Big Tech: How Google tackles trade

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You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone as enthusiastic about trade as Cristhian Rodriguez, Google’s Global Trade Automation Lead and EMEA Head of Trade Compliance.

His role is to ensure that the tech giant’s cutting-edge products are distributed to consumers without any hassles and through the use of optimal procedures and technologies. It’s a task that he carries out with great passion, proving that a job in compliance can, in fact, be anything but boring.  

Q: What does each of your two roles at Google entail?

Rodriguez: As Head of EMEA Trade Compliance, I’m responsible for the import and export of Google’s hardware for our consumers. Within Google we have different businesses, such as YouTube, Search, and so on, and I belong to the Devices & Services business. Google produces very cool hardware, like the Nest Thermostat, the Home speaker, and the Stadia controller, and our responsibility is to get these into the hands of the users. 

In this role, I manage a team of trade compliance specialists – I call them my ‘rock stars’ – and we ensure that all compliance legislation is met as we distribute products to our distributors and on to the consumer though our e-commerce channel. 

My other role is Global Trade Automation Lead. One of my responsibilities is to research emerging technologies, such as blockchain, machine learning, AI and so on, and adapt these to our processes around the supply chain in order to optimise our shipping procedures, importation, exportation and coordination between stakeholders. 

One of the things I’m leading at the moment is the blockchain pilot, which is looking at how we can leverage blockchain to improve trust, communication and accuracy between different stakeholders to streamline imports and exports. We’re also looking at how to use machine learning to improve the classification process of goods. Our focus is on leveraging technology to make these processes easier and to eliminate the need to do it manually. 

So my role is really about the combination of the compliance piece – ensuring that we are doing the right thing – as well as technology – seeing what is new out there – and bringing the two together to confidently say that ‘this is the best way to deliver the products to our customers’.

Q: What are some of the complexities you deal with on a day-to-day basis?

Rodriguez: What I like about global trade is that it’s super dynamic. There are so many things happening around the world right now: we have Brexit here in Europe, which is changing the dynamic between the markets and how you can import goods; and then we have the trade war between China and the US, which is changing how companies trade in those geographies too. 

I think the main challenge is how to keep up when everything keeps changing. Regardless of what happens, you need to be able to respond quickly, be agile, and deliver to customers. 

Q: How do you keep up to date on what’s happening in the market and in terms of new developments in trade digitalisation? 

Rodriguez: I’m super passionate about trade, and I love learning. I make use of multiple sources. Sometimes my learning is more formal, so I’m currently studying an online course about blockchain at Oxford. But then less formally I go to conferences and networking events and talk to people about what’s happening in the industry, and the new technologies that are out there. I also read a lot and deep dive into these topics on the web. If I feel that I need something more professional then I will look into courses, certifications, etc. There is information everywhere: on the web alone there are edX courses, Coursera, Lynda and multiple videos. Every year I challenge myself to learn more.

But it’s not all about hard knowledge, it’s also about understanding the meaning of what you want to accomplish and being flexible and open enough to understand why things are going a certain way and anticipating where they might go next. 

In global trade everything is so standardised on a global basis – you have legislation from the WTO, WCO, and so on, but at the same time, every country applies it differently. So the main challenge is being able to understand what it all means and being able to adapt that to the particularities of different countries, companies and industries.

Q; How has your career path led you to where you are today?

Rodriguez: I always wanted to have a career that allowed me to interact with different people and cultures and to travel the world – and it turns out that that career is international trade. 

I started my career as a consultant in customs and global trade at Deloitte in my home country of Mexico. The role was perfect for me as it allowed me to be part of different industries and projects. We had clients like Nike and Honda looking to import products into Mexico, for example. It was fascinating to see how different trade can be depending on the specific industry.

I then moved to Europe to study a Master’s degree in global supply chain and logistics management to specialise my knowledge. From there I had an opportunity to do an internship at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the major pharmaceutical companies, where one of the challenges was how to ship vaccines to hospitals. So the challenge wasn’t just about shipping products, but shipping products that can save lives. It was so interesting to see how one’s skills can be applied for different industries. 

I’ve always been passionate about technology, so from there I joined Amazon, the e-commerce juggernaut super obsessed with customers – and I loved it. My time in Amazon just totally changed my way of thinking. Everything there was about making history: doing things that people thought were impossible, innovating in the industry, and pushing ourselves to be the first. 

My role at Amazon was as import and export program manager – so the importation and exportation of the product. But when you’re talking about Amazon, you’re talking about every kind of product you can imagine. And we were responsible for ensuring all those products arrived in the hands of the customer. 

