Engineering grouplets at Google

Google engineer Bharat Mediratta discussed some Google engineering customs in the New York Times yesterday. Bharat goes beyond 20% time to talk about some different aspects of being an engineer at Google:

  • Grouplets bring together like-minded engineers who care about things like documentation, improving our build system, or testing. It’s an informal process lets engineers contribute on the topics that they care about the most.
  • Sometimes we have “Fixit days” where every Google engineer is encouraged to tackle a specific topic. From the article:

    Or my favorite: the Customer Happiness Fixit, when we fix all those little things that bug our users and make them sad — for example, when the hotkeys aren’t just right on mobile phones. Many of these events come with special T-shirts and gifts to reward the engineers who take a little time out to work on them.

    That particular fixit day was one of my favorites too.

  • Bharat also discusses the best way for an engineer to have an impact at Google:

    Google works from the bottom up. If you have a great technical idea, you don’t have your V.P. send out a memo telling everybody to use it. Instead, you take it to your fellow engineers and convince them that it’s good. Good ideas spread fast, and this approach keeps us from making technical mistakes. But it also means that the burden falls upon you to spread your idea.

I’d completely agree with that. I’ve noticed that a good way to accomplish something at Google is to convince other engineers and build consensus from there. Google’s culture also rewards those who take the initiative on their ideas.

Bharat also talks about how his testing grouplet hit on the idea of posting one-page stories about testing in the bathrooms. Just like that, “Testing on the Toilet” was born. 🙂 Now that the tradition has been discussed publicly, I don’t feel bad about linking to this picture that Niall Kennedy snapped while visiting Google a while ago. 🙂

21 Responses to Engineering grouplets at Google (Leave a comment)

  1. Harith


    First “Walking Meetings” and now “Testing on the Toilet”. You have generously told someting about those walking meetings. Time to tell us more details about Google Toilet Testing 🙂

    BTw, have you finished from all those demanding logistical things?

  2. > we fix all those little things that bug our users and make them sad

    Does the same ethos extend to Adwords engineers?

    If so, how is it that (among a myriad of lesser gripes) Adwords users still can’t opt out of extended broad match? 🙁

  3. So what do you work on in your 20% time Matt?

  4. While we’re talking about engineers at Google, I have three questions that are niggling at me…

    Wiki says you didn’t complete you’re PhD (which obviously puts you in good company within Google) – any advice for anyone in the middle of PhD applications?

    What languages are mostly used around Google? I heard somewhere that Websearch is C++, Gmail or maps Java, and nearly everything else in Python (although I assume bigtable is C/Assembly)? Is this general rule true? [Having just finished the first itteration of a pure-python video search engine and] given Google’s (at least Peter Novig’s) large involvement in python development I’m surprised that websearch hasn’t been ported to Python.

    Somewhere else I heard that Google employs engineers based on talent, and then later decides what producs they will work on. Is this true? Sound’s a little weird given the specialist knowledge needed in different areas.

  5. Unfortunately, that article was very shallow. You just do not CASUALLY mention that Google news and Gmail began as grouplets – and not bother to elaborate do any research on such important developments. These are the services that those Times readers care about – Not agile programming or Customer Happiness Fixit.

    Do Times readers really relate to THAT.

    The story has so much potential, if it was only done right and thorough.

    It would be nice to get insight into the SERPs grouplets – if any exists.

    How do ideas develop for experimenting with different SERPs and algos.

    When updates occur it usually means different emphasis among a variety of search variables. How is it determined to go with a particular test.

    Do they read the SEO blogs and forums and get ideas from there?
    (of course, they read and discuss SearchEnginesWeb constantly)

  6. “Testing on the Toilet” That takes me bak

    Years ago early 80’s I shared an office (at BHRA aka BHR Group) with an engineer who was working on toilet efficiency – we had some interesting brainstoming sessions when we where trying to work out the best way to test.

