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The sum of a hundred zeroes

Nerdliness | Saturday, October 7th, 2006 | 10 years, 6 months ago

This past week I had the great privilege of attending partner training at Google’s headquarters, nicknamed Googleplex, in Mountain View, CA. I worked with the Google Search Appliance – a product line of Google search servers of varying scopes designed to index enterprise assets like Word documents, PDFs, web pages, databases, and much more. I can’t say too much about my ideas and concerns about the product, but there’s a pretty thorough description of the inner workings and case studies at Google’s Enterprise and Code websites.

But that stuff is boring anyway, right? I’ll enthusiastically talk about my experience at Googleplex, which was indeed a very fascinating and surreal place!Pulling into the campus in a taxi, I knew something cool was in store when I saw Google-coloured pylons directing traffic past a young, casual security guard sitting on a Google-emblazoned lounge chair. He nonchalantly waved us past and we pulled up to building 40. I was early so I took a little stroll around, noting the odd architecture of the structures surrounding a huge grassy courtyard featured with some benches and a good-sized beach volleyball pit. A glance around the corner revealed a large outdoor eating area with over a hundred tables, some of which were quite large with many chairs surrounding. Many walls and columns had printed signs advertising lectures and workshops on odd topics such as proper nutrition, spirituality and computing, and attaining better job satisfaction. Powered and motorless scooters were parked neatly every several feet along the walkways with no sign-out sheets in sight. A yellow brick road would probably have helped me string these fantastical pipe-dreams into the realization that this was an actual workplace and I was present there.

Despite the huge signs and directional markers it took me a little while to find the entrance to building 40 as I was rather overwhelmed by the attractive landscaping and beautiful weather. When I found the front door I was greeted by a very friendly receptionist who invited (more than instructed) me to use the terminal in front of her to fill out a guest registration web form. I typed in my pertinents, signed a digital pad, and a pass printed on a label which I affixed to my business-casual shirt which, in context, was feeling pretty business-formal compared to everyone else I saw.

I was still a little flustered by my humbling surroundings so it didn’t really register when the receptionist welcomed me to take a bottled beverage from the nearby fridge. A bit dazed, I waddled over, gave what must have been a bit of a pleadingly befuddled look, and asked “may I?” With her smiley consent I spent nearly 60 seconds surveying brand after brand of water, no-sugar-added juice frappes, milk and shakes, and iced teas and coffees. I grabbed one and took one of the more normal looking plush seats next to a slightly intimidating electric massage chair.

Before long the other guests and I were guided up some stairs and through a few halls to our meeting room. The polish of the exterior layout didn’t quite continue indoors. In true Google style the building felt a little beta, with walls streaked with rubbery skidmarks and thick CAT5e bundles spindled about exposed ceiling beams like blue and grey genetic helices. Further signs (like those pointing to massage therapist and doctor services) and wonders (like free arcade and pinball machines) clouded my senses moreso until our short guided tour ended at the Vienna meeting room.

The meeting room, where I’d spend most of the next 4 days in training, was well equipped but unspectacular. Adorning the plain white walls were whiteboards, a pair of expensive-looking projectors aimed at retractable screens, and a duet of oddly shaped clear plastic speakers. Each attendee’s place was set with IBM and Mac laptop power plugs, a CAT5 network cable, and an exceptionally comfortable chair coloured in one of the Google logo’s hues. It didn’t take long for us to learn that the projector was a bit shakey and the power was a little unstable. Despite the lack of windows I felt comfortable, if understimulated, in the Vienna room.

My rumbling tummy beckoned Google to challenge it with the finest feasts it could muster. At the end of the day, my tummy would eat those words even more heartily than the sumptuous unending banquet offered to the metropolis of proud logo-wearing citizens of this corporate cruise ship.

The food. Holy crap. Oh my goodness. The food. Gracious. The food. Good golly.

Curried calamari with pine nuts, jasmine rice, and naan. Sweet and sour pork with sticky rice, garlic bok choy, and sweet tofu and vegetable stir-fry. Four cheese and mushroom calzones, mini goat cheese pizzas, and whole wheat pasta with vegan tomato cream sauce. Burgers and hot dogs. A grill-your-own-sandwich station. Two salad bars. Two dessert bars. Bottled and on-tap beverages everywhere. This is a FRACTION of what was served at any ONE meal.

But a feast for the tongue and eyes isn’t enough to satiate Google. I must have clicked an “I’m feeling lucky!” button somewhere because one afternoon our lunch was accompanied by the prepubescent warblings of Good Charlotte who was taxied in from San Jose where they were playing later that night. They performed 3 quick songs, but a free lunch was still too high an admission price for such a cacophonous foray into teeniebopperism so I literally retreated indoors after 2.

Security was hardcore at Googleplex. All eyes were on us even while we were led like cattle through hallways on the way to lunch. I swear the security guards were more lax than the engineers who leered at us and sometimes “asked” us if they could help direct us somewhere, elsewhere, away. Signs near security doors stressed “no piggybacking”, insisting employees use their badges to traverse all checkpoints. We guests, if we left the group to go outside for lunch, had to take the roundabout route via the front desk (and past my beloved beverage fridge) just to get back to the cafe that was otherwise one door away. No photographs of the premises were permitted, though quizzically there was a photography crew with a semi- (maybe quarterly-) attractive female model sprawling over the reception area chairs one morning.

Google is a fantasyland for engineers. I’d love to work there but I don’t know how much work I’d actually do! I really wonder whether all this spending on accommodations and luxuries per-employee really pays off in productivity. I kind of hope so! That way I can persuade my bosses to implement what I call the “curry and rockband strategy”.

I’ll speak of my other Excellent Adventures in California soon!

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