What's like working in Google?

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Reshared post from +Steve Yegge

I've tried writing another Amazon War Story a couple of times, but so far no luck. It's not Writer's Block. I can write plenty. This time my problem is Writer's Crap. So today I'll try something different, and write about working at Google.

The main problem with writing about Google is that nobody will believe you.

My friend +Dominic Cooney and I were talking about it one time. I told him I felt this secret guilt every time I went to work, because everyone was so smart and they treat you so well. I told him I truly felt like I didn't deserve it.

Dominic said he knew what I meant, and that every day at Google he felt like he'd won the lottery.

It's crazy. This guy is hands-down one of the smartest people I've ever worked with in my life, and he told me that working at Google felt like winning the lottery. How many of you can honestly say that about your job? I mean, sure, Amazon felt like that to me sometimes, but it was more like Shirley Jackson's lottery.

I've been wanting to write up how it really is here, but it's too much. It's like trying to introduce you to warm chocolate cake by forcing you to swim through a lake of it. I remember once my brother Dave and I bought the biggest pieces of chocolate we could find in Ghirardelli's Square in San Francisco, and we ate chocolate until we couldn't choke any more down. The next morning I woke up to Dave waving a hunk of chocolate in front of my nose, saying: "Want some choooooocolate?" and I almost puked.

It's kind of like that. My challenge is to find a way to describe Google to you without making you puke.

Speaking of Ghirardelli's Square, my Amazon pager went off while I was there once, on vacation, and I had to dial in to a conference call about a site outage while I was eating my ice cream. My challenge with Amazon is finding a way to describe it without making me puke. But I'll figure something out, eventually. In many ways they're a world-class operation — primarily in ways that matter to their customers; employees, not so much. But I guess in the end it's the customers that matter.

Anyway, until I figure that one out, I guess I'll write about Google.

Google has offices all over the world, dozens of them, and I've only been to a few. So I'll tell you about Google Kirkland, where I work. It's a pretty average office in terms of size, location and perks. But it's what I know best.

Here's what it's like in Google Kirkland. At least, here's a little piece of it, on a little plate with a white napkin and a silver fork. Enjoy.


At Google there's a lot of food. Everyone at other companies just shrugs it off as "free food", which is sort of like shrugging off Google's giant yearly bonuses as "occasional tips". In our three little buildings here we have three cafeterias, at least six or eight kitchen areas filled with free snacks, two espresso cafes staffed with barristas, a 1950s-style dessert bar, a frozen yogurt machine with a self-serve toppings bar, probably a dozen fridges filled with free drinks, a weekly Farmer's Market all summer where you can take home huge bags of locally-grown veggies, and every Friday afternoon, long tables of themed hors d'oeuvres and beer and wine while we watch TGIF. Am I forgetting anything? I'm sure I am.

And the food is good. One of our chefs was the Executive Chef at the Earth and Ocean restaurant in the W hotel in downtown Seattle, and the other one had equally impressive credentials. The cafe in my building, Sudo Cafe, has a DIY burger bar, daily entree selections, a pizza bar, a sandwich bar and panini press, a rotisserie, a salad bar, a fruit bar, two daily soup selections, a vegetarian and vegan selection, and random bowls of fruit and cakes and all sorts of other stuff lying around to tempt you. To me it feels like Ofelia's second task in Pan's Labyrinth, except look ma, no monster.

There are three meals a day, five days a week, all you can eat for free. You can even bring guests to lunch. The salad and sandwich and espresso bars stay open between meals, and the micro-kitchens are open 24×7. And for those who wonder whether it's OK to take some food home once in a while, there are take-out containers sitting right next to the plates.

Amusingly, every other Google office I've ever been to had better food than we do. The old NYC office had an olive bar that was longer than the one at Whole Foods. The Seattle office has microbrews on tap. The Mountain View main campus has more than forty cafes and restaurants. Kirkland's food has been catching up fast in the past year or two, but the bar is insanely high.

Why all the free gourmet food? I don't know. Maybe they're planning to cook us and eat us. That's the most plausible explanation we've been able to think of. That, and the fact that we're never tempted to leave the campus at lunchtime or afternoon-tea time, so we all wind up working at least an extra half an hour a day. But that can't possibly be a sufficient return on investment for Google, not by a long shot.

