Google Goes Globe-Trotting

There are no computers in the tiny village of Raagihalli, located 30 miles outside Bangalore, India. Overseas visitors seldom venture down the unpaved roads that lead to the 70 or so threadbare huts surrounded by fields vulnerable to the trampling of elephants. So it is fair to say that cultures clashed with the arrival of the Googlers—young masters and mistresses of the Internet, armed with stratospheric SAT scores, computer-science degrees from top universities and some of the most coveted jobs of their generation. This past summer a group of 18 Google associate product managers (APMs) were circling the globe on a training trip, seeing firsthand the humble, unwired ways of life experienced by billions—including the vast majority of Indians who are more familiar with crop fields than search fields.

The occasion begins awkwardly, as villagers line up to greet the visitors, pushing their children forward to introduce themselves and accept notebooks and pencils from Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president. Mayer wisely cuts this Angelina Jolie moment short, urging the Googlers to mingle.

"Have you ever heard of Google?" asks APM Alex Vogenthaler of a smiling man about his age of 27. "No," is the reply. Vogenthaler tries to explain what Google does. "It's a computer corporation?" the man asks, clearly puzzled. Other APMs, dodging the cows that roam freely through the village, peek into the concrete-floor houses and a schoolroom with almost no books or supplies. (Though many of the villagers have mobile phones.)

"This brings a whole new meaning to what's on the back of my shirt," says APM Dan Siroker, 24. He is referring to a T shirt with the company logo in front and, on the back, the now classic phrase on the company home page: I'M FEELING LUCKY.

LUCKY, indeed. Siroker has hit the job jackpot. Raised in Google's backyard of Palo Alto, Calif., he graduated with a degree in computer science from Stanford and, with the math prowess of a nerd and the schmoozing skills of a car salesman, could have gone anywhere. His choice was Google, and he was accepted in the APM program, which seeks brilliant kids and slots them directly into important jobs—no experience necessary. Surprisingly, Google trains these young execs, knowing many will leave for other jobs in just a few years.

Halfway through the two-year program, the APMs travel to foreign Google offices to network with fellow employees, learn about regional markets and soak up local culture. NEWSWEEK tagged along on this year's trip, a marathon 16-day visit to four cities. Traveling with the APMs provided a rare look into Google itself—its management philosophy, its values and its attempts to maintain its vision in the face of tremendous growth.

Doing their best to ignore typhoon Man-Yi, the Googlers take a walking tour of Tokyo's Harajuku district (apparently their brainiac status does not extend to the concept of getting out of the rain). Jini Kim, 26, is stressed. In four days she has a huge presentation that she'll make via Internet to several Google board members. So while helping to manage the activities in Tokyo, she is working deep into the night. The only APM who didn't study computer science—she studied political science and classics at Berkeley—she turned down prestigious scholarships to take the Google job.

Kim was assigned to a still-under-wraps service called Google Health, and had an idea to spin off her own project, a step requiring approval from one of Google's top executives. She targeted Larry Page. But since Page and cofounder Sergey Brin had jettisoned their assistants last year, arranging time with him was a challenge. By charting Page's movements she successfully waylaid him one day and got the go-ahead for her project. "I'm getting really good at stalking," she says.

This sort of enterprise was exactly what Google was hoping for when it began the APM program five years ago. Earlier attempts to hire veterans from firms like Microsoft had awful results. "Google is so different that it was almost impossible to reprogram them into this culture," says CEO Eric Schmidt. The difficulties led Google VP Mayer (employee No. 20) to wonder whether experience was way overrated. The earliest Google employees were distinguished by an abundance of brain cells as opposed to a fat r?sum? or a stint at McKinsey. Why not replicate the phenomenon?

APM No. 1, hired July 2002, was newly minted Stanford grad Brian Rakowski. "You're going to be responsible for Gmail," Mayer told him, explaining that he was to launch a product designed for tens of millions of users. "I was 22 years old, and shocked that they were going to let someone that young and inexperienced do that job," says Rakowski, who is still working at Google. He succeeded by a combination of technical acumen (necessary so the engineers, Google's true royalty, wouldn't write him off as a bozo) and the good sense to lead with wit and enthusiasm.

Now Google has marked its hundredth APM hire. "These are smart people, at the top of their class, but also who have done something entrepreneurial—editor of the yearbook, or started a company," says Jeff Ferguson, the recruiter for the APM program. "I can tell within five minutes if someone is right for this," he says.

