It’s the night before Google I/O eve and i`m just as excited as if the Google I/O keynote was tomorrow. The reason? I have an invitation to go and check out the heart of everything I’ve been writing about for the last nearly four years – the Googleplex. Google has kindly arranged for me to speak with some of the VPs at Google in charge of their search, translation, accessibility and HR departments.
The bus leaves San Francisco at 7am, by 9am we’ve negotiated the drive down to Google and we’re signed in as visitors and presented with a nametag to be displayed at all times. It’s the same tag I’ve received when visiting Google Australia – but this is the Googleplex.
Inside the buildings you’ll find all sorts of fun things; and it all starts in the reception area of Building 43, where you’ll find an oversize Nexus One (yes it would look great in my collection) and a Robbie the Robot replica statue. Further on in the building you’ll find a model of a Virgin Galactic ship and a cabinet containing the first servers that were hand built by Larry and Sergey – and in another building you’ll find a slippery slide.
Though Google now sprawls over entire blocks in Mountain View, California, with now 65 buildings housing over 25,000 staff, the GooglePlex is the name given to the core buildings located at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway – Buildings 40 – 43. The buildings are numbered the same way as when the complex was purchased from Silicon Graphics back in 2006, but it’s grown even from that original purchase, to the point that Google announced in February that they’re planning an expansion to a new futuristic looking 288,000 sqM officespace.
In the main quadrangle outside is a sand volleyball court – yes, it’s used, apparently quite often (we even saw a game in progress), as well as a T-Rex skeleton named Stan and of course, there’s a steampunk Android sculpture next to it.
Around the campuses, you’ll invariably see the famous Red, Yellow, Green and Blue bikes parked or being ridden around the campuses – there’s also a full time team that maintains the bikes. Googlers living less than 10 miles from the Googleplex are encouraged to ride or walk to work, and for those outside the range, there’s buses provided. In a nod to changing trends, there’s even electric vehicle charging stations in the car park for those who really have to drive. Though there weren’t any self-driving cars parked, we did see one driving along, I was just slow on the camera.
Of course first item on the list is breakfast which is at Yoshka’s Cafe – named after Urs Hölzle’s dog, Yoshka, dogs are a theme at Google, you’ll see them everywhere, it seems to be encouraged to bring your dog with you if you need to. Yoshka’s offers a Then lunch is over to Charlie’s Cafe where a mix of offerings are available – hand-rolled sushi, pizza, burgers, hot dogs, laksa, salad, essentially anything you could want really. Googlers all sit together and there’s discussions about work aplenty surrounding as you sit enjoying your meal.
Google provides free food it’s a particular feature that people love – or hate. According to our tour guide, the free food isn’t a ploy to keep Googlers on campus as much as possible, rather a way to get something good to eat when they invariably get sucked (of their own volition) into a project and find themselves working odd hours. Freebies aren’t limited to food though, they also extend to a basket of feminine hygiene products in the bathrooms…
Between eating breakfast and lunch, we were treated to talks with VPs, managers and engineers about a number of Google Products.
Eve Anderson, Manager Accessibility engineering and Casey Burkhardt, a Software Engineer Accessibility Features on Android at Google spoke at length about the way that Google ingrains the concept of Creating innovative products for accessibility. They work with product teams to make sure they work for everyone.
Google employs a number of people who require these accessibility options, but doesn’t actually have metrics on how many or what impairments they have. Google does however find that having these employees embedded in teams helps to have a sense of empathy built, which then shines through in product design aimed at everyone.
Google works with various groups, as well as attending conferences and meeting with real users, advisers and also UI designers to create their products. They also take structured feedback from real users on prototypes and build that into the products. Real users come on board to preview pre-release versions of products. User Feedback is a very important part of the process.
Accessibility is present across all their products – Android, ChromeOS, Hangouts. All new engineers spend a week looking at products purely from an accessibility standpoint, to see if there are improvements to be made.
Another treat was a talk from Barak Turovsky, Product Lead, Google Translate – who showed off Google Translate’s newest feature, the on the fly translation from Word Lens, a company Google purchased last year.
