Controlled Chaos - The Google Guys

The Google Guys: Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Chapter 3 Controlled Chaos

Innovators and men of genius have almost always been regarded as fools at the beginning (and very often at the end) of their careers.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The place where optimism most flourishes is the lunatic asylum.

—Havelock Ellis

The Library of Alexandria became a playground for the great intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists of their day. Ptolemy ensured this by offering incentives. The library may have contained a garden, a zoo, and an observatory. Scholars who came to study there were given free board and lodging in the royal part of the city, exempted from taxes, and given commissions as tutors, often teaching in outdoor classrooms by the library. They participated in games, festivals, and literary competitions organized at the library. They were also, of course, given the liberty to study the scrolls and conduct research in their fields of interest. The mathematician Euclid studied at the library, where he may have done the work that led to the rules of geometry. Archimedes invented the screw-shaped water pump there; Eratosthenes calculated the diameter of the Earth, mapped it, and argued that it should be possible to reach India by sailing west from Spain. Galen wrote works on healing and anatomy that dominated medicine until the Renaissance. Never underestimate the value of perks.

Like all great young companies, Google and its employees reflect the personalities and ideals of the company’s founders. The way any founders keep their company’s culture is to hire people who are like them. Larry and Sergey interviewed all prospective hires in the early days, and still insist on interviewing every important hire. The first person they brought in, Craig Silverstein, is a computer geek in their own spiritual image. He looks the part. Short and slender, with a Stan Laurel chin and a usually shy demeanor, in his spare time he runs an online fact site about Muppets.

But he’s extremely sharp, and confident when he talks about Google and its enduring culture, which is full of young technologists who share Larry’s and Sergey’s ideals. “We hired people who were like us in that way,” he says. “We definitely wanted people who were idealistic, and we’ve been careful to try to sustain that over the years.”

Larry has put his desire to hire idealistic people this way: “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.”1

These days, nearly every computer scientist wants to join Google. But in order to attract the best of them—in terms both of technical expertise and shared values—in the early years, Larry and Sergey had to offer more: a scientific and technological playground that any computer geek would love. That part was easy. They offered what every other Web start-up did when they still had money: employee perks.

Larry and Sergey have mostly retained the notorious frugality they learned at Stanford. They still buy the cheapest equipment they can find and modify it to fit their needs. Google does almost no advertising; new products immediately appear on the Internet in news articles and blogs. And when Google was young, they stuck with cubicles instead of offices, with desks made from doors—although work spaces were decorated with colorful streamers, paraphernalia from favorite movies, props and pictures of exotic foreign cities, fairy tales, anything that struck the fancies of the employees who worked there.

Employee perks are another matter. Google’s culture has been described as “part university campus and part kindergarten playground.”2 More realistically, it’s a young man’s playground. There are the usual lava lamps, game rooms with pool tables, and foosball and video games typical of technology start-ups during the first dot-com heyday. But Google goes further than most: massage chairs, “sleeping pods” where employees can take a nap, and the famous free gourmet food and drinks. (Google lobbies usually have glass-front refrigerators filled with free Naked Juice for visitors.) Google is also famous for hiring a company masseuse. Recalls one early employee, “The full-time masseuse, Babette, was gorgeous. She gave ‘naked under the sheets’ massages.”

Even in the early days, employees dined on free gourmet food: rack of lamb and rib eye steaks, Cajun food, scallops, as well as hamburgers and hot dogs, fish sandwiches, and salad bars. Free snacks were mostly on the healthy side: Odwalla drinks, granola bars, Yukon Gold chips, decaf coffee.

But the biggest draw for young scientists at Google wasn’t the free food. Computer scientists and engineers were infected with the desire to do something incredible, the disease propagated by Larry and Sergey. Sergey has emphasized this fact, noting that it’s especially important as the stock price retreats. “This is where you want to make sure you are hiring employees because they love to work here, they love to create things, and they’re not here primarily for the money,” he says. “Although when they do create something valuable you want to reward them. That’s when these things really pay off.” Employees agree that the opportunity to make a name for themselves even outweighed the perks and the promise of riches from an IPO. Not that everyone ignored the prospect of riches; it’s a big draw for anyone joining a promising start-up. But it wasn’t everything, according to one former employee:

I had been at another dot-com, and left for Google. At the first dot-com, there was an excitement, but at Google it was a whole different kind of excitement. People were really sure they were on to something. At the earlier dot-com, they were thinking more about how they were going to be rich. At Google, it was almost disdainful to talk about money. It was hot and happening. They all saw the spending and instant riches, but honestly it was never a stated goal at Google. People were too focused on the technology. No one ever came running in with a picture of the sailboat they were going to buy. But they did come running in and interrupting meetings when we passed a milestone.

