connection back to Australia which can also be helpful when I’m thinking about my future back home.

What’s your favourite thing to do in Singapore when you have time off? 

When I’m not working or travelling, I love having complete downtime in my quiet, very green neighbourhood, far away from the busy, high-density downtown. Just relaxing outdoors, possibly cycling along the waterways and through the park reserves with my kids, and enjoying the tropical nights with drinks with my husband and neighbours on our deck by the pool. At those moments, it feels like quite a charmed life.