Sunday, 28 February 2010

Goggle-eyed at Google Singapore

It did not bode well for Google’s trendy upstart image at first, finding out that its Singapore office is located in the steel cuboid jungle of Shenton Way - a sprint away from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, no less.


Guanyu 道 said...

Goggle-eyed at Google Singapore

With 4 weeks’ paternity leave, office massages and bagel day, it redefines workplace happiness

27 February 2010

It did not bode well for Google’s trendy upstart image at first, finding out that its Singapore office is located in the steel cuboid jungle of Shenton Way - a sprint away from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, no less.

Spend half a day at Google Singapore like BT did, however, and it is almost possible to forget that Google is no longer an upstart firm but an empire that raked in US$23.7 billion in revenue last year.

A sliver of that almost US$24 billion is found scattered across the sunny and spacious two-level Singapore office during an exclusive tour hosted by Google Singapore’s head of communications, Therese Lim. As the government here shines its spotlight on productivity and ‘working smarter’ - and experts point to happier workers being more efficient - this seems an appropriate place to search for the concept.

For starters, there is the breakfast nook for Googlers (that’s what Google employees call themselves) and on this particular day, it holds an eye-crossing variety of gourmet spreads like herb chive cream cheese and blueberry cream cheese.

‘Thursday is bagel day,’ a Googler offers by way of explanation. ‘And Friday is Old Chang Kee day,’ she adds, with a touch of glee.

Two steps away, the ‘micro- kitchen’ holds a snack rack with Japanese ramen vying with Kit Kats and Tae Kae Noi seaweed for attention, a reflection of the mixed-bag nature of employees’ ethnicities.

‘We have a facilities team, and they keep track of what we run low on and restock it. It’s all about data at Google,’ says Ms Lim.

The same facilities team peels carrots and cuts them into snack-sized portions for health-conscious employees, stored in a refrigerator alongside several kinds of cereal and an array of milk large enough to cater to the lactose-intolerant.

It’s just as well that Google is at heart an engineering firm; the coffee machine in the micro-kitchen rivals that of Starbucks’ in operating complexity.

The diversity of the Google office, with over 100 people in headcount, is apparent as the tour wends its way around the office filled with Googlers seated side-by- side in low-partitioned cubicles, dotting the full range of the colour spectrum.

‘It’s like the United Nations in here. We have maybe six or seven different languages going on,’ says Sarah Robb, head of human resources at Google Southeast Asia. ‘It’s pretty humbling.’

No one might be shuffling around in his bathrobe or toting a paintball gun like the Yahoo! office in the early days, but the office is determinedly whimsical in decor.

The printers are named after local foods like chendol and satay. There is a meeting room called Paiseh, the pronunciation of which always trips up the Western employees.

‘There was a deliberate decision to have no formal office,’ Ms Lim says, pointing out that only the office’s managing director has his own room - and he shares it with the enterprise sales leader.

An unassuming sign in a corner mentions ‘massages’ but is not part of the tour patter. ‘Oh, that. We have a masseuse come in every Wednesday,’ says Ms Lim, waving distractedly in the face of growing incredulity.

‘It’s $7 for about 15-20 minutes. It’s pretty awesome.’

Guanyu 道 said...

The price of ‘pretty awesome’

‘Awesome’ is a word that’s heard a whole lot at Google, a firm that has figured out that it takes more than peeled carrot sticks and massages to keep its 19,835 full-time employees worldwide happy - the last count as at the end of 2009.

Its total compensation package, rated coyly by Ms Robb as ‘above industry average’, includes stock options and medical benefits that, like large consulting firms, cover dental expenses and pay for a new set of contact lenses or spectacles.

On top of that, Googlers in Singapore get a lunch stipend built into their paycheck. Asked if that amount is enough to cover dinner expenses for employees working late, Ms Robb immediately replies: ‘We don’t want people working late. We’re really trying to get people to go home.’

A mother of an infant herself, Ms Robb is a huge fan of Google’s emphasis on work-life balance and family-friendly policies.

‘I’m a new mom. I leave every day at about 5:15 pm and pick up my daughter, snuggle and have dinner. Sometimes, I might jump back online from home and make sure my inbox is cleaned out, but that’s entirely my choice,’ she says.

New fathers at Google get four weeks of paternity leave, while new mothers get 16 weeks.

And then there is what Ms Robb calls ‘mommy takeout food’. ‘For whatever you order when you’re on maternity leave, just provide receipts when you get back and we’ll reimburse you.’

Under the sheer deluge of Google employment perks, some slip through the cracks and only emerge incidentally over lunch with other Google employees.

There is the Google Nexus One phone they received last Christmas, for example. ‘The year before that, it was an HTC, I think,’ said Irene Sung, head of sales at Google Southeast Asia.

Being Googly

All of these things are more than just ‘pretty awesome’; they are rather ‘Googly’, as Googlers will have you know.

