At 7:45 AM on Monday the 15th, I and a bunch of really nervous-looking new employees stood together in a lobby at the Googleplex, waiting to be led in. Here are some random first-week notes while my eyes are still fresh.

This might turn into a series, because I recognize that my current employer is sort of a technology tourist attraction and people might want to read about it. On the other hand, it has a culture of very cautious communication, so I’ll have to be careful.

The John · But first I’d like to step back almost 20 years, to an occasion in the early Nineties when I was on-site at Microsoft. I noticed a pattern in the men’s rooms, time after time, like this: I’d be washing my hands or whatever, and some guy would come in, walking really fast with a look of urgency, headed straight for the fixtures. This was a guy who’d been so zoned in coding that he’d ignored his growing need till he just absolutely couldn’t any more.

Google’s like that, these days.

The Formalities · I haven’t been through that many orientation programs, but this one is very impressive. They pack in a lot of really important information while working hard (successfully in my case) to convince the people in the room that the company really cares about the incoming noobs.

Perks · Yep, the things everyone knows about, food and bikes and massage and so on; All true, and more. It’s a hell of a place to be.

Growth · Look at Google’s age in years and current size and do some arithmetic; insane growth is an everyday constant. This reality becomes obvious the instant you get behind the locked doors. Not many organizations have ever attempted to manage this much sustained growth for this time; to me it’s amazing that they manage to hold things together at all.

I now own part of the responsibility for dealing with this problem, which looks to me as big as any of the others I’ve seen so far, on either the business or technology side.

Smart Security · Sadly, that combination is rare. Enterprise veterans often come to associate “Security” and stupidity; officious second-raters who pollute your workplace and tools with ass-covering irritants that get in your way to no plausible end.

Google presents arguably the Internet’s largest attack surface. Appropriately, nobody’s talking about the volume and flavor of everyday attacks, but I bet the appropriate adjectives are “huge” and “nasty”, respectively. And those aren’t the ones that make the daily news. The people who are working on this stuff seem smart, the policies and tools appropriate, and to the (very minor) extent they’ve gotten in my way, it seems a small price to pay.

I am so totally not going to discuss any details, but wow.

The Grand Experiment · That’s what Google is. I mean, why can’t everyone lavish these sort of perks, and this sort of environment, on their employees? Well, because we’re at a weird time in the history of the growth of the Internet. At this (perhaps anomalous) point, the business leverage resulting from the focused application of human intelligence is so high that all these benefits and all this freedom, considered through a pure cold profit-and-loss lens, are cheap at the price.

Can it be replicated? Can it be grown? Can it even be sustained? Nobody knows. But I really hope somebody is studying it closely, because there are lessons here to be learned.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Nicola Larosa (Mar 23 2010, at 01:05)

> This was a guy who'd been so zoned in coding

> that he'd ignored his growing need till

> he just absolutely couldn’t any more.

Ha! I know about that one. ;-)

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From: Michael Kozakewich (Mar 23 2010, at 06:36)

It really does sound like an amazing place to work.

I wonder how many (or if) other companies have put that much effort into harnessing human intelligence.

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From: michael silverton (Mar 23 2010, at 07:55)

*Interesting observation:* "to me it’s amazing that they manage to hold things together at all." It will be interesting to learn to what extent you consider this an artifact of open source and similar collaborative code management processes, Tim.

*Brilliant assessment:* "At this (perhaps anomalous) point, the business leverage resulting from the focused application of human intelligence is so high that all these benefits and all this freedom, considered through a pure cold profit-and-loss lens, are cheap at the price." I continue to theorize that this will indeed emerge as a fundamental characteristic of the Global Cognition Grid; but yes, we need more analysis.

*Salient prognosis:* "Can it be replicated? Can it be grown? Can it even be sustained? Nobody knows. But I really hope somebody is studying it closely, because there are lessons here to be learned."

I second @Jeff Erdie's motion.

