While many kids her age were playing with a Cabbage Patch Kid or a Pound Puppy, Sara Ciarelli Walsh has different memories of a childhood in 1985: lying on the floor with her brother, poring over the atlas that came with their encyclopedia set.
It’s a fitting memory for Ciarelli Walsh, who serves as a director, legal at Google, and spoke to us in her individual capacity and not on behalf of Google. Although she’s been with the software giant since 2010, Ciarelli Walsh is now responsible for leading the attorneys who counsel Google’s Geo organization, which works on services like Google Maps, Google Earth, Waze, and other useful and popular services.
Today, Ciarelli Walsh is flourishing. The attorney, known as a veteran leader and a compassionate advisor, develops high-performing teams that deliver consistent results for a top tech company. But the Long Island native didn’t necessarily follow the traditional career path. Ciarelli Walsh started as a litigator-turned-antitrust lawyer and developed a map of her own to reach her desired destination atop a corporate legal team.
While it may not be one of the essential Latin phrases most lawyers know, “Sunt Dracones” has a special meaning for someone in Ciarelli Walsh’s position. The two words mean “Here be dragons.” Medieval cartographers once scribbled it on the mysterious regions of a map, the spots where monsters, enemies, or other threats could lurk.
At Google Maps, one can never predict what lies ahead.
Over the last four years since she took on her new role, Ciarelli Walsh and her small-but-mighty team of seven have been helping Google optimize, update, and improve its many products and services like Maps, Street View, and Waze that use mapping technologies. For Ciarelli Walsh, it’s all about protecting the company as it pursues its goals.
“We have a lot of competition for all of our products, which makes balancing innovation and risk very important,” she explains.
Making a map, even when you have Google’s resources, is difficult work. “We all like to hop in our car and go somewhere, but it’s not easy to replicate everything that exists on a global scale in a way that stays accurate when the world is changing every second of the day,” says Walsh.
It’s not just unexpected road detours and changing business hours that the team is up against. They’re also contending with international conflicts, global pandemics, and a steady stream of regulations. As a lawyer for Google Maps, Ciarelli Walsh must help Google make careful choices under intense pressure.
Google Maps now exists in more than 250 countries and territories. It tracks 200 million business and places, boasts more than 1 billion active users per month, and powers numerous products supported by the Google Maps platform.
Shortly after Ciarelli Walsh took the reins, Google and her team had to navigate the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, users needed specific details to know with certainty whether pharmacies located inside retail stores were open on a given day and time.
“Our decision making has always been guided by a balance of utility versus the potential of harm,” she says. Google rolled out many COVID-19 updates to provide useful updates for merchants and consumers so that information could be as accurate as possible. The company also released community mobility reports to help government officials make decisions about their communities.
We asked Sara Ciarelli Walsh about her favorite maps feature. Here’s what she had to say:
Other events have put the dangers of broadcasting live traffic information in the spotlight. On February 24, 2022, users around the world watched an unusually heavy stream of traffic heading to Belgorod, Russia. The city on the Seversky Donets River sits less than thirty miles north of its border with Ukraine; users were watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion in real time. Google temporarily disabled its traffic layer in the region for the safety of civilians living in nearby communities.
Ciarelli Walsh didn’t originally set out to lead a critical product team for a major tech company. She pivoted from her dream of pursuing the arts and instead attended law school, discovering a passion for antitrust law after working as a litigator as a law firm associate. Firm life prepared her to go in-house, and her tenure as a competition counsel gave her legacy knowledge she now relies on at Google.
Although Ciarelli Walsh’s role has changed, the top themes remain the same: she’s still thinking most about content regulation, privacy, and competition law. The sheer volume of laws passed and the work to be done can seem daunting, but Ciarelli Walsh relies on the dedicated legal professionals by her side. Together, they make tough choices while focusing on user needs. “If you help your clients build the best product possible, you will get where you need to go regardless of regulatory headwinds,” she says.
How does Ciarelli Walsh deal with the influx of work that never seems to stop? She’s made “ruthless prioritization” her motto. The simple phrase is the north star that will lead Ciarelli Walsh and her colleagues to success in 2024 and beyond.