Campus Life at Facebook and Google

It’s like the difference between public and private school: Facebook and Google have very different vibes

5 min read
Campus Life at Facebook and Google
Photo: Mark Richards

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

Facebook traces its roots to Harvard, but the social networking company’s culture skews more toward public high school—a good one, to be sure, in an area with good demographics that’s also slightly frayed at the edges. Google, on its sprawling suburban campus, is the smug private school in a world of its own. Both companies provide lavish perks, including free food at all hours, but there are clear cultural differences if you look closely.

Lobby Land
Visitors to the two hottest tech companies on the planet can help themselves to a sugary fix upon arrival. In Facebook’s lobby, there are vats of Starburst chews and Hershey’s Kisses and a refrigerator stocked with Coke, Diet Coke, and Crystal Geyser water (sparkling and still). On the way out, visitors contribute their tags to a beach-ball-size globe of them. The couches and carpets are tired but will likely be replaced soon, when Facebook moves to larger quarters.

At Google, a small jar filled with generic small candies is tucked unobtrusively to the left of the reception desk. In the refrigerator, there are Odwalla juices and energy drinks. A highly reflective surface that paves the lobby reduces the need for artificial light, one small step in Google’s march toward eco-heroism. Chairs and couches are boxy and bright updates of midcentury modern, à la “Mad Men.”

Wheeling Around
Googlers pedal around the company’s Mountain View campus on brightly painted bikes that look like something a grade-schooler would favor, with small wheels, high handlebars, front baskets. The company, data driven and egalitarian, tested several styles of bikes, and these won the employee vote. An employee grabs a bike, tosses his laptop in the basket, rides to his destination, parks the bike, and forgets about it. A van drives around the campus to pick up the bikes and redistribute them when necessary.

Facebook has bikes at its headquarters, too—20 provided by the company, most brought from employees’ homes—but the awkward configuration of buildings, including one atop a hill, doesn’t encourage casual riders. Indoors, however, the cement floors are perfect for gliding around on a RipStik (a sort of skateboard/snowboard hybrid).

Home Turf
Nowhere is the rapid growth of Facebook and Google more visible than in the expansions of their Silicon Valley headquarters. Facebook has had to scramble for office space in recent years. In 2009, it moved its headquarters from a handful of downtown offices in Palo Alto, Calif., into a 14 000-square-meter complex once occupied by Hewlett-Packard and later Agilent, in the Stanford Research Park.

Facebook is already bursting at the seams, and so it is planning yet another move, this time to neighboring Menlo Park, where Sun Microsystems abandoned a 23-hectare office complex last year. Just in case that’s not big enough, the company has also grabbed up a neighboring 9-hectare property and plans to reopen an abandoned tunnel connecting the two. It’s not an instantly appealing location, far removed from the downtown buzz that Facebook staffers thrive on and the Caltrain tracks that convey many between home and work. It’s so isolated, in fact, that during Sun’s tenure, the campus earned the nickname “Sun Quentin,” a nod to California’s famous prison. Facebook plans renovations, however, that it has indicated will give the campus its own downtown feel.

Google moved its headquarters to its current location in Mountain View, Calif., in 2003. The company initially leased four buildings that had been occupied by Silicon Graphics; later it bought those buildings and gobbled up adjacent properties. The site, known as the Googleplex, now encompasses some 65 buildings and 390 000 square meters of office space; a public park links it to hiking trails that loop alongside the San Francisco Bay. The campus isn’t near any commercial area, so temptations to leave, except to head home to sleep, are few. Google’s expansion seems never-ending: The company has signed a lease for 17 hectares in the nearby NASA Research Park. There, employees won’t ever have to leave; Google is planning to build housing alongside the new offices.

Four-Legged Friends
Employees at Google are encouraged to bring their dogs to work, and so they do. Dogs abound both indoors and out, and outdoor stations dispense bags for disposing their poop. If there are dogs at Facebook headquarters, I never saw them.

Two Tech Titans, One Dry Cleaner
Purple Tie, a Silicon Valley dry cleaner that touts its environmentally friendly approach, serves both Google’s and Facebook’s headquarters. Facebookers only have one drop-off place; Googlers enjoy the luxury of drop boxes scattered around the campus. Given the casual dress at both companies, though, it’s hard to imagine the dry cleaner getting rich off these accounts. Google also has a free laundry room with 10 sturdy Maytag washer-dryers, and a mobile carwash comes every Wednesday.

Grow Your Own
Even in midwinter, the two vegetable gardens at Google’s headquarters are abundant with produce, and the citrus trees are laden with fruit. The bounty finds its way onto the tables at the adjacent No Name Café, one of the many free restaurants on the Google campus. There’s no room for horticultural pursuits at Facebook’s current cramped headquarters, however.

Fashion Statement: Junior High School
In the 1960s, male IBM employees wore white shirts and dark suits. The attire of elite techies sure has changed. Google and Facebook may be two of the hottest companies around, but many of their workers dress like adolescents.

Facebookers, at least those in Silicon Valley, wear their brand proudly on black T-shirts and matching black hoodies. Even when branching out from the logo-wear, they dress like the guys who hang out at the local dive bar. Actually, they are the guys who hang out at the local dive bar—after hours, you’ll find them packing into Antonio’s Nut House, arguably the seediest joint in Palo Alto. (Don’t take my word for it; one reviewer on Yelp calls it “a dark, dingy place where the beers are cheap and cold and the drinks are strong. It is all about getting s---faced and not blowing your whole paycheck on alcohol.”)

Googlers pay a little more attention to style, with men favoring skinny jeans and colorful Converse All-Stars and women in high boots or ballet flats. I did see one pair of high heels at Facebook, but a shoeshine shop would go broke at either of these companies.

“Conference Room A” Is So Last Century
In Google’s Building 43 on its Mountain View campus, conference rooms are named for cities in Africa, hence the “Abidjan” stenciled in big letters on a door. Google also holds meetings in big, white, movable conference tents that it refers to as yurts.

Facebook, too, has fun with its conference room names. In building Ten-Fifty on the Palo Alto headquarters campus, a multicolored Hall of Bad Ideas extends around a quarter of the building. Among the rooms on the Hall of Bad Ideas: “Sub-prime Mortgage” and “Land War in Asia.”

Work It, Baby
Google’s four fitness centers in its headquarters complex are open 24-7. The equipment isn’t fancy—elliptical machines, recumbent bikes, treadmills—but there’s plenty of it, along with classes, clubs, and tournaments. Table tennis and badminton are popular, reflecting the strong influence of the numerous employees of Asian ancestry. There’s a beach volleyball court and a wave pool (like a treadmill in water). Massages are subsidized. Two wellness centers offer free access to a chiropractor, an allergist, and general practitioners. But some Googlers still slip off campus to pursue their favorite sports; cofounder Sergey Brin has taken up springboard diving and practices regularly at Stanford’s aquatic center.

Facebook’s got some catching up to do here. The company says it will have a fitness center when it moves to its new campus in Menlo Park. For now, employees get discounts at their own gyms, and they can join clubs for anything from cycling to Ultimate Frisbee—which, of course, they organize through their social networks.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

This article originally appeared in print as “Campus Life.”

About the Author

Sheila Himmel was the restaurant critic for the San Jose Mercury News for 10 years, following stints as the newspaper’s magazine editor and opinion editor. Her writing was honored with a James Beard Award, the food world’s Oscar. She’s the author of Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia and recently curated “San Francisco Eats,” an exhibit showcasing San Francisco’s culinary delights from the gold rush to slow food, for the San Francisco Main Library.

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