That employee describes the work environment as a “velvet prison,” where the perks and friendly atmosphere are offset by the pressure to work insane hours. “Twelve hours a day, six days a week was typical,” he says. “It was optional, but there was pressure to do it. They fed you all the time, so there was no reason to leave for food. Google was a twenty-four/seven lifestyle. And they were all such nice people.”

The Stanford Brain Pool

Larry and Sergey used another technique to make sure they would get people who were as close to clones of themselves as possible. Their favorite place for recruiting in the early days of Google was their former stomping ground, Stanford University. Says Jennifer Widom, a computer science and electrical engineering professor at Stanford: “For the first three and a half years [after Google’s founding], everybody who graduated under a faculty adviser in the database group either stayed in academia or went to work at Google. We used to joke that if Google went under, all our grads would be unemployed. Everybody says it’s ridiculous how many Stanford alums are at Google.”

For example, in 2002 Larry and Sergey hired Orkut Büyükkökten to continue his Stanford work on search technology for hand-held devices. (In his spare time he pursued another pet project from Stanford and created Orkut, now the most popular social networking site in Brazil.)

Glen Jeh, another Stanford grad student in computer science, came up with a way to personalize searches to an individual’s preferences, an idea he wrote up in a paper, “Scaling Personalized Web Search.” In June 2003 he started a company called Kaltix to exploit that technology—some Stanford folks think the company was created just to be bought by Google. Which it was, three months later.

Most of the original work culture continues at Google today. Googlers enjoy subsidized day care centers, free meals, free laundry rooms, kiosks to drop off clothes for dry cleaning (employees have to pay for that service), and almost uncountable other perks. There are Google bikes parked throughout the GooglePlex that employees can hop on and ride from building to building. None of them is locked; employees simply take them when they need them. Some people bring Segway scooters, roller skates, or skateboards to work. A doctor regularly visits the Google campus so Googlers don’t have to leave the office for a checkup.

And, of course, Google is known for its “20 percent time,” the one day a week that employees can take simply to work on something that really interests them. They may start a new project, join one already under way, or put together their own teams. It’s an irresistible draw, although some engineers say that these days it’s actually hard to take the time to do it anymore.

Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and the lead person on engineering hiring, explains the mandate, set primarily by Larry: “The important thing to understand is what the value proposition is of everything you do,” he says. “Say we didn’t have any cafés on campus. Then thousands of people leave at eleven thirty to beat the rush at restaurants. So you ask what’s the value of those two hours, what interaction can you get if people are able to stay on campus instead? And if you’re going to provide food on campus, what’s the difference in price between bad food and good food? The delta is relatively small.”

Larry and Sergey are also experimenting with new types of perks appropriate to a much larger company. A recent Fortune magazine interview with the pair noted: “They’re tinkering with Google’s 401(k) plan and making sure it’s easier for employees to get financial advice. They’re studying the effect of wealth on happiness, trying to understand what it takes to keep rich folks actively interested in their jobs—and making a contribution to the company. Page says he traces his interest in benevolence to employees to the rotten time his grandfather had of it working in an auto plant in Flint, Michigan, in the days of sit-down strikes back in the 1930s.”3

Adds Sergey: “I don’t think we should be looking back to our golden years in the garage. The goal is to improve as we grow, and we certainly have more resources to bring to bear on the cultural issues and whatnot as we gain scale.”4

Strange Management

Larry and Sergey show no reluctance to experiment with unusual ideas. They have created a management system virtually void of any set hierarchy, with very few levels of management before reaching the top. People change jobs frequently, and for a time, project managers would shift jobs every few months in order to learn all the necessary ropes. Today they last about eighteen months at one job. Below the project manager level, people are constantly switching jobs. Engineers might be seen working at any time of the day or night, but mostly at night.

The company is also obsessive about having very small groups working on projects. Five or six people are generally sufficient to handle a major project—such as Google’s book search initiative (more on this in chapter 9).

The interview process at Google is infamously brutal. Interviews are done not just with prospective managers, but with people in many different disciplines and management levels across the company. In engineering, Google has hundreds of hiring committees that meet one hour a week to discuss prospective hires. This system is designed to remove any biases from a particular manager conducting the interviews.

At the end of the process, after interviewees are winnowed down to the best, Larry steps in. “Larry still looks at every hire in engineering,” says Eustace. He starts with written summaries of the candidate from the hiring committees, and “he’ll poke at the ones he thinks he should look at. The fact that we review everyone means that nobody puts one over on us.”

Larry’s interviews are more likely to be an exchange of ideas rather than a question-and-answer session. In Eustace’s case, when he interviewed with Larry in 2002, “he talked about in so many words organizing the world’s information, how important it was, why it’s an interesting technology challenge, and why search technology wasn’t yet finished. We talked about the kinds of challenges that the company faced, about the company doing something that mattered.”

