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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 28, 2009 at 5:18 PM

Q&A: Google engineering boss on Kirkland, Microsoft and Bing

Among the dignitaries speaking at today’s ceremonial opening of the new Google campus in Kirkland was the guy who first approved the company’s engineering office in the Seattle area.

Alan Eustace, Google senior vice president of engineering and research, said it began five years ago when three smart and persuasive people applied at once to work at Google and they wanted to work in the area.

Eustace agreed to open an office “in one of the best high-tech places in the world.”

It also helped that Kirkland reminded Google co-founder Larry Page of the company’s birthplace.

Of the sites Google was considering, Page “liked Kirkland best – he said it reminded him a lot of Palo Alto, where the history of Google was,” Eustace said.

“He said, ‘I’d rather be part of a community than just another building.'”

Now Google has both in Kirkland. Actually it has three buildings, which it began occuping in September, two years after it first leased the 180,000-square-foot complex on Sixth Street.

Google began hiring people in Kirkland in 2004 and now employs more than 350 people there. It first leased the new, 180,000-square-foot campus in the summer of 2007.

The project was paused last year after the downturn, and Google began trying to sub-lease part of the facility.

About half the space remains empty, including one of the three buildings and the upper half of another building that houses the an elaborate fitness and health center for employees.

Combined with smaller offices in Fremont, the company now employs 600 people in the Seattle area and plans to keep growing, according to Eustace and Scott Silver, a former Amazon.com manager who is now a Google site director in Kirkland.

“We intend to continue to hire great engineers to work on new and important products,” Silver said.

Among the products developed locally are Google’s “instant indexing” technology, Google Talk, Google’s Webmaster Tools and mapping features, including a new navigation service for Motorola’s “Droid” phone and others running the latest version of Google’s Android phone software.

The new campus has trademark Google features such as a premium cafeteria, game rooms and open offices shared by clusters of four to 12 engineers. It also has a climbing wall in the entryway and a barista.

“It’s big enough to have scale but not huge” which “leads to that quasi-entrepreneurial feel,” Silver said.

Will Google fill all the space? “I hope so,” Silver said. “I don’t know.”

After the ceremony, Eustace answered questions about the campus, competition with Microsoft and Google’s hiring strategy. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

Q: How does this campus affect the dynamic between Microsoft and Google?

A: I actually think it’s good for both of us. The reason is people are attracted to places with lots of good job opportunities; they’re attracted to schools that have good programs, and things like that. I think by having multiple companies — not just Microsoft and Google but Amazon and others — it really creates a high-tech center that attracts people from all over the country and all over the world to come here.

It’s not like there’s only one type of computer scientist, there’s lots of different computer science disciplines. I think us and Amazon and Microsoft and many others — there are a hundred great companies here — I think everybody works together to attract people and give them opportunities.

Q: There’s a lot of operating-system expertise here. Will Google do a lot of OS work in Kirkland?

A: Our philosophy has always been to build products based on the talent we have, the leadership we have. In that particular case it came out of our work on Chrome [Google’s Web browser]. It is not something we’re necessarily going to put here.

Right now the center of development for that is definitely in Mountain View [Google’s headquarters in California]. Who knows? We may do something up here.

Q: Managers here have said they used to have carte blanche to hire, before the downturn. What’s the situation now?

A: We can hire a lot of really good people. There’s no doubt about it, as a company, in the last year, we were more conservative than we were before that. It’s good, it’s prudent. Now there is a little more optimism going on, we can ramp up hiring everywhere.

Maybe not to historic, doubling and tripling every year kind of things, but if we find good people — we’ve always tried to hire good people, even in the recession time.

Q: You’re more deliberate now, right?

A: You have to be a lot more careful. We’re always careful about hiring. If there’s one thing that’s important in companies it’s hire well. We still have lots of different people [hiring], up to the founder of the company. He’ll look at every person that’s hired in the company.

Q: Still?

A: Even now. He’ll look at the people we’re hiring and say, “Are these the right people?” It’s the one thing you can’t get wrong, if you’re a manager.

Q: As Google looks for its next waves of growth in applications, devices, operating systems and locally focused search and advertising, will this office play any particular role?

A: I have avoided specializing offices for the most part. I like to have multiple things going on in an office. If you specialize an office to only one thing you’re only going to be able to attract one kind of talent that’s interested in that one problem.

If you’re opening an office the only reason you’re doing it is because of the talented engineers you can hire. … If you over-specialize, then you’re immediately going to cut the pool from 100 percent down to 20 percent that are interested in that one problem, so I like to have a little bit of variety.

Somebody here may come up with the next great idea. We want the flexibility to be able build around it if we need to.

Q: Do you encourage competition between sites — to see which can build the best version of a product, for instance?

A: Not really. We’re a very collaborative company in general. Having two people work on the same thing isn’t very efficient. I’d rather get the two people to work together on something that’s bigger than have two people compete.

There are leapfrog efforts, where people are trying to do something which is far beyond our current roadmap, but for the most part people collaborate. There’s plenty of competitors on the outside; we don’t need competitors on the inside.

Q: The original vision was to maybe within five years have a couple of thousand employees here. Is that still possible?

A: We never had a target, even from the very first meeting we had. I think it changes the dynamic when you do that . If I say I want to be 100 people by X date, then the hiring processes will be set and you may hire some people that you don’t want. Maybe you should have been 200 people, maybe you should have been 50 people, maybe you should be 25. I try not put plans in place that say I want to be X by Y. I think that’s a mistake.

Q: Speaking of investments, could you buy companies in the Northwest and roll them into this facility?

A: We’ve done acquisitions in the past and we’ll certainly do more acquisitions in the future. We look at opportunities in different areas; we look at parts of our businesses where we may not have the right expertise or the right leader to go into that.

Sometimes acquisitions really help us. If you look at our history, you’ll see we’ve had key acquisitions all along the way.

Q: You’ve got room here.

A: Just trying to fill up space is not a good reason to do an acquisition. It is nice to be in a position to grow.

Q: Have you seen Amazon.com’s new campus in Seattle? Combined with Microsoft’s recent expansion and your Kirkland project, there are a lot of new tech offices in Seattle.

A: It just goes to show the area is really growing as a technology center worldwide. With all of us growing, you can say we’re splitting the pie into ever smaller pieces. But I think what’s really happening is the pie’s getting bigger.

There are very few places in the world that really have the density of technologists that the Pacific Northwest has … all these expansions really go to show people think there’s a lot of talent both here and [who] will come here if we have the right facilities. I’m excited about it”

Q: I should ask — what you think about Microsoft’s Bing?

A: I think competition is good. I know everybody says that, but I know that in points of our history where we have a competitor and they’re coming out with something, we work harder, we try more things, we throw more resources, we’re no longer sitting back on our laurels — we’re innovating, we’re watching out for the next best thing.

I think radical ideas have more of a chance of succeeding inside a company when there’s a strong competitor out there, or multiple strong competitors in the case of search.

Q: So you’re trying more wild and crazy stuff now?

A: We definitely have lots of new ideas that are percolating

Comments | Topics: bing, campus, eustace

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