How to Launch a Googellite: Stephen Vinter Speaks

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rich environment: lunch talks, frequent guests, company outings, an atmosphere of collaboration, an openness to publishing and sharing research findings, and, yes, a nice cafeteria.

Most outsiders “only see the compensation package and the food,” says Vinter. But “the rich environment isn’t the biggest perk. It’s you having the freedom to do what you think is important. Understanding what that is for each employee is the most important thing I do.”

The best candidates for jobs at Google, Vinter says, are overachievers who are attracted to working for the company because they think it can leverage their work into something with a big impact. “They are incredibly self-motivated,” he says. “With people like that, the real value of management is just to get the obstacles out of the way.”

Of course, Vinter is much more than a glorified cruise director trying to help all his employees become self-actualized. He has to make sure that the things people want to work on align with projects and products that are beneficial to Google, and that the worthwhile projects attract enough team members to succeed—which may be three people or 20. “My job is to figure out what the critical mass is for a given project and to figure out whether we can grow fast enough to meet that critical mass.”

I wasn’t at all surprised to hear Vinter say that he isn’t ready to talk about the actual projects his office is working on, given that most of the Google’s engineers in Cambridge are still new and that the company is famously close-mouthed about products under development.

It’s public knowledge, though, that the Cambridge office is home to Rich Miner, who joined Google when the company acquired his mobile phone software company Android in 2005. So it’s reasonable to assume that a number of people in the Cambridge office are contributing to Google’s Android platform, a collection of open-source software tools that members of the Google-led Open Handset Alliance are using to create a new generation of open, flexible mobile hardware and software.

Google also has a public partnership with Harvard University to scan thousands of library books as part of the company’s Google Book Search effort. The Cambridge office’s proximity to Harvard “makes things easier” when it comes to working with Harvard, Vinter says.

Book Search is also a good example of a project that draws in resources from all parts of Google—its expertise with distributed computing systems, machine learning and natural-language processing, Web-based and desktop applications, and even hardware—and that illustrates, as a result, how tightly engineers in the Cambridge office are hooked into these resources. “Book Search is a highly scalable problem, so it requires a systems infrastructure,” he says. “You want to be able to view the books you search, so it requires applications. Do you want to search books on a handset? Maybe Android comes in. Everything is related.”

In an environment where boundaries are so permeable and so much depends on each employee’s ability to navigate them, it’s crucial to recruit people who love to learn, Vinter says. “A very common conversation that happens is, we’ll have people come in who have solid offers from other companies. The candidate will say, ‘They are going to have me on Project X—what project am I going to work on here?’ And to me, that’s like saying ‘I’ve been accepted to Wesleyan as a history major.’ That’s fine, but you’re just a freshman. There shouldn’t really be an expectation that you already know what you want to do. We say back to them, ‘Why don’t you just come in and spend a year learning what Google does? By the end of that year, you’ll know Google cold and you’ll be in a much better position to know how you can contribute.'”

Given the chance, who wouldn’t want another shot at being a freshman—including the wicked-smart classmates, the fun and games, and the endless cafeteria—and get paid in the process? With Google in town, the yearly migration of some of Boston’s smartest grads to Mountain View might just get diverted toward Kendall Square.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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5 responses to “How to Launch a Googellite: Stephen Vinter Speaks”

  1. It seems to me that Google’s entrepreneurial atmosphere will fit in very well with the Boston area. Big companies and entrepreneurs usually don’t get along but Google seems to have kept its entrepreneurial spirit alive. It should be interesting to watch them grow here.

  2. john says:

    The Google employees in 1 Broadway seem very young. The guys all wear their active-wear / tough weather backpacks; the women seem to like to wear Manolo Blahniks (strange for engineers, but whatever). They are given to obtaining their free morning carbohyrdates (such as fruit loops) and then riding the elevators, clutching their laptops to their chests. They also seem incredibly insular. 1 Broadway is the home to tens of startups, and I have yet to see a young Googler speak to anyone outside of their cult.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone get on or off the Google floors after hours or on weekends.

  3. Rachel says:

    Haha… those young women in Manolos were salespeople, John. I can assure you that the women in engineering are wearing more comfortable footwear.