The lure of great Google perks
Seattle Times staff columnist
Google's presence in Puget Sound area
Kirkland office: Engineering center opened in 2004, now has about 400 employees. Notable projects include Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk and infrastructure technology to improve search quality and ad optimization.
Seattle office: Sales office opened in Fremont neighborhood in 2006, now has about 40 employees. Last month, the company agreed to sublease 60,000 square feet of adjacent space from Getty Images for engineering offices; the space could accommodate up to 240 more engineers.
Bellevue or ?: Google has been shopping for space in the area and considered Tower 333, a new building in Bellevue, and Safeco Tower in Seattle's University District. Another option could be across the street from Google's current Kirkland office: A developer has proposed a massive expansion of Park Place Center that would include new office buildings.
On a sunny morning in May, Darin Leonardson did a Google search in a creek behind his Everett apartment complex.
He quickly found what he was looking for: wild watercress for a goat-cheese salad he would serve later that day at Google's office in Kirkland. As executive chef at Google's most productive satellite office, Leonardson provides the company's hallmark perk — an unending supply of wholesome, free food.
The food keeps employees happy and in the office longer. Gourmet cafeterias are part of the utopian grad-school environment that Google is trying to extend from its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters to an expanding network of remote offices around the world.
Google's smorgasbord also symbolizes how the company has prodded other tech companies to improve perks and workplace amenities in the post-dot-com era, similar to the way Microsoft raised the bar in the 1990s with free soda and its own top-notch cafeterias.
But after spending a day grazing with engineers and managers at the Kirkland office, I realized that the food is probably most like cheese on a mousetrap, luring curious engineers close enough to be snatched by a voracious recruiting machine.
It had a similar effect on me. I took the bait when Peter Wilson, Google's local engineering director, invited me over to sample the cuisine and perhaps write a story about it.
A blatant attempt to plant a story that would help recruiting, I thought. But it was also an irresistible opportunity to spend time inside the secretive company and perhaps learn what the three-year-old Kirkland office is up to and where it's heading.
Later I figured out Google has been selectively opening its doors around the country, resulting in a series of newspaper stories highlighting its unique workplace and culture. Google is also advertising heavily for job openings, so either the flow of job applicants is slowing or the company is planning to continue its staggering growth rate and getting more sophisticated about hiring.
The latter may be the case in Kirkland. Managers said they haven't seen a drop in applications and they have authority to hire as many smart people as they can find. They're already sprawling into nearby buildings in downtown Kirkland and adding more space in Fremont.
Google's local engineering group is up to 400; within five years it should have "a couple of thousand employees" in the area, Shiva Shivakumar, the other top manager of the Kirkland office, told me.
Shivakumar is a Google superstar and the company's only "Distinguished Entrepreneur," a title that recognizes the contribution of products he's launched. They include AdSense, Google's system for matching ads to the content on Web sites.
He worked at the Mountain View headquarters, then opened a Swiss office in Zurich before transferring to Kirkland shortly after that office opened.
You could say that Google coming to Kirkland was a sort of karmic retribution for Microsoft. The first two employees were founders of Crossgain, a startup that Microsoft famously hobbled in 2001.
Microsoft, citing non-compete agreements with employees who had left for Crossgain, forced the company to fire nearly a third of its employees until the agreements expired. Crossgain lost its momentum and sold out to software company BEA Systems before it ever got rolling.
One Crossgain founder, Adam Bosworth, left BEA in 2004 to become a manager of Google's New York office.
Google recruited two others, Rod Chavez and Gary Burd, who wanted to stay near their homes in Kirkland.
Over lunch during my visit, Chavez told me how they asked Google to rent offices because they didn't want to work out of their homes, and how Google then asked them to recruit some of the people they knew at Microsoft and other Seattle-area companies.
Their plan was to grow to 10 or 15 people in the first year. "Three months later it was upped to 40 or 50; the next quarter the plan was up to 75 or 100," Chavez said.
Now the company occupies the top two floors of a nondescript building across from the Kirkland post office and one floor of an adjacent building. Inside, the offices are divided into clusters that generally have six engineers working together in large shared offices.
Some also work in standard cubicles, and everywhere the offices and shared spaces are decorated with bright colors and Ikea furniture.
Each floor has a kitchen with a refrigerator, a commercial espresso machine and more snacks than a 7-Eleven store.
There's also the cafeteria. It has windows facing Lake Washington and the obligatory foosball and pool tables in an adjacent rec room, but it's small and jumbled compared with Microsoft's expansive indoor-outdoor dining facilities.
