“Nice” is often used when one has nothing else to say about another person. But not Martin Geh, who is as close to the embodiment of Mr Nice Guy as it gets. The man is a rare individual who is liked by everyone with whom he has crossed paths.
It helps that he and his wife, Kathryn, are known as consummate hosts. He is an accomplished cook who whips up scrumptious crowd-pleasing feasts in a world where people claim all manner of dietary preferences from vegan to paleo and ketogenic. A tip from Geh: “I cook what I love to eat and I like fat, which has an unfairly bad rep. I think fat adds flavour. Natural fat — including butter, avocado, animal fat and cheese — is good.” His guests, regardless of food restrictions, seem to agree too.
More than that, he possesses an easy-going demeanour and friendly disposition that immediately make others around him feel as if they’ve known him for a long time. Despite feeling under the weather, the managing director of Google’s Asia Pacific Hardware Partnerships shows up at 9am on a Monday morning for his appointment with Prestige. Looking every bit the modern tech savant in a navy long-sleeved T-shirt, slim-fit Superdry jeans, Adidas sneakers and tortoiseshell glasses, Geh settles into an airy, cheerful meeting room at the company’s headquarters in Mapletree Business City, all ready for a wide-ranging interview and cover shoot.
How it all began
Born in Penang, Geh was interested enough in computers to learn coding when he was 16, but actually planned to become a Wall Street banker when he graduated. As a student at Lewis & Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, in the US, he struck up a close relationship with a college professor, who wrote him recommendation letters that landed him interviews at major financial firms in New York City.
In 1987, after a part-time stint for Intel while in university, the tech giant offered him a full-time position. “I thought, a bird in the hand versus two in the bush,” says Geh, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Business and Economics. “Being a typical good Chinese boy, I took the bird in the hand, anxious about not wanting to continue being a financial burden to my parents. Plus, working and living in the US would be the start of my American dream.”
Two years into the job, he was asked to relocate to Asia to help the company establish itself in the region. He says, “I had just started the process for my green card; why would I go back to Asia?” Still, he agreed to move to Singapore after his boss promised to recall him back to Oregon after the two-year stint.
“When I arrived, there was so much happening. The industry was booming and there were so many opportunities and interesting people to meet. Whenever I returned to Oregon, I’d look around and thought to myself it really was more interesting in Asia,” he says.
The rest, as they say, is history. He went on to work for Intel for over 10 years, before assuming leadership roles with global companies in Asia including Apple, Lucent and Logitech. The Singapore permanent resident has lived here happily for 27 years: “If I connect the dots backwards, each time I thought I had a plan, what really happened would be different. You can plan anything you want but you have to be prepared to let life lead.”
Answering Google’s call
At 53, and sporting a neat salt-and-pepper crop, he stands out from the hordes of millennials roaming Google’s stylish open-concept office in search of a freshly pulled latte and an inspiring workspace for the day — for his depth of experience in an industry that’s only recently been deemed “cool”.
With a career spanning 27 years in technology and telecoms, he has also seen how nerds evolved from social pariahs into aspirational figures for the next generation. “Companies like Google and others have brought to the fore the importance of technical skills such as engineering, science, math and coding. This has helped to correct some of the misperceptions pertaining to ‘geeks’, who haven’t always had a positive image,” Geh says. “The young people I know now are proud of being geeky. Today, geeks are in demand and have social capital.”
Indeed, his four daughters and a son, who range in ages from 20 to 26, were chuffed when they learnt he’d been hired by Google, widely regarded as among the world’s best companies to work at, four years ago. “On my first day, I was given a Noogler hat, and they laughed so hard when I brought it home,” he says, a mischievous glint in his eyes. For the uninitiated, it is a brightly coloured cap with a propeller on the top. It is given to new employees (or Nooglers), who have to put it on, even if for a brief moment.
