Snooping around the Googleplex

Dot-com excess is alive and well at Google but does that mean it will go the same way as Netscape?

Lava lamps in the foyer, random dogs running free down hallways, scooters, beer kegs in the garden and the Grateful Dead's chef serving up gourmet food on tap. This may sound like a hit-list of the crazy excesses of dot-com frippery that typified the tech boom years but if this kind of corporate culture was supposed to have died with Netscape or the UK's it seems no one has told Google.

On a recent trip to San Francisco I got to see first-hand that for the zeitgeist setting search start-up the Silicon Valley dream is still very much alive and well thank you very much.

The Googleplex, as the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, is affectionately if slightly pretentiously known, is a sprawling nest of rather nondescript buildings set in the kind of landscaped gardens favoured by business-park architects and retirement home designers. The only thing to mark out the fact that you've strayed into the Google Zone is the company's familiar logo on a discrete sign outside the main building -- that and a 30-foot trailer flying a skull and cross bones.

This, I am later informed, is the kitchen where the aforementioned rock cook -- Charlie Ayers -- provides free round the clock meals to the 1,000 or so Googleites in the surrounding complex. Right now, the kitchen isn't being put to much use -- not because it's around 2pm and lunch is over but because to celebrate the end of summer Google has laid on a BBQ, complete with marquee, live DJs and beer keg. Not bad, even if it is Friday.

Even after seeing the cook-out in full flow, entering the main building feels like stepping into Hamleys. In most companies' foyers you might expect to see a desk, a table with some magazines and a bored-looking receptionist. The first thing you run into in the Googleplex is a piano. Then your eyes are drawn to the live feed of search terms beamed onto the wall behind the beaming receptionist. This scrolling list of search criteria has been tastefully filtered to keep out the more lurid terms typed in by Google's worldwide user base. Given the popularity of porn on the Net, this surrender to conformity is undoubtedly a good thing -- not what you want recent visitors such as former US president Jimmy Carter, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and UK pop flavour-of-the-month Coldplay (front man Chris Martin is friends with a Google programmer, it is later explained) to see when they come through the door.

Sitting on the front desk is a huge birthday cake, which according to the receptionist is "for everyone in the company whose birthday it is this month." The sheer amount of goodies that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (the pair still share an office, which is confusingly disorganised or creatively eclectic, depending on your perspective) lavish on their employees doesn't stop with comestibles though. Employees are entitled to spend 20 percent of their work time on an outside activity. Whether any of them actually do is questionable -- and it's only when you consider exactly how much time employees spend at work that all the perks come into context.

According Debbie, the press relations person showing me around, things like weekdays and weekends have little meaning at the Googleplex -- along with working hours and clocking off time, one assumes. But with free food, beer, and friendly animals to keep you company, why would you ever want to leave? In fact one dedicated Googleite actually stopped going home altogether -- management started to get suspicious when he had his mail diverted to the office.

Google is also relatively unique in Silicon Valley when it comes to recruitment -- in that it's actually doing some. While most tech companies are cutting or freezing headcount -- old-school stalwart Sun recently announced around 1,000 layoffs -- Google has around 60 vacancies. To this end the company is hosting an event, called Code Jam, in October to attract the brightest programming talent around to add to the 60 or more PhDs it already employs (Google claims to have the highest percentage of computer science PhDs working in any company on the planet). The competition, basically a test of Internet-based programming skills, will see 25 people invited to the Googleplex to fight it out for a number of positions.

Pushed on whether the company can really justify its indulgence, Debbie is keen to point out that although Google is generous with its employees, it keeps a tight reign on things like marketing budgets. "We don't take ads out in SuperBowl -- we're not that kind of company," she says. But even so, if the company goes public next year, as it has been rumoured, surely the corporate culture will have to change when there are shareholders to consider? Debbie claims that the founders are conscious of the way the business has changed as it's grown and accepted after it grew beyond three or four people that things would never be the same as the old days.

Hiring ex-Novell boss Eric Schmidt to become Google chief executive is a clear sign that the founders Page and Brin are focused on expanding the business from straight search. The recently launched news site, the Froogle comparative e-commerce search facility, and an expanding focus on the corporate search market show that Google isn't content to sit back and enjoy the $600 to $800m analysts estimate the company has netted from advertising and license fees this year. Not that the market is going to let the company relax.

Google News, still in Beta 2 but expected to be a finished product in the next six months, has irked previous customers of its search facility, such as Yahoo,! which increasingly see Google as a competitor. But Microsoft could be the biggest threat, and has publicly voiced intentions to move into the search market with the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. By using its dominance of the desktop, Microsoft plans to blur the line between local and internet search giving it a clear advantage over Google. The Redmond firm has already made tentative moves in this direction with its MSNBOT search product.

But despite threats on the horizon Google is continuing to expand with plans to move its entire staff into a nearby facility once occupied by Silicon Graphics -- an old-school company that has fared less well than Google recently. Whether Google goes the same way as SGI will become clearer after its IPO, which some commentators claim could reignite the present tech economy in the same way that Netscape did back in August 1995. But given the boom and bust fate of Netscape, Google's founders are probably hoping the parallels stop there.


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