When taking a tour of Google’s Zurich office, one may be forgiven for mistaking it for a children’s visitor attraction. A far cry from the average monochrome office, the company’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) engineering hub is an explosion of colour and contemporary interior design ideas conceived to create an atmosphere of collaboration and innovation.
The cutting-edge office design is a trademark of Google’s 10 engineering centres throughout EMEA as well as its Californian headquarters in Mountain View and its other global sites. The firm’s Zurich office was founded in 2004 with just two employees and it has grown to become the biggest engineering hub outside the US. No one expected the site to become such a critical part of Google’s global R&D network, says EMEA head of engineering communications Matthias Graf, who describes the centre’s growth as truly organic. “We didn’t plan from the very beginning to make this a very big office but it is now at the core of many things we do,” he says. London is also an important centre, although more of an operational and business hub where the EMEA president is based alongside mobile engineering operations
Within five years, the Zurich centre’s staff has grown to about 500 people, of which 300 are engineers and only about one-third are local people. “There is a good talent pool but it is too small and that’s why we have more than 50 nationalities here,” says Mr Graf. Less than one-third of engineers are Swiss nationals because Switzerland’s 7.5 million population simply cannot fulfil the talent requirement. Zurich also has a significant number of multinational companies all competing for a small talent pool. But Zurich’s quality of life, good infrastructure and natural beauty as well as its international flavour has proved an effective draw for foreign employees. “The office has developed over time because people have chosen to come to Zurich – if you need to attract people from foreign countries, you need to be in a location where people want to come and live,” says Mr Graf.
Zurich has a world-class technical university, a criteria common to all of Google’s global locations. Switzerland does not produce the volume of graduates that Google needs to staff its centre but the university is still crucial, according to Mr Graf. “It is also about collaboration and driving technology because much of what we do is cutting edge and that has a lot to do with the university because many of our technical leaders have been teachers at universities and we retain that active collaboration,” he says.
Switzerland has a number of bilateral agreements and is part of the Schengen agreement even though it is not an EU member state. “We just had a national referendum and voted to allow Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Switzerland and it is important that people do not have a hard time getting work permits,” says Mr Graf, who characterises the company’s dealings with Zurich’s local government authorities as harmonious. They were particularly helpful when Google was launching operations in Zurich.
Mr Graf describes finding the premises for the Zurich Google office as a “lucky punch” – the building, located in the Enge area of Zurich within easy walking distance of the city centre, is a 12,000-square metre, seven-storey office block with capacity for up to 800 staff. Originally the site of an old brewery, the centre is located on a hybrid business park which has a mix of residential and business buildings. “Many employees live nearby and can walk to work or come by bicycle,” says Mr Graf.
Within the building, there are communal areas on each floor to encourage ‘Zooglers’ (Google employees in Zurich) to enhance communication between the different working groups and teams. The design includes quirky quick connections between floors such as fire poles and a slide from the first floor to the cafeteria, which serves free breakfast, lunch and dinner using fresh, high-quality ingredients and local produce.
The atmosphere of fun belies the quality and quantity of work taking place at the engineering site. The company generates revenue through advertisements that are targeted by keywords, a business model which represents about 90% of the firm’s profits. Although Zurich’s engineers are working to constantly improve the search experience that Google offers to internet users based on its page ranking system, the centre aims to develop new products and services around Google Earth and Google Maps, which, although less profitable, continue to drive internet search innovation.
The quality of its search results is what has helped Google become the world’s number one search engine. “This has helped us for developing economies as well,” says Mr Graf. For example, in Arabic-speaking countries, it is important to consider a specific set of factors such as the importance of bi-directional reading and how you translate that. “You need an algorithm to do that and preferably Arabic speaking engineers,” he says. That is what Google calls its localised approach and is the importance of having offices all over the globe because different products emerge out of different regions. “It is very much about the cultural background people bring with them when they develop products,” says Mr Graf.
In Zurich, for example, a product called ‘transit’ has been co-developed to complement Google Maps by embedding public transport information such as timetables within them. The product has already been launched in many regions where Google has worked with local transport providers. “Obviously this kind of product will emerge from a region where public transport is important – and this is key,” explains Mr Graf.
All Google engineers can contribute to increasing the company’s global footprint by developing global products as well as focusing on local products. The work that is being undertaken on search quality in Zurich is benefiting the whole Google global user community as well as contributing to the next generation of Google products and services.
Mountain View, California, US
Search result languages
35Search result web pages
8 billionTurnover (2007)