For this weekâ€™s TIME cover story on Googleâ€™s â€œmoon shotâ€ projects â€” including Calico, a new company that will research ways to extend human life â€” I spent a big chunk of time hanging out at the companyâ€™s Googleplex headquarters talking to Googlers, including co-founder and CEO Larry Page. Iâ€™d visited Google often in the past, but never saw so much or spoke to so many people in different parts of the organization.
Much of what I learned made its way into the article. But I was also left with lots of interesting tidbits that didnâ€™t get mentioned, either for lack of space or because they didnâ€™t quite fit the scope of the story, which I co-wrote with colleague Lev Grossman.
Here are ten of them that I think are worth sharing:
1. When Google was a startup, it had to change its phone number. Page told me a good anecdote about early Google history, with a moral about the power of the web:
We were in a small office on University Ave. in Palo Alto and we had maybe less than 30 people there, or something like that. And we already had millions of users. Weâ€™d accidentally published our phone number on our website, and our phone number was just unusable. We had to get a new one then, because people just started calling us.
And thereâ€™s only 30 of us. We couldnâ€™t even answer the phone for millions of people. But we could run a website. And I think that shows you the incredible multiplication factors you can get with technology. You can easily run a website for millions of people with a small group. But you canâ€™t run a phone number with that many people.
2. Google is a bicyclistâ€™s paradise. The main Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California, is quite large. Itâ€™s surrounded by other other buildings that also house various parts of the company. And the most convenient way to get around is by pedaling â€” using one of more than a thousand one-speed bikes, painted in the signature colors from Googleâ€™s logo.
I rode the bikes myself to get from appointment to appointment while doing research for the story. (And was informed at one point by a passing Google employee that visitors arenâ€™t supposed to use them â€” oops.) Theyâ€™re beefy one-speeds that remind me of the Schwinn I had when I was eight, and arenâ€™t always in tip-top condition: If you see one with the seat removed and sitting in the handlebar basket, it means that a Googler is telling the bike-maintenance crew that the bike in question needs repair.
I also drove my car around the sizable area of Mountain View dominated by Google facilities, and discovered that you need to proceed with caution: The roads are swarming with Googlers on bikes. None of them are wearing helmets, and at least some arenâ€™t into hand signals. It reminded me a bit of when I worked in an office park and needed to be careful about the geese who tended to wander out into the road.
3. Google holds a famous weekly meeting called TGIF onâ€¦Thursdays. Itâ€™s an all-hands event hosted by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and multiple Googlers brought it up as an important part of the companyâ€™s culture. As its name suggests, it was long a Friday tradition, but it recently moved to Thursdays. Why? So staffers in Asia can attend during the work week.
4. At the Googleplex, snacks are strategically placed.Â Theyâ€™re everywhere, of course. But the easier they are to reach, the more likely they are to be semi-healthy items such as granola bars. The out-and-out junk food, like candy, is on low shelves that require you to bend down, making it at least slightly less likely that youâ€™ll be tempted.
5. Google has an amazing restaurant named after a legendary Japanese cartoon character. Itâ€™s called Tetsuwan Atom, and itâ€™s a sprawling cafeteria with sushi and other Japanese food. You may know Tetsuwan Atom, who was created by Osamu Tezuka â€” Japanâ€™s Walt Disney â€” better as Astro Boy. His image is everywhere in the cafeteria.
Calling the place a cafeteria is misleading, though: Itâ€™s pretty swanky. I conducted one of my interviews in one of its tatami rooms, where we were all required to remove our shoes.
6. The Androids have taken over. Iâ€™ve long known that Google marks the launch of new versions of Android by commissioning and erecting a giant statue. But I somehow wasnâ€™t aware that all the statues are still there, from golden oldies such as Cupcake and Froyo to KitKat, which references the version whose name was announced the day before I snapped the photo to the right.
