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Letter from America

Regulars | August Issue

My hellish interview in Google's HQ

Roald Dahl wrote his books in a shed in his garden, tucked into a cigarette-scarred wingback chair. John Cheever would put on a suit each morning, descend to the chilly basement of his New York apartment building, strip down to his boxers and write until noon, before dressing and returning upstairs. 

Google’s founders came up with their search engine in a computer science lab at Stanford, and used Lego bricks to bolt together their servers. Steve Jobs birthed Apple in a garage. During Einstein’s annus mirabilis, 1905, when he published the four papers which made his name – including his Theory of Relativity – he was working at the patent office in Bern, living in a small, second-floor flat with his wife and two children.

You would think, with so many examples, that the lesson is obvious: creativity is as creativity does. Michelangelo in a phone booth is going to be more creative than an accountant in the Sistine Chapel. Bill Clinton at a church picnic will move more political mountains than Theresa May with the full panoply of government.

Yet an idea has taken hold that, if you want creativity and healthy organisations, you need to spend billions. Apple is about to open its new headquarters in Cupertino, California. They cost $5 billion and look like a haemorrhoid cushion. 

Its architect, Norman Foster, settled on the ring shape after an earlier design, shaped like a three-leafed clover, was deemed by the son of Steve Jobs to look like a man’s genitalia.  

The stone in the two-storey yoga room came from a quarry in Kansas and is meant to look like the stone on the façade of Jobs’s favourite hotel in Yosemite. Jobs also gave strict orders for the wood used in the panelling. He didn’t just want oak or maple. He wanted it quarter-cut in January, when it had the least amount of sap. Apple can afford it.

Google’s plans for new headquarters in London and Silicon Valley are less frigid than Apple’s, but belong to the same genus. There will be rooftop gardens, indoor/outdoor spaces, gigantic gyms and lots of open corridors intended to produce the ‘casual collisions’ which architects will tell you spark innovation. The Silicon Valley building promises ‘smile-shaped clerestories’, bringing light into the building and outdoor rooms, called ‘sloped savannah’ and ‘hangout hill’.

In 2006, I went through round upon round of interviews for a job at Google. They culminated with a visit to the Googleplex in Silicon Valley. I was picked up from my hotel in a stretch limo, complete with stripper-purple interior lights, and deposited at the entrance to the building. Mine was the lone limo in a long line of banged-up Hondas and Toyotas driven by software engineers. A day that began badly got worse.

I spent hours being interviewed in half-industrial spaces, drinking cup after cup of free espresso and eating bowls of chocolate malt balls. If it wasn’t tempting enough to work with passive-aggressive ex-management consultants and be patronised by computer scientists, Google also offered the chance to bring my dog to the office and get free massages. 

For all that Google boasts of its working environment, it didn’t surprise me one bit to learn that its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, keep a fully staffed apartment in Palo Alto for their most important meetings. What’s the point in being a multi-billionaire tech mogul, after all, if you have to watch people wandering past, barefoot, guzzling the free smoothies you’re paying for? It’s more rewarding, sometimes, to be a grown-up at work rather than a hoodie-wearing man-child.

From their rhetoric, you’d think these companies were conjuring up the agora of Socrates, the workshops of Renaissance Florence or the coffee shops of 18th century Edinburgh. In fact, they are building 21st-century office parks. No yoga studio, no matter how many stories high, can make you like your boss or gloss over the basic facts of what you are doing: selling phones or building a monopoly on internet advertising. 

Whether your office park is a giant spaceship in Cupertino or a string of Portakabins in Slough, the same rules about humans at work apply. Yet, as more people are thrown out of companies mid-career, we are seeing the flourishing of co-working spaces, inspired by tech companies with their sofas, coffee stations and ping pong tables. They are populated by the aimless middle-aged in search of some youthful start-up ju-ju.

All this leads to the question, what makes a place good to work? Some mix of isolation and fellowship. Friendly people to work with – no bullies or psychopaths. Work rather than ‘busywork’ – work for work’s sake. And a few different places to go for lunch.

For solitude, I’ve always coveted the cricket groundsman’s shed, smelling of freshly cut grass, a dry place on rainy afternoons. For intellectual cross-pollination, the Bodleian Library did the trick. Oxbridge high tables are another well-tested model.

Philip Delves Broughton is the author of ‘What They Teach You at Harvard Business School’ (Penguin).

This story was from August Issue issue. Subscribe Now