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Google your way to a wacky office

13 March 08 12:30 GMT
By Jane Wakefield
BBC Technology reporter, BBC News website, in Zurich

If your ideal workspace includes a slide, a games room, a 'chill-out' aquarium and plenty of free food then you had better get your CV into Google.

Dotcom companies were defined by beanbags and pizza but Google, a company that came to prominence after the bubble had burst, has taken that image to a whole new level.

Meeting 'pods' in the style of Swiss chalets and igloos, fireman poles to allow easy access between floors and a slide to ensure that people can get to the cafeteria as quickly as possible are all part of a design of its new European engineering headquarters in Zurich Switzerland.

The building was designed for - and partly by - the 300 engineers who will work there.

The wacky office is both a showcase for Google's unconventional approach to business and a symbol to prove that Google is no longer a US-centric firm.

But as the search giant expands its wings so criticism about its dominance becomes ever louder.

The civil liberties lobby is hot on its heels with questions about what it plans to do with all the data it is collecting while others question its expansion into new areas - with its purchase of advertising outfit DoubleClick causing particular controversy.

Google stresses that it puts users before making money but an 18% drop in its share price at the beginning of the year proved that it wasn't immune to the US economic downturn and some question how long its good intentions can last if profits continue to fall.

Access all areas

It does, without doubt value its staff very highly and engineers are particularly important - over half of the company is made up of them.

They are best served, according to Nelson Mattas, vice president of engineering, by both a creative work environment and a flat, open working structure.

At a press day to launch its new research and development centre, he explained the serious point behind the 'fun office'.

"The lava lamps, free food and games are all part of the Google culture. It is informal and a structure that isn't dictated from the top," he said.

The unconventional design of the office represents what Google hopes is a free flow of information through all parts of the company.

"I was very surprised that on day one of joining Google I had access to every piece of code, design document and confidential information, said Mr Mattas.

A database of all ongoing projects allows engineers to easily locate expertise and a scheme known as 20% time offers engineers the chance to take that amount of time off from their key objectives to "go do something new".

It has proven itself, spawning features such as Google News which was built as a 20% project by an engineer frustrated about the availability of news following the 9/11 attacks.

For Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management at Google, the balance of work and fun is just about right.

"Beyond the good food and cool office it is the case that every conversation that you have here is one of substance," he said.

Pepsi versus Coke

Google recruits from the best universities in the US and Europe and now has 12 engineering offices around Europe.

In Poland engineers are working to improve the relevancy of search, while engineers in Denmark are developing virtual machines to improve the speed of applications.

In Israel, engineers have designed Google Trends, a feature that offers users a way to analyse and compare various search terms.

So for instance users can compare the popularity of search terms such as Obama versus Clinton and see the cities where the different US candidates were most popular.

"The tool was developed to understand what people search for in order to improve search but we realised that this information can be useful for everyone else," explained Yossi Mahas, the head of engineering at Google's Tel Aviv office.

It has thrown up some fascinating facts. A comparison between Coke and Pepsi shows that in New Zealand people are more likely to search for Coke while in Turkey and India, Pepsi dominates.

Searches about troubled star Britney Spears show a very direct correlation with her media exposure as well as revealing that there are currently 800 ways to misspell her name.

London has become the European headquarters of all things mobile and alongside its much talked about mobile operating system Android, Google is also working on projects aimed at improving mobile search and tying it ever more closely with location.

Search for a café in London and mobile users will be given results showing the distance away from their current location and the phone number of various establishments.

"The use of location is changing behaviour. People are going to areas that they don't know and just opening up Google maps," said David Burke, a mobile engineer at Google.

Users first?

Engineers work in small teams of three or four, which is reflected at the Zurich HQ with small offices, each of which comes with the requisite 'bean bag' meeting room.

Whiteboards are everywhere, allowing ideas to be written down wherever they are thought up and there is a heavy emphasis on the idea that work and play can co-exist.

Other areas include a games room, a library in the style of an English country house and an aquarium where over-worked Googlers can lie in a bath full of red foam and stare at fish.

Google is keen to present itself as the company that 'does no evil' and 'puts users first', statements that are becoming more challenged as the company becomes ever more powerful.

A question at the open day about Google's involvement in China - where search is heavily censored - brought a compromise response: "Our approach in general is users first but we are also obligated to the local laws of the countries we operate in," said Mr Mattas.

A query about how Google Maps deals with politically sensitive areas such as the Palestinian territories was deflected by the head of the Israel office while a question about how the firm can reconcile being both the provider of ad tools and the seller of media space drew the answer: "They can be complementary".

The questions about Google's role as the provider of the world's information are likely to get louder but few doubt that it is setting new standards in how to get the best out of employees.

And Google assured the more cynical members of the press that the slide is used every day.

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