Two Years Later

The other night at a team dinner at the Four Seasons buffet, I had a Proustian moment at the charcuterie table. The prosciutto and brie — rarities in Seoul — brought me back to nights at The Tippler, under Chelsea Market, where we would go to say goodbye to someone who was leaving our team at Google. It’s where I had my goodbye drinks.

It’ll be two years tomorrow. I don’t think that much about my New York life these days, but there are moments.

As I write this, I’m sitting on my veranda, watching the rain come down in sheets over the nearby apartment towers and Umyeon Mountain as the breeze plays with the leaves of my little hallabong tree out on the balcony. My life is different and not different. I work as a writer at a giant tech company, and I live in an apartment in a nice part of town.

Different tech company, different town.

Leaving New York

It took me a long time to leave New York. It’s hard to leave because it fools you into thinking that life outside of New York is both impractical and uncivilized. My grandfather, before he decamped for California, expressed a worry that he might not be able to buy duffel bags there, as if sack-and-zipper technology were exclusively the province of Canal Street artisans. And there’s a reflexive sense that being in New York makes you cultured.

It turns out, though, that there are ways to be cultured that don’t involve sucking down a grease triangle on a paper plate before riding the L train a hundred years to see your friend’s photos tacked to a Bushwick wall and pretending to have visited the latest Whitney show over plastic cups of cheap white wine. After I left New York, I discovered that LA has really good art museums now. In Bangkok, there are motorcycle gangs that look like American motorcycle gangs and play heavy metal on the street to raise money for charity. Up in Khon Kaen, the college kids play some mean ska, and they do it for hours nonstop. Yangon has a fascinating little art scene emerging in the crumbling but still gorgeous colonial buildings downtown, and there are some good galleries in Hanoi too. They play excellent Latin music at Carmen Bar in Saigon, and late in the evening they turn to French pop from the sixties that the older folks still remember. I saw Dengue Fever fight their way through a collapsing sounds system to play the most rock-and-roll show ever in Phnom Penh. Hanoi has good art galleries. In Hue I ate a sauteed lemongrass bird’s nest that was like nothing I’ve had before or since, and in Singapore there was a dessert made from artisanal pop rocks. Laos makes the loveliest textiles you’ve ever seen, and you can take a weaving class in Luang Prabang, then finish your day with exquisite French cuisine.

Seeing Seoul

16464989_258890017869115_8950001736446115840_nSeoul is deceptive in more or less the opposite way from New York. Seoul convinces you that everything is normal and there’s nothing to see. The standard tourist circuit includes some so-so palaces that were all rebuilt in the last 50 years anyway, plus a bunch of shopping districts where everyone’s wearing Western clothes and drinking Starbucks coffee. As a friend put it recently, “I was expecting Seoul to be more Asian.” The beige apartment towers, the red-brick residential buildings, the glass-and-stone commercial strips have an almost militant blandness, and the chain stores repeat like a canvas backdrop loop on a crank. Even the city slogan, “I.SEOUL.U,” manages to convey nothing, while its bizarreness distracts you from the actual city.

But for all that, Seoul is beguiling. It’s hard to explain. A New York fashion designer I met here told me that the city brought her back to life, that there was this one elegant building that caught her imagination with its elegant S-curve lighted up at night. That something about the people here touched her. I know what she means, but I don’t know how to convey it to anyone who hasn’t been here.

And now it’s home. I’ve spent a lot of nights in a lot of places in the last two years, but more of them here in this apartment than anywhere else. It’s been quite an adventure, and it’s still just beginning.

Joining the match in progress

In the kitchen closest to my desk at Google, there’s an ongoing chess match. Anyone can walk by and make a move, and a game accumulates.

Yesterday I was contemplating a move when someone else stopped by. “Sometimes I show up and there’s, like, and exposed queen or something,” he said, “and I feel bad taking it. Like, I didn’t earn that.”

What my companion had stumbled on — along with a poorly played chess move — was a good metaphor for the experience of privilege: we drop into a game that’s already being played, and some of us discover that there are pieces just waiting for us to take them, while others find that we’re already down a couple pawns and in a terrible mess.

To put it another way: some of us are born forked, and some of us are born forking others.

We should be cautious about taking too much credit for finding ourselves in a good position, or casting too much blame on others for being in a bad one. Some humility is called for, and some compassion.