The hiring process is necessarily constantly reevaluated as Google grows. “We don’t really know that the way we hire at Google is optimal, and we’re trying to improve it all the time,” says Page. “We obviously hire a lot of smart people. We also hire people who have different kinds of skills, and we hire people who work on computers, and do construction, and many, many other things.”5

Most important, the engineers they hire must have and be able to present a lot of information about a particular problem. Larry and Sergey like to run the company based on data. They pride themselves on taking a very disciplined, scientific approach to solving problems. “Their view is that information is the basis for almost all the decisions anybody makes,” says Eustace. “The more information you can get, the more credible the information is, the more likely you are to make a good decision.”

To that end, Google keeps a database of everything everyone is working on and sends out regular e-mails to keep others in the company updated. Employees—primarily engineers—are not only allowed to see what’s in the works, they’re also allowed to critique the updates (sometimes not very politely) and suggest changes. It’s like a small town with a giant electronic network and too many computers. Everybody knows everybody else’s business.

Eustace also explains the standard Larry and Sergey set. “The key element we’re trying to find is smart people, productive people, people with a slight disdain for the impossible, people who have good leadership skills and who we find interesting. We try to avoid people that have incredibly large egos that are inconsistent with their abilities or are not good at working in teams.”

The result of this craziness is that Sergey and Larry have managed to hire top people away from start-ups and established companies alike—including Microsoft. Says AltaVista founder Louis Monier, “They’ve accumulated an amazing intellectual capital. For several years, when things were tough, they’d come down and get the absolute best people. They have the most amazing assortment of brains in Silicon Valley today. My old friends from [AltaVista’s] research labs are there. They’ve just totally drained the swamp, in a good way. They have a pool of talent that is simply scary.”

Many others in Silicon Valley see the brain drain in less favorable terms. Says one venture capitalist: “Google is sucking the oxygen out of the ecosystem for everyone else.”

No Experience Necessary

Most of Google’s new recruits come straight out of college or grad school. This is a trick that Bill Gates also used to build Microsoft. By hiring bright young grads, the company gets a strong intellectual base of employees who will work for low wages, accepting stock options instead, and have the willingness and stamina to work long hours. Generally having never had a job before, they are indoctrinated into the corporate culture. The company becomes their life. “The dirty secret of Silicon Valley,” says one venture capitalist, “is that start-ups are run by single young people who can work all night. Google is recruiting only young people. The EEOC aside, it does seem to work.”

Still, it’s certain that the policy of hiring young people with strong academic cred has caused Google to pass up some very good talent. Geoff Yang, a VC with Redpoint Ventures, recalls a friend of his who interviewed at Google. He was in his midthirties and was highly experienced in online business as the head of Coca-Cola’s interactive business. He went through fifteen interviews, and was finally asked to supply his SAT scores and college transcripts. He didn’t get the job.

Larry and Sergey tend to discount the value of experience in hiring a new employee. After all, they didn’t have any experience. Also, people with experience at other companies are not as likely to break the mold, to adapt to Google’s unusual management style. Too much “context” for a problem, says Eustace, “can also stifle innovation. If you know too much about what’s going on, you come up with twenty-seven reasons why this is hard.”

That attitude can cause problems. In 2004, a fifty-four-year-old director of engineering named Brian Reid filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming he was fired from the company because of age discrimination. Reid, a former engineer from AltaVista, said he was told he was being fired because he wasn’t “compatible” with the company’s corporate culture. The lawsuit noted that Google’s workforce had an average age under thirty and that fewer than 2 percent of employees were over forty. That case is still crawling its way through the courts. After being tossed out, a California state appeals court reinstated it in October 2007. The California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in the future.

Until recently, few people left Google. Now that many have collected their stock options, some are bailing out, often to start their own companies. Being used to Google’s culture, they can be difficult to work with. Says one venture capitalist who is now working with ten former Googlers starting their own company (all of them in their twenties): “They’re young and brash. They think they can do anything, that they’re infallible. They want investors to leave them alone. Which we don’t do.”

Two-Class Culture

Not everything is happiness and light at Google. As with any other company, there are the usual good managers and bad. When one online publication wrote about Google cutting back on perks, several anonymous people claiming to be Google employees or former employees wrote in with their own complaints—most of them with vitriol. One said that the famous 20 percent time is a joke, since their regular jobs consume so much time that they can’t possibly pursue anything else. Another wrote about managers who never take on a task unless it will get them publicity.

Google’s hiring practices and corporate culture have caused other problems over the years. For one, Google is something of a two-class culture. “Sergey and Larry are kind of contemptuous of non-tech people,” says one former employee. “They’re nice people, though they didn’t always know how to be nice.”

Some non-tech employees complain that they feel like second-class Googlers. They usually work in outlying buildings on the corporate campus, away from the central buzz that surrounds the founders and top management. The scientists and engineers, along with top management, get most of the stock options.