Highlights include a salad bar that puts Whole Foods to shame and a carving station with free-range meats and seared fish. Zoning restrictions prohibit the use of an open flame in the building, however, so most hot foods are prepared daily in an offsite kitchen by Bon Appetit, the catering vendor that employs Leonardson.
More than just perks
Engineers I met said they appreciate the perks, but the novelty of the food fades, usually around the time they realize they've gained the "Google 15" — the pounds that saddle new employees.
What they really cherish is a culture that emphasizes bottom-up decision making, creativity, rapid product development and the opportunity to fix problems themselves.
Chavez told me about an employee who joined in 2004. His wife was using Google's Gmail and complained about a bug. Right after he started, the guy found the Gmail code, loaded it onto his workstation and fixed the bug on his own. He turned in the fix and a month later the patch was part of the product.
"The free food is great, the massages are great," Chavez said. "But the thing that engineers really enjoy, in my opinion, is that."
It's not all perfect, though. Chavez and Steve Yegge, a former Amazon.com programmer, said the democratic, distributed decision-making process can sometimes be exasperating.
"The flip side ... is there's no one person you can go to to make a decision," Chavez said. "It can be frustrating, the number of directors you need to get in a room, to cut across groups."
That process "requires more effort to coordinate across groups," said Yegge, who is also tinkering with the way his workgroup operates.
When he joined, Yegge was concerned about getting things done in the shared spaces. Programming is like painting, he said, and requires blocks of uninterrupted concentration.
He ended up liking the layout and the interaction it encourages, but his group has agreed to have an afternoon quiet period when talking is prohibited.
Similarly, the company is experimenting with its satellite offices as it searches for the right blend of autonomy and central Google culture: Not food but management style, employee empowerment and other core attributes of being "Googley."
Wilson, the engineering director, said the company is formalizing the way it communicates its culture, including principles such as "never write an application that relies on holding an end-user's data hostage in order to build loyalty" and "always think about 'are we serving the end-user' and not 'are we thinking about how to make money.' "
"Those kind of things, when the company was smaller, you could communicate through an oral culture," Wilson said. "But as the company grows both in terms of the number of people and locations, it's important to formalize these and write them down and make sure that we communicate them."
It's not clear what is Kirklandy about the local offices, although the company takes advantage of its location by holding gatherings in downtown parks. There are also a lot of former Microsoft employees in the building, including Wilson and a few whom I saw wearing Windows T-shirts.
I wondered if the office specialized in products that drew on the area's expertise in Windows and mobile software development, but Wilson said that's not the case.
"We don't hire specialists, we hire generalists," he said.
Among the standout products developed in Kirkland are Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk messaging service and infrastructure technologies that improved search performance and ad optimization.
Wilson and Shivakumar downplayed the significance of Google opening an office just down the road from Microsoft.
"This is not that unique in the [Silicon] Valley," Wilson said. "If you go to the Valley, Sun is right next to Yahoo! is next to Google. Everybody knows everybody.
"They all meet socially afterward. Microsoft historically has been sort of isolated by being up here where it's less competitive, so from Google's perspective this is not new," Wilson said.
"The other thing is we have to be very respectful of Microsoft in terms of what they've done for the industry, getting us this far, and in terms of what they've done for this community — it's clearly net positive."
At the same time, Googlers don't hold back when praising their company.
"My theory is none of this is real and we all went to programmer heaven," Yegge said.
"I think that every 10 years there's a place to work," he explained. "It was Microsoft in the 1990s, arguably Apple in the '80s. ... Google is that Mecca right now."
"Perks for perks"
That's partly by design, as the worker-centric culture, free food and extravagant perks attest.
"I figured this out back at Amazon," Yegge continued. "If you want to get world-class people — researchers to leave their tenured positions at Ivy League schools and people at other companies in the search space [where] they would do anything to keep that person there, and you want to attract this kind of crowd — you've got to make this place heaven, you know?"
Who knows how long it will last, especially if the economy and Google's ad business slow significantly.
As we walked through the offices, Yegge marveled at things like a round window punched into the wall simply to make the place look cool, and he wondered if the company sometimes goes too far.
"We've got perks for perks," he said, chuckling. "You go on a company ski trip, and there's this bag for going on the ski trip — it's like the trip was a reward unto itself, right? You know, I got a perk for moving offices — I showed up and there was this box and it had this big red stapler from 'Office Space' in it. It was like, 'Oh, my office moved twice in a quarter.' They don't know where to draw the line. I think they're trying to fine-tune it."
Yegge said more interesting things, but on my tape recording, the rest of our conversation was drowned out by employees chatting and laughing while they made espresso in a kitchen down the hall.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com.
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