Technologizer

10 Things I Didn’t Know About Google

Interesting stuff that didn't fit into our big cover story.

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TIME cover

For this week’s TIME cover story on Google’s “moon shot” projects — including Calico, a new company that will research ways to extend human life — I spent a big chunk of time hanging out at the company’s Googleplex headquarters talking to Googlers, including co-founder and CEO Larry Page. I’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 didn’t get mentioned, either for lack of space or because they didn’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. We’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 there’s only 30 of us. We couldn’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 can’t run a phone number with that many people.

2. Google is a bicyclist’s paradise. The main Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California, is quite large. It’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 — using one of more than a thousand one-speed bikes, painted in the signature colors from Google’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 aren’t supposed to use them — oops.) They’re beefy one-speeds that remind me of the Schwinn I had when I was eight, and aren’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 aren’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 on…Thursdays. It’s an all-hands event hosted by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and multiple Googlers brought it up as an important part of the company’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. They’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 you’ll be tempted.

5. Google has an amazing restaurant named after a legendary Japanese cartoon character. It’s called Tetsuwan Atom, and it’s a sprawling cafeteria with sushi and other Japanese food. You may know Tetsuwan Atom, who was created by Osamu Tezuka — Japan’s Walt Disney — better as Astro Boy. His image is everywhere in the cafeteria.

Calling the place a cafeteria is misleading, though: It’s pretty swanky. I conducted one of my interviews in one of its tatami rooms, where we were all required to remove our shoes.

Android statues

Harry McCracken / TIME

6. The Androids have taken over. I’ve long known that Google marks the launch of new versions of Android by commissioning and erecting a giant statue. But I somehow wasn’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 — and are visible from the street, so you don’t need to enter the Googleplex to enjoy them. They’re worth a visit if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

7. It can be harder to do stuff that’s obviously adjacent to core Google businesses than stuff that has nothing to do with them.  One thing I heard from multiple Googlers — including one ex-Googler I spoke with as a reality check — is that the company is working a lot harder than it once did to impose consistency across its major products, and that it’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 — Gmail, Google+ and Search and Android and all these things — we do want them to work pretty well together. You don’t want to have 25 different ways to share something or 18 different ways to have a photo of yourself, things like that. There’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 innovate…that’s a conversation that can’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 there’s things we do that don’t require a lot of integration currently. Project Loon [Google's project to deliver broadband by balloon] doesn’t require a lot of integration right now. The key thing is to have the right mix of projects and to think about “maybe I can take on more projects.”

It’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, “What’s the adjacent thing that I can do,” because that’s where you must have experts.

8. Sundar Pichai interviewed at Google on April 1st, 2004. The man who would eventually run two of Google’s most important businesses — Android and Chrome — happened to be interviewing for a job there on the day that it announced Gmail.  The e-mail service claimed to offer an almost literally unbelievable 1GB of storage, 500 times Hotmail’s quota at the time, and it wasn’t immediately clear that it wasn’t a prank. “I remember people asking me about Gmail — ‘What do you think of it?’ I had no idea if was an April Fool’s joke, or if it was real,” he told me.

9. Google loves to videoconference. High-quality, big-screen videoconferencing is one of the company’s primary collaborative tools. I conducted my interview with YouTube’s Robert Kyncl that way — 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.  Twenty percent time isn’t dead, but it was never what some people thought it was. Last month, Christopher Mims of Quartz wrote about “20 percent time,” Google’s famous perk that encourages employees to spend work hours on personal projects — some of which have gone on to become enormous deals, such as Gmail and AdSense. Mims declared that it was “as good as dead.” 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 YouTube’s Kyncl about it, he said that “I have not seen 20 percent time lately, but what I’ve seen is people passionate about certain things. They simply develop them. We run incredibly fast. There’s been less time for 20 percent.”

