This story made the front page of the Digital Life section. Part 1 of the Straits Times story about Google and myself.  Part 2 is just about me.

 


 

Straits Times – Digital Life – Feb 27, 2007Google PLEX: GEEK PARADISE

Where work seems like play

Everything from free hair cuts, lap pools to subsidised massage to creative churn keep staff working happily on Google grounds. THAM YUEN-C checks out its neural networks

Google has some post apocalyptic plans.Or at least some Googlers – as employees like to be known – do.

I saw them on the ground floor of building 43 at the search giant’s Mountain View headquarters in California.

There were diagrams and flowcharts, depicting how the fictional computer network, Skynet, would destroy the world, and how Google would eventually index the whole world.

The scenarios were scribbled all over a 3m-long whiteboard.

When the writings and squiggles fill up the whole board, also known as the idea board, a ceremony complete with beer and food is held to wipe it clean and make way for other plans that anyone can contribute to.

The earlier diagrams are also captured in pictures before that, but for fun and not for any documentation purposes. Because the plans would have already served their purpose of creating cerebral churn.

This board, and the intellectual capital that percolates from staff cubicle to boardroom to millions of users the world over – encapsulates how Google keeps itself ahead of the competition.

By getting employees to think – a lot and creatively – and involving everyone at every level in the company’s fortunes.

On my whirlwind visit to Google on Valentine’s day, I didn’t get to taste the lobster served by Charlie’s Place on that day, or any of the legendary gourmet food at the other 10 staff cafes there. Nor did I get a haircut or a subsidised massage.

But I did get to see some of the things that have propelled Google to the top of the list of Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies To Work For in 2007.

A veritable geek’s paradise, the company made an obscene amount – US$10.6 billion (S$16.3 billion) – in revenue last year. And, going by the staff perks that it sheds liberally around its campus-like grounds, it likes to share.

There was the No Name cafe, the IT place to chill out at the search giant’s 500,000 sq ft (46,451 sq m) campus at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, the wave pool watched by a full-time lifeguard, yellow motorised scooters scattered around the campus and offices for staff to zip around on, and the beach volleyball pit where Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are said to play ball when taking a break from work.

Such perks, deeply enmeshed within the company’s culture, are the means to keeping the 10,000-strong workforce happy and creative. And what has helped drive the company’s stock from its public offer price of US$85 to the US$475.85 reached last week.

Mr Joe Kraus, who oversees the development of collaborative products at Google, explains it this way: “Smart, technical people want to spend as much time doing smart technical things and nothing else. And they get energy from being at their computer and zoning in.”

So providing yummy eats at the cafes, is one way for them to “focus on their work”.

Indeed. The search giant spends an estimated US$100,000 a day on free food alone.

Have food will work

Many Googlers will attest to the fact that the gastric juices get the creative juices to last the distance.

One of them is Singaporean Vincent Koh, who has been working as a test engineer at Google since 2003. (See page 6, Fitting Into The Work Culture.)

“I usually stay at work until after dinner because they provide such good food here. My fridge at home is quite empty,” he said.

For the one-third of Google’s employees based outside the Unite States in cities like Beijing and Hong Kong, sustenance comes in the form of catered food.

And while the company, which evolved from a university research project in 1998, now has a market cap of US$145 billion, it has retained much of its start-up, entrepreneurial culture.

Engineers at Google work in colourful, open workspaces in small groups. The company has a flat hierarchy, and most Google name cards describe which department someone is from rather than his rank.

No matter what the job, you swear that you could almost touch the neural connections that Googlers make in their daily discourses – it’s that palpable.

And it is this interplay of innovative culture and tension that the company believes has helped it stay in the race after eight years.

“In my three months here, I haven’t yet met anybody that’s dumb, and that’s very unusual,” said Mr Kraus, who was one of the founders of Jotspot, a developer of wiki technology that has since been bought over by Google, and the Excite search engine.

What is best, said Singaporean Tan Chade-Meng, who works as a developer there, is that the smart people are also nice. (See A Singaporean At Google).

“Smart people don’t tend to be nice, but here, everyone is very pleasant. Even though everyone is so brilliant, there is a certain sense of humility,” said Mr Tan.

With such a brilliant workforce that includes big names like Vinton Cerf, known as one of the founding fathers of the Internet, and Larry Brilliant, who led the World Health Organisation programme to eradicate smallpox, it is no wonder that Google manages to attract legions of engineers, marketing and administrative people who graduated at the top of their class.

“It’s a lot of fun to work here. There’s a lot of creativity and the work culture is really unique,” said Mr Koh.

To be sure, Googlers are highly competitive too, the two Singaporeans said. There is as much camaraderie as there is the individual striving to shine, said

Mr Tan who joined the company seven years ago. Yet, for the software engineer there is no other place he would rather be.

“Some days I feel like I’m in heaven. Millions of people love your product, your mother can use what you’ve built, and there’s free food,” he said.

 


 

Straits Times-Digital Life-Feb 27, 2007Google PLEX: GEEK PARADISE

A Singaporean at Google

FAST MOVER: Mr Tan, on one of the yellow motorised scooters for Google staff to use, works as a software developer writing code for the search engine. Getting called a “fellow” at Google is something coveted by many, but reserved only for a select few. The title is only conferred to the top engineers who have made outstanding contributions to the company and, eight years on, the company only has four engineering fellows.Yet, Singaporean Tan Chade-Meng, 36, managed to earn a fellow-title – through sheer creativity.

The developer at Google might not yet be an engineering fellow in the traditional Google sense, but he has become the company’s Jolly Good Fellow.

Which is, as his name card says, something nobody can deny.

“When I needed new name cards I just submitted the request to my manager and he approved it,” quipped Mr Tan of the title on his name card.

It is both this creative streak and his programming prowess that have seen him through the projects he has worked on for the search leader, including developing the mobile search engine and also adapting Google’s search for use with the Chinese language.

In his seven years at Google, the engineer, who is the first Singaporean hired by the company, has also taken on other portfolios.

One of which he really enjoys, is becoming a Google ambassador of sorts.

Because of a very “Singaporean” trait of always wanting to “take pictures”,

Mr Tan managed to get a snapshot taken with former United States president Jimmy Carter when he visited Google’s office years ago.

That picture kicked off a picture gallery aptly titled All The Presidents’ Meng, and also his role as a Google host.

Now, Mr Tan gets to play tour guide to visitors to the campus.

It was a lot more than he bargained for when he first joined the company after graduating with straight As from a master’s course in computer science from the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB).

That is why the father-of-one is not in a hurry to return home to Singapore with his wife and US-born daughter.

“I have the opportunity to tackle very challenging problems and also work on products that millions of people rely on daily, and they love us. To top it all off, I get to meet some famous people occasionally,” said Mr Tan.

Q&A with Mr Tan Chade-Meng

How did you get your job at Google?

“I sent in my resume to Google and then I was called for an interview.”

What was the toughest part of the interview?

“As an engineer, it was having to solve difficult technical problems, on the spot, with very little time.”

Any tips for someone who wants to work there?

“Always pursue your own passion. If you’re doing something you’re passionate about, then you’re likely to be very motivated and to become outstanding.”

Any drawbacks about working there?

“There is too much temptation to be overworked. When you’re solving big problems that make a difference for millions of users worldwide, and your co-workers are all brilliant and hardworking, it’s very hard to resist the temptation of working much harder than you really should.