Over the holidays I made a trip to the Bay Area for much needed relaxation and visiting with family and friends. While visiting with my cousin, he offered to take us on a tour of Google. I’d heard legends of chocolate fountains and endless banquets of food and was curious to see the campus. It was fairly shut down for the New Year’s holidays and the only people on campus were security guards and other proud employees leading their wide-eyed family members around the campuses. It was amazing to see how easily the Googlers slipped into tour guiding and in so many different languages! The first thing I noticed was a multi-colored, my-size petite bike with a basket. I felt like a little kid asking to ride the pony and off we went on a colorful bike tour of the campus.
I have to admit, I’d expected to see a lot of primary colors, affluence and computer monitors but hadn’t anticipated that rush of creative exhilaration. A dinosaur decorated with pink flamingos! There was even an herb garden to supply the chefs at the employees’ restaurants, metallic slides between floors, and a Google Earth station where I could virtually fly over the planet. As we parked our bikes at the next building, I was crestfallen to discover that I wouldn’t be allowed to use the slide. At first, when my cousin was telling us that this slide was shut down, my initial thought was that the lawyers finally caught wind of it. Does Google have cantankerous lawyers who worry about liability? Perhaps they’re all tied up in the patent wars. But the real reason was that the slide floor had recently been changed to confidential and top secret. How James Bond! A top secret slide.
I perked up upon hearing that it was, in fact, the fastest way for my Google friend to commute between meetings and that he was a regular user. Can you imagine the excited neurons and how they impact creativity by taking a slide to a meeting? In college, I used to excuse myself from exams while my fellow students were furiously scribbling every last minute they could squeeze in, and take a walk to the water fountain to clear my head. By the time I’d returned to my desk, I had a clear answer in my head to finish the exam. I think the slides must have a measurable impact on productivity at Google, I bet someone there is working on an algorithm.
So what is Google’s best kept secret? Whimsy. It’s a playground that’s constantly being innovated and changed. The menus at the cafes change daily if not weekly; the snacks in the snack areas are new all the time. I didn’t recognize half of the brands in the kitchen. I’m sure that Odwalla, Coca-Cola and Perrier are old news. They won’t excite any neurons. Just when you think you’ve seen all the toys, there’s a photo booth, a basketball arcade game and a Moroccan themed conference room with fez hats, bean bags and beaded curtains. I admit, I drank the Metro Mint water, and I’m seeing everything in primary colors.
As a Seattle resident for the past eight years, I’ve spent a lot of time at Microsoft. I’ve had my share of Talking Rain and cheered on intramural flag football teams on its campuses (shout out to the Honey Buckets). I always admired how well they take care of their employees: any health concern is covered including fathers getting generous and almost unheard of paternity leaves (that’s with a ‘p’), fields for exercising, a new mall with food courts and stores, and an infinite supply of dorky code-complete t-shirts. I was also around Microsoft as it was going through its growing pains from being a tech darling into a more mature corporation. No more free food, salary freezes and layoffs, less private offices and more communal workspaces – all the things that responsible corporations do and all of which demoralize the employees. Microsoft and its campus were always impressive, but never inspiring. I never found that wrong or odd, or even noticed it; it is after all a tech company, right?
I imagine that’s what it takes to stay on top in tech, to be ever changing, ever improving and ever new. This should be easy enough for a company in its early teens, the challenge is always to grow and retain that startup excitement and energy. I’d be curious to see what it looks like in twenty years just as I am curious to see what Facebook’s new campus looks like now, although I haven’t heard the same dazzling tales coming out of Menlo Park, more of opportunity and late, late, late nights.
I’d always thought playfulness, cuteness, curiosity and most of all whimsy were things we had to leave behind in grade school, things that we had to grow out of, hide or that simply got removed by wearied coworkers, and the drudgery of deadlines and meetings. But I’m a believer again in chimerical fun for no apparent reason. I know that whimsy is what brought them the Google Doodle, probably Gmail and other successes, profits as well as the thousands of failures we don’t know about, but it also brings their employees creative energy and I’m guessing happiness and – based on the number of tours during the holidays – pride.
Google, if you have any new toys to send us we like to play.