Jokes about quirky initiation rites aside, Geh is on a mission at Google. As the head of the company’s hardware business in Asia-Pacific, his responsibility is to launch its products including Pixel phones, Home smart speakers, Wi-Fi mesh routers, Chromecast streaming devices and others through key carrier and retail partners in the region.
Compared to companies such as Apple and Samsung, Google has only gone big on hardware over the last two to three years. Before that, it concentrated on developing software and services such as Gmail or Photos. The move into hardware was inspired by the rapid developments in machine learning technology, which gave Google a ripe opportunity to create products that harness the full potential of smart devices in daily life, Geh explains.
“The way people interact with devices has changed a lot from desktop computers to phones. Now, other than typing or using a screen, you can use your voice to ask for information and get accurate answers quickly. This is only possible because we are in a new age where you can see the convergence of software, artificial intelligence and hardware for the first time,” he says. “Mankind can now produce devices that are far more unique and useful than before and Google believes that to bring these concepts and visions to reality, we should do it first to show how it can be done.”
He is aware that his words might sound lofty. So he whips out his Pixel 2 XL smartphone, which launched in Singapore last November, for a quick demonstration. That it is sleek and ergonomically designed is a given, but it is how the phone functions that impresses. He squeezes the sides of the device with one palm to activate Google Assistant, the company’s virtual personal assistant, which features a wide range of capabilities compared to many of its competitors in the market. He can tell it to take a timed selfie, carry out a “conversation” that sounds natural to human ears and, yes, even speak in Singlish. That localised language feature, he beams proudly, was programmed into Assistant for the Pixel’s launch here last year.
Those with even just a passing interest in the evolution of computing technology might see parallels between how Geh views the role of devices and how Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs revolutionised the industry. It is no surprise that Jobs may be the only one Geh names when asked about famous personalities he looks up to — or is inspired by. “It is hard to choose a role model unless he or she has exceeded my expectations,” he explains.
Still, a 45-minute meeting with Jobs in 1999 was enough to leave a lasting impression on him. When Geh was approached by Apple to join its operations in Asia, he flew to the company’s global headquarters in Cupertino, Silicon Valley, to speak with the man himself. It was an unconventional job interview, to say the least.
“Steve did a lot of the talking; they don’t call him the greatest salesman in the world for nothing,” says Geh, who vividly remembers Jobs wearing shorts and slippers and speaking with his feet on the table. “It was him talking about the future of Apple and what he wanted to do with the company.”
At that time, the iPhone was years from being invented and Jobs had just rejoined the company he founded, which was struggling to hold its own against Microsoft. But Geh, a long-time user of Mac computers, jumped at the opportunity to work with Jobs at Apple. During his two years as managing director at Apple Asia Pacific, Geh launched and established a new range of computer systems and software including OS X, iTunes and iPod.
Looking back on his encounter with Jobs, Geh shares, “I could tell he was different. He cared about things others never really talked about — he asked about material, design and colour. He wasn’t about the bits, bytes and megahertz; he was about how things could come together and how people could use technology differently in ways that were new.”
Living life in tech
Almost two decades later, Geh is indeed living the technological dream through Google inventions. His home is (but of course) set up with a full suite of smart devices, which he agrees has made some aspects of his life easier.
He opens the Google Wifi app on his phone to show how he monitors his network at home, including the number of devices connected to it and if any are malfunctioning. “It can even prompt the family to come to dinner by pausing the Internet service on some devices,” he adds, with a laugh.
Geh’s personal favourite is Google Home; he has the smart speaker installed in his kitchen. When he is busy with food prep, he simply speaks to the device to get it to perform tasks such as set the oven timer, locate a recipe or even change the music.
“Experiences like these change the paradigm of how you use technology,” he says. “We like to take a fundamentally complex technology and deliver it in a way that is easy to use, understand and help people get things done. Being user-friendly is something that’s been talked about since day one but it is hard to achieve. But over time, as technology improves, you don’t have to worry about learning about it; it comes to you. That’s what I tell my mother.”
Watch our video interview with Martin Geh to find out how important technology is to him.