But then I talked about 20 percent time with Laszlo Bock, Google’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: “The awful secret of 20 percent time is that there’s never been a formal ‘Everybody gets 20 percent time.'”

“It’s funny,” he said, “even internally some people, particularly as we’ve been hiring in the past few years, have come in and said ‘Where is it written in the handbook that I get eight hours a week, and da da da.’ And it’s just never, ever worked that way.”

Bock told me that it’s been Google’s engineering-related functions where 20 percent time has been a tradition, and that it lives on, even though it doesn’t involve 20 percent of time being formally set aside for personal experiments. Google Now, for instance — one of the best things the company has introduced in the last couple of years — began as a 20 percent project by a couple of Googlers. Now it’s on both Android and iOS, and is a significant component of the company’s official vision of the future of search.

33 comments
fuzmorten
fuzmorten

Useless trivia nothing that give you a real useful understanding of why a company making $billions off the users of their products but only uses Unpaid Volunteers for support! Bad business practices will win out and Google will have financial problems if they continue ignoring their users!

zephon-baal
zephon-baal

The thing I will always remember about google is that AltaVista was the number 1 content based retrieval engine far in advance of google search.

We at Digital told the founders of google to go away when they wanted jobs with us.

Then we floundered and they spanked.

Hats off the them.

We Americans love a winner.

Dennis85
Dennis85

How about that google was stated with Governemnt Grants. That the  two Google founders went to college on Government loans.

That Google aggressively avoids paying corporation tax.

stratozyck
stratozyck

How about this:  Googles business model is to get you to share your data so they can sell ads to you.  They are nothing more than an ad company for the 21st century, just like Facebook is.

KevinYoung1
KevinYoung1

Sorry to say, but I really disliked your article. You had the COVER article, yet you hardly said anything about the topic of 'solving' death, and very little was quoted from your exclusive interview with Larry Page. Perhaps you should have Googled 'death as a disease' so you could have at least mentioned things like Kurzweil's attempts at immortality, or the Mprize, or fightaging.org, or at least Aubrey DeGrey (and a link to his article at ideas.time.com). I came away feeling like you had not done your homework, which is not a very nice accusation. Please, next time you get the lead article, deliver the topic on a platter--colorful bikes and Android statues are fun, but not the reason I opened the magazine.

AlanGray
AlanGray

Harry, yes, #1 is the reason that google continues to destroy other businesses, like mine. There is no way you can talk to someone.
I even sent a letter by FedEx and there was zero response.

I'm not the only one, but after seeing many destroyed websites (that used to be good) over the past 34 months, I think I may be one of the few still working hard and hanging on, trying to work out why they hate everything I do, and what to do about it.

Did you consider asking them why they are so uncaring about other people, or do you think they don't even know we're out here, trying to do the right thing for our readers, while they do their best to stop us reaching anyone through search?

Of course, it may be all my own fault, but after working on 100+ projects every day for 1,054 days, I'm getting a little weary, and you would think there might be a way to contact a reasonable company that had some thought for others, rather than just itself, so you could ask a question and get an actionable answer.

TommyLobotomy
TommyLobotomy

The article doesn't mention Google's collaboration with the NSA and the fact that Google is actively involved in spying on Americans.  Because of this, I've stopped using Google.  I've switched to DuckDuckGo, which works just as well as Google.  Google has kind of created a myth about itself, but it's just a souped  up search engine, and today any average geek can create a search engine.  Sayonara Google.

justageeker
justageeker

Google is typical according to my dealings years ago with David D. there. Long story short they are thieves of ideas using bogus accounts and free space sites to gain intel to build their own branded stuff. But more power to them I guess.

BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

Fun Fact #11:

Google shares your personal data with the US Government anytime Uncle Sam wants and Google never asks for proof of search warrant.

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

One additional failed venture was Google Answers which I worked at. Specially screened and certified researchers answered questions for a fixed price if the buyer liked the answer. From the researcher standpoint it was working fine, I got some big tips for complex questions. Unlike other similar services Answers required members to pass tests and qualify.

