By Mike Swift
September 26, 2010
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They called it "the airport test."
When Google filed its incorporation papers 12 years ago, the company that would grow to a $24 billion-a-year business consisted of three Stanford computer science graduate students, all in their mid-20s. But even back in September 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google's co-founders, and Craig Silverstein, Google's first employee, had a clear idea how they would carefully pick their hires, choosing people compatible with the culture they planned to create.
"We had the airport test, which was Larry's test, I think, or maybe it was Sergey's test," Silverstein said. "Which was if your flight got canceled, and you were stuck in the airport for three hours with this guy or this girl, how happy would you be about that?"
As Google marks its 12th birthday this month -- a milestone that in a lifetime represents the end of childhood -- the tightknit, idealistic culture forged by the airplane test remains one of the company's foundational strengths. Many key players in its top management date to its earliest days, veterans of 100-hour work weeks and parking-lot roller-hockey games, who shared a vision of a company that could change the world.
But just as those former 20-somethings are now looking at 40, with spouses, kids and other middle-age responsibilities, so too have their views of business matured. With the growth in Google's reach and power, their idealism is now forced to vie with coldblooded calculation, observers say. The result is a company navigating the conflicts that come with age, balancing commitment with pragmatism as it evaluates what success really means.
"One of the things they have done since 1998 is expand the definition of who they are -- they are no longer just a search company; they are a media company," said Ken Auletta, author of "Googled, The End of the World as We Know It." "But as they do that, they are bumping into the reality of the world."
After several years of reporting at Google, even gaining entrance into the weekly all-hands "TGIF" meeting where employees can ask questions directly to top executives and the founders -- TGIF is to Google's culture what Sunday Mass is to the Catholic Church -- "there remains a surprising amount of idealism within Sergey and Larry, and I was quite taken by that and surprised by that," Auletta said. "That's not meaning they aren't being forced to change, which they are."
One recent decision that has brought accusations of Google "selling out" its ideals is the company's proposed deal with Verizon on "net neutrality," a proposal that would allow some firms to purchase faster Internet data speeds for high-bandwidth uses like video.
Google's first hire doesn't see it that way.
Silverstein, who has rarely been interviewed, acknowledged the Verizon proposal is "a compromise." But he said it is one example of a pragmatism Google has had as it grew from a Stanford dorm room to a 22,000-employee powerhouse that transformed advertising and search, and threatens to do the same with smartphones, books and television.
"Our feeling is that what we did with Verizon is consistent with our beliefs and consistent with our past policies," he said. "A lot of people don't see it that way at all, and don't see how that's possible, but that's how we see it. We see that we are still a very idealistic company."
In some ways, Google has not changed, even though the company long ago grew too large to have every new hire submit to the "airport test'' with Larry and Sergey, as the founders are universally known inside the company.
The Googleplex in Mountain View retains many of the trappings of a university campus -- "all the best parts of grad school" is how Silverstein sums up the founders' original vision for the company -- from the paper fliers touting this talk or that movie taped to almost every door, to the legions of colorful bikes Googlers pedal across a spread of 60-plus buildings.
And the work force remains young. The current median Googler is 31 years old, roughly the same median age it has always been, according to internal data released to the Mercury News, the first time Google has ever divulged that information.
While some top executives have left, the company's leadership core has been stable. CEO Eric Schmidt joined Google in 2001, and many 1998- and 1999-vintage Googlers retain prominent roles. Susan Wojcicki, employee No. 18, oversees Google's hugely successful suite of advertising products. Marissa Mayer, employee No. 20 and Google's first female engineer, is now vice president of search products and user experience and is often Google's public face. Omid Kordestani, employee No. 11 and Google's first non-engineer, remains a senior adviser to the founders. David Krane, employee No. 85, and the longtime head of corporate communications, now works for Google's venture capital arm.
In many other ways, Google at 12 is a vastly different entity than it was on Sept. 4, 1998, the date Google incorporated in California, around the time Page and Brin were moving their search engine from Stanford to Wojcicki's garage in Menlo Park.
Its vast ambitions -- digitizing the world's books, buying the world's most popular online video site in YouTube, photographing the world's streets and mapping the planet, aggregating newspaper content in Google News -- have more recently landed Google in trouble with antitrust regulators, privacy advocates, Hollywood and the news media, many of whom blanch at the "Don't be evil" motto coined in Google's early years.
To stay on top of its ever-expanding interests in Washington, Google last year spent $4 million on lobbying, more than all but one other Silicon Valley company. With its stock price stagnant over the past year, no huge new revenue source outside of search and Google facing competition from younger upstarts like Facebook, some question whether Google's rapid growth, like any grown-up's childhood, is gone forever.
For any mature company, "the question is do you still have the ability to search for and create new business models, or do those people no longer work there?" said Steve Blank, who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford. "Google has worked very hard at hiring the 'A' students. The problem is that the startups which are the most successful are founded by dropouts."
The early Googlers certainly are much richer. When Google went public in 2004, estimates were that the IPO created more than 1,000 paper millionaires on the first day. Since then Google stock has appreciated by more than five times. For the first Googlers, a work day is no longer like cramming for finals.
"There were weeks when you'd be in the office five days a week not going home," Mayer said.
Those intense days, said Silverstein, now 37, were "a crucible" that bonded that first generation in a culture of idealism. Wojcicki, 42, says Google's top leadership is more experienced as it's grown older, but it has preserved the idealism needed to plunge into new businesses like Google's Android smartphone operating system.
Auletta sees a Google that because of its ambitions, must increasingly compromise between ideals and reality, with Brin and Page even confronting their Silicon Valley hero when Google launched Android to compete with Apple's iPhone.
"There is no one these guys admire more than Steve Jobs," Auletta said. But smartphones are "a business they had to be in -- not only because it was a growth business, but to protect their existing business."
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