Well I've been an employee at Google for about a month. So this seems like as good a place to reflect for a moment.
The first thing that I've learned is that internally Google is incredibly open, but externally there is a lot we can't say. I understand and support a lot of the reasons why it is so, but it can be frustrating. There is a lot of really cool technology at Google that people never hear about. The statistics of what Google deals with are astounding. The technology we use to deal with it is amazing. The way we scale is unbelievable. (I really wish I could go back and have a few discussions on software development methodology raising points about what has proven to scale at Google...) One random fact that I know I can say is that computations happen in our data centers with about half the power drawn for what is industry standard. I'm not allowed to say how we do it, but it is a rather amazing testimony to what smart people can accomplish when we put our minds to it.
Moving on, what about Google's culture? I would describe Google's culture as "creative chaos". There was some confusion about where I was supposed to be when I started. This resulted in the following phone call, "Hello?", "Hello Ben, this is Conner (that's my new manager), where are you?" "Mountain View." "Why are you there?" "Because this is where the recruiter said to go." "Good answer! Nice of them to tell me. Enjoy your week!" This caused me to ask an experienced Googler, "Is it always this chaotic?" The response I got was, "Yes! Isn't it wonderful?" That response sums up a lot about Google's culture. If you're unable to enjoy that kind of environment, then Google isn't the place for you.
Seriously, the corporate culture is based on hiring really smart people, giving them responsibilities, letting them know what problems the company thinks it should focus on, then letting them figure out how to tackle it. What management hierarchy there is is very flat. And people pay little attention to it unless there is a problem. You are expected to be a self-directed person, who solves problems by reaching out to whomever you need to and talking directly. Usually by email. The result is an organization which is in a constant state of flux as things are changing around you, usually for the better. With a permanent level of chaos and very large volumes of email. It is as if an entire company intuitively understood that defect rates are tied to distance on the corporate org-chart, and tried to solve it by eliminating all barriers to people communicating directly with whoever they need to communicate with. (Incidentally the point about defect rates and org charts is actually true, see Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering for a citation.)
Speaking of email, working at Google you learn really fast how gmail is meant to be used. If you want to deal with a lot of email in gmail, here is what you need to do. Go into settings and turn keyboard shortcuts on. The ones you'll use a lot are j/k to move through email threads, n to skip to the next message, and the space bar to page through text. And m to hide any active thread that you're not interested in (direct emails to you will still show up). There are other shortcuts, but this is enough to let you skim through a lot of email fairly quickly without touching the mouse too much. Next go into labels and choose to show all labels. Your labels are basically what you'd call folders in another email client. (Unfortunately they are not hierarchical, but they do work.) Next as you get email, you need to be aggressive about deciding what you need to see, versus what is context specific. Anything that is context specific you should add a filter for, that adds a label, and skips the inbox. Nothing is lost, you can get to the emails through the list of labels on the left-hand side of your screen in gmail. But now various kinds of automated emails, lower priority mailing lists, and so on won't distract you from your main email until you go looking for them.
When you combine all of these options with gmail's auto-threading features, it is amazing how much more efficiently you can handle email. In fact this is exactly the problem that gmail was invented to handle. Because this was the problem that Paul Buchheit was trying to solve for himself when he started gmail. It is worth pointing out that Paul Buchheit was a software engineer at Google. He didn't need permission to write something like gmail. Corporate culture says that if you need something like that, you just go ahead and do it. In fact this is enshrined as an official corporate policy - engineers get 20% of their time to do with pretty much as they please, and are judged in part on how they use that time. I found a speech claiming that over half of Google's applications started as a 20% project. (I'm surprised that the figure is so low.) To get a sense of how much stuff people just do, visit Google Labs. No corporate decision. No central planning. People just do things like start putting up solar panels in the parking lot, and the next thing you know Google has one of the largest solar panel installations in the world and has decided to go carbon neutral. And the attitude that this is how you should operate is enshrined as official corporate policy!
You've got to love corporate policies like that. Speaking of nice corporate policies, Google has quite a few surprising ones. For instance they have benefits like heavily subsidized massage on site (I've still got to take my free hour massage for joining), free gym membership, and the like. Or take their attitude on dogs. Policy says that if your immediate co-workers don't object, you can bring your dog to work. Cats are different, however. Nothing against cats, but Google is a dog place and cats wouldn't be comfortable. (Yes, there are lots of dogs around the offices, and I've even seen people randomly wander over to find out if they can borrow someone else's dog for a while.) Hmmm. Sick day policy. Don't show up when you're sick and tell people why you're not showing up. Note what's missing. There is no limit to how much sick time you get if you need it. Oh, and food. Official Google policy is that at all times there shall be good, free food within 150 feet of every Googler. OK, admittedly the food quality does vary. That in Mountain View is better than anywhere else (the larger clientele base lets them have a much more varied selection). But you quickly learn why it is common for new Googlers to put on 15-20 pounds in their first year. (I'm trying to avoid that. We'll see if I succeed...)
But, you say, isn't this crazy? Doesn't it cost a fortune? The answer is that of course it does. But it provides value. People bond over food. Even if you're not bonding, having food close by makes short meals easier. And the temptation to continue working until dinnertime is very real. (Particularly if, as with me, you'd like to wait until rush hour is over before going home.) Obviously no normal CFO would crunch numbers and see things that way. But Google stands behind that decision, and the people who work there treasure the company for it.
Speaking of the people who work there, Google has amazing people. It is often said that engineers find working at Google a humbling experience. This is absolutely true. It took me less than a day to realize that the guy sitting next to me is clearly much smarter than I am, and he's nowhere near the top of the range of talent at Google. In fact, as best as I can tell, I'm pretty much average, though I'm trying hard to hold out a ray of hope that I'm slightly better than average.
Let me put that in context. The closest thing that I have to an estimate for my IQ is scoring 2340 on the GRE exam in 1991. Based on conversions that I've seen, that puts me at about the top 0.01% in IQ. Now I was really "on" that day, happen to believe that there are problems with the measurement of intelligence by an IQ test (a subject which I may devote a future blog post to), but without false modesty I wouldn't be surprised to find that I'm as high as being in the top 0.1% in general intelligence (however that could be measured). Which in most organizations means that I get thought of as being very smart.
However software development is a profession that selects for intelligence. By and large only good software developers bother applying to Google. And Google rejects the vast majority of their applicants. Granted the filtering process is far from perfect, but by the time you get through that many filters, someone like me is just average.
This leads to another point of interest. How astoundingly complex the company is. I believe that organizations naturally evolve until they are as complex as the people in them can handle. Well Google is tackling really big, complex problems, and is full of people who can handle a lot of complexity. The result? I've been told that I should expect that after 2 months I'll only be marginally useful. My initial learning curve should start to smooth out after about 6 months. And every year I should expect half of what I've learned to become obsolete. (Remember what I said about Google having a certain level of permanent chaos? If you're like me, it is exhilarating. But sometimes the line between exhilarating and terrifying can be hard to find...)
Oh, and what else did I learn? That we're hiring more people this year. :-)