    I also looked at having an image recognition system to analyse the results from the flushes. We gave up that idea when the hardware cost was over 250k just for the camera and image capture device – that was when the average house price was under 25k.

    Some days I miss working for a top ranked RnD organisation.


    mashed up wheatabix was what we used as a test medium

  7. Hi Matt,

    Taking about pictures did you see this picture of you along side your look-a-like?


  8. Seems like a wonderful place to work at. If you have the world’s most talented and skilled people around you, it would be a shame not to let them express their creativity via consensus and persuasion.

  9. Testing on the Toilet sounds hilarious. I wonder how many episodes of tips there are total.

    Here’s a suggestion for a fix-it day. I use about 3 different google accounts between work and play, and Google adwords is trapping me on a dead-end page each time I’d like to switch.

    If I am logged into a Google account that has Gmail and Adsense but NO Adwords, I can’t go to the Adwords homepage to login to it with a different Google account.

    Since I have Adsense, the goo throws me to a dead-end page that says “Did you mean to log into your adsense account instead?” If the answer to this question is no, which it is every time, I have no options. I must type another URL to get where I want.

    I usually go to gmail so I can sign out and then back to Adwords to finally see the log in option. Hate it.

  10. Rob

    Sounds like a cult to me …

  11. Harith, I’m not done with all my logistical stuff. I’ve been making progress though.

    Chris, for the longest time I didn’t really take much 20% time — working on webspam is so interesting that I was happy to spend 100% of my time on it. At best, you could say that communication was my 20% project. However, more recently I have been spending about an hour a week on a 20% side project. Most of what I’ve been doing is getting a few people interested in something that I consider fun and then cheering them on though.

    S.E.W., neither Gmail nor News started as a grouplet. They started as prototypes from someone’s 20% time. Grouplets tend to be several engineers who are interested in improving one broad aspect of Google.

    corey, there have been dozens of episodes; interesting suggestion, by the way. Power users tend to have interesting account requests, more so than the average user. Rob, I’m not sure what from the article sounds like a cult? The fact that regular engineers can make Google better seems like a great thing to me.

  12. Google is the most popular Search Engine
    And with a such idea Google will be the best work environment 🙂

  13. Just curious, are there limitations in place to keep people from taking their 20% time and turning it into 80% time, and how often does that become an issue at Google? I know that when I get an idea worthy of that type of effort, it is tough to not dive in completely and work on it.

  14. …If you have a great technical idea, (…) you take it to your fellow engineers and convince them that it’s good. Good ideas spread fast…

    Unfortunately, not everywhere. I find it very good and interesting (and, sorry to say, hard to believe) that this system works out at Google’s office. I have worked for a large german group in Brazil for many years where some fellow engineers and bosses wished that the ideas from others would not spread out. The reason for that, I suppose, is that many don’t want you to grow in the company because they want to grow there before you do. And, in some cases, they want you out because they want your place and your ideas. Selfish, uhh?!

    Well, I’d worked for another major company where this situation wasn’t so bad and ideas could go a little farther. But, as my experience there was short, I can’t say much about it.

  15. Hehe.. Testing on the toilet – That’s one of the things that really stuck out to me back in April when I went for my last interview there – that’s called taking work seriously!!


  16. Sounds like a cult to me …

  17. This is a great “work around” used by google to manage it’s employees time to concentrate on the actual work in hand. I’ve been someone who used to work almost 40-60% on things those made me happy. This normally drifts away an employee from the actual task/goal to be accomplished. So, now managing the time that an employee loves gives 80% assured productivity.

    I am sure this is also going to help the people working at google and google as well. Hat’s off to the person who has actually thought of introducing this method.

  18. Then what do you do the rest of the time ?

  19. Whatever happened to just doing something, making it work, getting a positive result from it and then telling everyone after since you would have pissed them off and not been allowed to do it before?

    Screw grouplets. Maverick thinking is the way to go.

  20. Hehe.. Testing on the toilet

  21. Working on Bugs is so…boring 🙂

    greetings from Germany