Google is No. 1: Search and enjoy

The people are brilliant. The perks are epic. But can Google's founders build a culture that doesn't depend on the stock price?

By Adam Lashinsky, Fortune senior writer

Mountain View, Calif. (Fortune) -- At Google it always comes back to the food. For human resources director Stacy Sullivan, it's the Irish oatmeal with fresh berries at the Plymouth Rock Café, located in building 1550 near the "people operations" group. "I sometimes dream about it," she says. "Seriously." As a seven-year veteran of the company, engineer Jen Fitzpatrick has developed a more sophisticated palate, preferring the raw bar at the Basque-themed Café Pintxo, a tapas joint in building 47. Her mother is thrilled she's eating well at work: "She came in for lunch once and thanked the chef," says Fitzpatrick. Joshua Bloch, an expert on the Java software language, swears by the roast quail at haute eatery Café Seven, professing it to be the best meal on campus. "It's uniformly excellent," he raves.

I found that to be a gross distortion of the facts. The roasted black bass with parsley pesto and bread crumbs had a delicate flavor, superior mouth feel, and a light yet satisfying finish that seemed to me unmatched among the 11 free gourmet cafeterias Google runs at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

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Jump around: Life for Google employees at the Mountain View campus is like college - with better cars.
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Google employees shot pool in one of several employee lounges.
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Googlers travel around their sprawling campus on motorized scooters that the company provides.

Even the vast buffet that is the tech company's campus, however, cannot obscure the obstacles the company is facing. Says co-founder Sergey Brin: "I mean, the cafés have always been pretty healthy, but the snacks are not, and the efforts to fix that have been remarkably challenging." Though company lore has it that Brin and co-founder Larry Page believe no worker should be more than 150 feet from a food source, clearly not all food is equal. "A lot of people like their M&Ms. But the easy access is actually what's bad for them," he says.

Of course, when it comes to America's new Best Company to Work For, the food is, well, just the appetizer. At Google you can do your laundry; drop off your dry cleaning; get an oil change, then have your car washed; work out in the gym; attend subsidized exercise classes; get a massage; study Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, and French; and ask a personal concierge to arrange dinner reservations. Naturally you can get haircuts onsite. Want to buy a hybrid car? The company will give you $5,000 toward that environmentally friendly end. Care to refer a friend to work at Google? Google would like that too, and it'll give you a $2,000 reward. Just have a new baby? Congratulations! Your employer will reimburse you for up to $500 in takeout food to ease your first four weeks at home. Looking to make new friends? Attend a weekly TGIF party, where there's usually a band playing. Five onsite doctors are available to give you a checkup, free of charge.

Many Silicon Valley companies provide shuttle-bus transportation from area train stations. Google operates free, Wi-Fi-enabled coaches from five Bay Area locations. Lactation rooms are common in corporate America; Google provides breast pumps so that nursing moms don't have to haul the equipment to work. Work is such a cozy place that it's sometimes difficult for Google employees to leave the office, which is precisely how the company justifies the expenses, none of which it breaks out of its administrative costs.

Even people who don't work here like to loiter: The company has become a stop on the world lecture circuit, attracting the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. "You've got to ask yourself why these people are coming here," says 24-year-old engineer Neha Narula. "I think they come here to be energized by the people at Google."

The people at Google, it should be stated, almost universally see themselves as the most interesting people on the planet. Googlers tend to be happy-go-lucky on the outside, but Type A at their core. Ask one what he or she is doing, and it's never "selling ads" or "writing code." No, they're on a quest "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." That's from the actual mission statement, by the way, which employees can and do cite with cloying frequency.

It's easy for Google's people to be energized, though, when their company is so stinking rich that it continues to ooze cash even while lavishing benefits on its staff. Just eight years out of the garage, Google will surpass $10 billion in sales for 2006. Its operating margins are a stunning 35%, and it ended the third quarter with $10.4 billion in cash. Its stock has soared from $85 a little over two years ago to a recent $483. All of which raises the question: Is Google's culture the cause of its success or merely a result? Put another way: Is Google a great place to work because its stock is at $483, or is its stock at $483 because it's a great place to work?

I'm sitting on a heated toilet in my pajamas. I'm in engineering building 40 at Google on "pajama day," and directly in front of me, attached to the inside door of the toilet stall, is a one-page flier, printed on plain white paper, titled "Testing on the Toilet, Episode 21." The document, which is designed to prod the brains of engineers who test software code, explores such subjects as "lode coverage" and reminds engineers that even biobreaks need not interrupt their work.

Presuming that ones's stay here isn't sufficient to process that lesson, the sheet provides a link to two internal Web sites, http://tott/ (for Testing on the Toilet) and http://botw/ (Bug of the Week). Not being a software engineer, I understand little of what I'm reading. Yet it reminds me of the first two sentences of the now famous founders' letter Page and Brin distributed to prospective Google shareholders before the company's 2004 IPO: "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one." Mission accomplished.

In its earliest days Google was more or less a postdoctoral extension of the Stanford computer science department, from which Page, Brin, and a goodly number of their pals sprang. To this day, they jam employees into shared offices and cubicles and would do so even if Google had more space - because Page, a student of "office flow," likes the idea of recreating that university environment in which he and Brin wrote the first Google search engine.

The two hired a chef early on because it beat heating up ramen noodles.

It wasn't hard for Google's founders to break the rules of a traditional company - they had never worked fulltime at one. Stacy Sullivan, Google's first human resources executive, recalls that the founders came to her on her second day on the job, in late 1999, and suggested that the company convert a conference room into a childcare center. Google employees had a sum total of two children at the time. Though Sullivan eventually convinced them that, because of zoning issues, the conference room was not a proper child-care facility, "they looked at me and said, 'Why not?' "

Google's employment roster is now pushing 10,000, and the company has burgeoning offices in Bangalore, New York City, and Irvine, Calif., among many other cities, but the campus still feels like the brainiest university imaginable - one, however, in which every kid can afford a sports car (though geeky hybrids are cooler here than hot rods). Another similarity to college: New Googlers (Nooglers, in Google parlance) tend to put on the "Google 15" when confronted with all the free food. Here the shabbily dressed engineers always will be the big men (and, yes, women) on campus. Other cliques include the invariably fashion-forward young women and men who work in online-advertising sales; the IBM-ThinkPad toting Stanford MBAs; and the quants - math nerds who toil at making the company's keyword advertising system ever more eerily efficient. Hours are long - typical for Silicon Valley - and it's not unusual for engineers to be seen in the hallways at 3 a.m. debating some esoteric algorithmic conundrum. "Hardcore geeks are here because there's no place they'd rather be," says Dennis Hwang, a Google Webmaster who doubles as the artist who draws all the fancifully dressed-up versions of Google's home-page logo, called Doodles.