‘Googliness’, a concept PT Barnum himself would have envied, is an amorphous idea bundled as a cuddly-sounding package that simultaneously means several things - quirkiness, uniqueness, flexibility, and your passport to being hired at Google.

Some people might scoff at this ill-defined term that shares elbow-space with other nauseatingly cute handles in the Google lexicon: ‘Singagooglers’ for Googlers in Singapore; ‘Nooglers’ for new Googlers; ‘Xooglers’ for ex-Googlers; and, for the strongest of stomachs, ‘Carpooglers’ for Googlers who share a ride to work.

Silly-sounding or not, every year, Google receives a million job applications from people all over the world who not only buy into its ‘Googliness’, but vie to be seen as suitably ‘Googly’, too.

At the Singapore office, Googlers buy into the term with a conviction that is almost unnerving.

‘I’m not a fan of panel-interviewing. Intimidation is not a great way to assess a candidate. It’s not ‘Googly’,’ Ms Robb says at one point.

Even engineers who bow to coding and C++ skills have time for ‘Googliness’. Andrew McGlinchey, head of product management for Google Southeast Asia, tells BT that his job is to ‘cause Googly things to happen in Southeast Asia’.

Part of the ‘Googliness’ is the lack of rigidity that plagues a lot of corporations. ‘No one micro-manages what I do; I own my work. As long as I get my job done, my manager’s happy,’ says Melina Lee, an account strategist with Google Southeast Asia.

‘Our dress code is that you wear something,’ Ms Lim says wryly.

Guanyu 道 said...

Googlers have had plenty of opportunities to properly believe in ‘Googliness’, it appears.

Everyone BT spoke to had their own vivid and affectionate recollection of a particular ‘TGIF’ - a weekly company-wide meeting at the Google US headquarters that is webcast globally on Fridays.

At this meeting, employees worldwide ask the founders and CEO questions in a no-holds-barred session.

Ms Sung remembers one such question being fielded, possibly by chief executive officer Eric Schmidt. ‘Somebody wanted a specific new cafe in their building. And Eric or somebody said, ‘Yeah, how much do you need?’ and somebody said a number and he said, ‘Done!’

‘Someone once came in a bunny suit and asked a question,’ Ms Lim recalls. There is a slight pause. ‘I don’t think it was Halloween.’

‘Don’t Be Evil’

Beneath the bunny suit, however, most Googlers, diverse as they are, fit a certain hard-driving archetype.

‘I think they are all quite Type A in Google, self-starters and self-sufficient,’ said Ms Sung. Googlers’ conversations with BT were frequently peppered with ‘getting it done’ and ‘doing it right’.

At the end of many statements, the word ‘right’ was tacked on, a mixture of emphasis and an urgency to drive home a point.

The mixture of cuddliness and edges is also true of Google itself - a company that, despite the folksiness of ‘Don’t Be Evil’, has become more Goliath than David.

For all its ‘Googliness’, Google has been accused of some very un-’Googly’ things this week. On Wednesday, three Google executives were convicted in an Italian court for allowing a video of an autistic teenager being bullied to be posted online.

On the same day, news also broke that the European Commission was looking into complaints against Google over its alleged competitive behaviour.

At the Singapore office, Googlers say that the spirit of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ is very much alive.

Mr. McGlinchey points out the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button on the Google search homepage that bypasses a search result page with ads on it.

‘For every click of that button, we’re not able to make any money. If this had been all about the dollars and cents, we’d get rid of that,’ he says.

Can Goliath stay Googly?

In its Form 10-K filed for last year, Google said: ‘We have experienced rapid growth in our headcount and operations . . . If we do not effectively manage our growth, the quality of our products and services could suffer, which could negatively affect our brand and operating results.’

Nowhere else is this story of rapid growth truer than at the Singapore office that was set up in 2007 with only eight people.

Since 2008, headcount at the office has doubled to over 100 staff. Currently, it is looking to fill 38 vacancies and it is only February. ‘We’re recruiting recruiters!’ Ms Robb says, laughing.

In 2009, Google’s international revenue accounted for 53 per cent of total turnover. With sales revenue making up 97 per cent of Google’s revenue and Singapore functioning as an ad sales nerve centre for the region, its Shenton Way office might soon need a third floor.

‘One interesting thing about Google is that a lot of it is about personal relationships, but it’s extremely easy to make personal relationships,’ says Mr. McGlinchey.

Depending on how it handles its growth, that might soon change.

Its headcount might be a fraction of Microsoft’s 88,214-strong payroll (as at the end of 2009), but Google is getting bigger. In the 10-K filing, Google said it expects to increase the number of acquisitions being made in 2010.

Last year, Google saw a 14 per cent increase in research and development headcount alone. The year before that, that headcount grew 25 per cent.

Co-founder Larry Page still gives the final approval for every new hire in Google - all 19,000-odd of them and counting.

The greatest challenge that Google faces, alongside that of competition inquiries and Italian legislation, is whether Mr. Page can ensure that his rapidly increasing number of Googlers can stay ‘Googly’.