Inside a lobby at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, beside a rank of 1990s arcade machines, a laminated sign asks people to “Please Be Googley”.
It is a request that visitors remember to wear security badges; also that they don’t steal any of the stuff that’s been left around for staff enjoyment – pedal bikes, sombreros, electric guitars. Employees at this £250bn company get stock options as a basic condition of employment. Wacky office furnishings, too. Upstairs in what Google calls its people operations department – human resources – there’s a climbing frame. A gym machine. Most sit at desks, today, frowning and purposeful, but one young staffer has taken a laptop to an indoor picnic table, next to the hammock.
In his office, Laszlo Bock, head of people operations, handles the claims from outsiders asking: “Please let me be Googley.” Each year, around 2 million apply for a job here and 5,000 are hired. Bock puts the average applicant’s odds at about 400/1. On a wall he keeps a small display of some of the worst (Bock prefers “silliest”) submissions that have come in. People try to grease him, impress him, plead with him, threaten him. He was offered, once, a discount on a motorhome in return for an offer. And somebody mailed in a shoe; with this foot-in-the-door joke the hope, presumably, that an acceptance letter would be sent by return post.
Bock is 43, big-jawed, handsome, once an extra on Baywatch and still with the straight-backed bearing of a screen lifeguard. He joined Google six years ago, when the brand was on its evolution from agreeable little search engine to terrifyingly ambitious everything-engine: email, maps, operating systems, phones, soon a phone network. Six years ago the company had 6,000 staff and now it is 50,000-strong – “the size of a respectable city,” as Bock points out, one made up of engineers, designers, marketers, lawyers, administrators, chefs and many of their dogs, who are welcome on site. If founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin settled this city, and executive chairman Eric Schmidt serves as mayor, then Bock is something like its immigration chief: roaming the border in a dune buggy, binoculars across the landscape, considering bids for entry.
“I was buying a lottery ticket once,” he tells me. “My brother said to me, ‘I’m not buying a lottery ticket. And my odds are almost the same as yours.’” He means: getting a job here is hard. “It’s not hopeless, though.” Bock will soon publish a book, Work Rules, in which he reveals some secrets about how Google identifies people it wants and how it spoils them once they’re in. Fortune magazine has ranked Google its No 1 most desirable place to work for six years in a row, citing as one reason a new policy of distributing “baby bonding bucks” to staff. Had a kid? Have $500. This is the kind of thing they do.
I sit with Bock on easy chairs in his office. He is used to assessing strangers in this room and I ask him to give me the once-over. First impression stuff. Would I be cut out for Google?
He stares for a moment and says: “Well, first impressions, OK. British accent, tall, slender.” He gestures at my trainers. “You’ve got your tongue out on top of the laces knot. Which actually solves an important problem for me, because it always looks awful the other way, with the knot out, and now I know the answer.” He scans my face. “You’ve got the funky glasses but not, like, super funky. So you’re not highly affected…” He says I seem nice enough. “But stepping back from that, if I were considering you from a Google perspective? At this point I would conclude I know nothing about you. I haven’t been able to assess any of the things we care about yet.”
What are the things you care about?
“Four things.” He lists them, in order of importance. First, “general cognitive ability… Not just raw [intelligence] but the ability to absorb information.” Second, “emergent leadership. The idea there being that when you see a problem, you step in and try to address it. Then you step out when you’re no longer needed. That willingness to give up power is really important.” The third thing, Bock says, “is cultural fit – we call it ‘Googleyness’ – but it boils down to intellectual humility.” He says you don’t have to be nice. “Or warm, or fuzzy. You just have to be somebody who, when the facts show you’re wrong, can say that.” And fourth? “Expertise in the job we’re gonna hire you for.”
That comes last? “If you can do the other things, not only most of the time will you figure out the job, you might come up with a novel way of doing it nobody else has done before.”
In Work Rules, Bock itemises staff privileges, some famous, some lesser known. There’s the subsidised childcare, the dogsitting, the massage chairs. Hairdressers visit the site every Monday and mechanics come to service cars on a Tuesday. With a few clicks on the local intranet, employees can arrange, without management’s approval or knowledge, surprise bonuses of $175 for each other – just because. Should they die, and should they be married, their spouses go on receiving half their salary for a decade. Two square meals a day. Free ice-cream!
