It's too good to be true. That's what Andy Rubin was thinking back in 2005. He'd worked for more than a decade at various tech outfits, including a stint at Apple, and now Google was interested in acquiring Android, his latest venture. When he dug around to see if the Internet giant would be a good fit, Rubin met with what he assumed was the usual Silicon Valley spin: lots of talk about boundless freedom, perfect perks, a culture that prizes spectacular failure more than middling success. Right.
But now he works for Google, and Rubin knows something new: It's true. Google is different.
When you visit the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, what's special is elusive. The company looks like the standard-issue Wii-in-the-lounge, hieroglyphs-on-a-whiteboard, code-until-dawn tech shop. But the difference isn't tangible. It's in the air, in the spirit of the place.
Talk to more than a dozen Googlers at various levels and departments, and one powerful theme emerges: Whether they're designing search for the blind or preparing meals for their colleagues, these people feel that their work can change the world. That sense is nonexistent at most companies, or at best intermittent, inevitably becoming subsumed in the day-to-day quagmire of PowerPoints, org charts, and budgetary realities.
The marvel of Google is its ability, after 10 years, to continue to instill a sense of creative fearlessness and ambition, even as it has grown to more than 16,000 employees. Prospective hires are often asked, "If you could change the world using Google's resources, what would you build?" But here, this isn't a goofy or even theoretical question: Google wants to know, because thinking—and building—on that scale is what Google does. This, after all, is the company that wants to make available online every page of every book ever published. Smaller-gauge ideas die of disinterest.
With $14 billion in annual revenue, Google has evolved to become far more than an "Internet search and advertising company." Google's singular worldview sees information as a natural resource, one that should be mined and refined and sorted and universally distributed. Information is a necessity, like clean water. That idea stands at the center of all Google does, unifying what can appear to be wildly disparate projects: mapping the world, searching the Web on a cell-phone screen, providing an early-response system for epidemics and natural disasters, developing cheap renewable energy. Android, for instance, isn't simply a universal platform for mobile-phone applications. It's a new pipe—and a far bigger pipe—to serve a parched landscape.
In the end, the resources and liberty Google entrusts to its workers infuse them with a rare sense of possibility—and obligation: "Are we taking advantage of what we've got here?" they ask. "Are we doing enough? Are we doing everything we can?"
They're thrilling questions, ones we all should ask more often.
Douglas Merrill, CIO and VP of engineering
"I was deaf as a child, and I am dyslexic. I spent a lot of my childhood struggling to do things that everybody else found easy. I adapted by finding tools to make things simple. I'm still fascinated by tools that make it easier for people to explore their worlds.
During the carpool this morning, we heard a song on the radio, and the driver asked, 'When did that come out?' I whipped out my iPhone and did a Google search. That's what drew me here, the idea that we can take the world's information and render it all available and useful.
Organizations that exist for a long time almost always have strong cultures. But any sociologist will tell you it's rare for people to talk about the elements of their culture. Google lives out loud. We argue about strategy and whether our products are good or bad. We argue about everything. But you want conflict to thrive in a supportive way. At heart, I'm an introvert, but I've learned to enjoy the give and take of ideas here. We work hard to protect people who argue.
Our hiring process is legendary. We have hiring committees that are checked by other committees. An engineering candidate talks to an average of eight engineers. I talked to 20 people before I was hired.
I'll ask candidates who aren't engineers how to build a Web crawler. The right answer doesn't matter. I want to hear you think the problem through, because the odds are good that since we're an innovative company, you're not going to know how to do what you're going to be asked to do. You're going to have to figure it out."
Matt Glotzbach, Product Management Director For Google Enterprise
"What do you normally do when you start a new job? You waste time filling out paperwork. My first morning at Google, I put my name and address on one form online, and it went everywhere it needed to go electronically. That's how this place works.
I went to a staff meeting that afternoon and got assigned to figure out how Google could launch Enterprise [applications for corporations] in Europe. I was told to come back with the answer at the end of the week. It was like, 'Hey, New Guy, you don't know anything about our business yet, and you don't have any international experience, but here are some people who can help you. Go figure it out.' We launched in Europe a few months later."
Marissa Mayer, VP Of Search Products And User Experience
"After September 11, one of our researchers, Krishna Bharat, would go to 10 or 15 news sites each day looking for information about the case. And he thought, Why don't I write a program to do this? So Krishna, who's an expert in artificial intelligence, used a Web crawler to cluster articles. He later emailed it around the company. My office mate and I got it, and we were like, 'This isn't just a cool little tool for Krishna. We could add more sources and build this into a great product.'
That's how Google News came about. Krishna did not intend to build a product, but he accidentally gave us the idea for one. We let engineers spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want, and we trust that they'll build interesting things.
