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Google's Geek Haven

Thu, 05/19/2011 - 4:27am
by David Mantey, Editor, PD&D

So seldom do companies continue to create incentives to retain employees that I was astonished to find Google had extended yet another fringe benefit, a geek haven.

In an effort to extend the company’s founding principles through every bronchiole of its hierarchy, co-founder Larry Page’s latest brainchild, “Google Workshops”, offers employees a chance to get a taste of Google’s earliest days. Granted, a high-tech, four-room (metal, wood, welding, and electronics) shop is a bit more sophisticated than Susan Wojcicki’s detached garage, but it offers certified employees the opportunity to pursue their passions.

With all the other amenities offered employees, I’d be surprised if the 4.3-million-square-foot headquarters didn’t slowly evolve into an incestuous tribe of shut-in, hybrid uber-geeks. Why leave the grounds when you can score a free meal before you head to the shop to work on a pedal-powered airplane with a 100’ wingspan?

What is Page’s motivation? While the shops are used to tweak and experiment with new Android smartphone prototypes, I find it hard to believe that the wunderkind are banking on the future financial viability of pedal-powered personal aircraft. According to a recent AP article, Page believes that the company needs to “work with the verve and creativity of a garage-bound entrepreneur.” He wants to recapture his company’s spirit, something that will far too often whither and die in unison with a company's success.

I find it encouraging that such a juggernaut remains focused on promoting positive company culture and personal improvement. The workshops, while available to everyone, are not accessible by employees until they are certified to run the machinery. After all, who wants a bunch of programmers lopping off fingers while they whittle decorative cabinet accents? Maybe that’s why my Galaxy S has a tendency to freeze while I’m in the middle of an Angry Bird marathon in pursuit of perfect three-star scores—the computer-coding engineers were too busy with shop-class homework.

As with Pixar, Google has realized that the entrepreneurial spirit can flood a company with creative genius – and retain and steal elite minds from similar companies strangled in bureaucratic red tape. And Page just sprung the workshops on his employees. It’s not as if, after years of suggestion box fury, he finally acquiesced to the employees’ desire for both a technical and creative outlet. Juxtapose this scenario next to the firm arguing over coffee availability and a suitable number of bathroom stalls in an overpopulated floor.

Forget about a single geek haven. Page and co-founder Sergey Brin have built an ark to which Google lifers flock and remain with chest-beating pride.

Ask your average boss about the incentives offered to retain employees and he’ll likely reply, “They have the incentive of being employed,” or “They can stay, or they can go.” You may even receive the question, “Do they know how lucky they are to have me as a boss?” The departure from employee retention and company loyalty has left for a grim narrative in the job market. Some companies no longer ask, “What have you done for me lately?” It’s “I don’t care what you’ve done for me. Remember, you’re replaceable.” The situation is a sad effect of our newfound gloves-off, shut-in culture. Pit against one another, let’s bid to a bottom dollar.

Page’s workshops are inspiring, and now that he’s allowed a few people from the outside to take a peak behind the doors, I dare not predict what innovations lie in wait amongst those four rooms.

What’s your take? Email david.mantey@advantagemedia.com.

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