[rabble Raker] The Google Archipelago
Cowprint rugs, beanbags, snooker tables, tax mitigation. Life at Google sure is sweet. Ronan Lynch says otherwise as he dives behind the Doodles to find out why not all Googlers are feeling lucky.
For all its oft-touted motto ‘Don’t be evil’, Google Inc is a world-striding multinational corporation, and few people expect the company to behave like a charity. Still, Google is probably unhappy about all the recent publicity about their expert tax avoidance and being caught up – however unwillingly – in the NSA’s worldwide spying programme. So it’s a bright point for Google that its reputation as a fantastic place to work has entered into popular culture and corporate lore.
Take the summer comedy The Internship, where two forty-something unemployed salesmen get taken on as interns by Google and go to work at offices that look like an amusement park. Or check out George Lee’s recent RTE news report from Google’s Irish headquarters on Barrow Street in Dublin, where George can’t help but marvel at his surroundings on the eleventh floor. There’s “pretty funky sleeping pods, cowprint rugs, beanbags and snooker tables and a whole lot more,” he says. “It really is some workplace.”
Writing in The Irish Times in February, Una Mullally’s otherwise glowing report about workers in Dublin’s high tech sector offers some major caveats: “Off the record, and in hushed tones, some Googlers talk about how unnerving they find Google’s company enthusiasm can be, about how entire professional and social lives revolve around the Google ecosystem, [and] about the long hours and stress associated with being part of a company that demands a lot from its employees.”
So is Google the glamorous employer of popular fiction? The company certainly knows how to market itself. A quick check on Street View on Google Maps shows hundreds of waving, balloon carrying workers gathered on the streets outside the company’s Dublin headquarters on Barrow Street. On a recent visit to the actual location, even on a glorious summer day, the glamour was less palpable: Google-badged workers made brief appearance outdoors to drag on cigarettes before heading back into the offices.
Google has been in Ireland since 2003, and some former Google employees and contractors with significant experience at the company say that Google’s reputation as a great employer is undeserved. Permanent staff are well taken care of, they say, but even many permanent staff are overqualified, overworked, and perform relatively menial tasks. In addition, entire layers of hidden contractors and temporary workers do much of the work without the benefits or opportunities accorded permanent staff.
THE SILICON DOCKLANDS
The area around Barrow Street is sometimes referred to as ‘Silicon Dock’, a nod to the importation of ‘Silicon Valley’ values to Ireland. Writing in the London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit observed that ‘Silicon Valley has long been famous for its endless work hours, for sucking in the young for decades of sixty or seventy-hour weeks, and the much celebrated perks on many jobsites – nap rooms, chefs, gyms, laundry – are meant to make spending most of your life at work less hideous… The tech workers, many of them new to the region, are mostly white or Asian male nerds in their twenties and thirties.’ So how does Dublin measure up as a high tech wonderland?
In fact, the use of ‘high tech’ may be a misnomer. Much of the work in the Irish ‘high tech’ sector is actually customer service work requiring language skills. Google’s Irish operation deals mainly with advertising sales and technical services, handling Google’s business in Europe, the Middle East, Africa. One former Google employee estimates that 20 to 30% of the permanent workforce is Irish. The remaining 70% to 80% are hired abroad and re-locate to Ireland. (Google did not respond to rabble’s inquiries about the make-up of its Irish workforce.)
For its permanent staff, Google generally hires people who are educated to Masters level, and for most of its employees, Google is their first job after graduation. “The people hired by Google are the best in their classes, alpha personalities, highly competitive and highly driven. Most people would come from an arts background, or business background. In Ireland, they probably hire mostly from Trinity and UCD. There’s class politics at the heart of this all. It’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t come from a middle class background to end up working for a tech giant as they select from the top universities. Even with a great degree from one of the ITs, most multinationals won’t look at you, as they are looking for graduates of the ‘best schools’ in the country.”
THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION
A classic quote about high tech companies came from Cloudera founder Jeff Hammerbacher when he left Facebook. Channeling Allen Ginsberg, Hammerbacher observed that ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads’. At the Dublin headquarters, Google’s employees learn how to use internal software systems, and then start working on dealing with incoming emails and checking ads to see if they meet internal guidelines. They also work on copywriting and editing. It’s one of the reasons that employees eventually move on if they can’t move up. “The reality is that you are bringing in people who are highly educated to Masters level and giving them entry level customer service jobs,” says the former employee.
There’s a reason for all the free food and benefits beyond sheer magnanimity, “There’s a psychology behind it. In principle, the working hours are from nine to six, with an unpaid lunch hour, but I was regularly going home at nine or ten at night. It’s what’s expected. If you go home at six and everyone else goes home at nine, it’s noticed.” The on-site restaurants and free food encourage workers to stay in the building. “At first it sounds great. Free food! But it minimises the time away from work. On paper, you have an hour’s lunch break, but you end up grabbing something to eat and going straight back to work without leaving the building. We call it the Google stone. A lot of people put on a stone in their first three months because they spend so much time at their desks and eat so much!”