Life, however, is not a game of chess — the metaphor only goes so far. We can do our part to improve the board for everyone, and we should do what we can, even if we make just a few moves in a much larger game whose beginning is lost in time and whose end we will never see.

[regarding the posting of open letters in the comments]

Open letter to the woman who posted an open letter to Sergey Brin in the comments, which letter I’m not publishing, which makes it not much of an open letter:

Let me make it very, very clear that I do not speak for Google. I work for Google as one employee among many. My blog is not a part of Google. It’s my own space for espousing my own views. As such, I don’t feel any obligation to publish views I disagree with. The Internet is big, and there’s plenty of space for you elsewhere.

If you genuinely want to write an open letter to Sergey Brin, please do so in a forum that is either public or your own. And don’t use Blogger, because Google owns it.

Sincerely,
Palaverist

[google pride]

Google has taken a stand on California’s loathsome Proposition 8, which is intended to roll back the state supreme court’s decision in favor of gay marriage. I’m proud to work for a company that recognizes the importance of diversity and is willing to stand up for its employees’ rights.

[how we livin’]

If you want to see what it’s like inside Google New York, check out this music video that was put together for our annual talent show. It’s not, you know, good, but it’s kind of funny (funnier if you know our inside jokes, like all office humor), and it’s a chance to see the office I work in.

[googlification]

This morning I arrived at work to discover that our offices had been (further) Googlified over the weekend.

Already as soon as the merger went through, we got snack carts and huge videoconferencing monitors, and our kitchen fridges started filling up with sandwiches, sushi and organic milk from grass-fed cows.

Those were nice Google touches, but the now we’re into the visual branding phase. A number of our walls have been repainted in chipper primary colors, and our cubes all received Google nameplates (a CD case with a slip of paper inside, but still). And there’s now a Tech Stop, one of Google’s ubiquitous stations for rapid tech support.

But far weirder is the scattering of Ikea products everywhere. Google seems to have a passion for semi-disposable Swedish furniture, and especially lamps, and has kind of just tossed it wherever. There are Lyktas on the counters, Storms in the hallway, and a couple of Strannes sprouting here and there, not to mention cheery, cheap-looking tables and sofas in some of the common areas. They even took down the baby pictures that had been pasted haphazardly to a wall by the sales section, put them all in primary-colored Ikea frames, and put them back up. And of course there are lava lamps: they stuck two discreetly in our main lounge, only one of which seemed to be working when I came in.

There is something reminiscent of The Prisoner in all this, especially if you imagine this whole style translated onto a sprawling Mountainview campus traversed by golf carts. (Bizarrely enough, we were even given glowing white orbs as a welcome gift.) As in The Village, everything you need is provided for you at the Googleplex: meals, massages, a doctor, entertainment. It’s lovely and a bit infantilizing.

Am I complaining? Not really. More like adjusting. Just noticing where it jars.

[google dreams]

What could be more interesting than corporate restructuring? How ’bout other people’s dreams? Okay, how ’bout other people’s dreams about corporate restructuring? Hang on for an incredibly boring ride, ’cause this morning I awoke from a Google stress dream, about moving into the Google offices and adjusting to the Google laptops.

The Google offices were in a gigantic, cavernous version of my parents’ living room in California, with the burnt-sienna shag carpeting and the dark-brown wood. On the wall were a (fictional) pair of my father’s paintings, two additional pieces from his beach negative series: one of my mother, in a somewhat different pose than in the existing painting, and one of the Beatles. There were also very large Chinese vases arrayed on ledges up by the roof, and I found myself wondering whether I could ever claim them now that the house had been sold to Google, or whether Google got ownership of any items left inside.

The laptops involved multiple oddly shaped screens that you pulled out of the top, and they were floppy, so that to get them to stand up you had to attach various straps and kind of jury-rig the whole shebang.

There was then a debate over whether we should sit on the floor or at tables. “Why does everyone think we have to be like DreamWorks?” someone asked (apparently in my dreams the DreamWorks people sit on the floor). “Well,” I suggested, “it’s also all the Indian decor in here.” Then I worried that I had somehow insulted our Indian engineers.

In the end it was decided that we would sit at the tables, which somehow made our laptops normal again. Then I woke up.

[survival]

“There will be reductions in headcount.” So declared Eric Schmidt back on March 11, and so it has been.

Let me start by saying that I survived. I will be staying on as a Googler.

There. Now I can tell the story.

