Inside Google's Largest Non-U.S. Office - In Zurich
Many of Google's services have been created in Switzerland, and the Zurich site has grown from just two employees in 2004 to 1,300 today. It's like a snow-capped Mountain View.
ZURICH — In one of the many Google Zurich cafeterias, a giant map of the city covers a wall. On it are marked the company's successive locations, including Limmatquai, where the first Swiss Google office was initially established in 2004 with just two employees, and its current location of Brandschenkestrasse, which is on the site of the old Hurlimann Brewery.
Here, Google doesn't just occupy a building, but more like an entire neighborhood. So far, the company leases three buildings and is in the process of acquiring a fourth across the street. "When I arrived in 2007, we had 100 employees in Zurich," says Eric Tholomé, one of the three directors of the Zurich site. "Now we have 1,300 and are still hiring."
Switzerland is home to the company's largest research center outside of the United States, following those in Mountain View, California, and in New York City.
"Our goal is not to centralize development in only a handful of international sites," Tholomé continues, "but it's true that Zurich has seen an extraordinary development, and we continue to attract numerous talented engineers. And this multicultural side is extremely important in our development of international services."
Every year, Google receives around two million résumés worldwide. As of July 30, there were 23 open positions in the Zurich offices.
"Our proximity to centers of education excellence like the ETH Zurich and EPFL is of course an asset," Tholomé says. "And Zurich is also very interesting for engineers from Russia, and even further."
The latest example of collaboration between Google and ETH Zurich was a smartphone capable of locating the user within a building and providing navigation with the help of 3D maps. It’s Google's "Project Tango."
In fact, Google has developed a significant amount of its services in Switzerland. Its agenda is 100% "Made in Zurich." Switzerland is also the second center of development for YouTube (the other being San Bruno, California). Notable Google map features such as the biking and public transportation options were also created in Zurich. Substantial elements of advertising services, including those for Gmail, were coded in Switzerland. For Gmail, the priority inbox was developed in Zurich.
"Except for maybe the calendar, all of the services were created in coordination with other researchers abroad," Tholomé says. "There is no ‘turf’ and there are usually teams of 10 to 15 engineers working on specific projects."
Despite this, Tholomé says there is no risk of overlap "because there are so many projects to be completed. And our work is very transparent. All team projects are visible at all times. We also work internationally as much as possible."
At all of its sites, Google has spaces for video communication. When two teams are working together, big screens linked to cameras are on continuously, allowing non-stop exchange between engineers.
What time differences?
But, of course, there remains the issue of different time zones.
"Today, I have a video conference with my colleague in California at 2:10 p.m., which is 5:10 in the morning for him," Tholomé says.
"Our American colleagues are making efforts to wake up early. But the majority of collaborative work is done with the help of online documents. In the evening, my American colleagues can see where I am, and in the morning my Asian colleagues can answer my questions. It's really efficient."
Later on, Kai Hansen, product manager for Google Maps, demonstrates this system of collaboration.
"In Zurich, we centralize the suggestions for improvement of our teams in different countries," Hansen says. "In Israel, for example, our engineers noted that our restaurant suggestions were not very relevant. We investigated in Switzerland and improved the algorithms."
The Zurich team also led the development of bicycle routes for its maps feature. The idea for the code was born here.
"The next step was to handle all of the local features from Switzerland," Hansen says. "In the Netherlands, bicycles are entitled to their own roads with two-way streets and almost their own stop lights. Our teams have tested our directions there, as in other countries. And having so many international engineers in Zurich allows us to develop this feature even faster."
To stimulate innovation, engineers are encouraged to change teams as often as possible.
"Take me, for example," Hansen says. "I worked at YouTube, Google Wallet and advertising. Each engineer is challenged to work on new products, according to their interests. This boosts overall creativity. Each year we organize a kind of internal exhibition, where teams show what they do on huge posters. This also allows for recruitment."
In nine years at Google in Zurich, Hansen worked on 23 different projects. "When a project is finished, like with the bicycle traffic, engineers move on."