Google’s Cambridge Office Assumes Growing Role Inside Search Giant

4/12/10Follow @wroush

If you glanced at the software engineering job listings page for Google Boston, you might think that the company’s Kendall Square office has only two positions open. That would be wrong. Site director Steven Vinter says the office has been hiring aggressively since December.

The growth would have started sooner if it hadn’t been for the recession, which didn’t slow Google’s expansion much, but did seem to engender a kind of constipation in the local software community, with people unwilling to risk leaving their current positions, Vinter says. But conditions have eased and the company is now getting more resumes. In any case, the two positions described on the job page—software engineer and software tester—are just roles, Vinter says. The company is hiring many people to fill each one.

In fact, with more than 100 engineers and 100 business development staff spread across four floors at Five Cambridge Center—space the company occupied in early 2008 after outgrowing its cramped quarters at One Broadway—Google Boston has evolved from a mere outpost of Google’s Bay Area headquarters into a major engineering and sales center. I stopped by a couple of weeks ago to hear the latest about the office’s progress from Vinter, whom I last interviewed in depth way back in November 2007. (At that time, the office had half as many people.)

The main point Vinter made, as you’ll read below, is that Google Boston is now big enough to have what he calls “end-to-end” responsibility for major parts of the Google product lineup, including the Chrome browser and operating system, the YouTube server and client infrastructure, Google Book Search, and the Google Friend Connect social Web service. As Xconomy founder Bob Buderi has argued in his book Engines of Tomorrow and elsewhere, it’s crucial for corporate outposts to have this kind of responsibility and autonomy if they want to avoid becoming marginalized within their own companies. My impression is that Vinter has been working hard to make sure that Google Boston isn’t simply a vehicle for hiring talented New England engineers who don’t want to move to Mountain View, but that it builds teams that have a direct impact on Google’s bottom line and on the problems the company is trying to solve.

Google Boston PosterWith major news about Chrome, Chrome OS, Friend Connect, and other products expected later this year, it’s likely that Google Boston’s profile within the company will keep rising. That may be true within the Kendall Square neighborhood as well: Vinter told me he admires Microsoft’s efforts to open up its New England Research and Development Center for tech-community events, and says he’d like Google to be more active in this area. Here’s a writeup of our conversation.

Xconomy: Other than your big move into the Cambridge Center space, what have been the biggest changes since we had that long talk back in 2007?

Steven Vinter: There are two big things. All throughout 2009 we were looking for more candidates to hire, and the thing we didn’t really understand was why there seemed to be so few people making it into Google. We didn’t understand why we wouldn’t have seen a continuous flow. Looking back, I think there were just a lot of people [who were] really uncomfortable with moving. The economic problems, in the same way that they affected consumer confidence, affected people’s concerns about wanting to go out and try something new. But that just disappeared around the December time frame, and we haven’t seen such an influx of talented people since I arrived here. So the challenge for us now is basically to make sure that the projects we have keep step with the level of the incoming folks.

X: During that lull, were you actually getting fewer resumes, or was it that the quality of the applicants was below what you wanted?

SV: More the former. There were just fewer people in the pipeline. One thing that’s helping is that we are aggressively seeking new college grads here. Obviously there is a huge wealth of talent in Boston, but in previous years I was more concerned about … Next Page »

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

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