Assuming the outsider can still think for envy, reading this, they might wonder if Google ever wants its people to leave the site. Whether this is gilded-cage stuff. In conversation with me as well as in his book, Bock argues fiercely against the suggestion. “Google isn’t some sweetly baited trap designed to trick people,” he writes. He tells me he has no particular interest in how long employees hang around. “If you’re doing good work and getting it done, I don’t understand why I would care what hours you work.”
So the nine-to-five, that totem of work culture – bullshit? “Totally,” Bock says. “Fundamental premise: people are good and want to do good work. I don’t care how and when and where.”
Bock’s book also has one of those ambiguous titles beloved in business literature. Work Rules: I read three meanings into it. Here are some rules for work. Here is something you might shout, delightedly, in an office that has a climbing frame. And here’s a thorny modern truth – that work rules us now in a way it has not done before. “You spend more time working than doing anything else in life. It’s not right that the experience,” Bock writes, “should be so demotivating and dehumanising.” He suggests rival companies might like to adopt some of Google’s policies.
Flicking through the book, I keep imagining a CEO at a lesser firm doing the same, digesting Bock’s tips as to how to ensnare the world’s A-graders and 90th-percentile types. Having a Google executive explain how to attract desirables must be a little like having a part-time-modelling doctor pal (who can cook) advise you on how to be more magnetic. But Bock writes well, and in his book he opens the curtains a little wider than before on this corporation, in control of so much of contemporary life, always insisting on its own transparency even while the core company is sequestered away in a remote HQ.
I take a bike ride across the Mountain View site, guided by a volunteer staffer. It’s a warm day. On a pair of brightly painted Google-bikes, left about for free use, we cycle by a fire station, a music venue, an adjoining airfield that Google recently took on so that its fleet of driverless cars could whizz about, unshackled. They call the whole site “the Googleplex” but if, like me, you find that hard to stomach, the natives will also settle for “the Google campus”. I ask the staff member why the streets have such boring names – Crittenden Lane, Charleston Road… Were this Apple they would long ago have been rechristened Solution Way, Future Avenue. “We don’t own the land,” she says, “so we don’t name the roads.”
Google moved into Mountain View around 15 years ago. A small town off Highway 101, around 40 miles south of San Francisco, it was once dominated by almond farms. No longer. I’m told Google hasn’t put up a building here, they’ve only occupied more already in place. But the company has “kind of outgrown our real-estate footprint”, in Bock’s words, and large-scale expansion plans were recently submitted to Mountain View’s local council. As it stands today the town is still sleepy, peaceful, blandly pretty. We prop up our bikes beside a water feature and when a line of ducks trots by, the staffer says: “Prop animals.”
This lot know how we see them. Warily, wearily. Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel The Circle, a Nineteen Eighty-Four for the online age, imagined a cult-like tech firm, one whose innovations increased a sense of social surveillance. Apparent similarities between Eggers’s fictional company and Google were noted, and I expect to learn that the novel would be a no-no on site. My tour guide tells me she remembers the book being hotly discussed in campus cafeterias. (We agree that I won’t name her.) Everybody seemed to have read it and nobody, as far as she knows, was offended.
We continue our tour on foot, going by the building that has a two-lane bowling alley, a climbing wall. I’m encouraged to pick from a flourishing strawberry plant. Across the way people play volleyball, some of them in Google-branded leisurewear. I look out for signs that the place is a pressurised hothouse for its employees; a sort of prison with soft-play walls. I don’t see it. People walk around unhurried, holding laptops and water bottles, holographic security badges thwapping against their thighs. On a deckchair in the herb garden, an employee sunbathes. One guy whirrs by on an electric skateboard.
I ask my guide, who is wearing a summer dress, if she’d ever come to work in a Google T-shirt. She gives me a long look and says: “Only if I had no other clean clothes.”
Millions want to work here – but not everybody does. I expect the biggest challenge for outsiders who were at all cynical, or self-reliant, would be the daily grapple with Google’s institutional devotion to zaniness. In Work Rules, Bock mentions unicycling clubs, juggling clubs, the tireless nicknaming, with “Googler”, an umbrella term for employees, broken down into “Noogler” for new arrivals, “Graygler” for older hands, “Jewgler”, “Gaygler”. You cannot be on site long before hearing about the weekly all-staff meetings. They’re called TGIFs, or Thank-God-It’s-Fridays. And they’re staged on Thursdays!