I think the real explanation is that they do it because that's part of how you create an environment that attracts the smartest people in the world. I'm not in that category, but for a while I was gunning for fattest person in the world, so they managed to attract me too.


There's free underground parking, but there aren't quite enough spots. So they have a free valet service. The valets park your car and bring your keys up to your office later in the day. (Amazon never had free parking. As far as I know, they still don't.)

The decor at Google is colorful and makes the whole place feel more fun. I know it doesn't seem like a big deal. Who cares about the decor, right? But I've worked in typical cube-farm companies, and there's something magical about Google's decor. I've been to Microsoft a few times, too. Their decor is opulent and fancy, like going to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Google's decor is more like walking into an FAO Schwarz toy store.

The cafe in our newest building has a nautical theme. It has hardwood floors the color of a boat deck, and big rope spools turned sideways into tables, and portholes that look through a hallway decorated with ship-deck furniture onto a huge wall mural of downtown Seattle. Oh, and there are boats. I gave my brother Mike and his friend Jay a tour of the place over the weekend, and Jay was trying really hard not to be impressed. He started to crack when he saw the gym, but it was the boats that finally got him.

"How did they get them IN here?" was Mike's question. Mike's got his own construction company and has worked with heavy equipment, and all he could do was marvel at these big frigging boats on the second floor. They're these, I dunno, roofed gondola-looking boats with leather bench-seats. They're there so you can have an impromptu meeting on a boat, or work on your laptop on a boat, or just hang out on a boat and have some espresso and soak up that nice boat feeling, I guess.

Downstairs one of the video-conference rooms has comfy leather chairs and wall-to-wall murals of farmland scenery, and a stable with a bunch of hay and a couple of horses. Yep, you heard that right. They startle the crap out of people the first time they go in there. Couple o' great big stuffed horses like you might find at, say, FAO Schwarz.

I mean, don't get me wrong here. Amazon had some decor too. And by "some decor", I mean a Cave Bear. One day a Cave Bear skeleton showed up, standing a good ten or twelve feet high, complete with an anatomically-correct dick-bone attached to its pelvic region with a movable steel wire. It became a sort of ad-hoc weathervane for employee morale.

Just as with the food, I could go on for chapters about the facilities and probably never finish, because they keep adding new stuff. There's a climbing wall, and pool tables, and foosball tables, and a bunch of $5000 fancy massage chairs with incomprehensible Japanese instructions. Man they feel nice though. There's a super nice 24-hour gym, and lush real plants everywhere, and a doctor's office with a full-time Google doctor, and a haircut place where the Corporate Cuts lady comes by a few times a week.

Oh, and there's a massage salon with three or four licensed massage therapists. That's a Google tradition. Ours is subsidized down to practically no cost for an hour-long table massage. And there are prayer rooms, and a basketball court, and a dog park with Google-colored fire hydrants to pee on, and breast-feeding rooms for new moms, and electric-car spots, and a red British phone booth that I assume is for changing into superhero costumes, and gigantic oversized lava lamps, and comfy couches around roaring fireplaces, and a photo booth, and a bike cage with a tool bench and an air compressor, and hammocks and bean-bag chairs, and a room-length shuffleboard table, and three or four game rooms with air hockey and ping-pong and XBoxes and Wiis and arcade games with thousands of titles, and on and ON and ON.

I mean, damn. You thought I was exaggerating when I told you nobody would believe me, didn't you?

And sadly I can't even tell you about the two new coolest things they're opening here, because they won't officially launch until next week. But it's always like that. I've been putting this post off for years because there's always some new thing in the works that I want to wait for before I tell you about it all.

Amazing True Story: One day I started getting jealous of this digital piano that people were playing every day. So I sent a nice email to someone in facilities asking if there was any chance we might be able to get a guitar. She said it sounded like a good idea and she promised to look into it.

A month went by, and I started to get a little sad, because I thought they were just not interested. But I sent her a little email and asked if there was any update. Just hoping, you know, against hope.

