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At Google, the Proof Is in the People

February 28, 2003
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Downsizing, Benefit Design and Communication, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
Only five years ago, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were college buddies atStanford, graduate student computer geeks who started an Internet business notfar from campus in a friend’s house in Menlo Park. The garage served asexecutive headquarters. Benefits included free use of a washer and dryer, ashower, and a refrigerator. The young entrepreneurs plugged in a toaster oven,installed a cache of candy and snacks, and set about orchestrating a businesstriumph.

    Today they are masters of cyberspace. Their brainchild, Google, has morphedinto a vast and powerful multimillion- dollar Internet search engine with three billion Web addresses. The young businessmen, now 29 and 30, respectively, havebecome rich, sought-after celebrities who appear on prime-time news programs,maintain high academic credentials, and participate in power events such as theWorld Economic Forum held earlier this year in Switzerland. Page, the son of aMichigan State University computer science professor, last year was named a "Young Innovator Who Will Create the Future" by MIT’s Technology Review magazine.

    Their Menlo Park friend and former landlady, Susan Wojcicki, is now directorof product management and a major player in charge of managing relationshipswith companies such as Yahoo that use Google’s search mechanism. The mother oftwo small children, she enjoys Google’s many excellent employee benefits,including three months of maternity leave paid at 75 percent of salary and twoweeks of paid paternity leave. During the first week after the babies were born,free meals were delivered to her home. Larry and Sergey--as employees callthem--replicated the culture of the company’s informal infancy, figuring thatthe better they handled workforce management, the better the business would be.There’s still an employee washer and dryer, and a shower. Candy and snackscontinue to be staples.

    Google is now headquartered in more corporate-looking digs inneighboring Mountain View, in the hub of Silicon Valley. But Page and Brin, anative of Moscow, have retained their garage office values. The results aremind-boggling. In 2001, Google had about 200 employees. Last year, it added 500.As many as 20 contractors are required just to review the 1,000 résumés thatarrive daily. The company may double in size this year, again.

    To make the operation work, Page and Brin are directly involved in humanresources issues. Every Wednesday afternoon, for example, the duo meets withhuman resources director Stacy Sullivan and other executives to talk aboutrecruiting concerns, and address questions such as: Are candidates having to gothrough too many interviews? Is the process taking too long for the candidate?

    The founders also come up with recruiting ideas--some off-the-wall. At arecent meeting, for example, Brin suggested skipping candidate interviewsentirely and trying to hire people solely on the basis of their résumés. (Theidea is still under consideration.) Throughout the week, hiring managers lookfor "fit," a process that has resulted in a 95 percent acceptance rate andabout 4 percent turnover.

    At Google, formality and convention aren’t the corporate values. When a jobapplicant shows up for an interview, he could, for example, elect to sit in achair or perhaps sink into a beanbag. The latter is what a Google kind of personwould do. The company wants people who are flexible enough to adjust to bigchanges on the job. When a hiring manager listens to a candidate, she’s tryingto see if the person is thinking more about the team or more about himself.Google wants employees who can play ideas off others. Sullivan and her 10-personhuman resources team keep in touch with more than 300 professors nationwide,making sure Google knows who their best students are.

"Larry and Sergey are sometimes more interested in the people here than the product."

    What’s fascinating about Google’s intense focus on workforce managementis not that Page and Brin have bought into the idea that happy, high-performingemployees will result in a good product. They have sold this idea; it is theirpassion. One employee says, off the record, "Larry and Sergey are sometimes more interested in the people here than the product." Last summer, when thecompany was looking for a receptionist, Brin interviewed finalists himself.Page, Brin, and Sullivan have made it their business to find out what employeesat other companies don’t like about their benefits. Then, they don’t offerthose things.

    At Google, 401(k) and health benefits begin as soon as an employee reportsfor work. New hires begin with three weeks’vacation during the first year.There are no sick days at Google; when you’re sick, you simply stay home. Twodays a week, a physician is available on site. The pièce de résistance isthis: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are free.

    After seeing a recent 60 Minutes TV segment on benefits-rich SAS Institute,Page and Brin went to Sullivan’s team and said, "We’ve got to add benefits." They’d like an expanded medical facility on site, as well as aday-care center, a preschool, and social workers.

It’s about creativity
    It’s not just the free tortellini in the cafeteria that causes top Ph.D.candidates to leave school and work for Google. Page and Brin want topperformers to come to Google because making sense out of billions of Webaddresses is compelling and challenging.

    Lucas Pereira, a software engineer, was four and a half years into a StanfordPh.D. program in computer graphics when he went to work at Google in 2000. Heput his studies on hold--probably forever. "In school you put a lot of work into getting the footnotes right, and how many people really, truly care?" heasks. "Here you launch a site feature and there are 50 news articles about it the next day." Pereira says that the people at the company are much likegraduate students, which in fact they are. Dozens of Stanford alumni work atGoogle.

    Every Friday afternoon, the founders gather all employees into an open areafor a TGIF meeting. Brin and Page talk about new product launches, advertisingvictories, and scuttlebutt about competitors. Schmidt and the company’s seniormanagement also share financial data. Google’s sales, which include text-basedads at the top of search-results pages, brought the company to profitability in2001. Hoover’s estimates that Google did about $100 million in sales in 2002.

    Google now has locations in France, Germany, Holland, Australia, Italy, andJapan. The founders are trying to duplicate as much of the company’s uniqueculture and benefits as possible as the company expands in size and geography.Wojcicki says that Google’s cultural trademarks are illustrations of itsvalues. That’s why it provides 30 different kinds of cereal in the office andeverchanging cubicle configurations. "It’s about creativity, enabling people to be creative about their jobs," she says. "It’s not a culture about standardization."

 Workforce, March 2003, pp. 50-51 -- Subscribe Now!

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