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.