In each city, the APMs visit the local office—here in Tokyo, located in hip Shibuya. They share the product "road map" for the next year with the local employees, answer questions and then hear what the engineers and managers in each location are focusing on. They also get a sense of the marketplace in each country by talking to local Googlers, customers and partners. In Tokyo, they learn that Yahoo Japan is clobbering the competition—"It's like Google and AOL and eBay rolled into one," says one manager. But Google has captured the imagination of the Japanese people—it's the No. 2 brand in the country, behind Toyota.

Tokyo's legendary electronics district, Akihabara, is the staging ground for the first of several competitions held during the trip, ostensibly to sharpen the product knowledge, business skills and street smarts of the APMs. They are broken up into teams and given $100 to buy the weirdest gadgets they can find. Diving into stalls full of electronic gizmos, they find things like a USB-powered smoke-removing ashtray and a stubby wand that, when waved back and forth, spells out words in LED lights. The latter proves the eventual winner. "For three years, a team has bought this gadget," says Mayer. "But this is the first time someone has managed to get it to work."

The instant their plane arrives in Beijing, the APMs pull out their BlackBerrys—which hadn't worked on Japan's communication system. Google runs on instant communication, and the typical APM gets hundreds of e-mails a day, with no hours off-limits.

When the APMs finally lift their heads, they come face to face with the realities of doing business in China. As explained by the head of Google here, Kai-Fu Lee, balancing the company's freewheeling style with China's government rules—and censorship—is a delicate balance.

At the Google office, the APMs conduct interviews with local English-speaking consumers. It's striking how effective the Chinese government has been in tilting the playing field to benefit the home team, Baidu.com, by occasionally blocking access to Google's site and by insinuating a nationalistic element into the choice. The message gets across: "Baidu knows more [about China] than Google," a young man wearing a Brasil Soccer shirt says matter-of-factly.

On the bus back to the hotel one night after a dinner featuring donkey meat (surprisingly tasty) and deer tendon (yuk), APM Frances Haugen conducts an informal survey of her colleagues. A surprisingly high percentage have skydived. Most seem to have parents who teach at universities (as was the case with Brin and Page). Haugen, from Iowa City, is herself the daughter of a biologist. She heads the team that analyzes customer results for the multibillion-dollar Google AdWords product, which places sponsored links on search-results pages. Only at Google would such a job be entrusted to a 22-year-old. She had to coordinate a staff of almost 20, including 11 engineers. "It was very hard for me. Some of them are twice my age. Being a product manager is like herding cats." The intense responsibility is something they all must deal with. Prem Ramaswami, the 25-year-old APM who "owns" Google Checkout (an online-payment application), recalls telling his father about his job and encountering utter disbelief. "They can't possibly be letting you do this," his dad said.

Google helps APMs to cope by supplying a support structure. Each has an APM "buddy," a mentor and an outside management coach: "It's like a therapy session," says Nick Baum, 24, the APM for Google Reader, which organizes feeds from users' favorite Web sites and blogs. Eventually the APMs learn the secret of leading a team of world-class engineers that they can't boss around—what an early APM calls "charismatic authority." The idea is to make yourself helpful to the engineers and gather hard data (much more useful than rhetoric at Google) to back up your vision of where the product should go.

The ultimate support structure is the Google environment itself. "Google is like Fantasy Land," says APM David Hammer, 24, who hails from Newton, Mass. "You're one of the chosen people." Actually, it's like being one of the Lost Boys from "Peter Pan." At headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Google has 17 no-cost dining areas, each focused on a specific cuisine, including Asian fusion vegan and tapas. There are swimming pools, health clinics, beach-volleyball courts and massage rooms.

The APMs' boss Mayer joins the group in China after being delayed in Mountain View. She instantly becomes the tour guide, den mother and taskmaster. "The most important thing in planning this trip is no downtime, ever," says Mayer. "Every moment must be accounted for, so no one has time for jet lag." (It's also in sync with the 24/7 work ethic of most Googlers.) She puts this theory in action one night after Kai-Fu Lee has hosted a huge meal of mysterious treats. Most APMs want to collapse—the data-crazy Googlers have calculated the average night's sleep on earlier trips as 3.7 hours—but a few want to sample night life. "Here's the plan," says Mayer, making an instant decision. "You can go to a nightclub or you can go with Kai-Fu to a tearoom—but you can't do neither."

