The Google Guys

    Three alumni share what life is like working at one of the largest, most-innovative companies in the world

    By Theresa Shea, '97 PhD on March 30, 2011

    From left to right: Chris Jones, Camilo Arango, and Steve Kirkham at Google

    Three alumni share what life is like working at one of the largest, most-innovative—and fun—companies on the planet

    Ask any computing science or computing engineering student what his or her dream job would be and chances are the name Google will top the list. What began in 1996 as a modest project by Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin to network a few computers has turned into a multibillion-dollar global organization that employs more than 19,000 people around the world. Now the number one online search engine, Google is probably the best-known site on the internet. Last year, the company was named #4 on Fortune magazine’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” and it’s no surprise. Google employees enjoy a host of workplace perks.

    Imagine, for instance, a work environment that offers free breakfast, lunch and dinner. Imagine bringing your dog to work or having unlimited access to gyms, massages and game rooms. Imagine on-site child care and medical services.

    Steve Kirkham, ’06 BSc, ’07 BSc, Chris Jones, ’03 BSc (CmpE), ’08 BA, and Camilo Arango, ’09 MSc, are three University of Alberta alumni who don’t have to imagine what life as a Google employee might look like because they’re living the dream. But for them, the dream began long before they started working at the Googleplex, the company’s head office in Mountain View, CA. Indeed, Kirkham, Jones and Arango all speak highly of their time as computing science students at the U of A and even go so far as to credit their campus experiences with their current success.

    Kirkham has been working for Google as a product manager since the fall of 2008, and he’s quick to point out that his student days, when he created an alternate online program to the University’s Bear Tracks system, were of supreme importance to his career development. "Certainly my experience designing and building Bear Scat from the ground up at the U of A prepared me for my position at Google," he says. It was likely no coincidence that Kirkham launched Bear Scat (or “what Bear Tracks left behind”) on the first day of spring 2003—a good time for ideas to come out of hibernation.

    Googlers and their dog in Mountain View, CA

    Employees can bring their dogs to the office at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, CA.

    “I was sitting in CAB with friends reading The Gateway,” he recalls fondly, “and I discovered an ad saying that the University would no longer publish the printed time table and that all students would have to use Bear Tracks to know when classes were. At that time, Bear Tracks was closed all day Sunday and using it was an extremely bothersome, manual process. I realized then that if something bugs me and wastes my time, then it’s usually a great indicator of an idea. That’s essentially what motivated me. I wanted to make my life easier. So seven days later I had the initial version of Bear Scat online.” The Students’ Union gave it server space, and before long 60-to-70 percent of the student body had started to use it. In a nice twist of irony, when Kirkham finished his first degree, the University hired him to help upgrade Bear Tracks.  

    Camilo Arango came to the University of Alberta as an international student from Colombia and has been employed as a software engineer at Google since the fall of 2009. “It was a great experience to be a part of the University culture, and the quality of the computing science courses was excellent. In fact,” he continues with obvious affection, “I would say that my time at the U of A was absolutely instrumental in my working at Google. I was a member of the International House, and there I received the encouragement to try new things, to learn more about the world, and to think bigger.”

    Chris Jones has been employed as a site reliability engineer for Google since 2007. “We make sure that Google keeps running and that users never see outages,” he says. “You see the home page, put in a search, and get results.” Just like Kirkham and Arango, Jones doesn’t hesitate to credit his experiences at university for his career success.

    “The breadth of skills and knowledge that I picked up from my time at the U of A—everything from how hardware works to designing large software programs—has been a really good foundation for working at Google.”

    The three grads all agree that Google is an intellectually stimulating environment in which to work. As Jones explains, “it’s exciting to be able to work on complicated problems on a scale that’s difficult to find elsewhere.” But the social perks that come with Google employment are equally stimulating. Every week Google brings people in to give talks—from authors promoting new novels to scientists discussing their research. On March 23 of this year, a packed house of Google employees at Googleplex welcomed pop-sensation Lady Gaga to their Musicians@Google event.

    Arango attributes Google’s positive work environment and innovative culture to the fact that the company encourages its employees to work on what they’re most passionate about. Indeed, another notable employment perk involves having permission to take 20 percent of work time to devote to projects outside of your regular responsibilities that peak your interest. “I’m part of the engineering productivity team,” Arango explains. “I dedicate my time to help other teams improve the quality of their software design.”

    A Micro Kitchen at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA

    A micro kitchen for employee use at the "Googleplex."

    “Having free food is a big perk, too,” Arango says, “because it encourages us to spend time here at work and to interact with our teammates. Many of the most interesting conversations happen during lunchtime while sharing food. We also have access to gym and training facilities. That’s a big plus for me because it helps me to keep a balance between hard work and a healthy lifestyle.”

    “The first word that comes to mind is whirlwind,” Kirkham explains when describing what it’s like to work for Google. “It’s an invigorating atmosphere. Google is such an integral part of so many people’s lives, and to be a small part of that is a privilege.”

    Chris Jones was tangentially involved in Google’s Person Finder, a site designed to track missing people that was launched in January 2010 in response to the Haitian earthquake. Families and friends, desperate to have news of their loved ones, flooded a variety of sources for information. In the chaos following the disaster, it became clear that a central site was needed to gather all this data, and Person Finder became the go-to site. In the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Japan, Person Finder is currently tracking almost 500,000 records of missing people. One of Jones’ side projects is to make sure that Person Finder keeps running.

    “Part of my work team is in Dublin,” he explains, “so I get to travel there once or twice a year. That’s a great perk—the global reach. That and spending part of my time on my own research.&rdquo

    The global reach, the freedom to be creative, intellectual stimulation: these are the key ingredients, according to three University of Alberta graduates working for Google, that make the company such an innovative and respected employer. And a massage on your lunch hour doesn’t hurt either.