Another Side of Google

The highlight of my experience at this year’s Search Engine Strategies Conference in San Jose was a personally guided tour of the Googleplex. This, and the Google Dance, helped me break past earlier assumptions to see what all the fuss is about.

Avinash Kaushik led myself, Li Evans and Bill Slawski on a tour Wednesday afternoon. While there, we were permitted to eat lunch with Google employees and ask Avinash lots of questions. He’s an extraordinary host and open minded, with a sense of humor, frankness and warmth that put me instantly at ease. We weren’t allowed to take pictures but we were welcomed everywhere we went.

Food

There are over a dozen cafeterias. A few are focused on a food type by country or preference, such as vegetarian. Ingredients used in food preparation are of the highest possible quality and must meet strict health standards. Therefore, you’ll find organic, low calorie, whole foods and other food in their most natural, original state (such as sprouts), no trans fat, and sugar-free choices throughout the entire campus.

In addition to cafeterias, there are sections of food closer to working areas stuffed with fruit, water, juices, and healthy snacks and even some fun stuff of every conceivable kind. I felt like I was with Willie Wonka in the candy factory. Avinash turned us on to the best toffee candy I’ve ever had in my life.

All food is free. There are no cash registers. When we went to lunch in one of the cafeterias, I went down the vegetarian line with Avinash. There were salads and creations I’d never seen before, with mixtures of ingredients I never imagined you could put together. Every bite was heaven. Bill found some cookies he loved and shared with me. Avinash found more. Every liquid, from water to coffee, is of the best quality.

As we sat there, surrounded by employees, I never once felt out of place or like a visitor. They never stared at us, or gave me the impression we weren’t welcome. I’ve never worked anywhere that welcomed visitors with open hearts like this.

Li had spotted ice cream with the name “Google” on it. Avinash told us that Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had come across ice cream sandwiches that they really liked and wished to offer them to Google employees. However, when they looked at the ingredients, they went back to the ice cream maker and asked if they would make a version with no trans fat for Google employees. The ice cream maker agreed and packages them up with “Google” on the label so they know where to ship them.

Work

Everyone knows that getting into Google can be harsh. The interview process is long and intense. Essentially, only college educated, top of class people are sought after. I was interested in Avinash’s thoughts on this. We discussed how many talented people exist who are self taught or whose passion and expertise came later in life, long after their formal education years. Someone like me would never be hired by Google because I don’t have a degree. And yet I’ve accomplished so much without one.

Managing employees is vastly different than how companies are traditionally run. With Google, you’re there because they recognize something in you that they know will grow, take root and likely blossom into something that will enhance the greater product. To do this means not managing or even scheduling you.

If your creativity comes out late at night, Google is open. Bring your laundry and do it while you’re there. Bring your pet. Run out to play volleyball to clear your head. Ride any of the bikes that are free for transportation between buildings or just to get your heart rate going. There’s no clock. Nobody is controlling your time. Grab a massage chair and chill.

Every tech company I ever worked for had an IT help department that forgot the meaning of the word “help”. Not Google. If you need a part, plug, cable, or piece of equipment you simply go to the area in the building where they keep the stuff and get what you need, instantly.

There are no “cube farms”, but rather dorm-like areas where several people work together in a shared space. They can make this space their own, in any way they wish to. We saw a lot of creativity and humor everywhere we walked.

Google is so big on education that speakers are brought in on a frequent basis. Topics are all over the place, including religion and politics. There’s a wall with pictures of famous actors and actresses, politicians, sports people and others who have visited. I asked why their interest and Avinash said that people hear so much about Google life that they ask to see it for themselves.

Usability

It’s there. The funniest part of the tour, for me, was when I joked that I wanted to breathe the same air as the usability folks at Google. And so Avinash let me do that. Before he covered my eyes so I wouldn’t see anything long enough to remember it, I had a brief moment to learn enough to be satisfied that Google cares as deeply as I do about the human experience. It’s something I’ll keep in mind now, whenever I get angry at Google for something I think is unfair, invasive or too close for comfort.

