Google never ceases to astound me. From the start, it’s been a company far less focused on making money than on solving interesting problems and creating an almost campus like atmosphere that attracts uber-geeks like candles to a flame. True, the founders would never have gotten VC backing (it was close as it was) if it weren’t doing such a stunningly good job of making money as a by-product of all of this. Still, it amazes me they were able to get any investors to accept the 80% rule. The idea of telling all of the engineers to take a day off from company work each week to work on whatever pet projects they are interested in was so weird when Google started doing it that it was laughable. People aren’t laughing anymore. [1]

One of those engineers, Krishna Bharat, made Google news as a pet project. Gmail very likely had similar origins. Later, another guy made the Google Deskbar as a pet project. Now it’s a veritable flood of tools, gizmos and novelties coming from letting their engineers pursue their own interests- Orkut(named after the developer, Orkut Buyukkokten), Google Earth, Froogle, translation tools, Google Reader, Google Maps, Google Desktop, Google Talk, and as of today Gmail includes chat!

It’s just staggering, really. The idea of any one company, especially one with relatively few employees, creating such a cornucopia of free goodies would have been unfathomable to me just 5 years ago. That they can do this, and remain as committed to doing business ethically as any company I’ve ever seen is nothing short of epic. [2]
Gmail picture

[1] Way back in the day 3M did have a more conservative, but similar version of the Google 20% time. It yielded Post-it Notes.

[2] I’ll address this in my next post.