It’s always been my dream to work at Google. To be part of this company, to have a powerful mission to spread information and make it universally available to people is just awesome. Being part of this process of taking the best hardware and delivering it to the users, who can then utilise it to express themselves and make their lives easier is great.

Q: How do you think that young professionals working in trade and trade finance can adopt the same progressive mindset that you have – even though the companies they work for might not be as open-minded?

Rodriguez: It’s funny – every time I tell someone that I’m in compliance, they say ‘oh it must be boring right?’ It’s the expectation of the field. 

Yes, Google has the flexibility which other companies may not have. But companies become successful when they optimise things, change things and challenge what’s happening – and that is your role as a professional. 

So if you go to a company and just try and fit in and adapt to the processes, then what’s the value in that? I like to quote Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.”

When I joined Google I was given freedom and I took the direction I wanted to. Sure, we need to do rudimentary tasks. But it’s also about figuring out how to automate those tasks. That’s my responsibility: if I don’t like this activity, or it is very manual or it takes a lot of time or resources, how can I make it better? 

You can use that mindset to shape your career. Because it’s no use sticking with the current process just for the sake of it.

Q: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Rodriguez: When you choose a career or a job, the most important thing is the purpose and the passion. It’s important that you feel like you can bring your skills and knowledge and do something that you like to do and that you really value, like helping people or businesses grow. For me it’s about seeing the reaction of the customer – that is the best, most rewarding thing. 

Throughout my career I have loved every company that I have worked for and in each instance I have learned a lot. One of the things I learned is that I want to be myself, and some companies have allowed me to express myself, to bring my culture, my values and my personality to work. 

At Google the idea of ‘let’s change the world together’ really inspires me. I recommend always pursuing your passion and purpose, and when you achieve that by doing what you love, that’s the most gratifying feeling of all. 

Q: What’s your view on trade finance as a career? 

Rodriguez: I would like to highlight the importance of the trade finance industry. 

I think trade finance is an interesting field, but I understand the problem of trying to recruit young people and to make it interesting for them. 

The way I think about it is as follows: finance is vital – we have a lot of SMEs who really require access to credit. And we need to enable those companies to do business and join global trade. It’s not only about the big companies, it’s about enabling the entrepreneurs and small companies to trade with the world. And that is the opportunity that the trade finance specialists can bring to the table. How do you link these companies to rich buyers in other countries; how do you enable transactions without companies ever meeting and being able to build trust; and how do you ensure that companies’ sales can be compliant in the destination country and ensure goods are delivered in an optimum way? 

So, if I were a young professional in trade finance, I think that would be my inspiration and purpose: figuring out how to enable entrepreneurs to achieve their dream of building a business. 

Q: What advice would you give to trade finance young professionals interested in a career at a Big Tech? Are their skills transferable?

Rodriguez: When it comes to putting yourself forward for something, people suffer from imposter syndrome and are often so quick to say ‘I cannot do it’. And sometimes we don’t even try. When you talk about entering a career in Big Tech – or in whatever field you are passionate about – the first thing we need to do is to shift that mindset and say yes, we can do it. When people tell me they want to work in Google, I say ‘well, you can work in Google’. So my first advice for your professionals is you can do it. Start with that. 

Then it’s the how. You definitely have to have hard skills. But I also like to focus more on the intrinsic stuff. Talent we can develop: I can teach you how to code, and how to ship, but if you lack inspiration, passion, energy, those characteristics are very difficult to impart. It’s difficult to encourage people who have great skills but no motivation. 

Definitely all the skills are transferable. I’ve worked in different industries: I started with Deloitte in the apparel industry and then moved into the automotive industry and then into pharma. But they all have the same objective in that they want to make their customers happy, and sell products. Once you understand the needs, you can adapt them to different industries.

Certainly if you know how to manage a project and how to communicate well, skills like these are important – the rest you can learn over time.

Q: How do you see trade evolving in the future? 

Rodriguez: When I was studying international business, one of my teachers said: ‘We may not need trade professionals in the future because we are all about globalisation, and we will have agreements between all the countries, and the flow of goods will move freely.’ I was like, ‘ok!’ But I pursued my studies anyway.

Fast-forward to today and access to markets is still really difficult – the protectionism in some markets is just becoming stronger, and this is changing the dynamics of how we can sell goods and services. 

I’m so excited to be part of the trade world because of all of this change and because it’s forcing me to learn a lot. And now we really need people who are experienced in global trade, and who are able to understand the particularities of exchanging goods, services and money between countries. And at the same time, we have this incredible opportunity – the fourth industrial revolution – where there are so many emerging technologies trying to optimise the processes. 

There’s so much to do, and we definitely need to reach out to more people to get involved in this.

I think the most successful companies will be those that leverage the technology to facilitate connections between people, companies and countries.