An inside look at Google’s Kirkland campus through the eyes of a startup veteran

Google Chef Jason Wilson, right, holds some chocolate chip cookies

If Google can’t lure prospective employees with high salaries and stock grants, maybe it will convert them with the chocolate chip cookies. Jason Wilson, the world-renowned chef who founded Seattle’s Crush, now spends his days working on Google’s Kirkland campus preparing a wide variety of meals for more than 550 workers.

On a recent visit, Wilson was just taking some chewy chocolate chip cookies out of the oven when I passed by with my tour guide, Seattle startup veteran and newbie Googler Dan Shapiro.

“I am a bit of a foodie, so this place is a little bit of heaven,” said Shapiro, who joined the company in May after he sold his startup, Sparkbuy, to Google.

Free food aside — and there’s plenty of it no matter where you wander on the campus — Google has built an impressive operation in the Seattle area over the past seven years. And, as GeekWire first reported last week, it is about to get a lot bigger.

The company is not only taking over more space in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, but it plans to open a new facility in Bothell with room for as many as 840 workers. That’s a huge commitment to the Seattle area where Google now employs upwards of 800 people, mostly engineers working on a variety of projects from online maps to its new Google + social network (Hangouts were developed here) to Shapiro’s financial services product Google Advisor.

Google’s presence in the region actually started rather modestly in Kirkland in 2004, and in many ways the low-slung white office buildings remain the nerve center for the company’s operations in the Northwest. Like the rest of the company, which added 2,400 employees last quarter, Google Kirkland continues to grow.

On a visit last week, GeekWire got a sneak peek inside the company’s newest building.

Google now has three buildings at its Kirkland campus, one of the company's largest engineering centers

Opened in June, the 50,000 square foot building B boasts an aviation theme, complete with conference rooms named after airplanes and a huge painting of a Boeing jetliner in the lobby. (The other two buildings have themes built around the outdoors — including a climbing wall — and music — an ode to Seattle’s rich alternative music scene).

The aviation theme, however, is perhaps the most fitting metaphor for Google. The first of the Silicon Valley giants to establish a beachhead in Seattle, Google is looking to the Seattle area to help it take off amid a growing number of threats. (One of which is located just a few miles away in Redmond, something that was not lost on me when I spotted a guy walking around the Google campus in a Bing T-shirt. Would that ever happen in Mountain View?).

On GeekWire’s recent visit, Shapiro chatted about everything from the food to recruiting to why the company is working so hard to establish connections with startups, entrepreneurs and new business ventures in the area.

Google employee Dan Shapiro

Shapiro’s perspective is an interesting one, in part because he previously worked in an entrepreneurial environment. However, he’s not a complete outsider when it comes to big companies, having previously worked at Microsoft and RealNetworks.

But Google is different, he says.

“This is the third big company that I’ve worked at, and there’s no question that Google is a force into and of itself,” said Shapiro. “I mean, the way they do things is really different and really exciting to see. Google is a company that I’ve always wanted to see from the inside, and it is just as amazing from the inside as it is from the outside.”

But there have to be a few things that he’s missing from the startup culture that he loves, no? After all, what about those lunch trips to pick up burritos or teriyaki?

In fact, Shapiro says that Google is more closely aligned to his experience running 30-person Ontela than it was his work at RealNetworks and Microsoft. As an example, Shapiro said that Google routinely holds company meetings in which executives share details about the inner workings of the company. “There are no softballs,” said Shapiro on the questions that Google employees put in front of execs.

That said, Shapiro notes that Google does have the pluses of a big company. And Shapiro is particularly enjoying those benefits right now, retelling the story of the first-rate tech support he received after his sick child vomited on his laptop computer.

Google's campus is easily recognizable, with umbrellas on the patios in yellow, red, green and blue

“I don’t have to worry about how I get the mailed delivered and I don’t have to worry about who is going to clean the windows, but I do have to worry about reviews and keeping my boss up to date and making sure I know what is going on in some other division that has some synergy with ours. So, it is a different set of overhead, and a different set of tradeoffs,” he says.

Given his experience in the Seattle startup community, Shapiro also has inserted himself into a roll of liaison between startups and Google. The entrepreneur said that he’s not shy about making introductions to Google’s venture capital or M&A groups.

“We want to have connections to the community, and that is really valuable,” he said. “There’s really neat stuff going on out there and we want to be sure that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel if that’s not necessary, and we want to encourage that entrepreneurship and know what is going on out there.”

As I made the rounds at Google’s new Kirkland building, I was struck by the community gathering places. There’s a basketball court, and employees tend to congregate in common areas to toss a football or tennis ball around.  A good percentage of workers wear varieties of Google T-shirts. And then there’s always the free snacks, smoothies and coffee.

I always thought the top-notch chefs and free lunches at Google were a recruiting ploy, a benefit of working at one of the world’s richest technology companies.

But Shapiro explained that it goes much deeper than that.

“Teams eat together all of the time. People eat with folks on other teams all of the time, and that really helps to cross pollinate, so we learn about all sorts of interesting things going on in other parts of the organization,” said Shapiro, adding that “it is really a tight, cohesive culture.”

Here’s Shapiro showing off the company’s new cafeteria in building B, complete with a bicycle-powered milkshake maker.

(Disclosure: Google employee Jonathan Sposato is an investor in GeekWire).

John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews and Facebook.