With its seemingly meteoric rise to the top, Google has often been named as one of the last dot-com success stories. But if the company's Christmas media party was any indication, its corporate vibe is less reminiscent of the smooth movers and shakers of the internet boom than of a cafeteria full of mathletes.
Party time at strangely normal company
Held on the company's California campus, the event was an understated affair. It was open to Bay Area media and attended by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and co-founders and co-presidents Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Journalists were escorted by members of a PR team to a dimly lit room where a group of musicians played unobtrusive jazz at a low volume. There was an open bar and a spread of hors d'oeuvre, and smiling waiters wandered in and out of the crowd carrying trays of appetisers.
The executives mingled with journalists, who circled them like vultures waiting for their chance to fire questions (though the event itself was technically 'off the record'). All three were cordial, answering questions politely and as candidly as they could under the circumstances, and making sure, like well-mannered hosts, that they divided their time between everyone who attended.
Of the three top executives of Google, Schmidt was the most recognisable, known throughout the industry for his stint as Novell's CEO from 1997 to 2001. Wearing a tracksuit and trainers, Brin wandered through the crowd almost anonymously, until someone realised he wasn't one of the caterers. Page's entrance was nearly as low-key, but he was identified and surrounded by press more quickly than Brin, probably because he was the most stylishly dressed geek in the room and therefore had to be someone special.
But despite the presence of such star power – or perhaps because of it – nothing out of the ordinary happened. In other words, it was rather typical for a press event hosted by a Silicon Valley technology company, even tamer than it might've been if the party was held at a venue in downtown San Francisco, as such events often are.
But Google is not a typical technology vendor. It's the "fastest-growing and most lucrative company on earth", according to The Street.com. It's the undisputed leader of Web 2.0, boasting a stock price of $400 (about £230) and counting. It's the only technology company whose name is used as a verb.
For those reasons, among other things, this journalist expected a wee bit more 'tis-the-season behavior from the Googlies – perhaps a tipsy Page admitting an affinity for the Victoria's Secret catalogue. And I was hoping for something, anything, that might help me glean insight about what makes the hippest, hottest technology company on the planet tick.
Unfortunately, the Google party was languid. No one crashed it. No one got too drunk and challenged Sergey to an indexing match. No one approached Schmidt to ask him how in the world he landed at such a wildly successful company after his stint at Novell. No one got hurt or offended, nothing got broken and everyone went home with the people they came with.
Since Google came of age after the dot-com bust, it's not surprising the company is actually interested in things such as world-altering technology and a business plan, a far cry from the overconfident posturing that characterised, and later led the demise, of many of the dot coms. Still, it was nice to see some remnants of dot-com excess on display. A Google ice sculpture, decorated with prawns and crab legs, dripped along the wall, and drinks were festooned with logo-emblazoned plastic 'ice' cubes that lit up as they tinkled against cocktail glasses. The corridor leading to the party was lined with plastic bins of free snacks for employees, and next to them a group of motorised scooters – including Segway Human Transporters – were clumped together, ready to help tired Googlies travel.
As I left the Googleplex that evening, my bag stuffed with pilfered snacks, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed. The party was far from the extravaganza one might expect from such an esteemed company.
More disappointing, however, was that I left Mountain View that night with the Google nut uncracked, no closer to learning the secret of the company's mystique than when I arrived. Instead, I would have to be satisfied with a pocketful of free Gummy Bears, and the knowledge that Google will surely be around to baffle me for a good long while. There is always next year.