[Editor's Note: There are some mild spoilers in this review of "The Internship" by GeekWire chairman and two-time Googler Jonathan Sposato. Consider yourself forewarned!]
Until now, I’d never worked anywhere that became the subject of a movie. Back in the day, ABC’s ‘20/20’ came to Microsoft to do a news segment on our youthful corporate culture and explosive growth. There was also a brief shining moment with Douglas Coupland’s book ‘Microserfs’ that offered a wonderfully spot-on view of life as a Microsoft employee.
“The Internship,” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as two forty-somethings working at Google, opened nationwide on Friday. And when I first heard that this movie was coming, I found myself unexpectedly wanting to see it. You see, I worked at Google. Twice. Once in 2005 when my startup company Phatbits was bought (becoming Google Desktop Gadgets and Sidebar), and a second time in 2010 when my next startup Picnik was purchased.
During both tenures, I was older than the average Google employee by at least 16 years, and actually experienced many of the hilarious things the two “old” characters in the movie experienced. One example: I was known for frequently making obscure 80’s movie references that would often fall absolutely flat with my younger colleagues. Vince Vaughn’s hilarious references to Flashdance in this film just slayed me:
Vaughn: This reminds me of a little girl from a steel town, who had the dream to dance. She had to strip down to nothing! She had to sit in that chair and arch her back and reach up to pull the chain to nowhere and douse herself with water! Who knows where that water came from?
Wilson: That water came from her hopes and dreams, man.
Vaughn: And that little girl … she danced her way into those judges’ hearts. And that’s just like us. That’s just what we’ll do. We’ll twirl and spin and spin until we win this contest! [Stunned looks on interns' faces]
Intern: Uh … what on Earth are you talking about?
While I won’t claim that “The Internship” is anything more than an irreverent and at times brashly funny romp through a very idealized version of the Google experience, I strangely and unexpectedly found myself becoming re-immersed in my own feelings from working there.
They got much of the feeling right. When Owen Wilson tries to catch up to a colleague on a lower floor by jumping down the slide, emerging at the end with a beaming smile, I had to chuckle as I, too, have experienced the same sense of momentary delight when trying to make a meeting on time. When Vince Vaughn realizes he can have all the free food he wants, he starts ordering three lattes, five bananas, multiple donuts, pudding, and bagels all “to go.” I was reminded of the famed “Google 15″ in reference to the typical weight gain of incoming new hires who find themselves snacking constantly.
But these were just the superficial things. Generally, working there was an amazing experience in terms of witnessing a highly unique, and delightfully strong corporate culture centered around “thinking big,” “doing no evil,” and “Googliness” that has managed to persist successfully from the company’s founding days. And thus there were many big things that the movie got right, namely:
1. Google is the great equalizer
I once saw a joke on Quora written by a former Google employee about what it’s really like to work at Google, and it goes something like this …
Larry and Sergey are sitting on their yacht reviewing incoming resumes. They get a hot one from someone who was a Harvard grad, became a Fortune 500 CEO, built schools in Vietnam in her spare time, and once ran for the U.S. Senate. They call the Google recruiter and order him to pursue her aggressively. A week later the recruiter calls back: “We’ve successfully on-boarded her at Google. She starts next week. Her new job will be answering user tickets for Gmail.” Larry and Sergey high-five each other and exclaim, “Yes!! We bagged another one!”
There’s a lot of truth to that joke. Google is extraordinary in one way that I’ve never really gotten used to, even after being there twice. It is a giant company uniformly staffed with exceedingly accomplished young individuals at the line level. As a former Microsoft employee dating back to the early 90’s, I was of course no stranger to working amongst super bright people (I snuck in there, too), but Google felt just off-the-charts. To be balanced, there’s a highly interesting business vs. corporate culture tradeoff here that will perhaps be the subject of another post.
But this sense of “rockstars working as janitors” became an inside joke amongst us older employees. You’re constantly running into junior product managers who might own very modest parts of a product, who have had prior careers on Wall Street, launched and exited a successful startup, speak three languages, and once worked at the White House. Everyone was a straight-A student from Stanford or MIT. This was hilariously underscored in one scene where the characters were trying to form a team, and Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson shouted, “We are graduates of the online University of Phoenix. That’s like the online equivalent of Harvard!” to highly unsuccessful effect.
Furthermore, “title banding” is generally much broader at Google. The guy who leads up all of Gmail product management is simply noted publicly as a “product manager,” with the same public title as a much more junior colleague responsible for a piece of Google+.
All this has the net result of equalizing everyone. It’s as if to say, “We don’t care if you were a general manager at your last company, or your last startup had gazillions of users. Here’s your Noogler hat, learn our system, and get to work like everyone else!”
There’s this concept of being “Googley” or “Googliness” that is mentioned in the movie a lot. I was actually surprised the movie referenced this at all, given how this concept has purposely been undefined for all new employees, so that they figure it out for themselves.
Towards the end of the movie [spoiler alert], the villain of the story loses the ultimate prize when he is told that he “does not exhibit the virtues of being Googley.” When he exclaims, “What does “Googley” mean anyway?” he is told that not knowing is exactly why he failed.
