4 things I learned from hanging out at Google HQ

At the Googleplex, you eat mackerel and sometimes you work in the gutter.

A few years ago the startup I worked for in New York entered into a relationship with Google.

It went down like this: the startup had something of value to Google. They brought us in for a short time to facilitate an information exchange. I commuted to San Francisco regularly to work out of the Googleplex and I attended meetings remotely while I sat in my office in New York City.

I was never an employee of Google during this time but I did get the rare opportunity to experience the inner workings of the famous Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. I got a peek inside its culture and working environment. Here’s what I learned.

1. You work in the gutter

Yep, the gutter.

On my first visit to the Googleplex, my boss picked me up from the airport in his Tesla. As we approached the main building I noticed a Google employee sitting in the gutter. Her head was down and she was typing away furiously with her laptop balanced precariously on her knees.

Huh? I didn’t get it. What is this place if people do their work outside and under the traffic lights? Are there not enough comfy chairs inside? Was the wifi better out on the street?

I never found out why this Googler was doing her work while sitting on the curb. What struck me about it was her intense focus. She didn’t appear to care about all the cars whizzing by. Whatever she was doing was so important, she couldn’t spare even a few minutes to walk back inside the Googleplex. In that moment the gutter was as good as any of the comfy chairs inside.

2. You eat mackerel on Mondays

Google are known for their longstanding practice of providing free meals to staff. I couldn’t wait to find out what lunchtime was all about at the Googleplex.

I was expecting some nice sandwiches, a fancy hot/cold salad bar and hopefully some good coffee. But instead, it was like a full self-serve restaurant experience. I ate mackerel, it was that fancy. And not just once. They served it every Monday.

I should have known Google wouldn’t do a standard crappy staff cafeteria. I’ve eaten mackerel in two locations in my life — one time when my uncle cooked it on the Great Barrier Reef and on Mondays inside the Googleplex. To me and my team, mackerel was an inside joke. It became a symbol of the high standard of the food and other perks we were experiencing inside the Googleplex. Mondays became known as ‘Mackerel Mondays’.

3. Google have resources for everything

The depth of the manpower at Google astounded me. What might have taken my tiny startup team weeks to turn over, Google had an entire army capable of producing the same work in days. Googlers churn out high quality work via small, dedicated teams and at a rapid clip.

There was no limit to their resources. Everything was possible and everything was done in-house. From the position I was in at the time, I could only dream of such speed and efficiency.

Part of my role at this startup was to coordinate the integration of a range of outsourced software centered around the startup’s IP. It struck me that no one at Google would need to do my job because they didn’t need to outsource anything. They had the depth of skill, resources and ability to do it all.

4. You’re the dumbest person in the room, always

Before I set foot inside the Googleplex I diligently researched the background of each of the Googlers I would be working with. Wow. I thought my background was solid but it looked miniscule compared to these guys. Every one of them had a PhD and every one of them went to at least one Ivy League school.

When you’re the lowest on the ‘smarts in the room’ barometer and inside a place that oozes with brainpower, it’s easy to feel really, really intimidated. Or a better way is to dismiss everyone’s background, including your own. You’re better off asking lots of thoughtful questions and learning as much as you can.

That’s exactly what I did. I told myself, so what if I don’t have a PhD? I’m smart enough. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. I have plenty to offer. I deserve my seat at the table (and to be clear, we had meetings at a table, never in the gutter.)

I was given a rare gift to get inside one of the most famous company headquarters on the planet. I made the most of every minute I spent there by honing my focus like the very first Googler I saw working in the gutter. I paid attention to how Google organized their teams and how they produced work. I wasn’t afraid to be the dumbest person in the room. But mostly I ate lots of mackerel and I biked around on those colorful Google bikes.

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