John

Science Editor, Perihelionsf.com

Senior Writer, Newsblaze.com

DanBruce
DanBruce

No comment except to say "thank you" to ay Google people reading this. Google makes the internet meaningful in my life.

flyingsq5
flyingsq5

@Dennis85 

I'm pretty sure that they are paying the taxes that they owe, and not more. What do you do? 

Do you think that taxes are some kind of optional thing that you pay as much as you feel like paying? I don't know about you, but I pay my full share end of discussion. 

davecu41
davecu41

@stratozyck speaks truth.

Since I joined Google + I have received a 70% rise in my spam filter.

I know no one in Russia who is aware when the warrante of my 2002 car is expiring, what the price of incontinence products in my area cost, and why would + think that I know 2 people in India?

 Make your money how you can, right Google?

flyingsq5
flyingsq5

@stratozyck Right comment! They are a much *better* advertising medium than anything that has existed before. Why? Because the ADs are actually relevant and useful. For example, I was searching for Broadway shows and saw an AD for 1/2 price tickets which saved me a couple hundred bucks for the show that I wanted to see.  

Alyeskan
Alyeskan

@KevinYoung1 Um, this is an article about an article. The story about the Calico Pproject is linked in the first sentence. Duh.

flyingsq5
flyingsq5

@AlanGray This is the most ridiculous comment so far. Google doesn't block anyone's site from their search. In fact just the opposite, they have fought against organizations and countries (China) who have tried to block certain websites. 

What are you complaining about? Your sites are not ranked #1? If so, then you have only yourself to blame. The rankings are a democratic process based on what people find useful by following and linking to your website. Google often puts Facebook and Yahoo websites first on their search results, if they are discriminating how do you explain that?  

Are you really so delusional that you think that Google would help out Facebook at your expense? Why? 


flyingsq5
flyingsq5

@TommyLobotomy There is no evidence that Google is cooperating with the NSA, except for specific court orders that they are required by law being an US company to follow ( Google publicly discloses every such cooperation)

I think you are confusing Google with Verizon, who really did cooperate with the NSA by turning over the calling records of all its customers.

Also, the NSA is going to hack companies whether they cooperate or not. Other (much worse) search engines are also susceptible, even more so because they have fewer total employees than Google has security experts on its payroll. 

Are you really going to trust a Chinese, Russian, or some 5 people in a garage search engine over Google? 

aisajib
aisajib

@JohnAMccormick Google Wave seemed good, too. Not sure why it was discontinued. Probably people never realized how to use it.

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

I should point out I was under contract, not an employee.

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

@flyingsq5 @Dennis85 C corporations have many options to avoid or delay paying taxes. International businesses can do even more by keeping a lot of income overseas. I haven't seen google tax returns but I have headed a C corporation so I know they basically pay what *+they want to pay based on many factors including how much they reserve for R&D.*+.

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

@davecu41 @stratozyck Over the decades I've often written about privacy and am currently working on a piece. You just have to be aware of what will happen and not give out some information you want private, such as when you are on vacation, where your kids go to school, etc. I'm on Gmail, G+, G sites, G groups, and use Google Drive. But after 40 years as a reporter and as an emergency management coordinator, I'm a public figure anyway so I just conceal some sensitive information and hope some of the spam will be useful.

I'm sensitive to privacy, I interview people (most recently Buzz Aldrin) and, in turn, get interviewed by other reporters (just last week).

Of course Gmail has great spam filters, even categorizing email as Social, Promotions, and Primary, so I see very little actual spam despite getting hundreds of emails each week - Google is a new technology, just like a VCR, or Smart TV, you have to learn to use it.

Please note that I use my actual name here.

Time is getting page hits off this discussion and the author of the article is, with any luck, getting useful feedback. That is how these things work. TANSTAAFL

The Internet is a harsh mistress too.