She told me: "Oh yeah, I'm sorry — I forgot to tell you. We talked it over with the directors, and we all decided the best thing to do was to build a music studio."

So now we have Soundgarden over in Building A. It has two rooms: one with soundproofing and two electric guitars and a bass and a keyboard and a drum set and a jam hub and amps and all kinds of other crap that I can't identify except to say that it's really popular. The other room has a ukulele and some sort of musical drum and a jazz guitar and some other classical instruments.

Remember back in the first paragraph of my infamous rant, where I made the bizarre claim that "Amazon does everything wrong, and Google does everything right?" It's a pretty complex claim to try to explain, but I feel like the "Ask for a guitar, get a music studio" story is one of the best metaphors for how the two companies operate. At Google, when they're faced with any kind of problem at all — anything — they step back and ask: "What is the first-class way to solve it?" Whereas at Amazon, I wouldn't even have been able to ask the question, because there's nobody to ask. Amazon's facilities team is tiny, and they spend all their time trying to solve the problem of squeezing more employees into less space.


Google has twelve paid holidays a year in the US. In contrast, Amazon had five, at least when I was there. At Google we get two days at Christmas, two at New Year's, two at Thanksgiving, and then six others. Pretty nice.

Every year we have a company morale trip. One year they put us up for the night at the Whistler ski resort, including a fancy bus ride there and back, a fancy hotel room, free rental equipment and lift tickets, free lessons if we wanted them, and of course a massive party with a live band and giant dinner and open bar and a chocolate fountain and mechanical bull and whatnot. You know, the usual.

Actually +Adam de Boor tells me I missed some stuff. He went dogsledding, and you could alternately go snowmobiling or get spa treatments or choose some other options we've both forgotten now. Psh. That was so last year.

This year we had two trips — you could pick whichever one you liked better. Half of us went skiing overnight and the other half went to Vegas. I went skiing, but I heard Vegas was pretty awesome. As you might expect.

But regardless of which trip you picked, everyone got to go to a Vegas "practice night" a few weeks before the trip. They set up a casino in the cafeteria, catered by some local company that provides tables and dealers. The dealers gave lessons to anyone who wanted to learn to play craps or poker or blackjack or roulette. Craps is frigging complicated, so I went and played poker until I was too drunk to see my cards anymore, and went and crashed on a couch upstairs. I do remember at one point some guy pushed all his chips at me and left, even though he hadn't lost or anything. I didn't even see who it was, but if it was you — thanks!

The morale trip for every Google office is different, and usually different each year. One year down in Mountain View they took everyone skiing in Lake Tahoe. Another year they rented out Disneyland.

Every December we have a huge holiday party. Everyone dresses up (well, it's Seattle, so it's not that dressy). They do the casino thing there too, and you get a thousand "dollars" of fake money in chips that you can spend at the casino, with the overall winner getting an iPad or some such. The holiday parties are my favorite. You bring your S.O. and get your pic taken with Santa. And they bring arcade games and golf cages and table games and sometimes even those big outdoor inflatable carnival games, except they're indoors and you compete on them while you're hammered.

Last year was the best one yet — they rented out the Experience Music Project and Pacific Science Center in downtown Seattle, and threw the party there. It was amazing.

We just had our yearly Halloween party. There were like 300 kids there, all going through this elaborate scary haunted-house setup in one of the auditorium rooms, and then going office-to-office to trick-or-treat. The whole campus was decorated with Halloween decor — spiders and cobwebs and stuff that you see all year round at some companies. It was nice.

Every summer we have a company picnic, and you can bring your whole family. Last summer they had hiking and golf and horseback riding and rafting and carnival games and rides and huge outdoor barbecues and who knows what else. They pretty much had me at "golf", so I didn't pay much attention to the other attractions.

Every single week Google has TGIF, where Larry and Sergey and various VPs go up on stage and give a report on the exciting stuff that's happened in the past week, and then field questions from Googlers. There is a site where you can submit questions for that week's TGIF, and vote questions up or down. So by the time TGIF rolls around, the top questions are the really burning ones that everyone wants answered. And you can ask about anything. They even take live questions from an open mic in the audience. And there's always beer and wine, so the live questions tend to be rather pointed and direct, at least when they're intelligible.