The statues loom in front of a Google building on Charlestown Road in Mountain View â€” and are visible from the street, so you donâ€™t need to enter the Googleplex to enjoy them. Theyâ€™re worth a visit if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
7. It can be harder to do stuff thatâ€™s obviously adjacent to core Google businesses than stuff that has nothing to do with them. Â One thing I heard from multiple Googlers â€” including one ex-Googler I spoke with as a reality check â€” is that the company is working a lot harder than it once did to impose consistency across its major products, and that itâ€™s a time-consuming challenge.
Eventually, Larry Page himself told me the same thing, and I think he had an interesting take on the matter:
In our core services â€” Gmail, Google+ and Search and Android and all these things â€” we do want them to work pretty well together. You donâ€™t want to have 25 different ways to share something or 18 different ways to have a photo of yourself, things like that. Thereâ€™s some integration to do, which is difficult work. Really thinking about these products and how they interact. Making them work well and allowing us to innovateâ€¦thatâ€™s a conversation that canâ€™t have infinite scale. I spend a lot of time doing that, my team spends a lot of time on that.
On the other hand, I think thereâ€™s things we do that donâ€™t require a lot of integration currently. Project Loon [Google’s project to deliver broadband by balloon] doesnâ€™t require a lot of integration right now. The key thing is to have the right mix of projects and to think about â€œmaybe I can take on more projects.â€
Itâ€™s kind of counter-intuitive, but maybe you can actually do more projects that are less related to each other. Normally in a business, you think about, â€œWhatâ€™s the adjacent thing that I can do,â€ because thatâ€™s where you must have experts.
8. Sundar Pichai interviewed at Google on April 1st, 2004. The man who would eventually run two of Googleâ€™s most important businesses â€” Android and Chrome â€” happened to be interviewing for a job there on the day that it announced Gmail. Â The e-mail service claimed to offer an almost literally unbelievable 1GB of storage, 500 times Hotmailâ€™s quota at the time, and it wasnâ€™t immediately clear that it wasnâ€™t a prank. â€œI remember people asking me about Gmail â€” â€˜What do you think of it?â€™ I had no idea if was an April Foolâ€™s joke, or if it was real,â€ he told me.
9. Google loves to videoconference. High-quality, big-screen videoconferencing is one of the companyâ€™s primary collaborative tools. I conducted my interview with YouTubeâ€™s Robert Kyncl that way â€” me in a conference room in Mountain View, him somewhere else unknown to me. (He might have simply been elsewhere on the campus: Googlers often attend meetings by video simply to save the time it would take to get from one part of the Googleplex to another.)
10. Â Twenty percent time isnâ€™t dead, but it was never what some people thought it was.Â Last month, Christopher Mims of Quartz wrote about â€œ20 percent time,â€ Googleâ€™s famous perk that encourages employees to spend work hours on personal projects â€” some of which have gone on to become enormous deals, such as Gmail and AdSense. Mims declared that it was â€œas good as dead.â€ That seemed to lead to more than a few outsiders to think that 20 percent time was officially a thing of the past. And indeed, when I asked YouTubeâ€™s Kyncl about it, he said that â€œI have not seen 20 percent time lately, but what Iâ€™ve seen is people passionate about certain things. They simply develop them. We run incredibly fast. Thereâ€™s been less time for 20 percent.â€
But then I talked about 20 percent time with Laszlo Bock, Googleâ€™s senior vice president of people operations, who told me that 20 percent time is a philosophy more than a well-regulated, universal human-resources benefit:Â â€The awful secret of 20 percent time is that thereâ€™s never been a formal â€˜Everybody gets 20 percent time.â€™â€
â€œItâ€™s funny,â€ he said, â€œeven internally some people, particularly as weâ€™ve been hiring in the past few years, have come in and said â€˜Where is it written in the handbook that I get eight hours a week, and da da da.â€™ And itâ€™s just never, ever worked that way.â€
Bock told me that itâ€™s been Googleâ€™s engineering-related functions where 20 percent time has been a tradition, and that it lives on, even though it doesnâ€™t involve 20 percent of time being formally set aside for personal experiments. Google Now, for instance â€” one of the best things the company has introduced in the last couple of years â€” began as a 20 percent project by a couple of Googlers. Now itâ€™s on both Android and iOS, and is a significant component of the companyâ€™s official vision of the future of search.