Friday, August 05, 2005
We didn't know quite what to expect at Google during our visit last week. A few months ago we'd been asked to give some kind of presentation to an undetermined number of Google employees. Were we interested? Sure, we said. This was still many weeks ago. When something is that far away, you'll generally agree to it without much thought.
Because we arrived at Google late -- we were coming from a meeting with some people who may want to turn Freakonomics into a board game (!) — our tour was cut a little short. Still, we did manage to see:
- Your Google-logo-colored pylons at the extremely low-key "security" post.
- Your very user-friendly name-tag-generating/sign-in computer
- Your very, very fancy toilets.
- Your rack of primordial servers with the thin layers of cork that used to make the fire department so nervous.
- Your roaming dogs, one friendlier than the next.
- Your scrolling query screens: Hillary Duff … pits puppies … Yenifer Lopez … Spanish Dictionary (we were a bit disappointed not to see a Freakonomics, but maybe it got caught in your filter; people sometimes give it some pretty deviant spellings.)
- Your quartz rug, robust cacti, fancy yurts, and ecologically sound staircase in the Africa building.
Whomp! It wasn’t some little room, with a conference table and a couple dozen people, as we'd imagined. It was a big, big room, rows and rows of chairs, all of them filled with Googlers, and many, many more Googlers sitting on the floor and standing in the back and – well, not exactly hanging from the rafters but it felt like it. The walls were black, the stage lights white-hot, the room alive with chatter. This wasn’t a presentation; this was a presentation. It was a Sally Field moment: They like us! They really like us! (We realize, of course, that the average Googler is far too young to catch this reference. Don't worry; it's not very funny anyway.) As we picked our way through the floor-sitting Googlers, it felt like we should have been carrying a couple of Telecasters; it was likely the closest that either of us will ever get to having a rock-star moment (in truth, Dubner was a minor-league rock star, but that was in the late 80s, so it doesn't really count).
Google had passed around a few hundred copies of Freakonomics (we immediately wondered if the order would be counted as a bulk sale, and therefore underweighted on the N.Y. Times best-seller list), so now, looking across the long rows of chairs, you could see one Googler after the next with the open book in his/her lap, as if preparing to hear a speech from Chairman Mao. It was, well, freaky. A bit like happening upon your own funeral.
There was one podium and one microphone, so we decided to do a tag-team talk, discussing the book (e.g., why crack dealers still live with their moms) and telling a few stories based on research that’s happened since the book (e.g., monkey prostitution at Yale). We seemed to do okay, based on the fact that everyone laughed a lot. The biggest laugh came when Levitt mentioned that we spoke at Yahoo! a day earlier and got a much smaller crowd. That was true; Google’s turnout was about double Yahoo!'s. On the other hand, that means Google may have lost twice the productivity (unless you think that our talk may have somehow increased productivity). The best question of the day was, "What would you do with our data if we could give it to you?" We've thought about that quite a bit ever since; we'll keep you posted.
After our talk, we spent a few minutes hanging around with miscellaneous Googlers. This was the most impressive slice of the day; not only were they all smart and inquisitive and friendly, but they were so damn happy. For instance, there's surely no company in the world where so many employees wear t-shirts with their company logo, which we took to be a sign of deep pride (or perhaps simply a deep discount).
One person we talked with after our presentation was actually an old friend of Dubner's, a writer named Anya Kamenetz who is the fiancee of a Google employee. Dubner hadn't seen her in a couple of years and had no idea she was even in California. Even stranger, Levitt had seen her on PBS not long ago, just as the two of us were starting to do TV appearances, and called up Dubner to say, I just saw this young woman named Anya on TV, and she was so good and natural at it that it made me realize that that’s how we should try to be on TV. The reason Levitt remembered her name is that Dubner's daughter is also named Anya, a name he (Dubner) chose in some part because Anya Kamenetz was such a good name model. So here, a few thousand miles and a few months away, all these strange random elements got tied up in a neat bow, on the Google campus. Somehow it doesn’t seem as if it could have happened anywhere else.