Thoughts from my Google tour

I had the opportunity last month to take a tour of Google’s HQ in Mountain View, CA. This was my second tour of Google, and it was interesting to contrast and compare with my visit back in 2006. I jotted down some notes, but I hadn’t really had a chance to type them up until now, so here you go: my random observations from my Google HQ tour.

Women

The first thing that stood out to me was that there was a lot of women there. I know, I sound like a sexist, but the truth is that the tech industry is dominated by men, particularly for the field of engineering. As Google is an engineering-driven company, I would have expected the gender ratio to be similarly skewed here, but it didn’t seem to be. I have no idea whether this is due to selection bias, affirmative action, sampling error, or what, but I thought it was noteworthy.

The food is good

We ate in the cafeteria, which is pretty cool. It has the feel of a university cafeteria, with stations offering different types of cuisine. The food was good, if not amazing, and the variety and convenience would certainly be nice. I spend too much time each day trying to figure out what to do about food when I really just want to get back to whatever I’m doing.

It’s like a family (bear with me)

One of the things our guide said that she liked is that Google is like a family. My eyes were already starting to roll when she clarified by saying that she didn’t mean that in a cliche way, just that Google is run by engineers, not managers, so they have a good idea of what you need as an engineer, and they work hard to make sure you get it. I wasn’t there for very long, but from what I saw, conversations with employees of Google, etc., I can believe that this is true, and it plays into my next point:

The culture really IS special

We’ve all read a lot of articles about how Google has this amazing culture, and after walking around there for the second time, I think it’s (still) true. However, I no longer think the reason is what I used to. Those articles about Google’s culture almost inevitably get caught up talking about the perks: food, gym, on-site laundry, nap rooms, whatever. When I toured it the first time in 2006, that’s what I focused on most. However, at that time, i had never worked anywhere remotely like that, nor did I have any exposure to companies with those kinds of perks. However, after the last four years in Silicon Valley and working at CNET and a bunch of contract and freelance clients, as well as interacting with friends and colleagues who have worked in places like that, i have a different view.

A friend that I was taking the tour with works at eBay and remarked that the perks didn’t seem all that amazing to him and that eBay offered a lot of the same stuff. This was a little surprising to me, because eBay’s engineers report much lower satisfaction with their jobs than their counterparts at Google, so I subconsciously assumed that they worked in a terrible environment in terms of perks. But then I started really paying attention and thinking back to my time at CNET and other companies.

Culture is hard to quantify. This is compounded by the fact that most tech companies try to portray themselves as having a fun, innovative, hip culture. As a result, when journalists talk about culture, they inevitably stray into setting up tech companies against each other in a perk pissing match. And when measured this way, Google stacks up nicely; few tech companies have better perks. However, when you view this from the outside, it’s easy to confuse cause with effect and think that the engineer-friendly culture is the result of all these amazing perks. Having seen and worked at places with less engineer-friendly cultures but great perks, I now think it’s the other way around: Google’s engineer-friendly culture drives all those perks to keep their engineers happy. If you took all that away, I still think Google would be a superior place to work compared to most tech companies. I could be wrong, and maybe someone who works there now will post in the comments and let me know.

Regardless, my takeaway was this: you can start feeding your engineers free gourmet food every day, get them shiny new equipment, and put in gyms, laundry, and childcare facilities. Hell, you should do those things, if you can. But if you don’t have a culture that really understands and respects engineering as a core part of your business, all those things won’t make much difference (look at eBay). My bet is that more than anything else, a deep respect for engineering has given Google the unique culture it has today. And that’s really hard to copy.