TECH SKILLS are in high demand, so it's no surprise that the biggest technology firms have nice offices to keep their clever coders and programmers happy. The INQUIRER was allowed to poke our noses into a few of them.
Facebook’s London HQ, for example, is a bastion of plushness with comfy sofas, free snacks, table football machines and an achingly hip décor. Even the toilets are nice, chock full of free deodorant, mouthwash and other toiletries that found their way into our bag.
But that all pales in comparison with Google’s Mountain View headquarters, some 30 minutes outside San Francisco. The company invited us for a wander around and to get lunch in the ridiculously well-stocked canteen.
The Mountain View entrance is an unassuming spot flanked by car parks and trees. But once past the foliage we’re greeted by modern buildings bearing Google’s logo and colours guarded by a marshmallow-chomping statue of the Android robot.
Proceeding on foot into the complex of buildings, we were struck by how much it feels like a modern university campus, with paths flanked by benches where ‘Googlers’ lounge around in the California sun or type, tap and swipe at some form of mobile device.
Active Googlers zip around on colourful bicycles, which as it turns out makes a lot of sense as Mountain View is over two million square feet and quite spread out. We were forced to remain on foot, though, presumably to prevent us sneaking off in search of the elusive X experimental research and development division, now part of Google’s parent company Alphabet.
Before the tour got underway, we were taken for lunch in Google’s canteen. Pushing past clamouring coders, we were greeted by an almost overwhelming choice. Squeezed into a modest space were food stations serving all manner of world cuisine: sushi and salad for the health conscious, burgers and hot dogs for dyed-in-the-wool Americans, curry and burritos for those with more imagination.
We found the level of choice slightly bewildering and with hungry Googlers surrounding us the whole process seemed a little stressful compared with the relaxed atmosphere of Mountain View. It was a far cry from our local sandwich shop.
Food is a big thing for Googlers, according to our tour guide, and we spotted a couple of food trucks offering free tacos and other street food to passers-by.
Micro kitchens are dotted around several of the buildings for employees not wanting the scrum of the canteen. We were allowed to enter these, but forbidden from taking photos. Googlers can grab snacks and drinks from mini fridges and well-stocked shelves.
But these are no mere kitchenettes found in regular offices. To encourage Googlers to keep healthy and not binge on chocolate and fizzy drinks, the healthy snacks and water are placed in easy reach and are clear to spot in the fridges. Unhealthy options are made harder to reach, and sugary drinks are obscured by frosted glass on the fridge doors.
Apparently this has reduced Googlers' sugar intakes, but we know how bad cravings for a Chocolate Digestive can get. This is basically Google’s low-cost way to make its workers productive and healthy, rather than the cliché of chunky coders with vitamin deficiencies.
This may seem a little sinister to some, but Google makes up by having games rooms stuffed with arcade machines and table-tennis tables. And laundrettes can be found on site for workers short of time. It's no wonder that the Googlers we observed seemed very content.
As we continued our stroll through the campus we noticed the number of areas for sitting outside, ranging from picnic benches to a hanging seat that looks like the lovechild of a hammock and a tent.
There is also a model Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton looking like it's about to take a bite out of a Google logo. We weren’t offered any clear explanation of this. We thought it could be a robot activated to hunt down anybody who had the temerity to use Bing while on the campus-wide WiFi. We put the theory to our tour guide who simply grinned.
The WiFi network is one of the most impressive we’ve encountered, offering a speedy connection that allowed us to sneakily download an episode of The Walking Dead on our walk.
Another neat feature is that if you log-in to any Google WiFi network in another of its offices, you’ll be seamlessly connected to the network at Mountain View once you’re in range of the site. Given that we’ve nearly abandoned technology altogether when encountering event or airport WiFi, it cannot be stressed enough how nice this was. It’s the little things in life.
All this luxury made us wonder how Googlers get any work done - we’d be stuffing our faces in the canteen until we were stopped by a heart attack - but as we strolled around we overheard conversations about user interfaces, software design and other programming nuances beyond our comprehension.
Peeking through some of the windows of nearby offices when our tour guide was chatting to a colleague we saw Googlers tapping away at machines and zipping between office rooms.
Mountain View’s overall layout has been designed so that Googlers can get out and about and meet their colleagues with the idea that conversations will be sparked off and ideas shared, leading to innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence and driverless cars.
Speaking of which, we caught a glimpse of one of Google’s driverless cars on the roads that intertwine Mountain View. Sadly we were too slow to snap a picture let alone jump in front of the vehicle to see whether it would slam on the brakes or plough us down and leave Google to find a way to blame the human researcher behind the wheel.
So it was clear that, in the relaxed atmosphere of Mountain View, Googlers still busy themselves and keep the firm a force to be reckoned with.
The tour ended at the Android Park, an area filled with statues of the various versions of Google’s mobile software such as Gingerbread, Jelly Bean, KitKat and Honeycomb. For Android fans, which includes us, this is a fun nostalgia trip.
There’s more to see in Mountain View than we were shown, but one thing is for sure: Google goes a long way to attract the best tech talent it can find and tries to make life as comfortable as possible so they stay.
Google’s AI development is gathering pace as is its ability to rake in billions of dollars a year, and this approach to staff seems to be paying dividends. And it’s no surprise that other tech firms are following suit, offering jobs with more perks than a Red Bull factory and leaving the likes of us feeling shoddy and marginalised.
So it looks like Google has one of the best HQs around, but we’re still waiting for our invitation to the Apple Campus before we declare a winner. µ
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