Word Lens is currently available for Seven languages, but it’s expanding to more languages including Korean, Chinese and Thai. The Word Lens integration is awesome – if you haven’t seen it, the demo is worth a look:
Google Translate has more than half a billion users a month, with more than a billion translations performed everyday. Google’s aim for Translate is to let everyone communicate and break down language barriers. It’s important too, with 50% of the internet in English, but only 20% of the earth is proficient in English – this is why Google Translate is so popular
Google has a real goal with Translate, to focus on reaching more markets, something they are doing with the Android One initiative for emerging markets, something that’s a focus for Google Translate. There’s going to be real progress here in the future.
Google is well known for quirky hiring practices, but that’s a thing of the past. It’s more aimed at being Googley, as well as being good at the position they’re going for. When asked about what being ‘Googley’ is, Laszlo Bock, SVP, People Operations at Google said there isn’t really a definition, not really, all googlers will have a slightly different definition. But there’s three things that they see as being ‘Googley’.
- Do you bring something different to the company
- Intellectual humility – not regular humility, people willing to change their opinions based on new ideas.
- Conscientiousness – If you see a scrap of paper picks it up, cleans up without thinking. It shows they care about their work.
They screen for these in the interview process, which can extend to multiple interviews over the course of months.
The company has grown a lot since their birth in the garage of Susan Wojcicki in Menlo Park, Mr Bock recounted a time when he joined Google and knew every person, and whether they had a cat or dog – but in a campus this big with 25,000 people, it’s hard to track that now.
Google still strives to encourage innovation, their famous 20% project time, which allowed employees to use 20% of their working week to work on projects outside their normal scope has brought us such gems as Cardboard, Gmail, Adsense and more. For a formalisation of this is the Google Garage, a space where Googlers can work on products and ideas. It’s setup like a garage, but is actually housed in a standard office building on campus.
There’s one major reason I was excited to hit Google and it had to do with Building 44, or at least the statues which are situated outside. With every release of Android, a new Android statue from Giovanni Calabrese of Themendous is unveiled, and I’ve always wanted to see them. Unfortunately, they’re not currently in front of building 44, which stands simply as a non-descript office building on the Google campus. Instead they’ve been moved to outside the Google Visitor Centre (Beta), yes even their visitor centre gets a Beta tag.
The walk to the visitor centre, which is located on Landings Drive takes you along some active, but mostly fairly quiet roads, past bus stops and more. Including a sign which claims to be the home of the Google Department of World Peace, but finally, you’ll see a Google Maps car sitting outside the visitor centre.
But the real gems are behind another building just to the left of the Visitor Centre – the Android Statues:
The statues are all sitting in their garden quite happily, it’s a secluded spot, but it’s also easy to find.
There’s two bonus Android statues – one, which is dressed as a ‘Noolger’ (a new Google employee, complete with propellor hat), is located just out the rear doors of the Google Garage, and the other directly across the road above the entrance to Building 45 – another Android building where new Android engineers are first introduced to Google culture and eat their first (free) meal at Google.
There’s one more bonus if you approach the Chrome Android – the glowing eyes. The eyes change colour including an evil looking red, which when paired with the Chrome on the droid, brings a distinctly Terminator like look.
No trip to the Googleplex is complete without a trip to the Google Merch store. You can purchase Google Merchandise from their online store googlemerchandisestore.com, but with shipping a major factor, if you get an opportunity to go in and check it out you should do it, but be warned, you will spend a fortune – I certainly did.
All the buildings on the Google Campus, if you’re not a guest of a Googler (or a Googler obviously) you can’t get in. But you can see all the statues, buildings, bikes, volleyball court etc. without an invite or chaperone. It’s a great place to visit and would be an extremely wonderful place to work.
Google went out of their way in what can only be described as their busiest week to allow me – as well as a contingent of journalists from Taiwan, Korea and Australia – to tour the place and it was perhaps one of the high points on my trip to Google I/O a week I don’t think I`ll ever forget.
The bus left the Googleplex at 5pm and headed back on in to San Francisco where registration for Google I/O had begun at the Moscone Centre – tomorrow was another big day.