Inside Google London
Google has harnessed the power of the internet to change our lives. But could the world's most powerful company change the way we work, too? Simon Usborne discovers the power of free beer, table football – and office dogs
Wednesday 13 May 2009
It's remarkable to think that only ten years have passed since a pair of idealistic lads in a garage set up a company that would change the way many of us live. What's more surprising is that Larry Page and Sergey Brin have achieved global domination while preserving the cuddly image that always set Google apart. Their search engine may have evolved to map the planet and spawn a swarm of products, but its breezy logo and fuzzy persona still evoke the cosy culture born in that Californian car port.
Nowhere is that ethos more visible than at Google's offices, which famously eschew the stark trappings of corporatism in favour of fun. Last week, Google released a video tour of the Googleplex, its global HQ near San Jose. "Googlers", as the company's 20,000 employees are called, can be seen cavorting on buggies and bikes, playing volleyball and downing wheatgrass shots.
If this is the face of one of the world's most recognisable brands, then it's one Google is increasingly having to protect. The company's most vocal critics paint it as a tentacled beast monopolising cyberspace and peering into our lives through our computer screens. In March, when Google launched Streetview, its bid to photograph every corner (and therefore front door) of our cities, one commentator mused that where once we Googled, now it is Googling us.
To find out what's really happening behind the revolving doors, how the Googlers-in-chiefs are answering their critics, and what these people actually do when they're not kicking back in a break-out space, The Independent took up an invitation to spend a day at Google London. Is it really the greatest place to work in the world?
The video star
The towering doors at the entrance in Victoria wouldn't look out of place at some Red Square ministry – they are distinctly un-Google and revolve slowly into a vast, echoing lobby. You have to get to the sixth floor of the shared building for the fun to begin. Google's own reception desk is replete with sweet jars and lava lamps. That's more like it.
I'm directed into the legendary canteen (more of which later), where I stock up on coffee and croissants and sit down with my first Googler of the day. Ed Sanders works on YouTube, the Google-owned video site. He loves it here. "It's an amazing place to work," he gushes. "I'm constantly staggered by the calibre of people and the culture of entrepreneurialism. It's just so exciting."
Sanders's most recent project was YouTube's Symphony Orchestra project, in which thousands of amateurs auditioned to perform a live concert at Carnegie Hall. "I don't think a project like this would have got off the ground anywhere else," Sanders says. All very communal and cute, but surely there's somebody here who hates their job?
The mind reader
Negotiating the colourful corridors that are home to branded red phone boxes, or "Googleboxes", I find Sian Townsend in her lab. Her job is to read your mind. Well, sort of. She's a researcher for Google's "user experience" team. Bright-eyed and fresh-faced, she doesn't look like a dissenter. "It's super energetic and inspiring here. It's hard not to rave abou-" . Enough! What does Townsend actually do? She whips out an iPhone to demonstrate. "I work in mobile search," she says, tapping "pizza" into the Google application. Do the same on a desktop and the Wikipedia entry for "pizza" comes top. Useless if you're out and about and hungry. First result on Townsend's phone is the Fresh Pizza Co, a local restaurant. "Because modern phones know where you are we can tailor search results,"she says.
One technique she uses to better understand how people use their phones involves recruiting volunteers to go out and get searching. "They log a diary at the end of each day and tell me about what they were thinking each time," says Townsend, who feeds results to engineers to make searching better.
All very good, but it's time to put the big questions to the big boss. Matt Brittin, a former Olympic rower, was appointed Director of Operations in March. Just days into his tenure he was plunged into the media storm that followed the launch of Streetview. I find him, still reeling, at Kew Gardens – all the rooms on this floor are named after London Underground stations linked by tube lines painted on the ceilings.
"There's an image of Google and a reality," he says, launching into a well-practised defence. "It's easy for people to say Google knows a lot about us but it's not the case. We have a thin layer of information about what you're searching for but that's it. It's also easy to paint us as a big organisation trying to penetrate every area of life, but ultimately consumers can choose to use Gmail or Google Earth or something else."
What about Google's cosy workplace ethos, which staff evangelise with sometimes cloying zeal, often inciting derision among sceptics? "God knows why there are rubber ducks on the ceiling out there," Brittin says pointing to a breakout space on the way to Earl's Court. "But what's important is recognising people don't necessarily work best sitting at a desk. Playing on the Wii or going for a run might fuel new ideas. We look after our staff so that they want to come to work."
The Gooogle geek
Speaking of which, it's lunchtime. Never has a work canteen been so enticing. Mountains of fresh salad stretch as far as the eye can see, while steaming joints of ham wait to be carved. As staff trickle in (they consult webcams from their desks to avoid the salivating queues), a chef lays out pastries that would make Escoffier drool. And it's all free! I make a beeline for the sushi counter and take a seat with Dave Burke.
As an engineer, Burke ought to be every inch the Google geek but with his sharp suit jacket, he looks more like a contemporary Don Draper from "Mad Men". I don't even bother asking him what he thinks of this place – he's too busy wolfing down a free smoked salmon sandwich. But Burke knows about the work ethos. Between mouthfuls, he demonstrates a tool he conceived during what's known in Googlespeak as "20 per cent time" – the day in the week staff are encouraged to devote to their own projects (it gave rise to Gmail and Google News).
Without touching his phone's screen, he raises it to his ear and says "pictures of the Empire State building." By the time Burke lowers the handset, images of the skyscraper have appeared. Burke programmes phones to recognise the particular movement we use to raise them to our ear, as sensed by the position-detecting accelerometers built into most new devices. The motion triggers the voice-activated search.
The brain feeder
After the lunchtime rush dies down, it's time to meet the man who feeds 600 hungry Googlers. Adrian Evans is head chef and honed his skills at some of London's top restaurants. His brief: to nourish brains. This must be one of the only canteens in Britain without chips. "We also put the desserts at the end of the line so there's no space on people's trays by the time they get there." Evans's canteen is the site of TGIF (Thank Google it's Friday). Fridges of beer are padlocked in preparation for the event, where the pool cues come out and musicians are invited to perform.
The canine consultant
Grabbing a chocolate éclair on my way out (cannily side-stepping the chef's "full tray" approach to healthy eating) I prepare to re-enter the real world. First, though, the games room for a round of table football. Or ping pong, or a jam on Guitar Hero, or a bash on the Wii. There's also an electric piano, where a Googler called Lee says he writes songs during his lunch hour. What's wrong with an M&S sandwich and a packet of a crisps on a park bench?
Time to go. On my way out, I bump into a Googler called Elwood. He's wearing his security pass, complete with passport photo, on a collar round his neck. That's because he's a dog. He belongs to a chap called Ash. What's Elwood's job title? "General Morale Booster," Ash says. It's a cutesy coda to a day in which I almost feel as if I've been thrown into a Google washing machine. Perhaps I've been shielded from the reputed sinister underbelly of this beast of the internet, but I leave secretly wishing I were a Googler. It would be worth it just for the canteen.
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