How to Launch a Googellite: Stephen Vinter Speaks

11/29/07Follow @wroush

If you were creating a satellite office for Google 3,100 miles away from the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, yet you wanted to make it authentically Google, what would you do? The short, superficial answer would be to buy a few lava lamps, paint the walls in bright primary colors, build a great cafeteria with lots of free jelly beans and energy bars, and offer piles of options on Google’s $600-something-and-rising stock to your recruits.

Stephen Vinter, site manager at Google’s fast-growing Cambridge, MA, operation, has done all of those things. Oh, I forgot to mention the big rooms crowded with workstations, the giant posters of Google’s clever holiday logos, the Rubik’s Cubes, and the smiley-face mylar balloons flying over the desks of the new employees. Google’s offices on the 7th and 13th floors at One Broadway in Kendall Square, where Vinter showed me around on Tuesday, have those too.

But that’s just the Google that visitors, magazine photographers, and new job candidates perceive. The real essence of Google’s Cambridge operation is something you can’t see—or rather, something that you can only understand by listening to Vinter explain his personal strategy for replicating Google’s amazing global success on a local scale.

“Google has made a commitment to having distributed offices, meaning we have engineers across the globe,” says Vinter, whose official title is engineering director. “The key to making sure the satellite offices are as succesful as they can be is to figure out how you can get the best-motivated people in the local area.”

He’s found quite a few already. Google’s cramped Cambridge office has more than 100 employees, up from just a handful less than a year ago, and is still growing fast. It’s not clear exactly how fast—”We don’t talk about rates,” Vinter says. But the company’s real-estate deals may say something about its expansion plans. Google has hired a construction firm to renovate a reported 59,000 square feet on three floors at Five Cambridge Center, just down the street. That’s three times as much space as the company is currently leasing at One Broadway.

Google communications senior associate Erin Gleason confirms the renovation project, but says a move-in date hasn’t been announced. Google isn’t, of course, the only West Coast tech giant that’s in rapid-expansion mode in Kendall Square. Microsoft’s Reed Sturtevant, as Bob reported this morning, is preparing to staff up a special innovation group at One Memorial Drive, where Microsoft has taken a lease on about half of the 17-story tower, and networking leader Akamai just signed leases at Four and Eight Cambridge Center that will nearly double its Kendall Square footprint to 250,000 square feet.

For Google, filling up its new space will mean exploring every corner where talent is hiding. Vinter, true engineer that he is, goes to the whiteboard in the tiny conference room where we’re meeting and draws a box surrounded by bubbles and arrows. Boston is a fantastic setting for filling up the Google box, he explains, because there are so many bubbles around it: MIT, Harvard, BU, Brandeis, Northeastern, U Mass, and the other great schools churning out new graduates; a large ecosystem of high-tech firms employing ambitious programmers and scientists (and Vinter considers both information technology companies and biotechnology companies to be fair hunting grounds); graduates from other regions who want to move to the Northeast; and people already inside Google who want to do the same.

“There are not many places in the world with that collection of people, and with the attractiveness of Boston and its culture, and with great upward mobility for people in high-tech,” Vinter says.

But what do you put inside the Google box, to make sure people are happy and productive once they get there? You start with what Vinter calls “a complete compensation package,” including, of course, those coveted Google stock options. Then there’s therich environment: lunch talks, frequent guests, company outings, an atmosphere of collaboration, an openness to publishing and sharing research findings, and, yes, a nice cafeteria.

Most outsiders “only see the compensation package and the food,” says Vinter. But “the rich environment isn’t the biggest perk. It’s you having the freedom to do what you think is important. Understanding what that is for each employee is the most important thing I do.”

The best candidates for jobs at Google, Vinter says, are overachievers who are attracted to working for the company because they think it can leverage their work into something with a big impact. “They are incredibly self-motivated,” he says. “With people like that, the real value of management is just to get the obstacles out of the way.”

Of course, Vinter is much more than a glorified cruise director trying to help all his employees become self-actualized. He has to make sure that the things people want to work on align with projects and products that are beneficial to Google, and that the worthwhile projects attract enough team members to succeed—which may be three people or 20. “My job is to figure out what the critical mass is for a given project and to figure out whether we can grow fast enough to meet that critical mass.”

I wasn’t at all surprised to hear Vinter say that he isn’t ready to talk about the actual projects his office is working on, given that most of the Google’s engineers in Cambridge are still new and that the company is famously close-mouthed about products under development.

It’s public knowledge, though, that the Cambridge office is home to Rich Miner, who joined Google when the company acquired his mobile phone software company Android in 2005. So it’s reasonable to assume that a number of people in the Cambridge office are contributing to Google’s Android platform, a collection of open-source software tools that members of the Google-led Open Handset Alliance are using to create a new generation of open, flexible mobile hardware and software.

Google also has a public partnership with Harvard University to scan thousands of library books as part of the company’s Google Book Search effort. The Cambridge office’s proximity to Harvard “makes things easier” when it comes to working with Harvard, Vinter says.

Book Search is also a good example of a project that draws in resources from all parts of Google—its expertise with distributed computing systems, machine learning and natural-language processing, Web-based and desktop applications, and even hardware—and that illustrates, as a result, how tightly engineers in the Cambridge office are hooked into these resources. “Book Search is a highly scalable problem, so it requires a systems infrastructure,” he says. “You want to be able to view the books you search, so it requires applications. Do you want to search books on a handset? Maybe Android comes in. Everything is related.”

In an environment where boundaries are so permeable and so much depends on each employee’s ability to navigate them, it’s crucial to recruit people who love to learn, Vinter says. “A very common conversation that happens is, we’ll have people come in who have solid offers from other companies. The candidate will say, ‘They are going to have me on Project X—what project am I going to work on here?’ And to me, that’s like saying ‘I’ve been accepted to Wesleyan as a history major.’ That’s fine, but you’re just a freshman. There shouldn’t really be an expectation that you already know what you want to do. We say back to them, ‘Why don’t you just come in and spend a year learning what Google does? By the end of that year, you’ll know Google cold and you’ll be in a much better position to know how you can contribute.’”

Given the chance, who wouldn’t want another shot at being a freshman—including the wicked-smart classmates, the fun and games, and the endless cafeteria—and get paid in the process? With Google in town, the yearly migration of some of Boston’s smartest grads to Mountain View might just get diverted toward Kendall Square.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.SheeleyTech.com Michael Sheeley

    It seems to me that Google’s entrepreneurial atmosphere will fit in very well with the Boston area. Big companies and entrepreneurs usually don’t get along but Google seems to have kept its entrepreneurial spirit alive. It should be interesting to watch them grow here.

  • john

    The Google employees in 1 Broadway seem very young. The guys all wear their active-wear / tough weather backpacks; the women seem to like to wear Manolo Blahniks (strange for engineers, but whatever). They are given to obtaining their free morning carbohyrdates (such as fruit loops) and then riding the elevators, clutching their laptops to their chests. They also seem incredibly insular. 1 Broadway is the home to tens of startups, and I have yet to see a young Googler speak to anyone outside of their cult.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone get on or off the Google floors after hours or on weekends.

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  • Rachel

    Haha… those young women in Manolos were salespeople, John. I can assure you that the women in engineering are wearing more comfortable footwear.