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From: Mark (Mar 23 2010, at 08:17)

"At this (perhaps anomalous) point, the business leverage resulting from the focused application of human intelligence is <em>highly effective at leaching value out of everyone else's contributions to the Internet</em>..."

Fixed it for you.

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From: Bob Haugen (Mar 23 2010, at 08:17)

> a culture of very cautious communication

Yeah, I have wondered about that. Caused problems in some processes I have been involved in (e.g. JotSpot post-acquisition and value destruction).

And I've heard complaints about Android software.

Google comes off closed rather than open sometimes.

Get a feeling that it might be changing, e.g. http://www.google.com/profiles/dclinton#buzz

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From: bb (Mar 23 2010, at 08:26)

I work for the US Department of Defense. Our organization is polluted with "officious second-raters". Second-raters might even be a little much. I think it is more like third or fourth in most cases. Around here, security trumps everything. It makes no difference that it gets in the way of basic productivity or deploying quality products. The chain of command is disinterested in typical user satisfaction metrics but will definitely hear about the most minute security infraction. e.g. an unlocked door.

To further the pain, operating systems like Windows 2000 and software like Internet Explorer 6 have been blessed by internal Information Assurance organizations as safe and secure. So, a fair bit of our software is deployed using these. It blows my mind how an organization so concerned about security uses these products. If anyone were actually concerned about our data and broke into one of these systems, the third or fourth rater would just blame Microsoft for the security infraction anyways.

Anyhoo...congratulations on working for an organization that appears to make an effort to balance security and usability.

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From: DGentry (Mar 23 2010, at 09:01)

Another interesting thing about Google culture is the 20% project. Reading about it from the outside, it sounds like every Google engineer spends 80% of their time working on an assigned project and 20% reinventing the world. In reality many Google engineers don't do a 20% project, and many of those who do work on something with very modest goals.

The real value of the 20% project seems to be in keeping engineering teams open to input from outside their immediate team. Every project at Google is comfortable with having other engineers look at, tweak, and work on their code. The project has veto power to reject inadvisable changes, but not to wall off access and ignore inputs. This isn't the case in all software development organizations, where high silo walls can be erected.

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From: berinder (Mar 23 2010, at 23:26)

Congratulations to the new job. Myself i didn't pass the on-site interviews in Jan. But only the interviews was a baffling experience.

Good luck and for gods sake, implement filters in reader as your 20... :)

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From: len (Mar 24 2010, at 06:51)

" work for the US Department of Defense. .... Around here, security trumps everything"

If it doesn't, you may be one of those second raters you're both railing about.

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From: Robert Young (Mar 24 2010, at 07:50)

The 20% projects, according to recent stories, don't really happen. It would be nice to read the ongoing progress of yours, should you be able to actually have one/some. Since you are, I assume, higher up the food chain than just any worker bee (having a position as any kind of "advocate", one assumes, is not a production position).

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From: Gary Arneson (Apr 02 2010, at 15:01)

Tim, I too am a fellow Googler and I've seen the calendar turn-over 5 times since I first walked (ran) into the Google phenomenon. You have made some great points here and I often frustrated in not being able to describe to the outside friends, family, or peers what Google is really like. It’s like taking a picture of the Grand Canyon or the Na Pali cliffs off Kauai’s North shore from the water, it just doesn’t do it justice – you have to be there to ‘get it.’ Google has accomplished something beyond their contribution to business models and the www. Google has espoused what everyone else has talked about and claimed – they’ve made human capital one of their (our) most important focus areas. Employees are revered and cherished; from the value they place of recruiting the best talent to the ongoing commitment to reward, recognize, and retain. Still do, always have, and always will. It’s an engineer’s paradise here at Google. I look forward to going to work every day, it’s not because of the lavish amenities, but the thrill of being on the field and knowing I’m doing some of my greatest work here at Google.

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March 20, 2010
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