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Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Thursday, 26 March 2009

Washington diary: Google world

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Mountain View

The list of things that make me feel old is sadly getting longer: that bald patch at the back of my head; dodgy eyesight; a growing interest in pension arrangements.

I can now add another: visiting the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

Matt Frei discusses privacy issues with Google CEO Eric Schmidt

The headquarters of this ultra-successful company that now possesses one of the world's most recognisable brand names - a name that has become a verb - feels like a cross between a university campus, an Ikea playpen and a multilingual reunion of Mensa on permanent dress-down Friday.

The average age of the employees seems to be somewhere in the late twenties. Jordan, the charming press minder who looked after us all day was 25 and fresh(ish) out of Yale. The firm's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are in their mid-thirties.

Depending on the Google share price they hover somewhere in the top 10 of America's richest billionaires.

'Chinese Google'

When I met Sergey Brin at a conference in nearby Monterey a few years ago, he was wearing no socks, black crocs, black jeans and a black T-shirt. He looked like a Goth groupie for the Grateful Dead, who happened to be worth $15bn (£10bn) dollars.

The only man wearing a suit at the Googleplex on Monday was the guy who runs the company, Eric Schmidt.

The Googleplex is...remorselessly international

He's the CEO and chairman of Google. His hair was balding faster than mine. He was showing his age around the middle and he pads the Lego-strewn corridors of the main Google building like the benevolent headmaster of a primary school for hyper-intelligent children.

He spoke about the political and economic landscape like a thoughtful captain of industry. His biggest gripe was that the restrictive US visa policy, which he described as "plain stupid", was starving his company and others like it of much needed foreign brains.

If it's not reversed, don't be surprised to see the next Google emerge in China or India, he warned.

By the way, before I arrived I thought the Lego playpen was one of those apocryphal stories about Google. But it's true.

We saw several employees who were definitely older than eight playing with the little plastic bricks and a Brio train set on the carpet next to the boardroom.

Financial woes

The Googleplex is also remorselessly international. The most common language I heard spoken was in fact Mandarin, followed closely by Hindi, Urdu and English.

A group of Italians was arguing passionately about lunch in one of the many informal cafes. The canteens are a Babel of foreign cuisines, whose menus give you some idea of which nationalities the company needs to keep happy.

Robot at Intel conference
Silicon Valley will continue to help shape our lives

The Chinese stir fry is gargantuan and excellent. The Indian curry - with raita and hot chutney - is some of the best I have had in the United States. There was a special kimche counter.

The global informality of the Googleplex is underpinned by cast-iron security. The buildings are guarded, like any other successful corporation by uniformed policemen, the Praetorian Guard of these bright young things who never get to dress down on any Friday.

A posse of highly qualified press minders circles the top bosses, making sure that no one is going off-piste.

In the last year, Google has not been immune to the world's financial woes. Its share price has gone from $450 dollars last March to $348 this week, when I last checked.

This is a decline but it's nowhere close to the pummelling meted out to most other companies. It has not laid off any of its 20,000 or so staff members, but it has cut back on contractors.

Money and minds

What impressed me about Google in particular and the San Francisco Bay area in general is that this neighbourhood has escaped the dead-hand of depression that has cast a pall over so much of the country.

Firstly, it is easy to forget that they know all about bubbles bursting in the Bay area. The dot.com bubble logged off big time in 2001 and the decline was spectacular.

So despite their youth, they have plenty of experience with recession. Secondly they accept the fact that good business is born out of a cycle of success and failure.

The unemployment rate in Silicon Valley is 10.1%, which is two percentage points higher than the national average.

But this area attracted 38% of the global venture capital investment in 2008. The total figure was down, but the percentage was up, which indicates that even in this credit desert, investors count on California to produce an oasis.

It is the marriage of discerning money and brilliant minds and it has given us iPods, eBay, Google Earth and so much else that defines the way we live our lives.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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