What Facebook, Google, and Microsoft Taught Me About Culture

May 10, 2010 · Posted in Management, Strategy · View Comments 

I’ve looked into they eye of the beast, and what I saw was glorious.  I get the opportunity every few years to go visit a technology company through work with one of our Standing Committees.  This year we took a trip out to Palo Alto, California to visit Facebook.  Facebook has been a hot topic in the legal profession for a while, mostly circling their privacy changes.  We didn’t get a chance to debate those issues on this trip, but we did get to discuss how brands are using Facebook and how lawyers and law firms can take advantage of the platform.

While I’m not going to get into all the details of this visit here (that will come out in other posts) I am going to quickly talk about work culture.  I’ve visited three major technology companies over the last few years: Microsoft, Google, and now Facebook.  Each experience was different and I think that has to do with when they were started, what their focus is on, and how they execute their product.

New School vs. Old School. I think there are clear differences between old school vs. new school companies.  Old school is hierarchical with office space, titles and corporate environment.  They have high-walled cubes and offices with doors.  Microsoft is old school.  When I visited Microsoft you didn’t feel the innovation happening.  Maybe that was because it was in a different building than the one I was in.  When I visited Google and Facebook the environment was much different.  They have open spaces, collaboration areas, appropriate levels of distractions (like FB has a Guitar Hero room and ping pong tables). You could feel the magic happening.  You could tell there were smart people in the room coding ideas, sharing thoughts, working towards common goals.  It was energizing to be around and just observe.  People were excited to be at work and working on their projects.  It could also have been the fact that people were in jeans, walking around with Macs, working on 40″ monitors, etc.

Location, Location, Location. Maybe it is just being in Silicon Valley that is the biggest difference.  Both Google and Facebook are miles away from each other.  In fact, Facebook is practically in the middle of a residential district just outside of Standford University.  However I’d be willing to bet that HP, which is around the corner and was in the building Facebook now occupies, is a little more old school.  Microsoft, on the other hand, has a campus that has a highway that runs right down the middle outside of Seattle.   Impressive, yes, but still corporate in nature for sure.   However, it may not be your location.  I’ve also visited Total Attorney’s offices in Chicago and their set up is very similar to Google and Facebook, so maybe the Valley isn’t as critical as one might think.

Focus. While Google and Facebook haven’t been around for a decade yet, I think that is actually one of their prime reasons they are as successful as they are.  They are focused.  Every employee who works there knows how their project fits into the grand scheme of their company.  These companies have a focus (beyond profits), and that is something their employees embrace and motivates them.  They want to be the best, breaking new ground in their industry, and setting trends, not fads. Google lets their employees work on pet projects for 20% of their time.  This is how products like GMail, Google Talk emerged.  Those have then taken Google into directions they initially didn’t assume they would get into — office tools.  Facebook has a focus on transforming itself from a social network to a profile management and communication tool.  Products like their lists which help you categorize your friends helps you manage who sees what and what you communicate to whom.  It has opened a whole new door to the Social Graph for them — and how we communicate and share information.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is very diverse in their product lines.  They have several divisions: Search, Gaming, Office, etc.  and from a conglomerate standpoint, the act and operate like a big corporation — each division responsible for their own bottom line.  While Google has several product lines as well, their delivery vehicle is the same — the Web.

Photos from Facebook HQ

Photos from Google Visit

So while one may wear a tie to work and the other scoots around on a skateboard, think about how your company works.  Is it effective in producing your products and services?  Does every employee know how their project fits within the overall strategy of the organization? What changes could you make that would allow for better work product, focus, and commitment from your employees?   Maybe business casual is OK everyday.   It may depend on the profession you are in.  It may depend on experience and longevity of your management team.   My biggest take away from these visits is that your work environment and culture is very critical to the success of your company.

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