Stimulating Culture At Google As It Grew From 1000 to 20K Employees

I’ll admit that I was super lucky to have snuck into Google back in May of 2003 when no one was looking. Everyone in the SF Bay Area had packed up and shipped back to where they were from after the first dot com bubble burst and I had chosen to stick it out.

I came to Google after working at a five person start-up so I vividly remember how big I thought Google was that first week on the job. In May of 2003, Google had just recently passed the 1K+ employee milestone. While I was conscious that I’d landed a decent gig at my dream company and pre IPO to boot … I was not conscious that I’d actually boarded a real life rocket ship.

Google was a weird (good) place to work from day one. Shortly after I joined I landed on the operational team that was working on Google AdSense Online. We immediately started hiring twenty people a week to our rapidly growing team. By 2005 Google was globally hiring 100+ people per week as the company experienced hyper growth. Keep in mind that each new hire was considered to be the best of the best and had just completed a grueling 3-6 month interview process.

The question here is what happens to your culture when you grow that fast? And how do you maintain any sense of corporate culture through it?

For what it’s worth, these are a few of my takeaways and thoughts from my experience in the middle of it.

Be Welcoming

I often joke about the fact that the root of the word culture is ‘cult’ and if you wanna build great culture take some pointers from the great cults of the world. You have to be welcoming and welcome new people into your cult with open arms.

During the days when we were hiring twenty people a week to our team, we’d all work to ensure each new member of the team had everything they needed to start cranking and feel part of their new work family.

Later when I was hiring on to my own team as a manager, I’d alway ensure that I took the time to go around and introduce my new team members to as many people as possible. I wanted these new folks to feel like they were home. Free to ask questions and stimulate conversation without concern or intimidation.

Make It Your Own

Folks following tech folklore are probably familiar with the Google Shuttles and other various tech buses that run as corporate transit throughout the SF Bay Area.

In 2004 there was just one bus and it wasn’t that big. Like a lot of things at Google, the Google Shuttle was just an experiment started by one very persuasive Googler who took her proposal for a SF shuttle and made it a reality.

Then one day we went from one small shuttle to one big shuttle. In a flash we were adding big shuttle after big shuttle. As we grew the daily bus dynamic started changing for the worse.

Often new folks were treating the bus and fellow passengers like they were riding public transit. It would be 7am, we’d be loading the bus, everyone would be super groggy and there would always be one person making folks commute a little harder by intentionally blocking seats that would always get filled.

The truth as I saw it was that these SFCarpooglers / Google shuttle riders just needed a little social lubricant (aka alcohol) outside of work to start loosening up and to help get more conversations going.

Without asking for official corporate permission, I recruited a few other early shuttle riders and together we started hosting a grassroots Google SF Happy Hour for our growing commuter community. It was a success and I snapped the photo below at one of our early events at Skylark in the Mission back in 2005.

Lead By Example

When it comes to onboarding hundreds or thousands of new employees, most new folk end up simply repeating the culture they find when they arrive.  New employees usually don’t want to rock the boat too much so they end up taking cues from the old timers.

With that said, I think the best advice here is Mahatma Gandhi’s age old advice to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world.’ I often used that mentality as we continued to rapidly hire across the company, always doing my best to be kind and courteous to anyone in any department that I encountered.

As we grew from 1K employees to 20K employees, I’d often think about what an intimidating place Google must seem for those just getting started at the world’s most powerful company. Executive management would often state that Google’s culture could not be dictated from the top down and I do believe there is a lot of truth to that.

Hire For It

It’s no secret that when interviewing for a job at Google, one third of your interview score is based on how well you are a fit for Google’s unique culture. This criterion always fascinates me as it is 100% subjective and not necessarily related to how skilled that individual is for the job at hand.

In Jim Collin’s excellent business book Built To Last, he highlights the fact that truly visionary companies stand out from the rest by instituting a unique corporate culture and maintaining a push for continued innovation. Over the years it’s clear that hiring for culture has allowed Google to continue to operate in a league or their own.

If you enjoyed these thoughts or wanna continue the conversation, drop me a message over on twitter @romerotron.

Date Published: Jun 11, 2018