I've been at Google for almost a year now and have been thinking back on what my expectations of the job would be like compared to what it has turned out to be. This got me thinking about corporate culture in general and how important it is for fostering innovation and being successful.
Google is well known for having a creative work environment with tons of perks -- free food, yoga classes, massage, on-site doctor. Here in Seattle, we can borrow kayaks to take out onto the shipping canal next to the building. (I am fond of telling people this but know full well that I am unlikely to ever take advantage of it.) On the surface these things might seem frivolous, but I think they go a long way towards creating an environment where people are passionate about what they do. The term we use is "being Googley," meaning, doing whatever it is that Google people do: thinking big, focusing on the user, not being evil, etc. On a more day-to-day basis, being Googley means turning out the lights when you leave a conference room, being friendly and helpful to new engineers, being a good citizen.
Google is by no means the only company like this: Yahoo, Facebook, and Amazon are great examples, and many other Internet-era startups follow a similar model. But this is miles away from what I thought corporate life would be like before I joined Google. To be sure, most of my prior exposure to corporate life (that is, before doing my PhD and becoming a professor) was through internships I did at a couple of older technology companies. I spent time writing code at a company that built semiconductor testers, as well as a large electronics company in Japan. I had also visited several large industrial research labs in the US, places that in some cases have been around for more than 50 years. I had a very hard time imagining myself taking a job at any of these companies: the sea of cubicles, drab beige walls, terrible cafeteria food, very few people under 40. Like Dilbert in real life. I wonder how those companies continue to attract top talent when there are places that are so much more appealing to work.
The Google culture is not just about lava lamps in the conference rooms though. The thing that surprised me the most is that there is very little hierarchy in the company: every engineer has the opportunity to create and lead new projects. It's not uncommon for something cool to start up with a few engineers working in their "20% time" -- GMail being one famous example. It is rare for a technical edict to be handed down from on high: projects are usually bottom up and are driven by what the engineers want to accomplish. To be sure, there are projects that could benefit from more adult supervision: things can go off the rails when you don't have enough management. But it's amazing what a merry band of hackers can put together without a lot of imposed structure or artificial constraints from the Pointy Haired Boss. I think the result is that engineers feel a lot of ownership for what they create, rather than feeling like they are just building something to make management happy.
When I was in the Google office in Cambridge, I worked on the team that builds Google's content delivery network -- a huge system that carries a significant chunk of the Internet's traffic (mostly YouTube). Almost everyone on the team was a good 10 years younger than I am (and way smarter, too). There was very little oversight and everyone kind of pitched in to keep the thing running, without anyone having to be told explicitly what to do. I was amazed that you could run such a large, complex project like this, but it seems to work. It's a hacker culture at a large scale. Companies like Facebook and Amazon are run pretty much the same way. All of this seems to turn the conventional wisdom about what it takes to run a successful company upside down. This won't be a surprise to anyone who spent time at startups in the last 10 years, but I'm new to this stuff and surprised that it even works.