Walk The Talk

In addition to caring what goes into the bodies of Google employees, Google also strives to exist on this planet in peace, in a non-invasive way. Solar panels are going up everywhere with the intent on generating 30% of their own power. Shuttles transport employees home and elsewhere so they can save on cars and gas. Hybrid and electric cars are encouraged, with the parking lots being converted so that employees can plug in their electric car. Bikes are used to travel between buildings. This year they’ve started an herb and veggie garden. In the early morning the chef’s can be seen picking what they need for the day.

Loyalty

Turnover is low at Google. News leaks are nearly unheard of because of the extremely close-knit camaraderie that exits. Yes, nearly everyone I saw was younger than me but I doubt age is a physical thing there. The spirit of the place was youthful, robust, friendly and joyful. I can’t recall ever working anywhere where employees were happy.

It can’t last forever. There’s a sense of utopia at Google. It’s hard to imagine ever leaving an employer like Google. We don’t get to hear the bad stuff on a tour of course, but after seeing heated toilets and someone swimming laps in one of the lap pools, I didn’t want to. The fairy tale felt so good to believe in.

I realized that at Google, if you want to create something big, beautiful, perfect and long lasting, you must begin at the source of the creative energies. This energy must be fortified, nurtured and supported at every turn. It must be acknowledged and valued. It must know it is honored and will be rewarded with even more comforts.

Google does this by starting with the humans who build its gigantic search brain. By taking care of their people, the Google product is defended, protected, grown and nourished.

It’s an exercise in spoiling your employees that will be fun to watch unfold.

8 thoughts on “Another Side of Google”

  1. I’m not one to fawn over any particular company, but with all of the Google-bashing lately, it’s nice to read a piece that reminds us of why they made it to the top. There’s still a lot other large companies can learn from Google.

  2. I work for Google. It is indeed pretty nice. What you say about requiring a degree is wrong though. I work for a division of engineering that ignores degrees as a matter of policy. I know many Googlers who don’t have degrees.

    I believe lacking a degree is not an impediment to working for Google (as an engineer!) but it might be a problem if you want to work in, say, sales or marketing, where it’s harder to find the best by asking interview questions so we have to rely more on traditional ways to classify people.

  3. “Essentially, only college educated, top of class people are sought after.”

    And there is the root cause of some of the well-deserved angst that is often directed at Google.

    Google sees something that, in their view, needs to be fixed so they go ahead and fix the ‘problem’ without even thinking about what the affect might be on those who rely on Google for so much.

    The Google updates of a few years ago that always seemed to happen just before Christmas and had such a huge impact on so many small online merchants is a perfect example. When I challenged one of Google’s mouthpieces about the timing and impact of those changes the only defence he had was that “it had to be done sometime”

    Google desperately needs some people with real-world experience in there and not just a bunch of air-heads who get everything done for them by their employer.

  4. Mike, really! This is the first time I’ve heard a differing statement by anyone, inc. Google employees themselves.

    So perhaps there is no rule of thumb standard applied across the board, but rather a dept by dept, or case by case basis.

    Good to know, if true. :)

  5. One of the best people I work with on a daily basis doesn’t have a traditional computer science degree. And hey, I went to Kentucky and North Carolina (Chapel Hill) for grad school, so I’m not sure I buy the “Google only hires ivy league folks” belief either.

    P.S. It was really great to talk to you in person. Congrats on the Cre8asite forum reaching five years!

  6. So Matt. What you and Mike are saying is that I was an idiot to politely decline THREE attempts by Google to talk to them?

    The rumor/myth/stories about needing to be academically perfect to speak Googleeze may be stopping other people from even trying too.

    Sigh.

    This gives me great food for thought. Usability, user experience and human factors all tap into user expectations, visitor beliefs and customer satisfaction/trust.

    While Google puts in tremendous power and skill into their product, they struggle like the rest of us with reputation management. It hurts everything from visitor experience to potential hiring.

    Thank you for the feedback. :)

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