Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) seems to have attained the pinnacle of pop culture intrigue with the release of the movie, The Internship. In the film, the familiar duo of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play a pair of “forty-something” career-strugglers who seek a fresh start as over-aged Google interns, also known as “Nooglers.” Moviegoers can anticipate colorful images of Silicon Valley’s light-hearted side.
I still recall a different image of the high-tech workplace. In 1985, I wrote a college paper, entitled “Exploitative Management and the Computer Engineer.” The report was based on a 1981 book by Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine. The book recounts the struggles of a team of engineers at Data General Corporation. Data General was put on the map by its flagship NOVA computer, but had begun to lose ground to rival Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).
In a feverish bid to unseat DEC’s successful VAX computer, Data General launched two competing development ventures in the late-1970s. The projects took place amidst much secrecy in a fluorescent-lit basement of Data General’s headquarters. Despite the prospect of exceedingly long hours, the casual, unstructured work environment appealed to out-of-college recruits, who were excited by the prospect of designing a new computer.
In my college paper, I likened Data General’s work environment to a “sweatshop,” with engineers sitting in tiny cubicles in a “hot, cramped, windowless cellar.” Short on office supplies, equipment and space, these engineers spent long hours in a Spartan workplace. Their bosses seem convinced that the cramped conditions would create an “embattled feeling” of motivation.
While Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have similarly deep reserves of workaholic zeal, the world they created is Zen-like in comparison to the dungeonesque digs of their counterparts a quarter-century earlier. To read David Vise’s 2005 book, The Google Story, is to encounter an entirely different workplace. The Googleplex might be stripped of corporate bureaucracy in a fashion reminiscent of Data General, but material deprivation does not seem evident at Google’s headquarters.
At Google, long hours are tempered by goofy pranks. Mr. Vise describes a rivalry with Microsoft that must have felt as intense as the battle between Data General and DEC. Yet Google appears committed to a parallel set of virtues that include social progressiveness and an enjoyable work environment. As Vise notes in The Google Story, the “brightly colored medicine balls, lava lamps, and assorted gadgets … gave the business the appeal of a vibrant college campus.” Page and Brin aimed to create a “playful environment” where “employees … would want to spend their waking hours.”
Free snacks, toys and amenities make Google seem like an intriguing place to work … and a worthy setting for a Hollywood movie. One would have a difficult time imagining Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson prankishly crashing Data General’s headquarters during the late-1970s. In fact, the actors might be able to recall, from their own high school days, a much less appealing stereotype of midnight programmers like those at Data General.