Working at Google

Yesterday in my Entrepreneurship class, a student asked: “Why companies like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook are so successful? Why other countries such as France, Germany, Japan, England that also have a good education but could not replicate the U.S. startups? Is there something special about Google or Facebook?

I told the class: “There are many special things about the U.S. technology industry that no other country could replicate. But let us start with Google’s success first. A few years ago, Eric Schmidt, the president of Google visited CMU, and during the meeting with students, he told a story: “On a Fridayevening, Larry Page, the founder of Google saw a Google page with really “ugly designed” ads. If it was somebody else, the person may be angry and yelled at his people or order a redesign. But Larry Page did not do that. He printed out these ads, posted them on his office door and wrote: “THESE ADS SUCK.” A group of software engineers saw the note and decided to solve the problem over the weekend. They redesigned the ads, and by Monday, the problem was resolved. Schmidt concluded: “That is the culture of Google: Solving problem. No one tells them to do it. No one blames anyone for badly designed work. Larry Page did not order anything or saying what he wanted, but just pointed out a problem. Because people who work at Google were “Problem solvers,” they decided to solve it by themselves on their own time, during the weekend.”

I asked the class: “How many global companies can do that? How many leaders can do that? How do you motivate people to volunteer doing things on their own, without giving orders? If there is a “Secret formula” for success, I think this is a definitely one: “Creare a unique culture that motivates people.” If you look at Google’s culture, it is all about values and a sense of purpose. That is why many talented people want to work for Google. They are attracted to a place where they can add value and create great things, not about money or fame.”

A student disagreed: “But Google does pay a lot of money.” I explained: “Most technology companies pay high salary too but why work for Google? I know some companies pay much more but could not compete with Google because of the unique culture. But that is only one story. Eric Schmidt also shares with the students another aspect. He said: “Hiring talented people is not enough. The company must give them time to create innovated things. Creativity is what is necessary to produce new ideas and in the technology industry, innovation is everything. There are few things Google does well. For example, Google hires the best cooks to provide meals to workers in the cafeteria where workers can eat without pay. Therefore, workers can continue to work, exchange ideas, without having to leave the company.”

I have been in Google many times, and I can say that the Cafeteria is the place that allows more creativity than any others. I have seen many groups of people share ideas, passionately discuss solutions, or new technologies to make Google products better, over their meal tables. Workers are given about 20% of their working time to do whatever they like creatively. Basically, workers are given a lot of independence where they can make their own decisions and do not have to worry about doing something that their boss does not like. During weekly meeting, workers can submit questions to managers and speak their mind openly without being afraid. Larry Page, the founder, insists that the only way to keep talented workers to stay and work for Google is to treat them fairly, equally when making decisions together. Of course, Google gives workers challenges and difficult things to do to reach their goals, but it is precisely what talented people want. They do not want to work routine jobs like others, but want challenging works where they can test themselves to the limit. That is why about 10% of Google budget goes to these experimental projects, regardless the outcomes.

I asked the class: “How many global companies are doing that? Hiring talented people is not enough, but you must allow them to do whatever they do best: Creating new products, inventing new technologies on their own without giving orders. If there is a “Secret formula” for success, I think this is also a definitely one: “Foster creativity in your own people.” Do you think other companies could do that? Do you think other countries could replicate that? That is why the U.S. technology industry is unique. That is why talented people like to come to the work here.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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