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

March 12, 2013 at 4:30 PM

Google doubling Kirkland campus, planning for 1,000 new jobs

The Seattle area is feeling lucky.

Google today announced that it’s doubling the size of its campus in Kirkland, creating room to hire 1,000 more employees.

The project comes amid a remarkable surge of investment by tech companies in the Seattle market, including Amazon.com’s enormous Seattle campus, Microsoft’s efforts to fill thousands of new positions, and a steady stream of tech giants following Google’s footsteps to establish satellite engineering offices in the area.

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Google’s two new buildings are expected to open in 2015 on what’s now a vacant lot below the three-building campus that it moved into less than four years ago. Design work has just started. but the tentative plan is for a dramatic skybridge over a rail corridor through the site, joining the old and new buildings.

“We think that the opportunity here is really huge,” said Chee Chew, a former Microsoft engineer who joined Google in 2007 and became director of its Kirkland site last year.

Public officials lauded the move in a press event at the campus Tuesday evening.

“It is something to celebrate — for all Washingtonians to celebrate,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride flank Chee Chew, Google's Kirkland site director, on Tuesday. Photo by Ken Lambert, Seattle Times staff photographer.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride flank Chee Chew, Google’s Kirkland site director, on Tuesday. Photo by Ken Lambert, Seattle Times staff photographer.

Google opened a small office in Kirkland in 2004 and rapidly grew into larger and larger spaces. Many of its recruits came from Microsoft and Amazon.com, but the site also drew people from other companies and schools around the country and world.

Chew said Google has had double-digit job growth since it started hiring engineers in Kirkland. It’s the third largest engineering center — behind a 3,200-person New York office – for the Mountain View, Calif.-based search giant, which is approaching 40,000 employees overall.

Among products built in Kirkland are the Google Voice, Google Talk and key portions of the Chrome browser and operating system.

The Kirkland team also built the Hangouts videoconferencing service on the Google+ social network and recently took ownership of the cloud computing platform that Google is offering as a service to other companies, in competition with Amazon’s Web services business and Microsoft’s Azure platform.

Such high profile projects, combined with the region’s quality of life and Google’s reputation as a good place to work, provide a steady flow of applicants to fill the campus.

“I get pinged every day for jobs at Google — every other week I’m referring somebody or connecting them to the right people,” said Amit Fulay, a Microsoft veteran who left to join a startup that Google acquired in 2010, bringing him into the fold.

Fulay is project manager of Hangouts, which Google is using internally to improve coordination between satellite remote offices. While developing the service for consumers, the Kirkland team modified the service for business use and developed custom hardware — with touchscreen remotes and big screen displays in conference rooms — that are now used across the company.

Simultaneously, Google has been expanding its engineering and sales office in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, which opened in 2006. Combined, the Seattle and Kirkland sites employ more than 1,000 people. About 60 percent are based in Kirkland.

The Kirkland campus tends to have older, more family-oriented employees while Fremont attracts more younger employees and recent graduates, said Anna Cavendar, a 34-year-old software engineer in Kirkland, who builds features to make Hangouts more usable for hearing- and sight-impaired people.

Some employees divide their time between Seattle and Kirkland, or shift sites periodically to work on different projects.

Chew said the current three buildings on the Kirkland campus, at 747 Sixth St., will accommodate 1,000 employees when they fill up in the next few years. The plan is to have the new buildings – with 180,000 square feet of space – available in time to handle the ongoing growth Google expects to see in the area.

Google will be able to find enough people to fill its new space, Chew said.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the hiring that we’ve been doing,” he said. “We don’t see an end to that.”

First, site owner and developer SRM needs permits. The project is now in “pre-permit review” by the city of Kirkland, which is about to convert the rail corridor through the site into a trail. City Manager Kurt Triplett said the skybridge concept is fine as long as the structures are high enough to allow any future transit service on the corridor. Public access through the site will be maintained.

“We are over the moon” about Google’s plans to expand in the city, Triplett said.

SRM development manager Dave Tomson said the two buildings will be joined by a covered atrium, giving them the look of a single structure. The buildings will have two stories with two floors of underground parking. Construction may begin in January.

Tomson said it’s too soon to say how much the project will cost but the investment will be more than the $47 million assessed value of the current, three-building campus.

The expansion isn’t a complete surprise. Chew said in an interview last year that Google needed to find more space to grow. A previous Kirkland site director told The Seattle Times in 2007 that he expected the company would employ several thousand people here within a few years.

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Broadly, the plan is to give Google room to “innovate and create” without worrying about any limitations, Chew said.

Existing teams will be able to continue growing, and there will be room for new projects that could become huge, he explained.

“We want to take on seed projects that have huge potential,” he said. “If you’re capped in the ability to grow then you might not go after as big a project. So I think that really it’s important to have that capacity.

This reflects the approach Google takes more broadly to innovation, Chew said.

“We want to look at where the potential is. We think and plan for potential, and we try not to be so rigid in our planning that we constrain ourselves,” he said. “We really want to have the flexibility to think and have different options. That’s just part of our DNA.”

The new Kirkland buildings will be Googley in other ways – with amenities that will likely make employees at most other companies drool. Employees are putting together a wish list, but it will be hard to raise the bar in Kirkland, where they already have a climbing wall, two kitchens, music jam rooms, espresso bars and motorboats “docked” indoors, serving as informal meeting rooms and work spaces.

“I think what it will be is something that’s really fun and organic and the people feel really vested in,” Chew said, adding that “we’re in the ‘no ideas are too stupid’ phase.”

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