Apps for Good Fellow Alex Gower recently went on a family holiday to California. Before he left he got in touch with us to ask if we could put him in touch with some of the big companies in Silicon Valley. Here’s Alex blog about his tours with three of the technology giants: Facebook, Google and Twitter.
It was a sunny day in California, and thanks to the Apps for Good Fellows programme, my family and I were enjoying a tour of Facebook’s campus.
The tour began with registration on an iPad app that searches Facebook’s internal intranet for the employee that you are meeting, brings up their profile picture and notifies them that you have arrived. We then met our host, David Weekly, who leads a team that develop the internal technology and gadgets that make Facebook more efficient. This meant that he could expertly show us all of the exciting gadgets that Facebook have to offer.
The first example we saw was an interactive touch screen map that gave directions to any place on campus, and showed the availability of every meeting room. We were then offered free drinks and snacks from fridges and micro-kitchens located in every building. Here we saw a vending machine that dispensed technological equipment, such as keyboards and USB drives, so that the employees did not have to wait for tech support before they could continue working.
The campus was arranged similarly to a small town. It had a main road, Hacker Way, running through it. Like a real road, people are expected to walk on the right side of the road, and it is common for employees to have walking meetings along it. While walking along this road, besides the office buildings, there was a multitude of shops and places to eat. Facebook employees have access to complimentary food, from frozen yogurt to noodles.
We learned that the town-like arrangement of the campus is partially designed to encourage innovation within the employees, by promoting spontaneous meetings and sharing ideas between them. Some of these ideas could be developed in the monthly “hackathons” that are run to promote innovation. We were also told that Facebook has a policy that encourages making things before evaluating them. In other companies, many ideas that have potential are lost when they are criticised within discussion and evaluation.
I also got the opportunity to discuss the app I had created through the Apps for Good programme with some of the team at Facebook. They also gave me some really helpful tips in how to enter the technology industry.
The Facebook tour concluded with a trip to the merchandise store where they sold everything from t-shirts to stuffed fox toys, all printed with the Facebook logo.
After leaving Facebook we set off to the heart of San Francisco to the Twitter offices. They are found in a large tower that has outstanding views of the city. When we entered the building, we used a similar iPad app as Facebook to sign in. However, it was clear that the design of the building was not so similar. The style was inspired by their bird logo, introducing bird themes whilst also trying to bring the outside, inside. There was wood everywhere; tree trunk coffee tables, branches hanging from the roof, and plants scattered around the building. There were also a number of large glass windows, creating a pleasant natural lighting whilst enhancing the outdoor theme.
After we met our guide, Bear Douglas, she showed us a few communal rooms in the office building. To keep with the style of the building, all of the rooms had bird themed names such as “The Aviary”. We went inside the cafeteria first. It was a large and uncluttered with signs such as “@birdfeeder” above the food. In addition the cafeteria, there were also micro-kitchens similar to Facebook. They were full of snacks, arranged so that the unhealthy foods are more difficult to reach. Their study showed that this makes people tend to eat healthier foods throughout the day.
We then went onto the roof garden which had views of the nearby towers above it and featured games that the employees could play in their free time.
As we were walking through the corridors, we also saw canvas printings of the most retweeted posts on Twitter. One was of Obama after he won his second term, the other was more recent, a selfie containing a collection of celebrities from the Oscars taken by Ellen DeGeneres.
The room we finished the tour in was a popular place where people could work, it had glass windows on all sides, exposing great views of the city landscape. We learnt that many of the offices have a similar ambience to these communal rooms. I learnt a lot about the computing industry from Bear as well, such as the best ways to become employed by a company like Twitter.
The next day we drove to Mountain View to see Google. Google, like Facebook, had a large campus. Although this campus was arranged on a real road, unlike Hacker Way. As we approached the campus we saw many Google employees using the Google bikes. We learnt they were allowed to use when they found them, and allowed to leave them anywhere on campus for someone else to pick up.
They also have “conference bikes”, where people can book a circular bike that sits everyone in the conference, and they talk and cycle while one person steers the bike around campus. Quirks like this are aimed to spark new and innovative ideas. Whilst we were signing in with another iPad app, we saw many employees walking their dogs into work. We found out that Google does not just accept, but encourages employees to bring their furry friends into work.
As we were walking around the exterior, we could see a variety of sports facilities such as a beach volleyball pitch that the employees could use in their free time. There were also statues of android names e.g. a gingerbread man to resemble Android Gingerbread. We also saw a replica of a dinosaur, covered in fake flamingos, yet another quirk of the Google offices. The extent of the exterior is much larger than the other companies’, with gardens and ponds outside almost every building, each with interesting pieces of furniture such as a roundabout of hammocks seats.
We then went inside the main building with a large Google logo painted onto the completely glass construction. The windows provide a bright environment and compliment the vibrant coloured interior. As we walked in, on our right we could see a Google Street View car with a 360° camera on top. To our left there was a video stream of the rotating Earth with a skylight, coloured to distinguish the continents, coming from a place where a person is currently making a Google search. Above us there was a replica of the Virgin spaceship, SpaceshipOne (the winner of the X Prize), hanging from the roof.
Finally we had lunch in one of Google’s many free restaurants. At one of the vibrantly coloured tables, I spoke with our guide, Karen Parker, and a computer engineer, Sean Lip, about what life at Google was like. They have weekly conferences on a stage where they discuss the running of the company. Also, like all three companies, they mentioned how the company does fuss over what time or what days the employees come in to the office, as long as they complete their work. This is a perk I found of working in the computing industry, as almost all of the work is done online. The tour concluded with a trip on a Google shuttle bus that constantly collects and deposits employees around campus, back to the car park.
The three tours of Facebook, Twitter and Google were incredible, and have helped me greatly in deciding what job I would like to have, and gaining ideas of how I can get them. I would like to thank Apps for Good for giving me this opportunity, and all three companies for being such fascinating hosts (including Mark Friedman at Google for his help to set this up). I hope that other people like me can have the same experience in the future.
After he got home, we contacted Alex to ask him some questions about his exciting trip across the pond.
What was the coolest thing you saw at each of the companies?
Throughout the three tours, I saw a variety of interesting devices and places.
The coolest thing I saw at Facebook was the vending machine that dispensed technological devices. At Twitter, I liked the roof garden a lot because it had such good views of the city and had towers looming above it from all sides. The coolest things I saw at Google were the conference bikes that sat up to 7 people who each pedalled whilst having a conversation.
What is the main thing you learned thanks to these visits?
The main thing I have learnt from these visits is how much programmers have to interact with others to work on a single project. I knew that everyone would need to understand what each other was doing, but did not know what degree of communication this would entail.
What were David’s, Bear’s and Karen’s recommendations for entering the computing industry or landing your dream job?
David, Bear, and Karen’s recommendations for getting a job in the computing industry were to make technical projects in my spare time, and by doing this, learn techniques that could become useful in a real-life scenario. Also, by taking part in open-source projects, I could learn skills such as coding in a team and reading other people’s code, that could also help in a computing job.
What job would you like to have in the future and why?
In the future, I would like to become a computer engineer as I like to understand how things work and this job would be at the heart of making a project. I also enjoy the satisfaction of coding something from scratch, and this job would give me the chance to do this.
About the author: Alex is 14 years old and an Apps for Good Fellow. He graduated from the Apps for Good course in 2014 and won the Coding Ninja Prize at the 2014 Apps for Good Awards with his app “School Advisor”, an app that allows students to create their own digital flash cards to use for revision.