Meet Google's culture czar

Search giant's HR director talks about what it means to be "Google-y" and the perks designed to keep Googlers happy.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
7 min read
There's no question that Google is a trendsetter. The company made Web search sexy, and lucrative. It established the foundation for an ecosystem that allows any old little Web site to make money off advertising.

With its lava lamps, simple doodle design, pampered employees and millionaires in its rank and file, it has become a cultural icon and an emblem of the gold-rush promise of the Web.

Google was ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place in the U.S. to work, and it has reached another zenith by becoming the most popular Web site. It's even become a verb in the dictionary.

And it may even have started a new trend by creating a job that carries the title "chief culture officer." Stacy Savides Sullivan is that person at Google. (Editors' note: Google doesn't seem to be unique with that title, rare though it is. A quick Google search--what else?--turns up a handful of institutions that have, or once had, a chief culture officer, including IT services company Kanbay International and AegisLiving, an assisted-living program in Redmond, Wash.)

Sullivan's mission is simple: retain the company's unique culture and keep the Googlers happy. In an exclusive interview, she tells CNET News.com how she does just that.

Q: How long have you had that title?
Sullivan: I've had that role since last summer, and in addition to being chief culture officer I'm also director of human resources.

What do you do as chief culture officer?
Sullivan: I work with employees around the world to figure out ways to maintain and enhance and develop our culture and how to keep the core values we had in the very beginning--a flat organization, a lack of hierarchy, a collaborative environment--to keep these as we continue to grow and spread them and filtrate them into our new offices around the world.

We want all of our employees to play a part in being involved in keeping our culture the way it is today but also growing and developing it. So some of it is coming up with different programs or processes, and just being there to talk with people when they have issues, setting up Web sites where people can report bugs in their culture and ideas on how to improve it, and those types of thing.

It's hard to imagine how you can keep a flat organization with 12,000 employees. But what are the characteristics of the Google culture in general?
Sullivan: I would characterize the culture as one that is team-oriented, very collaborative and encouraging people to think nontraditionally, different from where they ever worked before--working with integrity and for the good of the company and for the good of the world, which is tied to our overall mission of making information accessible to the world.

When I'm doing the interview myself I always start by telling them that we will try to assess how successful they are going to be at the company and how much they are going to enjoy it and how much they are going to thrive.

Who came up with the idea of having a Google chief culture officer?
Sullivan: It was something that (Google co-founders) Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with last summer.

Do you know of any other chief culture officers?
Sullivan: No.

What are some of the challenges you are finding in your role, maybe related to the hyper growth of the company?
Sullivan: I think one of the hardest things to do is ensure that we are hiring people who possess the kind of traits that we're looking for in a Google-y employee. Google-y is defined as somebody who is fairly flexible, adaptable and not focusing on titles and hierarchy, and just gets stuff done.

So, we put a lot of focus in our hiring processes when we are interviewing to try to determine first and foremost does the person have the skill set and experience potential to do the job from a background standpoint in addition to academics and credentials. But also are they going to be good culture or team fits.

Can you give me an example of a question that might be posed to someone during an interview to determine whether they are Google-y enough?
Sullivan: You know, there are no standard questions that I know of. But we might ask a question. This is just hypothetical, but it could be "How many bread boxes could you fit in an airplane?" or something like that. That's certainly not going to show if somebody is adaptable or flexible, but it's certainly going to show someone's thought process and reasoning, the way they can rationalize a true answer to something. Obviously, there's no right answer, but we're just trying to figure out how people think and the kind of the steps that they take.

When I'm doing the interview myself I always start by telling them that we will try to assess how successful they are going to be at the company and how much they are going to enjoy it and how much they are going to thrive. We know that they're qualified, that they're likely capable to do the job because they've gone through screening processes, but there are other questions we're trying to ask people around preferences, past experiences and areas they've really excelled in.

I've heard about a happiness survey at Google. Can you tell me more about that?
Sullivan: The last few years we've been doing a happiness survey as part of our annual global company survey. Four or five years ago, Larry and Sergey wanted to find out how happy people are and what it's going to take to keep them working at the company.

We're trying to figure out how committed people are to the company, what's causing that commitment level to be high or low, what makes a difference to them and their management and direct managers. The results ended up being centered a lot on career development and growth. So career development is more of a focus than giving more stock options or increasing salaries.

What do you think is the most appreciated perk? What do you get the most positive feedback on?
Sullivan: It would have to be the food. We have some type of lunch in every field office right now, every Google office. In places where we have room to have a cafeteria, we have our own and we hire our own chefs. But in many of those places we just bring in catered food. Here in Mountain View, we started having the cafes back in '99. And the reason why it is such an incredible perk is it keeps people on campus, it's all organic, it's healthy. At the headquarters we have breakfast, lunch and dinner.

How are you dealing with the possibility that there will be an exodus of people leaving when their options fully vest after four years?
Sullivan: Well, we have people now that are hitting their fourth year, actually, last year and this year. So, we are tracking it and watching for when different people are coming up each month and we're starting to touch base with them, asking: how are you doing? Are you working on something interesting? Do you like what you're doing? If not, what is one or two things that would make your life better here or increase your commitment level?

So we're trying the personal touch approach right now because for many of these people providing more money or stock isn't really going to be the key driver to keeping them at Google. So to answer your question, yes, we're definitely concerned about it and we will continue to be concerned about it, probably forever.

So how is the transferable stock-option program going (which lets employees sell their vested options in an online auction and make money now rather than risk making less if the stock price falls)?
Sullivan: It's too early to comment. People are excited that we're trying it, though, and the idea has been well-received.

What's the most fun or crazy part of your job?
Sullivan: I think planning the ski trips over the years has been crazy. We've done Google-wide ski trips since 1999. Different groups go up and we spend the night and there's a lot of team-building and bonding. Those have actually been the most memorable and actually the most fun (events).

What have we not covered that you think is germane to what you do at Google?
Sullivan: I think for any company that is growing as quickly as we are the work-life balance component is actually quite high. We don't typically have early-morning meetings or late-night meetings. And people are welcome to do things via conference call at home and we pay for people to connect from home. We have a good paternity-leave policy where the dads can take off a couple of weeks when their spouse has had a child and we pay for peoples' meals when they have new babies for the first few weeks.

We've all heard about the ability for people to bring their dogs to work. And you have such a litany of perks and benefits and things that would encourage people to stay or even join. And we have a benefit where we reimburse people up to $5,000 if they buy a hybrid or electric car. And we have shuttle service (for commuters) to and from San Francisco, the East Bay, Santa Cruz.