On their first day in Bangalore, India, the Googlers go to the Commercial Street shopping district for a bartering competition. Each has 500 rupees (about $13) to spend on "items that don't suck," with a prize awarded to the one who attains them at the highest discount. For Jini Kim, it's the first time she's bargained with street vendors. "I usually buy at Neiman Marcus," she says, after getting the price of a necklace down from 375 rupees to 250. Dan Siroker wins by snaring a deep burgundy sherwani—a traditional Indian outfit—for a third of the asking price.

Actually, being an APM is a great way to hone negotiation skills. Kevin Tom, 22, who heads the Desktop Search team, found himself bargaining with a major computer company to get the Google software included on the firm's PCs. "I realized that this isn't something someone my age should be doing," he says. "We presented to them, and they said 'no,' and then we flew out there, for eight or nine days at the site, negotiating. Five days in, I realized I would get the deal done." Who needs experience?

In Bangalore the traffic is heart-stopping, the poverty disturbing, and a couple of APMs get sick from the food. And the trip to the village, while fascinating, leaves a bad taste for some. "We should have given them more than candy and notebooks," says APM Tom Tunguz, 25. But the meetings at the Bangalore offices are instructive, as the APMs learn that the company's most popular application in India is its social-networking site, Orkut—even more popular than search, though Google is the leader in that, too. A local tech leader clues them in on the advertising market ("Bollywood is everywhere … Cricket is king …"). Every couple of hours the lights dim and then come back on as the on-site generators kick in. "Welcome to India," says Shailesh Rao, the Google country manager.

The pace of the trip is starting to catch up to the Googlers as they wing toward their final overseas destination, Tel Aviv.

But Israel re-energizes the travelers, both for the beach outside the hotel and the similarity of the local tech scene to Silicon Valley. Google has asked Yossi Vardi, a top investor in start-ups, to bring in a lineup of new companies that will present short pitches to the APMs. That night he hosts a party at a funky garage where the local geeks have built a robot that plays Guitar Hero. Vardi is also present the next morning at a big event where the Googlers are greeted by hundreds from the Israeli tech community. "I have one thing to tell you," Vardi says to a few APMs who've gathered around him. "When you are offered a deal, you can say yes or you can say no. But never, never be arrogant."

It is but one of many lessons the APMs are absorbing on their path to becoming leaders. And not necessarily leaders at Google: almost none of the APMs sees him- or herself at the company in five years. This is only one of many employee concerns for Google. When most of these APMs were hired barely a year ago, the company was about half the size it is now. Try as Google may to keep things "flat"—meaning that there are very few layers of reporting and one doesn't have to go through channels to talk to a higher-up—the demons of process cannot be held at bay permanently. At times during the trip the APMs can be overheard having quiet conversations about creeping bureaucracy. Even though some of the APMs' parents think that their kids work for "a hippie company," it's getting less so every year.

And Google's no longer the new kid on the block. A few months ago an APM left Google for Facebook and wrote a mass e-mail, where he described his new home as "the Google of yesterday, the Microsoft of long ago." Some high-profile stars have left Google recently, including Bret Taylor, the former APM who launched Google Maps. "There's less of an entrepreneurial feel now" at Google, says Taylor, whose new start-up is called FriendFeed.

After hearing a brief performance by a Druze musician atop Mount Carmel, Mayer addresses the possible exodus of these APMs. That kind of restlessness, she says, "is the gene that Larry and Sergey look for. We get two to four good years, and if 20 percent stay with the company, that's a good rate. Even if they leave it's still good for us. I'm sure that someone in this group is going to start a company that I will buy some day."

The last gathering of the full group occurs in a tent in the Negev Desert, where nighttime activities include a midnight walk with a Bedouin guide and a drumming session. It is nearly 2 a.m. when the group gathers in a circle: there is storytelling and singing. Kim leads everyone in a tune she often sings to her brother—"Rubber Ducky." The APMs, all bred on "Sesame Street," hit every note. But the trip feels over. Maybe the lasting legacy of the trip will be the bonding, one more cluster in a Google mafia that will make its mark on new products and technology, both inside and outside the company. Google's top people hope that it happens inside. "The APM program is one of our core values," says Eric Schmidt. "I'd like to think of one of them as the eventual CEO of the company. I just don't know which one."

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