A decent balance of working time and outside life suffers as a result, he says. “So, you have 70% of the people coming from abroad, they don’t know anybody else here in Dublin. There is a collegial atmosphere and people share houses and flats and their whole social life revolves around Google. People work till late, and then go back to someone’s flat to drink a couple of beers. If you are in your mid-twenties and straight out of college, it’s the best job you will ever have in your life – while you are there. If you’re a bit older or have family commitments, it’s not so great. The culture is such that you work till late, go home, switch on your computer and check your email to talk to your colleagues in America. It consumes your life without you realising it.”
Google has made some Californian employees very rich, but not all of Google’s employees or contracts workers share in this largesse. Two years ago, a young video worker called Andrew Norman Wilson was sub-contracted to work for Transvideo Studios in California, on Google’s Mountain View campus. Perhaps naively, Wilson used a work camera to film other contract workers leaving a building on the campus. These contractors (or ‘Scanops’ workers) were scanning books for Googlebooks. As they emerged from work, he noticed that they were not entitled to the free shuttle bus, free food or other Google perks. Wilson was fired but the video went viral and raised issues about the employment hierarchies in Google. Not all Googlers, it appears, are equally valued.
Likewise, not all of Google’s Irish projects are lavished with cowprint rugs. According to the LinkedIn profiles of Google Maps managers, the Google Maps project is based in East Point Business Park. Look for the Google Maps building at East Point in ‘Street View’ though and you won’t find balloon waving employees. Google’s camera car only goes as far as the security gates up the road.
One former Google contractor explained that projects such as Youtube and Google Maps are outsourced to contract workers, with recruitment agencies CPL and Manpower doing the hiring and firing for Google. The contractor, fluent in a number of European languages, was hired by CPL on an 11-month contract, and found out that he would be working for Google. Initially, he hoped that the temporary contract would lead to a full-time position at Google, but he was let go after a second 11-month contract. He reported directly to managers who worked for Google, though he was technically working for CPL. “I never worked in the main Google office where they have the sleep cocoons and all that fancy stuff,” he says. “I don’t know anyone from my office who then moved into a full time position with Google. The workers were unhappy because you can’t put on your CV that you worked for Google. When you finish your job, your references are going to come from CPL or Manpower.” Many of these temporary contracts are offered for 11- or 23-month periods.
The contractor says that the temporary work required skilled workers and was well paid. “The targets were set quite high so it was difficult to exceed them, but if you didn’t hit these targets, you pay would drop by 30 per cent. Most of the people where I worked had language skills so there were very skilled people working there, doing very menial work.” During the course of his job, he came to realise that there was no need for Google to hire permanent workers. The jobs, he said, involved checking data and making edits. “The workers had to make edits in a certain way so the algorithms running in the background could pick up on the changes. Down the line, the algorithms will be able to do this work so they won’t need people to do it!”
START ME UP
Whatever about Google, the hours at start-ups can be punishing, although people starting their own business traditionally put in long hours to get it up and running. Ger Kelly from Galway is a developer who has worked in several start-ups in Dublin since graduating from UCG in 2007. “I ran myself down working a huge amount of hours,” he says, and has learned from the experience. “I believe you do your work and then you’re out. I’ve a few friends in Google and they love it, but it’s hard work from what I can tell. They do put on your dinner but they expect you to have your dinner and go back to work. I don’t believe in that any more.”
Despite the opportunities available at the big tech companies, Kelly maintains that it’s hard to get good development experience there. “My issue with Google, Facebook and Twitter is that they don’t do any development in Ireland. People hear about all these tech companies coming in – and they do come with tech jobs, but they don’t facilitate or encourage development in Ireland. I think it’s a tax haven here and that’s why they’re really here.”
There’s no question that the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Paypal provide thousands of badly-needed jobs in Ireland. “There are a large number of employees in the multinationals here but they are not being taught to innovate” argues the former Google employee. “They are working on internal processes and administration rather than the creation and development of new ideas in the same way that employees in California are doing. So it is not a breeding ground for innovators or entrepreneurs. Our education system is set up to produce call centre workers rather than hotshot developers.”
He argues that it’s not just the case that Ireland does not produce enough software developers, but a matter of teaching innovation and creative thinking.
“In our current austerity process, where education is being cut, class sizes are being increased, and university funding is being withdrawn, that is not going to happen. It’s a disincentive and it will hurt us in the long run. If we can’t educate people that can think for themselves and have the skills to be able to innovate, we’re just going to continue to be a nation of call centre workers, and service industry supporters. We will continue to be just another tax haven for the multinationals.”