There are two different types of programmers. Some like to code for months or even years, and hope they will have built the perfect product. That's castle building. Apple is great at it. Others prefer to have something working at the end of the day, something to refine and improve the next day. That's what we do. The hardest part about indoctrinating people into our culture is when engineers show me a prototype and I'm like, 'Great, let's go!' They'll say, 'Oh, no, it's not ready.' I tell them, 'The Googly thing is to launch it early on Google Labs and then to iterate, learning what the market wants—and making it great.'
Some companies think of design as an art. We think of design as a science. It doesn't matter who is the favorite or how much you like this aesthetic versus that aesthetic. It all comes down to data."
T.V. Raman (with Hubbell), Research Scientist In Accessibility
"A lot of people in engineering at Google would be in research at other companies—that's where all the PhDs usually are. This makes it difficult for those researchers to take an idea the whole way through the development process: Technology transfer becomes a big problem. But research isn't off in a corner here. It's not an ivory-tower goal. Where does innovation happen at Google? It happens everywhere, because everybody does research."
Irene Au, Director Of User Experience
"In a few years, most Internet users around the world will be coming off of non-PC devices. So we did ethnographic research. We followed people around for a day or so and watched how they used technology. Then we littered the walls with stories and observations on Post-it Notes. If you look at India and China, Internet use is completely different. People in Asian countries are less inclined to search because it's hard to type the character set. So we developed Google Suggest; it predicts what you're searching for so you don't have to type the whole thing. Those user stories went into a database that we shared with other teams. That's how we cross the silos."
Jessica Ewing, Senior Product Manager for iGoogle
"It was clear to Google that there were two groups: people who loved the site's clean, classic look and people who wanted tons of information there—email, news, local weather. IGoogle [a customized Google home page] started out with me and three engineers. I was 22, and I thought, This is awesome. Six weeks later, we launched the first version in May. The happiness metrics were good, there was healthy growth, and by September, we had a link on Google.com.
When the Google Maps team released Street View [featuring 360-degree photos], we thought, That is the coolest thing ever. We try to out-innovate each other. We asked, 'How do we take iGoogle to the next level?' Rather than using brute force to create everything, we built the tools and infrastructure to leverage the outside developer community. We couldn't believe the stuff that people came up with. There was one high-school kid who developed the periodic table in a gadget [Google's version of a widget]. We'd never have thought of that.
Then we thought, How can we personalize the home page better? My brother had just had his first kid. I created a gadget that updates a picture of my nephew Jack so you can watch him as he grows. We realized there's no reason only developers should be able to create content. Our next release was called Gadget Maker. Now anybody can create a gadget like I did and send it to friends and make it public."
Bill Weihl, Green Energy Czar
"Some people go, 'Wait, Google, renewable energy—what?' Others say, 'Wow, that's the coolest job in the world.' The goal is developing renewable energy not only for our operations but also for the world. Until that costs less than electricity from fossil sources, those are going to be hard to displace. So we feel a sense of urgency. A lot of people are amazed that a company would choose to do this, outside the core business, but we think it's very relevant. And if we are successful, the energy business is a big business. Even if you don't always achieve 100% of audacious goals, you're probably doing better than if you set milder goals."
Niniane Wang, Engineering Manager
"The technical problems here are intense. The attitude is to pursue ideas that another company dismisses as outside the realm of possibility. When we have executive reviews, often people present an idea that is already slightly ridiculous and ambitious, and then our executives will ask us to make it more ambitious—but still launch it quickly."
David Glazer, Engineering Director
"When I was looking at the company from the outside, I said, 'I know for a fact you can't have a culture like Google's with more than 200 people. I've tried.' Yet here was a company with a zero or two beyond that, and it was clearly making it work. I wanted to see how that happens. And I wanted a piece of it.
Obviously, there's no magic bullet. First, Google is investing in brains. Every company has a bell curve, right? It's different here. The odds are pretty good that if you bump into someone in the cafeteria, they are world-class at something.
Google has a high tolerance for chaos and ambiguity. When we started OpenSocial [a universal platform for social-network applications], we didn't know what the outcome was going to be. We said, 'What's the easiest way to get third parties to build compelling applications for social networks that leverage Google's assets?' Then we started running a bunch of experiments. We set an operational tempo: When in doubt, do something. If you have two paths and you're not sure which is right, take the fastest path. What's true in physics about objects in motion is true when you're creating a product. It's easier to keep moving and change course than when you're sitting and thinking and thinking."
Josef Desimone, Executive Chef
"I've worked everywhere from family-style to Michelin-caliber restaurants, and I've never seen anything like Google. Nobody changes the menu daily on this scale. Seventeen cafés. Thousands of meals. It's unheard of.
