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Surf, sun and search: Life's a beach @ Google

The Internet giant, finding great weather as well as great engineers, has grown rapidly in Santa Monica

December 03, 2007|Jessica Guynn | Times Staff Writer

Found: geeks on the beach.

Google Inc. has spread out like a beach towel in Santa Monica. What started in 2003 with a few dozen employees has grown into the company's fourth-largest office and fourth-largest engineering center in the U.S., with 300-plus employees in three buildings.

"We have the best weather of any office in Google," said Thomas Williams, the engineering director who heads the office. "It's pretty easy to hire engineers from Toronto, New York, Cambridge, the best schools, all over the world."

Like Google's other far-flung outposts, the campus has developed a distinct personality that reflects its surroundings. There's the "Three's Company" theme: Printers and bathrooms are named after characters on the ABC sitcom, which was set near the Santa Monica beach; the library has a signed John Ritter script as well as original bubble gum trading cards from the show; and employees dine in the Regal Beagle Cafe.

Homage is paid to the Santa Monica Pier with the Hot Dog on a Stick kitchen and an arcade stocked with a ring toss, Tip-a-Troll, Skee-Ball and a fun-house mirror. Other traditions include Tuesday volleyball games and Thursday beach walks, ideal for working off the free ice cream.

And the Santa Monica office was the launch pad for what has become a feature in the lobby of every Google office around the world: a running digital scroll of what people are searching for on the Web. A "potty mouth" program screens out anything that might offend.

Many of the perks are much the same as those at Google's Mountain View headquarters in Silicon Valley. Engineers chow on free food (on a rooftop deck, weather permitting) and pursue pet projects. Every Tuesday afternoon, tea with sandwiches and cakes is served. Every other Thursday afternoon, there is a gathering called "Thank God It's Almost Friday." And there are chair and table massages, video games and technical brain teasers posted in the restrooms.

Southern California has been key to the evolution of Google as the favorite search destination of the Web-surfing world. In 2003, Google spent $102 million for Santa Monica-based online ad start-up Applied Semantics Inc., which helped launch AdSense, a program through which advertisers bid on specific keywords. The following year, Google bought Pasadena-based Picasa Inc., which makes photo management software.

Those two acquisitions jump-started the Santa Monica expansion, which Douglas Merrill, Google's vice president of engineering and chief information officer, said was further stoked by the region's entertainment and media industries and a steady flow of top technical talent from local universities.

"We have an unusual approach to engineering," Merrill said. "We go anywhere in the world, find the best talent and build an office around them. That gives us access to an incredible talent pool."

Today, Santa Monica staffers are deployed on all kinds of projects to improve the results people get when they search for something on the Internet, including an experiment in how to enhance the rating system for YouTube, the popular video-sharing site Google bought last year.

"It's a great fit. And we are definitely willing to fly down to ensure close communication," said Hunter Walk, YouTube's director of product management in San Bruno, Calif.

Google is known for its freewheeling culture, which was on display in Santa Monica when the surfboard behind the reception desk in the main lobby went missing. Managers got a note from an unidentified prankster using the e-mail address "Hey everyone, just wanted to let you guys know I went on vacation." Attached was a photo of the surfboard lounging in a hammock just blocks away in another Google building.

The Santa Monica staff is eclectic. There's an Academy Award winner for technical achievement, a former Jet Propulsion Lab employee who worked on NASA's Cassini spacecraft and an experimental poet.

That poet, Andrew "Max" Maxwell, 35, is also a former art cinema operator, pamphleteer and bullfight promoter (for the French board of tourism) who joined Applied Semantics in May 1999 on a short stopover in Los Angeles on his way to a graduate program in sound art at the Art Institute of Chicago. His letter of introduction in response to an ad for a lexicographer consisted exclusively of anagrams and palindromes. Currently he is teaching robots to read, part of a Google project to automate how text and Web pages are classified and summarized.

"Google has a reputation for hiring crack coders riding unicycles, but now we have people who are medical researchers, geologists, computational finance types, professors," Maxwell said. "It feels like a center of culture as much as a center of commerce. It's a small utopia."

Many say this is the work environment they've long sought. Senior software engineer Rob Konigsberg, 38, appreciates the caliber of the work and the company of his terrier mix, Maggie, who guards his office door and accompanies him on daily walks.

"You spend more time here but you like where you are," said Konigsberg, who has worked for Google three years. "It doesn't feel like coming to work. You do the stuff you would be doing at home anyway."

And you are doing it with people you like and who are like you, said Jane Chiu, 26, a Google engineer who works on YouTube. "I felt out of place during college," she said, "but now I am surrounded by like-minded people."


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