I will never forget when in 2005, about 3 months into my first stint at Google, a couple of colleagues started clapping mid-meeting out of the blue. I asked, “What did I say? Why are you clapping?” They answered, “Because you have just figured out what it means to be “Googley” and have become that.” It was like a little rite of passage they wait for every new colleague to pass. I mean, are they a little precious about it? Probably. But it was a nice moment from a couple of young people who were earnest about their mission.
There are actually many definitions to “Googley,” but as it applies to employee success, to be “Googley” is to:
- Create products with the greater good of the world in mind, pushing high value out to end users, and not be focused on profit or stock price.*
- Be nice. Be incredibly collaborative and helpful to others. It’s not about you.
- Don’t be hierarchical. Treat everyone like an equal, even the founders if they debate you on your product area.
- Be fast and responsive to both end users and your colleagues. It’s almost like you are always plugged into a giant neural-network that is Google. Colleagues from other international offices are constantly asking for data on your product or help for theirs and you are expected to be tending to those around the clock. It is also not unusual to be told you have a meeting with Larry or Sergey the morning of the meeting. Back at Microsoft we typically had at least two months to prep for any meeting with BillG.
- Think very very big. They don’t care about incremental growth goals. How does your new idea increase traffic by an order of magnitude? If it doesn’t multiply existing value by 10x, then the opportunity cost of a lesser idea is considered too great.
- And of course, “do no evil.”
*By the way, I can’t accentuate this point enough about Google’s willingness to not let profit or stock price drive product decisions (at least at the product area level). Twice I asked the smart finance folks assigned to my product area for a “P&L” so I could understand what our expenses were against revenue, and they had to custom create one for me for the very first time because they were not managing to one previously! This is a compliment to Google, and illustrates how they are not short-term focused.
3. A Disneyland of fun perks
Owen Wilson: “Picture the greatest amusement park you’ve ever been to as a kid. Now imagine nothing like it and a million times better.”
Yep, it’s that good. I’ve gone down the slides in a couple of the Mountain View buildings many times (a great way to momentarily diffuse tension during stressful work days). The work environment is every bit as good as what they depicted in the movie. Google’s facilities group does an amazing job with all their build-outs, with a deliberately zany orientation to send a clear message, “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.”
I actually went to “The Internship” with a few others who knew little about Google, and during scenes that looked perfectly authentic to me — such as Owen Wilson turning a corner to find a room filled with state-of-the-art “nap pods” that sedate the senses — I was repeatedly asked, “C’mon, is it really like that?” Yep. Absolutely. I even once tried swimming in the infinite lap pool right off the volleyball pit.
But here’s the interesting thing about the amazing work spaces, free food, free dry cleaning, bicycles, etc. After a very short while, those things don’t matter. Frankly I’m not sure it ever mattered to me. I can afford to pay for my own lunches, prefer to use my own local dry cleaner whom I trust, and was never a massage-chair type. And while I’m not sure my attitude is typical, I believe these work perks don’t impact the quality of one’s worklife at all. Sure it’s fun to have zany offices, but at the end of the day it’s still you, typing on a keyboard, in front of a monitor.
4. Boobs vs. jerks — earnestness about changing the world
To many who’ve not worked at Google, “The Internship” will feel like a giant commercial for Google. And frankly, it probably is. Google clearly supported the movie and opened up its Mountain View campus for the production crew. There was overt product placement in nearly every scene. And many of the details feel highly unrealistic. Hiring two old guys from the online University of Phoenix? Never going to happen. You can easily find an outdoor table at Charlie’s Cafe? Not a chance. There’s only ONE Asian character in the whole movie? Clearly they have not spent enough time in Mountain View!
But for those who have worked there, the movie will actually feel like a gross but fairly accurate reflection of the spirit of Google’s earnestness. Google is a company that sincerely believes it can make the world a better place.
I have a belief that the world can be divided into two camps: boobs, and jerks. You’re either a boob, or a jerk. There is no in between, and one is not better than the other. A jerk is a bit of a cynic, and believes you have to watch your back, and protect oneself from others who want to take you down, and being Machiavellian is expected in business. A boob is an optimist, who believes you can win people over with kindness (even jerks), assumes the best in people’s intentions, and things will always sort of work out.
I believe Google is an entire company of “boobs,” and this movie aptly captured this earnest spirit through the affable Owen Wilson character in particular. It’s the Owen Wilson character who first enjoys success as he fearlessly retools all that he’s learned and adapts to Google culture. It’s the Owen Wilson character who isn’t afraid to reach way out of his league to ask the attractive exec out on a date, as failing fast is far better than not trying. And it’s this same character who (spoiler alert!) flies across country to convince his old friend that giving up the fight too early on the assumption of having let his team down, will instead ensure their failure. This is classic “boob” behavior, and is very Google.
At its heart, this is a film about the importance of interpersonal connection in a world progressively endemic to technology’s de-personalization effects. This is something I think about a lot as a technology entrepreneur. Does anyone really need any of this sh*t? Is it helping to connect and better people’s lives or not? Much of this film is really about staking the claim that technology and personal connection aren’t mutually exclusive. Heck, they should work together like Kirk and Spock, peanut butter and chocolate, and … Vince Vaughn and his team of wonky interns.
And that is why I kind of liked this movie. There are in fact, just a few things a band of young techies can still learn from a couple of “old guys.” :)