My impression early on was, 'Wow, you hire a guy who's an expert in food and let him run with it! You don't get in his way or micromanage.' After a year or so, I realized this is the way everything works here.
We came up with a values system. We said we want local. Then it was local, fresh, and sustainable. Then it was local, fresh, sustainable, and organic. We don't want genetically modified organisms or nitrates. We're the first company to go global with cage-free eggs.
Other companies are always visiting. Top chefs too. Mario Batali. Sam Choy. Paul Prudhomme. Every table in our cafés has filtered water to keep you from using bottled water, along with a little sign that explains why. We're here to educate employees on why agave-based soda is better for you than Coca-Cola. Our nutritionist does TechTalks on things like the difference between natural and refined sweeteners.
I never wanted to be an astronaut or a rodeo clown. I only wanted to cook. For me, this is Disneyland. Google has exposed me to new cuisines, new ways of life, new ideas and life philosophies. Where do you go from here?"
Anne Driscoll, Human Resources Manager
"The majority of initiatives come from our Google population. It could be as simple as prayer and meditation rooms, or as ambitious as a companywide volunteer day. Someone had a friend who was an author whom they thought other Googlers would be interested in. That became the Google author series. We invited all the presidential candidates to speak here in a fireside-chat forum. We've had eight so far.
Our philosophy is providing all the great things you would have in a PhD or graduate program. That's how you're going to attract people who are interested in working in a collaborative environment." Read More >>
Andy Rubin, Senior Director of Mobile Platforms
"When the company I cofounded was acquired by Google, I expected a process for everything, and that just isn't the case. What's the travel policy? Just don't overspend. Commonsense stuff. There are not a lot of rules and regulations.
We're building an open-source platform for mobile phones called Android. The strategy is to provide Web-style innovation and rapid development on the cell phone, which we think is still in prehistoric times. If you have people developing applications at home, one of them will create the next Facebook. That's the idea behind our mobile mashups. Third-party developers get data from one site and overlay it on something like a Google map. We want to deliver thousands of applications to your phone.
Google can't do everything. And we shouldn't. That's why we formed the Open Handset Alliance with more than 34 partners. Throwing software over the wall isn't going to work. You need handsets based on this software and carriers willing to ship them. I expected FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. But we've seen some key competitors following us. So we know we're doing something right." Read More >>
Tim Armstrong, President of Advertising and Commerce in North America
"I tell new employees, 'At Google, there are rocks and a stream. You either become a rock, and the stream goes around you, or you get in the stream and move things along and start adding value.' People here don't start with conclusions. They start with questions. If you're open-platform, respectful of others, and really driven to execute, you'll be successful."
Hal Varian, Chief Economist
"At the university [Varian is the former dean of UC Berkeley's School of Information], you'd work on one problem for months at a time. Here, I have a dozen problems I'm working on—auctions; forecasting; ad hoc statistical, econometric analysis such as how the mortgage crisis affects Google—and I get two weeks to work on them.
It's remarkable how well companies reflect the values of the people who founded them. You can see [Thomas] Watson's DNA in IBM 50 years later. You can see Bill Gates in Microsoft 25 years later. I think 20 years from now, you'll see Larry and Sergey [cofounders Page and Brin] and Eric [Schmidt, the CEO] in Google because they set the model: They're keen on innovation, they want analytic work, and they're nice guys."
Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of Google.Org
"No one has built a Google.org before, so we don't have the vocabulary for it. We think of ourselves as a hybrid philanthropy and an experiment. We're not a traditional 501(c)3. We're not primarily using tax-advantaged funds. We have $90 million in a foundation structure, but the majority of the value of the 3 million shares of Google stock and 1% of profits—which turns out to be $2 billion—is not restricted. We also have the resources of talented and socially engaged Googlers. That's our greatest asset.
Creating this from a white sheet of paper has been a classically Googly process. We started out doing VC-industry mapping and looking at the holes in what's the single most important thing to do on climate change, the prevention of communicable diseases, and poverty. We asked, 'Do we have anything to add?' We began with thousands of ideas from Googlers and others in the field and winnowed them down. We made it a straight-out competition: Show up on Monday armed with your data and your plan—where we'd give grants, where we'd make investments, the outcomes—and prove it. Then we got together and ranked each idea. Does it fit on the scale of changing the world? Does it fit Google?
I try to visit our projects in India and Africa and China once a year. I also spend a lot of time inside Google with the product groups hearing about new developments to see which ones apply to our work. One team told us they were going to announce $10 million in prizes for mobile apps, so we said, 'Let's make some that benefit poor people in the developing world. Public-health apps. Economic-development apps.' Now we have the developer community building apps for Google.org."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.