By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- To understand the corporate culture at Google Inc., take a look at the toilets.
Every bathroom stall on the company campus holds a Japanese high-tech commode with a heated seat. If a flush is not enough, a wireless button on the door activates a bidet and drying.
Yet even while they are being pampered with high-tech toiletry, Google employees are encouraged to make good use of their downtime: A flier tacked inside each stall bears the title, "Testing on the Toilet, Testing code that uses databases." It features a geek quiz that changes every few weeks and asks technical questions about testing programming code for bugs.
The toilets reflect Google's general philosophy of work: Generous, quirky perks keep employees happy and thinking in unconventional ways, helping Google innovate as it rapidly expands into new lines of business.
Maintaining Google's culture of innovation is a hot internal topic as the Internet search king turns eight this fall and marches around the world, opening new offices in such cities as Beijing, Zurich and Bangalore. In the past three years, Google's workforce has more than tripled in size, to 9,000 employees, and the company has launched a new product nearly every week, including some widely regarded as flops. When its own offerings don't catch on, Google isn't shy about snapping up the competition, as it did this month when it agreed to acquire online video-sharing site YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock.
While Google places a premium on success, it appears to shrug off failure. The resulting culture of fearlessness permeates the 24-hour Googleplex, a collection of interconnected low-rise buildings that look more like some new-age college campus than a corporate office complex. The colorful, glass-encased offices feature upscale trappings -- free meals three times a day; free use of an outdoor wave pool, indoor gym and large child care facility; private shuttle bus service to and from San Francisco and other residential areas -- that are the envy of workers all over Silicon Valley.
Google employees are encouraged to propose wild, ambitious ideas often. Supervisors assign small teams to see if the ideas work. Nearly everyone at Google carries a generic job title, such as "product manager." All engineers are allotted 20 percent of their time to work on their own ideas. Many of the personal projects yield public offerings, such as the social networking Web site Orkut and Google News, a collection of headlines and news links.
The corporate counterculture explains a lot about why the search company rolls out such a wide range of products in its self-proclaimed mission to organize the world's information. Despite objections by publishers and authors, Google is attempting to copy every book ever published and make snippets available online. It plans to launch a free wireless Internet service in San Francisco. It also hopes to shake up the advertising world by using the Internet to sell ads in magazines, newspapers and on radio.
Philip Remek, an analyst who follows Google for Guzman and Co., sees the many initiatives as a series of lottery cards.
"A lot of them aren't going to work," Remek said. "Maybe there will be a few that take off spectacularly. And maybe they're smart enough to realize no one is smart enough to tell which lottery card is the winner five years out."
While Google often launches products before they are ready for prime time, even the premature ones instill fear in competitors, who know that the search leader has the patience and money -- a market value of about $140 billion and $2.69 billion in quarterly revenue -- to keep trying.
That's also a message Google sends employees.
"If you're not failing enough, you're not trying hard enough," said Richard Holden, product management director for Google's AdWords service, in which advertisers bid to place text ads next to search results. "The stigma [for failure] is less because we staff projects leanly and encourage them to just move, move, move. If it doesn't work, move on."
Holden said Google tried three different ways to make use of the radio advertising company it bought for $102 million this year, dMarc Broadcasting, with little success. The goal was to sell radio ads through an online auction system similar to AdWords. But, Holden said, "I would not describe what we've done as a failure," because Google finally came up with a model that he expects to work.
Google's innovative streak is apparent throughout its campus, where buildings have been reconfigured to be environmentally friendly and let light stream into interiors through glass-walled workrooms shared by three or four employees. In addition to glass cubicles, some staffers share white fabric "yurts," tentlike spaces that resemble igloos. This week Google announced that it would install 9,000 solar panels on its buildings to generate electricity for its campus.
Along interior hallways, employees scribble random thoughts on large whiteboards strung together. Outside, they whiz by on company-provided motorized scooters or mingle on grassy areas and chairs under brightly colored umbrellas.
Innovation reaches one corner of Google that most companies neglect: food. Each of its 11 campus cafes is run by an executive chef with a theme catering to the culture of people working in that particular building. This year Google opened Cafe180, a cafeteria that supports local organic farming by serving only products from within 180 miles of the campus.
Google's anything-goes culture begins and is maintained with a rigorous hiring procedure similar to those used for admission to elite universities. Underachievers need not apply, unless they stand out in some way. Experience and grade-point averages for recent college graduates matter, but also factored in is "whether someone is Googley," said chief culture officer Stacy Sullivan.
"It's an ill-defined term -- we intentionally don't define that term, but it's . . . not someone too traditional or stuck in ways done traditionally by other companies," Sullivan said.
Each prospective hire is interviewed by at least five staff members, who ask a series of questions intended to make them understand how the candidate thinks about solving a problem. Getting the right answer is not necessary.
Abraham Egnor, a 25-year-old hired three months ago, fits the Google look. At work, Egnor wears his black hair long down his back, colored with a tint of green, a black T-shirt, backpack, cargo pants and sandals.
He said the interview process was tough. "I got a sense one of the persons who interviewed me was being somewhat antagonistic to see how I would respond," he said. "He said that I don't have a college degree, so how would I know certain things. My response was there may have been things I didn't learn -- I don't know. But I think I pick up on things very quickly."
Another job candidate told Google interviewers that his worst qualities were that he was lazy and short-tempered, but was working on it. He wasn't hired.
"We skew toward people who like to solve problems -- the bigger the problem, the better, rather than those who settle in and say, 'okay, I'll do that for 30 years,' " said Laszlo Bock, Google's vice president of "people operations." Learning continues on the job across a wide range of subjects through Google's "tech talks" with well-known people invited to speak on campus much like guest lecturers in college.
On a recent visit, chief executive Eric Schmidt moderated a discussion about women and war with Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda to a standing-room-only crowd. In the back, a Google employee with a long silver braid held his pet African Grey parrot on his finger.
Google executives know it will be hard to replicate such experiences as it opens offices in so many cities and countries.
Sullivan said she's thinking of ways to export the culture, such tapping longtime employees to serve as "Google ambassadors" and develop in-house videos about what it means to be Googley.
But Sullivan doesn't want it to be too formal. That would be un-Googley.
"We're not trying to solve a problem," she said. " But we want to ensure we're thinking about it and watching over it. Our culture is one of our most valuable assets."