December 15, 2006
@ 03:09 AM

Moishe Lettvin: Large companies and 'A' talent

But then I got an offer from Google and after a little bit of waffling (I was having much fun with the hackers) I started there back in January. And holy shit I hope I can convey to you what sort of geek heaven I'm in now.

Above I talked about NT4 being the "new hotness" back in '94 -- the guys who made it that way sit right next to me. In the same office. And that sort of expertise is everywhere here... it seems like every office is occupied by at least a couple of industry leaders, guys whose names you'd recognize if you're even a casual observer of geek culture.

Google's culture values independence and transparency of communication in ways I didn't think were possible at a large company. We've of course got our 20% time, but beyond that there's a sense that everyone here is competent enough and trustworthy enough to be clued in to many parts of the business -- not just engineering -- which would typically be hidden. That trust nets huge gains in loyalty and excitement.

There aren't many places in the world where you could can come up with the idea for a feature or product, implement it, and launch it to an audience of millions, with the infrastructure to support it. Yes, you can do it at a startup or on your own, but getting eyeballs and servers is non-trivial. For every YouTube there are hundreds of sites nobody's heard of.

Aaron Swartz: The Goog Life: how Google keeps employees by treating them like kids

The dinosaurs and spaceships certainly fit in with the infantilizing theme, as does the hot tub-sized ball pit that Googlers can jump into and throw ball fights. Everyone I know who works there either acts childish (the army of programmers), enthusiastically adolescent (their managers and overseers), or else is deeply cynical (the hot-shot programmers). But as much as they may want to leave Google, the infantilizing tactics have worked: they're afraid they wouldn't be able to survive anywhere else.

Google hires programmers straight out of college and tempts them with all the benefits of college life. Indeed, as the hiring brochures stress, the place was explicitly modeled upon college. At one point, I wondered why Google didn't just go all the way and build their own dormitories. After all, weren't the late-night dorm-room conversations with others who were smart like you one of the best parts of college life? But as the gleam wears off the Google, I can see why it's no place anyone would want to hang around for that long. Even the suburban desert of Mountain View is better.

Google's famed secrecy doesn't really do a very good job of keeping information from competitors. Those who are truly curious can pick up enough leaks and read enough articles to figure out how mostly everything works. But what it does do is create an aura of impossibility around the place. People read the airbrushed versions of Google technologies in talks and academic papers and think that Google has some amazingly large computer lab with amazingly powerful technology. But hang around a Googler long enough and you'll hear them complain about the unreliability of GFS and how they don't really have enough computers to keep up with the load.

"It's always frightening when you see how the sausage actually gets made," explains a product manager. And that's exactly what the secrecy is supposed to prevent. The rest of the world sees Google as this impenetrable edifice with all the mysteries of the world inside ("I hear once you've worked there for 256 days they teach you the secret levitation," explains xkcd) while the select few inside the walls know the truth -- there is no there there -- and are bound together by this burden.

The truth is always somewhere in between.