The last three weeks have been difficult. There were rumors and more rumors, but nobody really knew anything, except for our senior managers, who were making themselves scarce. Then we were told that this week, instead of our usual monthly planning sessions, we’d have a week to work on “system stability” — a particularly absurd euphemism for sitting on our hands and waiting for a moment of extreme instability.

Last Friday, some old-timers threw an End of the World as We Know It party in a back room. Then on Tuesday — April Fool’s Day — was the DoubleClick Schwag Party, at which old-timers (myself included) put our DoubleClick promotional gear on display for a sort of last corporate hurrah. (I contributed my yo-yo and slinky, and also my Camp Day T-shirts from 1999 and 2000. There was no Camp Day in 2001 because they were already laying people off that summer.)

I’d been trying to keep working, but it hasn’t been easy, in part because so many others have been kind of shut down. My job involves asking lots of people for information, and many of them were just not willing to bother when they weren’t sure that they, or I, would be around at the end of the week. Even so, I started my Wednesday morning doing actual work.

That quickly came to a halt as knots of people began to gather. The layoffs had begun. Word trickled to us that finance had been hit. Sales too. We began to see people walking by with the dreaded white envelopes that contained the Google severance package. (Only later did we learn that some of these were contracts, not straight-up layoffs.) The mood went from tense to grim to borderline hysterical. Emails came in from longtime veterans sending out general farewells. People were in tears — some who had been let go, and some who were still waiting to hear. I waited it out at my desk, wondering when I would finally get the call.

At last my old boss, now a VP, came by to inform me that everyone who was getting news had gotten news — that I was, in other words, a survivor. Others were learning the same thing, and a kind of shell-shocked giddiness began to steal over those of us who remained, mixed with survivor’s guilt. In engineering, which is my part of the company, relatively few jobs were cut. No one on the documentation team (at least in New York) lost their jobs, though two of us were offered only contracts. Still, that made it all the more humiliating for those who had to go.

Google has for the most part been generous with both its layoff package and its contract package (for employees who will be phased out). I won’t go into details there, but they’ve been non-evil, though not exactly milk-and-cookies fuzzy-wuzzy (Google is a business).

On Thursday we received our official offer letters, and information about orientation at Google (mine is on Tuesday). I am satisfied that I’ve received a very, very good offer.

I guess I’m a Googler now. For the moment, though, I have that post-finals feeling of exhaustion and emotional collapse. I have a cold, and I just want to go home and sleep.

*

It occurs to me that this post, more than most, is likely to be read by people who don’t know me. There are a lot of folks out there trying to dig up whatever gossip they can about the whole Google-DoubleClick merger so they can post it on their terribly insidery industry blogs. Already I’m reading plenty of ill-informed mutterings about how DoubleClickers will be miserable at Google, how Googlers are already miserable at Google, how Google is due for a culture shift to something grim and hideous, etc.

My own experience of Googlers is that they are curious about DoubleClick, a company that theirs bought for $3.1 billion because we built something they were unable to replicate. They are also generally happy with life at Google. They are not, as a rule, snooty dickheads.

Secondly, it has somehow become blogosphere lore that Clickers had to reapply for our jobs and go through interviews. This is only half true. Yes, we submitted resumes of a sort, listing past experience and also what we’d done at DoubleClick in the past year. But I don’t know of anyone who went through an actual interview. There was no ritual humiliation.

I for one am looking forward to life as a Googler. It’ll be interesting. Is it a trip to heaven? Probably not. Is it a reasonable job? Probably. So yeah, if you’ve got fantasies that being a Googler is a cross between working for Willy Wonka and working for Hugh Hefner, then you’re likely to be disappointed that it’s more like working for a large tech company. If, however, you’re the sort of person who could be content at a place like DoubleClick, then you can probably get along just fine at Google.

[ann taylor is not for the boys]

Last night I dreamed that I went to work in a new kilt suit — a tweed skirt and matching jacket — and then began to worry that perhaps it was actually just a skirt suit, for a woman. I had to walk all the way across the office, only to discover that my usual morning meeting wasn’t happening. On the way back, two medieval trumpeters, banners draped from their long horns, were performing a fanfare to welcome a lunch provided as a marketing gimmick by Boston Market, which seemed odd considering we can all go to the Google cafeteria.

Then I woke up and found an email in my inbox about a pregnant man (in Australia, though, so it kind of makes sense, because hanging upside-down all day does weird things to those people).

Oh, and I promise not every post from now on will contain the word “Google.” Really. Eventually I’ll be able to think of something else.