But there is a more knowing humour beneath the panto. When I tell Bock about my efforts to get inside the building on arrival – how, as I pawed at a locked door, a polite boy in shorts interrupted to direct me to one of the lobbies – Bock says: “Most people don’t know this. But that guy? Trained killer. Had you tried to penetrate further that would’ve been it for you.” He carries on, poker-faced, about the number of visiting parents and grandparents who’ve been reluctantly assassinated this way…
Bock enjoys the riff and so do I. Afterwards a press officer leans in to clarify, “No grandmas get whacked at Google.”
The press officer’s name is Meghan Casserly. Her hiring was a telling example of the company’s privileged, take-charge policy on recruitment. Bock writes in Work Rules that, far from sending in emails, or shoes, Google doesn’t really want you to approach them. “The odds of hiring a great person based on inbound applications are low,” he writes. Preferred is the scout, the long stalk. He tells me the recruiting corps at Google might eye a target for years. “And then, y’know, when they’re having a bad day – that’s when we strike. I’m joking a little bit. But we want to be there at those moments, when someone’s like, ‘You know what? I love what I’m doing but now’s the time to try something different.’”
In 2012 Casserly was a journalist at Forbes, assigned to interview Bock. During their chat he let slip about those preposterous death benefits, not yet made public by the company. (As well as the half-the-salary thing, Google immediately pays out the value of any unvested stock to an employee’s bereaved partner. It then contributes $1,000 a month for any children until they come of age.) Casserly wrote up the story with the headline, “Here’s What Happens To Google Employees When They Die.” A big scoop.
“We thought, man, she’s fantastic,” recalls Bock. His team approached Casserly about a job in the press office and she agreed to apply, she tells me, only because she thought she might write another article about it. Her editor at Forbes was in on the plan. Then, she says, the conversations with Google got “cooler and cooler. And the money was… interesting.” She joined about a year ago, a graduate, recently, from her “Noogler” status. She sits in on my conversation with Bock and monitors for indiscretions. At one point she instructs him, “Stop saying cult!”
Bock and I have been talking about some of the negative perceptions of Google. That it’s cult-like. That it’s smug. Perceptions, I should say, his book won’t do an awful lot to dissuade. As early as the first page, he compares founders Page and Brin to Romulus and Remus; also to Thomas Edison, Oprah Winfrey and Superman. Bock says he’s aware that internal zeal may not scan well from the outside. He jokes: “One of the defining elements of any cult is that from the outside it totally looks like a cult, and from the inside everyone denies it’s a cult.”
Google, he knows, can appear shut away. “Hermetically sealed. For example we don’t have many leaks for a company of our size.” He insists the vibe from within is more mutinous. “There’s this roiling, constant debate and argument and fighting. Because we do have people who represent all kinds of different perspectives – we even have luddites who think technology’s ruining the world. Debate is part of the fabric of who we are.” He looks at Casserly, an apology before using the forbidden word again. “You become cult-like when you have a single set of beliefs and you say, ‘This is the answer and you’re not allowed to question that.’ Not the case here.”
What about the smugness? Google’s assumption, in both of the word’s senses, can be staggering. The public backlash against those early-adopters who started wearing Google Glass spectacles a year ago – “Glass-holes” – might be seen as a manifestation of a larger frustration with the company and its seizure of ubiquity, its creep into positions of ever greater influence. (In this world and beyond: the company will soon send up drones to blip back Wi-Fi from lower space.) Many are upset by Google’s squinty position on internet censorship in China, interpreting it as complicity with an oppressive government. In the US there have been significant government investigations into anticompetitive practices at Google, since wound down, though not before damning accusations were made. A similar inquiry launched by the European commission goes on.
Publicly, I think, unease was most palpable when an armada of Google’s camera-equipped Subaru cars, touring the world and taking photos to prettify its map service, turned out to be absorbing data from people’s personal Wi-Fi accounts en route. “So how did this happen?” Google commented in a blogpost from 2010. “Quite simply, it was a mistake.” The chummy non-apology was tin-eared. Experts wondered about that “mistake”, pointing out that Subarus don’t teach themselves to plunder private data. In 2012 Wired published an article about the fiasco that it headlined “An Intentional Mistake”.