Still, some non-techies accept that it’s just part of life at Google. Sarah Bauer, for example, was an English and creative writing major at Stanford before joining Google’s advertising group in August 2007.

She sees nothing wrong with the engineers’ getting special treatment. “The engineers are around longer. They’re five or ten years older. Google just demands such higher talent from them. It would be a little strange to treat me the same way, to have the same benefits.”

Shrinking Benefits

As Google grows, some of its Pharaonic benefits are starting to shrink. For one thing, Larry and Sergey were too ambitious and naïve about how free they could be with the company’s money. They thought that the lavish treatment could go on forever, no matter how large the company grew. In the prospectus for Google’s initial public stock offering, after outlining some of the freebies the company offered, Larry and Sergey warned prospective investors: “Expect us to add benefits rather than pare them down over time.”

They have not been able to keep their word. They even used to offer $5,000 to employees who bought hybrid vehicles—the vehicle of choice for both Larry and Sergey—but ended the practice after deciding that the hybrid market had enough momentum on its own.

In mid-2008, they shut down the free dinners at some of the cafeterias—those in buildings that don’t hold the engineers. The reasoning is that engineers are the ones who work late into the night, while everyone else has a real life to go home to. Google spokespeople say that the cafeterias in nonengineering buildings were very lightly used for dinners, and it wasn’t worth the expense to keep them open late. This event made quite a splash in tech blogs, whose writers were astounded that Google was cutting off free dinners. But the outrage was overdone. Nonengineers can still get a free meal when they work late; they just have to walk to an engineering building to get it.

In the biggest public backtrack, Google decided in 2008 to reduce subsidies for the extraordinary on-campus daycare centers for employees’ children. When they first decided to offer on-site day care, Larry and Sergey opted to create the best daycare system venture capital money could buy. It’s an expensive perk. The centers are based on a philosophy called Reggio Emilia, which advocates a self-directed learning program for those preschool Larrys- and Sergeys-in-training, an echo of the Google founders’ own success at Montessori schools. They also boast highly paid teachers, small classes, and some of the best educational toys and learning tools.

This backtrack made the national press. According to a New York Times article, “someone at Google woke up one day and realized that the company was subsidizing each child to the tune of $37,000 a year—which nobody had noticed up until then—compared with the $12,000-a-year average subsidy of other big Silicon Valley companies like Cisco Systems and Oracle.”6

Not only was Google spending three times as much as other companies, but its subsidy was more expensive than getting a Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford, where tuition tops out at about $34,000. So they decided to raise prices to the parents by about $17,000 a year, making the price to employees a whopping $29,000 a year. Google was dropping its subsidy from $37,000 to about $20,000—still more than other companies, but for a daycare system that is much more expensive than others.

Parents cried, complained, and tried to get management to change its mind. This got Larry and Sergey to back off slightly on the tuition subsidy (they won’t say by how much), but they did not change their opinion about the need to backtrack on employees’ perks. According to the New York Times:

At a T.G.I.F. in June, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said he had no sympathy for the parents, and that he was tired of “Googlers” who felt entitled to perks like “bottled water and M&Ms,” according to several people in the meeting. (A Google spokesman denies that Mr. Brin made that comment.)

In short, as Google grows, Larry and Sergey have had to grow up and smell the perks, and the aroma turned out to be a bit too rich for a company with twenty thousand employees. Success is not entirely an upward spiral. The New York Times reporter concluded that Google was becoming “just another company.”

Eustace defends Larry’s and Sergey’s decision to cut back on perks, saying, “Over time a small number of perks multiplied by a large number of employees all of a sudden becomes a huge number. Look at bottled water per employee. Multiply it by twenty thousand people, and all of a sudden you’re aghast. We just spent a million dollars in one year on water.” Regarding the daycare subsidies, he notes that “the benefit went to a relatively small number of people, but we were paying more per child than a full-time nanny would cost . . . . The numbers just didn’t work out very well. It’s healthy for us to look at each of those things. I absolutely think they have a right to look at our expenditures.”

This became more critical when the recession that hit the world in 2008 hit Google as well. For the first time, the company started laying off employees. It started with several thousand contract workers, temporary employees who do not work directly for Google. But in January 2009, acknowledging that even Google had to start watching the bottom line, the company announced that it would slow its frenetic hiring pace and was eliminating jobs for one hundred of its recruiters. It also closed several far-flung offices, although it’s offering those employees jobs elsewhere at Google.

The idea that Google is becoming “just another company” is a bit of an exaggeration. But, as is inevitable for any company that becomes as big and powerful as Google, the sharp edges are becoming worn as ideals bow to practicality, with the executives conceding to some difficult choices. The company is becoming both tougher and softer. The same is true for Larry and Sergey themselves.