I spent the day at Google's headquarters Dec. 12, meeting a handful of senior executives from across the company's broad product portfolio. This was my first time at the sprawling Mountain View campus, and it reminded me of my college orientation freshman year.
Is this what it's like to be a Noogler on the first day? Wow.
Driving through the campus is like driving through any corporate park, although spread out over a few miles. I drove to a parking area next to buildings 41, 42, 43 and so on, and left my car with a valet attendant.
Accompanied by my chaperone for the day, a Google spokesperson named Andrew, we walked in between these buildings, which is like walking through the quad of a college campus. This handful of buildings is the hub of Google activity, for business and pleasure, equipped with conference rooms, offices, fitness centers and massage rooms.
A volleyball court stood in the center, and a modest-sized heated pool was across the way, with a few patrons luxuriating in its warmth. Dogs roamed fairly freely -- yes, you can take your dog to work.
Andrew then showed me the biggest of 17 cafeterias that boast every type of culinary fare imaginable. Called Charlie's (named after Google's first chef Charlie Ayers), this was clearly the place to eat lunch, according to the hundreds of people in the various food lines.
Lunch for Googlers (and guests, thankfully) is free, as is breakfast, and so is dinner for those late workers (surprise! there are a lot of them at Google). Andrew called my attention to a black curtain and informed me that that is where presidential candidates speak when they campaign at Google.
We didn't eat at Charlie's. The lines were a tad long. So, we walked across the quad and past a garden, the produce of which Google uses a lot of its in its eateries, to No Name Café. There is no amazing story behind this nomenclature. They just left it nameless for so long that No Name stuck.
As a journalist, I've eaten my share of free lunches, but this was ridiculous. Imagine walking into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory for the first time. You can't decide what to eat first because there are so many varieties. That's what it's like eating lunch at Google HQ for the first time.
No Name Café featured cold sandwich stations, salads and a hot entrée line where the chefs were serving broiled tilapia and hot turkey. It is easy to see why Googlers gain the Google 15, although the food quality is exponentially better than what you'll find at most colleges.
And that's the point. Google is as much a college university as it is a workplace. Google Corp. could be renamed Google University, though I'm certain there are some legal issues with that. Kind of like calling a dot-com that exists to make gobs of money an .org.
This might be heresy for folks who remember storming the gates of the dot-com heyday in 1998-99, only to crawl back out in 2000-01, defeated, or worse, unemployed. But Google is operating under the utopian creed that happy workers will be productive workers.
This, I think, is how it should be, particularly if you have the obscene coffers needed to fund it. I now have a better understanding of why Larry Page said last summer that Google's management was carefully watching headcount, which has grown to the ballpark of 16,000 and doesn't show signs of stopping. That's a lot of mouths to feed.
But surely there must be some drawback. I tried finding some weakness in this formidable fortress, Google HQ. This was California after all, and despite the mild weather (I say that with full confidence and hindsight after being confronted by a mini-blizzard on the East coast last night), traffic jams are the stuff of legend.
I suggested to Andrew that driving to Google every day must be painful given the traffic both ways on 101, 85 or pick your expressway. Andrew smiled and I knew I was defeated; he takes one of several shuttles to and from work every day.
These shuttles cover the Bay Area, including San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. As with a good SAAS (software as a service) model, when shuttle stops need more capacity, they send bigger vehicles to accommodate the workers.
I was able to determine that there is one catch. I don't know what it was like nine years ago when it all began, but it's not easy to get a job at Google, Andrew told me.
For as much as the company has grown, it has gotten incredibly competitive. Google doesn't want Facebook, up the road in Palo Alto, or anyone else in its search, ad and apps space getting the premium talent.
What does a prospective Google employee need to do? I asked Andrew if he had to complete any puzzles, computerized or Sudoku.
He didn't, but he said it was clear Google wants to see your inner geek, that you are familiar with and comfortable with technology. Can you harness your inner geek? If you can, Google U wants you.