I have been a summer intern at Google for a month now, so I feel somewhat obliged to talk about what that’s like.
Much of what I could talk about I, well, can’t talk about. Google is extremely paranoid about loose lips. If you go searching around for what employees say about Google, you’ll hear a lot about the food. While the food is really good and a great benefit, part of why you hear about that so much is that it is a completely safe topic of conversation.
Google is almost as close-mouthed at Interval Research Corporation, partly for similar reasons. In both cases, there was a sense that protecting intellectual property was so important that it trumped almost everything.
I am certain that secrecy hurt Interval, and suspect that it’s not as important as Google thinks it is. At Interval, it was extremely hard to recruit people, and that was partly due to absolutely nobody knowing what we did. At Google, while everybody seems to think that the ideas are important, the longer I’m there, the more I think that its bigger competency is in execution. Sure, Google people have good ideas… but ideas are no good if you can’t put them into practice.
Most research-y type companies make their money on low-volume but very expensive products. They fund their research by putting a big markup on their products. Google, on the other hand, is the epitome of high-volume, low cost products. They fund their research by pumping out a huge volume of product.
The other part of why Google is so secretive is legitimate: it’s that everybody is watching very very closely. Anything a Googler says might end up on the cover of the New York Times tomorrow. This definitely constrains me. There is a Google Maps mailing list, for example, that I pay some attention to. There are questions that I know how to answer, and want to answer, but I’m nervous that the people will think I speak for Google. If I say “There are currently seven froomblents”, will people interpret that to be a veiled admission that Google intends to change the number of froomblents they provide? (No, don’t go look it up. I searched for a word that had no Google search results, specifically so people wouldn’t start imputing meaning to that nonsense phrase.)
Google tries really hard to hire only the best and the brightest. I knew that before I started, and it made me a bit nervous. I once worked for a different company that worked hard at hiring only the best and the brightest, and they had horrible conflicts. Everybody there was used to being a superstar; everyone was used to always being more right than the people around them, and getting their own way. This meant they fought all the time.
I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at Google at how nice everybody is, and how there really aren’t big fights about technical direction, focus, implementation, or turf. Maybe I just happen to be in a particularly sweet group, but I don’t think so. I think Googlers are genuinely humble and nice.
That might be the Stanford influence: everyone at Stanford knows someone who is better than them at something. One of my Stanford classmates once said that he had three International Math Olympiad finalists in his calculus section. My husband tells of how in his Music Theory class, there was someone who was a varsity football player and a dancer and played violin. (“And was good looking. It wasn’t fair.”)
I suspect that more of it is that they worry about people being smart and pleasant to work with.
There’s more, but I can’t think of anything more right now that I am allowed to talk about.