Contrast that with Amazon, where they have something similar, but it's quarterly, and you have to write your questions down on index cards that are then vetted by some secret cabal who chooses which questions are suitable for Jeff Bezos to answer.

In addition to our yearly morale offsite, and the holiday party, and the halloween party, and the summer picnic, and the weekly TGIF, and any other regularly-scheduled parties I've overlooked, Google also has random other parties and offsites all the time. We all go bowling every now and then, and they take us all to movie premieres when something extra cool comes out (anything from Harry Potter to An Inconvenient Truth), and we sometimes just go down to the lake and have a catered lunch at the pavilion when the weather is nice.

We also have guest lecturers, and performances from bands, and seemingly random other "stuff". You can never predict what it will be. Sometimes we get fancy gifts for no apparent reason. Last year we all got "Fireswords", which are these insanely bright $400 flashlights that we had to sign waivers for because they can actually blind you, presumably in an attempt to generate more grass-roots interest in Accessibility. Another time they gave us all Earthquake Preparedness Backpacks, which are these black packs that weigh about a thousand pounds. I have no idea what's in mine, but it feels heavy enough to keep the building from moving during an earthquake.

Every year they give us a holiday bonus and a holiday gift. A couple years in a row we got Android phones. I'm still using my latest one. I don't think there's any guarantee that we'll get a holiday gift every year, but so far they've seen fit to give us all gifts, and I don't hear anyone complaining.

At Amazon they were always terrified that they'd create a sense of entitlement, so they never gave us anything. They went to great lengths to avoid instilling a sense of entitlement in the employees, and they often talked about this philosophy publicly.

Google handles the entitlement problem by not giving a shit. They just keep on throwing stuff at us: gifts and perks and activities and facilities and benefits and vacations and lord knows what else. And guess what? There is almost no sense of entitlement here. When it does come up, Googlers self-police: they'll publicly ridicule anyone who complains that the brownies aren't sweet enough, or whatever.

The only people who I think don't really "get" it, who don't realize just how different Google is from the Real World, are college hires who've never worked anywhere else. I always tell people we should have a "slap an intern" program, just to give them a little taste of what working at other places is like. I feel kind of bad for them, should they ever have the misfortune to go work somewhere else. It will be quite a shock for them.


Like I said: this could be a book. I haven't even begun to talk about the amazing equipment we get. Or the incredible travel policies. Or how easy it is to request special software or hardware or ergonomic equipment. Or the astounding lengths they'll go to in supporting employees with disabilities. Or the peer-committee promotion process. Or the software engineering culture. Or any of the gazillion other amazing things about this place.

Like I said: it's too much. And half of you probably wouldn't believe me anyway. I sure as hell didn't believe my recruiter when she was telling me about this place seven years ago.

Are there downsides? Sure. A few. The food can make you fat. The environment can make you spoiled. The smart people around you can give you Degree Envy. Some people don't do well with the lack of structure, since it's geared towards self-motivated people who figure out what to work on. You can even wind up on a project that's got a little too much heat on it, and be briefly miserable — but compared to daily life at most companies, that misery is pretty well soaked in sugar frosting.

I hope this puts a little more context around some of the things I've said about Amazon, though. I would guess that Amazon is in the bottom half of the industry in terms of being a nice place to work — but not in the bottom 25%. I've seen much worse than Amazon. Heck, pre-2000 Amazon was much worse than today-Amazon. Overall I'd say that today they're probably just a little below the average, industry-wide.

So comparing Amazon to Google is a little unfair, because comparing anyone to Google is unfair. Google's undoubtedly in the top 0.1% of the best places to work in the world, across anything even remotely computer-related.

Hopefully it helps you understand a little better where I was coming from. I didn't really use the right wording before, when I said that Google does everything "right". It's more accurate to say they do everything awesome.

Is this stuff worth writing a book about? You tell me!

[Thanks to my friend +Adam de Boor for reviewing and improving this post, and also for reviewing its awful predecessor that thankfully I didn't publish.]