AlanGray
AlanGray

@flyingsq5 @AlanGray  Hi Flyingsqd.

I've been called lots of things, but delusional is a first for me.

I don't have time to write garbage, I'm running what used to be a successful newspaper.

You obviously don't know abything about how the google algorithms work these days.

It used to be that you could write a great story and depending on a number of things, you could get some visitors from google or even hundreds of thousands. I wrote a story in January and it has had more than half a million readers since then (that is unusual for me) but how many came from google? 16

In the past month, 17,000 readers. How many from google ?   1

It has thousands of incoming links, not a single one solicited by me.

There is "something" that google doesn't like about my site, and these days if google doesn't like something, then your whole site suffers and there is nothing you can do about it, except try to work out what the problem is, and fix it. The theory is, if you fix it, everything will go back to the way it was.

I've been trying to fix it for over 1,000 days, as I said, but it just gets worse every week.

Also, as I said, it isn't only me. Go to the google forums and look in there and you will see thousands of people having problems. Some of them have really poor quality sites, some have done really bad things, such as paying for thousands of links to be pointed to their sites. BUT some have done none of that, and their sites, that were once attractive to hundreds of thousands of millions of people each month, are now wastelands, because although they have their existing visitors, their new pages are so far back in the results that they can't be found, or their pages are buried in secondary results that almost nobody knows how to find them - and almost nobody searches that way.

So I understand that you may not know about this side of the google algorithms, but it is true. And it appears that there is no way out of this hole. I've been trying for over 1,000 days. I'm hoping that something I change will fix this before I run out of money, but there is a chance that it is something hidden, that has been applied manually by someone inside google, and that I could even shut the whole site down and start again, and it would still be the same.

Got any other suggestions?

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

First, I'm not google bashing, I've worked for them, use G services daily, and understand what privacy I am giving up so they can provide services and make money.
I always expected most search engines would give data to the government, you don't argue with the NSA.
But I've had sites blocked from carrying google ads and making money while others of mine were fine. Often with no explanation. It was a minor inconvenience for me.
I've also seen what happened to Newsblaze. It was doing great, then was blacklisted from regular searches and visitors plunged. Alan went to Google and
they told him it was an automatic process and a mistake. They fixed it and the news site was back at the top of many searches. Then it was blacklisted again
with no explanation, obviously some algorithm or combination of them in an automated process. Unfortunately they are now so big it is difficult to get through to a person with authority.

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

@flyingsq5 @AlanGray Sorry, you are incorrect, google does block people and sites and states that in various places if you care to read the fine print.

WasntMee
WasntMee

@flyingsq5 @AlanGray We forget that Microsoft dominated the "internet" market that helped created their competition. I was all in with Google when they provided free software instead of making us pay through the nose for licenses. Yes, they invented the "Google wants to know everything about you" but at least the ads were relevant to me. I chose that option and have understood for years that anything you put on the internet is public including Gmail. Remember Outlook? Loved it until I was asked to buy it again when Gmail was free. Guess which horse I chose to ride. Google founders made money the old fashioned way (IPO>>>lol) and Gates chose to charge for software to the point of losing the business. 

As a Saudi oil minister said, "the stone age didn't end because they ran out of stones" when trying to make others understand the cost of being too greedy.

BGII
BGII

blahgua doesnt collect any data.  in fact, if someone requests it, it doesnt even exist...

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

@aisajib @JohnAMccormick sorry to say I can't recall it despite being a technology and science reporter. One problem with Google online is the number of good to great ideas they come up with.

JohnAMccormick
JohnAMccormick

@AlanGray @flyingsq5 That's the story as I've seen it develop. Newsblaze doesn't pay me, I volunteer my time to try and keep one of the few independent news services alive a day longer..

And, I'm a reporter with 40 year's experience including time spent serving on the Library Committee of the National Press Club, where I am still a member.