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Archive for Sunday, October 29, 2006

Google’s culture of innovation

Company encourages offbeat thinking

October 29, 2006

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— 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 8 this fall and opens offices in such cities as Beijing, Zurich and Bangalore. In the past three years, Google's work force has more than tripled, to 9,000 employees, and the company has launched a new product nearly every week, including some widely regarded as flops.

When its 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.

Culture of fearlessness

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 like some new-age college campus. 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 San Francisco and other residential areas - that are the envy of workers all over Silicon Valley.

Brainstorming, such as on whiteboards strung in the halls, is not only encouraged at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., it also is almost mandatory. "We staff projects leanly and encourage them to just move, move, move. If it doesn't work, move on," said Richard Holden, product management director for Google's AdWords service.

Brainstorming, such as on whiteboards strung in the halls, is not only encouraged at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., it also is almost mandatory. "We staff projects leanly and encourage them to just move, move, move. If it doesn't work, move on," said Richard Holden, product management director for Google's AdWords service.

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 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 who hold the copyrights, 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 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 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."

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. Along interior hallways, employees scribble random thoughts on large whiteboards strung together.

Each of Google's 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.

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