Google is watching you

Hackers who try to get into the search engine's programs are more likely to get headhunted than receive a criminal record. Three web junkies tell Alan Docherty about their 'trials'
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The last thing Jon Barker expected was fan mail from a Google vice-president, which arrived after the software programmer from Woking fell in love with Gmail - a web-mail service that finds any message an account owner has sent or received - and hacked into the system.

The last thing Jon Barker expected was fan mail from a Google vice-president, which arrived after the software programmer from Woking fell in love with Gmail - a web-mail service that finds any message an account owner has sent or received - and hacked into the system.

Barker always believed Gmail was "revolutionary" but thought it needed a few tweaks. The problem, as he saw it, was that e-mail messages sent to Gmail could only be viewed online. So he wrote a program called Pop Goes the Gmail, which allows e-mail messages saved on users' Gmail accounts to be downloaded on to a personal computer. Using tricks he learned from analysing Gmail and breaking some of the strict rules that Google had set up to protect the new product, Barker created a software product that was downloaded for free by tens of thousands of people, and he even made several hundred pounds from users who donated money to his PayPal account.

The trial webmail service into which Barker had hacked promises to be bigger and better than any other. Launched on 1 April 2004, it was considered such an incredible offer - with a gigabyte of storage - that some people wrote it off as an April Fool's joke. Invitations to use the service were limited and Barker had to bid on eBay, where it cost him £20.

Eager new Gmail users rallied to Barker's program; in doing so they bypassed the adverts that Google placed on Gmail, which were supposed to help fund the service. Barker was well aware that in producing his program he had broken Gmail's terms and conditions. "The terms of service [for Gmail] forbid reverse engineering - which I had done," Barker says. Then the first e-mail from Google appeared in his account. "The vice-president of development wrote saying he was impressed. I was expecting a lawsuit rather than congratulations." And it got better when he received another message from Google asking if he was looking for a job.

Google has ruthlessly guarded its pet project, limiting the beta version to a small number of users who are occasionally allowed to invite others. On the Net, however, it's difficult for owners to maintain the integrity of their digital products, so it didn't take long before Gmail users started meddling with Google's baby. The Gmail invitations became hot property, changing hands for more than £100 in one instance. Google responded by threatening those who sold the invitations with suspension from the service.

Elias Torres is another early Gmail user. He too was frustrated that he had to log in to Gmail every time he wanted to check whether he had mail, so he wrote an application called GTray, in a couple of evenings, which can check users' accounts and alert them to any new messages.

Torres posted the software on his blog and started receiving 20,000 hits a day, instead of the usual 200. But he too was worried he had breached the terms and conditions of using Gmail. "The last thing I want is to get in trouble," he says. Torres then got an e-mail from Google inviting him for a telephone interview. He leapt at the chance. Having left Nicaragua as a teenager in 1993, he started working part-time on an IBM help desk in 1995, before being promoted to a software engineer.

The interview was tough; Torres says he was "hammered with theory questions". Like Barker, he didn't get past this stage. But Torres is upbeat and apparently not bitter about the fact that, a few months later, Google produced Gmail Notifier, mimicking many of the functions of his GTray application.

Mark Lyon, a 22-year-old living in Clinton, Mississippi, loved Gmail but the self-confessed "e-mail pack-rat" wanted to upload all the e-mails he had collected in his account. There wasn't any application to do this, so he wrote one himself, called GMail Loader.

Lyon promoted his software in a posting to Slashdot. It was picked up by the moderators, and in a few days his mailbox started filling with requests for his CV. Lyon, who was all set to start at law school with a focus on technology, says he was approached by 37 different organisations in Canada and the United States. One gave him the creeps, he says. "He was a recruiter in Miami," says Lyon, "who wanted someone with a background in 'large transactional financial databases' who had 'fluent Spanish and a willingness to travel'... I immediately assumed that, even if it wasn't something to do with drugs, it couldn't be a good thing. He got a very quick 'no'."

Of all the inquiries he received, the one from Google was the only one to offer something that would trump his aspiration to be a lawyer. "I never once thought I'd have a shot at working for a company as interesting as Google," Lyon says. "Just to be considered is an honour." After several telephone calls and a tough phone interview, he got an invitation to the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Like all such companies, Google will find talent any way it can. Its headhunters are constantly on the lookout for innovative people with strong communications skills and an ability to work in collaboration.

Leesa Gidaro, lead recruiter for engineering, insists that the incentive for work isn't just money. "People are motivated by what they enjoy doing," she says. The company has placed adverts in several magazines, including the Linux Journal and Physics Today, inviting readers to answer 21 demanding questions including "How many different ways can you colour an icosahedron with one of three colours on each face?" It also runs Google Code Jam, in which online coders compete to find the fastest and best programming solutions, with the 50 best being invited to compete at Google's HQ to win $50,000 worth of cash prizes and a possible job.

The Mountain View HQ is a place of contradictions. It has an informal but hard-working culture that allows every employee to spend 20 per cent of their time on whatever pet project they choose. The company's 10-point philosophy includes maxims such as "You can make money without doing evil". But this isn't an anti-capitalist collective; an estimated thousand of its 2,600 employees are millionaires, courtesy of a stock auction that put technology start-ups on the map. The six-year-old company is valued at more than some developing world countries, and the two Google founders are billionaires.

Lyon had the weekend to look round San Francisco and the neighbouring area. At Mountain View, he was immediately struck by the informality of the company. Despite being there on the eve of Google's IPO, he says it felt like a college campus. "People were outside playing volleyball, and everyone I ran across, including those not interviewing me, was willing to stop and chat for a few minutes and tell me what they were up to. A few even asked my thoughts on their projects."

After a day of being tested on programming, maths and how new features could be implemented at Google, Lyon started the 12-hour journey home, sensing he had done well and would be offered a job. In the end, the opportunity came to nothing. Normally upbeat, Lyon admits: "I am quite disappointed, since I thought my performance at the interview was reasonably decent."

He is now studying law at Mississippi College but, ever the technologist, he is looking forward to a legal career that will influence the development of new technology and says that, by visiting Google and writing GMail Loader, he made a valuable impression. "At least a few of the feature ideas I discussed with the Gmail team may be picked up and implemented," he says.