My first week at Google

This is the personal blog of Ben Collins-Sussman.

Context: I sent this email to my wife and friends as I was wrapping up my first week of "noogler" orientation at Google's headquarters in 2005. It's a bit of a glimpse into Silicon Valley at the start of its peak 'creative culture' era.

September 25, 2005

From: Ben

You know those sci-fi books where, if you work for The Firm, you end up living in perfect utopian communities, your every need satisfied... while the rest of humanity wallows in slums? This experience is creepily similar.

Note: as far as I know, none of the things I descibe below are confidential. These facts are all either described on public Google websites, or are independently verifiable by visiting Google's campus as a guest or as part of a tour group. In any case, if I suddenly disappear in the middle of the night, you'll know why...

So I headed out to my first week of training at Google. The campus is huge... several large buildings in Moutain View, built by SGI in the early 90's back when they were the 'hot company'. The buildings are spacious, and if you don't want to travel all the way across campus on foot, you can always hop on one of the many motorized scooters or segways to buzz around.

The words that best describe Google HQ are "university campus". Thousands (literally) of engineers walking around, sharing ideas, mulling in the halls and between buildings. Three separate cafeterias, on-site gym with trainers, swimming pools, laundry. All free. There's also on-site masseuses and oil changes, heavily subsidized.

What they say about the free food is absolutely true: it's not just cafeteria food, it's good food. They've hired famous chefs, and so the lunches and dinners are all pseudo-gourmet. Here's a sample of last weeks' menu (Thursday's lunch and dinner):

Phew! Now imagine this sort of stuff being available all day long, in addition to mini-kitchens every 100 feet permanently stocked with fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, candy, chips, snacks, espresso, coffee, tea, milk, and 27 types of carbonated drinks.

The sheer quantity of food makes for a near-toxic environment, if you love food like I do. It's really hard to resist snacking constantly. I managed to eat way too much the first couple of days, got sick, then had to very carefully measure my intake the rest of the week. I felt like a mouse with infinite cheese laid before me. No wonder they have personal trainers in the gym! Instead of gaining the 'freshman 15' in college, everyone at Google talks about gaining the "first year 20".

We had a big outdoor BBQ last Friday, and the Food Network TV guys came to film the party and the chefs. My coworker took some photos on her phone, so I could show you guys:

BBQ photos

But enough about the food, let's talk about the culture.

Most software companies are driven by management. Folks in suits (marketeers and middle-management) talk to customers, figure out what they want, then tell the programmers what to write, usually through several levels of chain-of-command. It's not uncommon for two programmers sitting next to each other to not even know what the other is working on.

Google is the opposite: it's like a giant grad-school. Half the programmers have PhD's, and everyone treats the place like a giant research playground. While the company is hush-hush to the outside world, it's 100% open on the inside. Everyone knows what everyone is doing, everyone is working on pet projects. Every once in a while, a manager skims over the bubbling activity, looking for products to "reap" from the creative harvest. The programmers completely drive the company, it's really amazing. I kept waiting for people to walk up to me and ask me if I had declared my major yet. They not only encourage personal experimentation and innovation, they demand it. Every programmer is required to spend 20% of their time working on random personal projects. If you get overloaded by a crisis, then that 20% personal time accrues anyway. Nearly every Google technology you know (maps, earth, gmail) started out as somebody's 20% project, I think.

Needless to say, in the process of talking to people and taking 'classes', I was exposed to many amazing technologies. I'm rather stunned at the things going on inside Google... I wonder if the Pentagon will be able to keep up! This is truly the cutting edge -- bleeding edge -- of computer science research. Every technology that Google releases to the public is heavily tested internally first, so I got to spend the week testing a bunch of incredible things that the world hasn't yet seen, which is really exciting.

Even the IT department works differently. In every building, there are little offices called "tech stops". They sort of look like miniature computer stores. If you have a problem with your computer, just walk it right into the tech stop and show a technician. They generally help you on the spot. If you need hardware, just ask. "Hey, I need a new mouse"... "sure, what kind would you like?", says the tech, opening a cabinet full of peripherals. No bureaucracy, no forms, no requests. Just ask for hardware, and get it. The same goes for office supplies... cabinets full of office supplies everywhere, always stocked full. Just take what you need, whenever you feel like it.

Tomorrow I'll be settling into the Chicago office, which is mostly salespeople. Still, the techstop guys told me that my new Linux machine (with TWO 24" flat-panel monitors) is ready and waiting for me... standard equipment for programmers, I'm told. The techstop guys also gave me something called an "ipass", which is a piece of software that allows me to use wireless internet in essentially every wi-fi-hotspot in the country: every Starbucks, coffee shop, airport, etc. Google foots the bill for it.

All in all, I guess this is the result of a company that has more money than they possibly know what to do with. I wonder how long this utopian "do no evil" culture can last. Wealth creates power, and power corrupts. And boy, have I seen a lot of power this last week.

"May you live in interesting times."