Bock: “From a perception perspective, I mean, look – we haven’t been as good as we ought to be in meeting with different communities outside of Google that care deeply about what we do. If you look at privacy… we haven’t done as good or thoughtful a job of having those conversations [as we might have]. We’re getting better. But we haven’t done as good a job [as we might have] on that.” He admits that Google sometimes gets stuff wrong. “I think there’s a lot of perceptions. And some of them are of our own making.”
What does he mean by that?
“There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with having a global brand, and the kind of footprint we have, and the kind of impact we have, and we need to live up to that. And, by the way,” he adds, veering back to the smugness issue, “we hire people who are very high IQ. Not very high EQ.”
Sharp but not emotionally sharp, he means. I’m surprised to hear him acknowledge this. It would explain a lot. Bock says: “We don’t always realise how some of our folks come across. By and large, it’s very well intentioned. So from the outside, yeah, I absolutely see that we need to get better, and work to change the perception, and make it more in line with how Googlers see themselves. But even inside, yeah, there are some people who are smug. They’re a minority.”
He writes in his book about “a small but odious segment of Googlers” who, among other internal misdemeanours, have abused the free meals system. Everyone eats for nothing here. Bock has caught people stashing takeaway boxes in their cars, pinching handfuls of granola bars for weekend hiking trips. Not long ago there was a campaign of resistance against Meatless Mondays, Google’s practice of offering only vegetarian meals once a week. In a chapter called It’s Not All Unicorns And Rainbows, Bock recounts the protest barbecues and silverware thrown away in anger. He quotes an email sent to him by a campaigner. “Stop trying to tell me how to live my life… Seriously stop this shit or I’ll go to Microsoft, Twitter or Facebook where they don’t fuck with us.”
Bock means for us to be shocked by this but I find it gratifying to know that in among all the super-people, a little corps of the sub par have snuck in. Fuck-Youglers, I call them.
I ask him, when they reveal themselves, these bad’uns, does he feel he’s failed as a recruiter? “Yeah. Everyone makes mistakes and we do, too. So you hire some people who are jerks.”
Back to that 400/1 chance for new applicants. I speak to a bookmaker at William Hill who offers me only slightly longer odds, 500/1, on my becoming prime minister. What can hopefuls do to improve their appalling chances of a job at Google?
Try to compete in at least one Olympic Games. (There are half a dozen former Olympians on the books.) Win an Academy Award or a Turing award. (Google has these, too.) Bock reveals that there’s no point brushing up on clever-clever logic questions, brainteasers about things like tennis balls in swimming pools, because they’ve done away with that in interviews. The company once plastered a giant maths equation on a billboard and invited anyone who could solve it to apply, but no hires resulted. These days he puts greater trust in the blunt, 2D question. Tell me about a problem you’ve solved, tell me about a time you’ve squabbled with a colleague.
Never tick off Larry Page. Even though this is now a city-sized operation, Page still enjoys the final say on every newcomer. How often can it happen, that an applicant gets all the way to the gates only to be barred by Romulus himself? Bock says once in a while. “A lot less than five or 10 years ago. Then it would be a weekly thing: ‘Not this one, not that one.’ Because what he was doing was calibrating all of us, saying: ‘This is what truly great looks like.’”
Who knows, Google might come and get me after this. I catch Bock looking on approvingly while I snoop around his office, making notes about the climbing frame and the (vast) coffee selection. I appear to score big points for suggesting that those generous death benefits must, in the end, make it more likely for a Googler’s partner to murder them. (“That was pointed out internally.”) And there was the impressive thing I’d done with my shoelaces.
If a call comes, the chances of acceptance here soar – to about 1/100. For any open position, Google will be interrogating 100 people simultaneously. After six weeks of this, 99 are rejected. They’re not told why. “If somebody just breaks up with you,” Bock says, “that’s not the time to hear: ‘And really, next time, send more flowers’… For the most part people actually aren’t excited to get that feedback, because they really wanted the job. They argue. They’re not in a place where they can learn.”
So what happens?
“We just say, ‘Congratulations, you’re hired.’ Or, ‘Sorry, it didn’t work out. Please apply again.’”
- Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live And Lead by Laszlo Bock, is published on 9 April by John Murray, at £20. To order a copy for £16, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010