The man who lived at Google HQ

Published on by & in Factoid, Interviews.

The man who lived at Google

When most people claim they live at work they mean it metaphorically. It’s the kind of thing you find yourself saying on a Friday afternoon, weeping, with your head in your hands.

But for Ben Discoe, it was the literal truth. He lived in a van in his employer’s car park, showered at the on-site gym and ate at the work canteens for over a year.

It helped that his employer was Google – and that Google HQ in Mountain View, California is one of the most progressive and all-round awesome places that you can work at in the world.

We know this because Ben wasn’t the only employee to live at the Googleplex.

13 Months on campus

Ben Discoe moved into Google HQ for pragmatic reasons. “I had a house payment (on my farm in Hawaii) and alimony to pay,” said Ben in a thread on Quora, “No money left for South Bay rental prices.”

Instead, Software Engineer Ben dug into his pockets and bought a van. “I got a 1990 GMC Vandura custom conversion van for $1800 (blue velour, wood paneling, previously tricked out by a burner) and that was my entire rent for 13 months.”

Ben kitted out his digs with an Ikea mattress, put up some curtains and, abracadabra, he had his own mobile bedsit. A very comfortable one at that.

“The van was actually really cozy,” Ben told us by email, “In fact, nicer than a lot of motel rooms I’ve stayed in.”

You’d think that parking a van up at Google HQ and leaving it there would attract some unwanted attention from local law enforcement, but security staff pretty much left the van-dwelling Googler to get on with his unusual life.

“Google Security came by very early on,” said Ben, ”but once they determined that the guy in the mysteriously parked white van was just an eccentric Googler and not the Unabomber, they never came by again.”

Home sweet home. Ben Discoe's camper van.  © Ben Discoe, used with permission.

Home sweet home. Ben Discoe’s camper van. © Ben Discoe, used with permission.

Parties in the Car Park

Ben’s 13 month stint in his converted camper van is the longest that any named Google employee has lived at work – but he’s far from the only employee to go down that route.

Matthew J Weaver almost beat Ben’s record, with 54 weeks of Google living. His reason for taking the challenge was a bit more frivolous.

“I did it for a dare,” the former Site Ecologist admitted on Quora, “It was excellent for my career.”

In contrast to Ben, Matthew lived at Google in lavish style, parking up a full-sized recreational vehicle.

“We would hold regular parties at the RV on Thursdays when the weather didn’t suck,” says Weaver, “I had an astroturf lawn and white picket fence for a while.”

Former visual designer Brandon Oxendine used the same method as Ben to camp on campus for three months. Station wagon? Check. Ikea mattress? Check. The only difference is that Brandon went for black curtains instead of Ben’s more chintzy choice

“I’ve always enjoyed having very little possessions and have always had dreams of living out of a car ever since my first car,” wrote Brandon, “I would do it again.”

And though it can’t be verified, there’s even an anonymous Googler who claims that he’s lived on site since December 2011 – and is still living there.

Feeling Lucky?

In common with other big money businesses, Google sees the advantage of keeping it’s employees on site as much as possible. That means perks aplenty.

“I was in a unique situation working at Google where I had showers and food that were very convenient to me,” says Brandon Oxendine. Some of the facilities are the kind of thing you might find at any large company HQ. Google Software Engineer Anshul Jain says there are about 25 different restaurants and cafes – all of them free.

“The cuisines are from all around the world,” says Anshul, “Indian, US, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, mediterranean, continental and so on.”

“Breakfast stopped at 9:30, and dinner started at 6:30,” says Jeff Nelson, a former Google Engineer who invented the Google Chromebook computer, “It was probably a good strategy to encourage employees to stay at work for more than 9 hours a day.”

Every building on the complex has its own mini-kitchen too, so that staff can cook for themselves. And, scattered around are tubs full of candy and nuts for employees to dip into on the go. It’s a bit like when someone brings a box of Quality Street into the office at Christmas, only every day and everywhere.

There’s also a gym (in building number 40), several laundry rooms and two swimming pools. While some of these facilities are the kind of thing you might find in any Silicon Valley start-up or Canary Wharf bank, others are more impressive.

There’s an open-air basketball court and a putting green for those who want to keep fit without pumping iron. Large areas of the site are made up of parkland and landscaped gardens, where staff are free to stroll with the freedom to think and create.  It’s not just the main Google HQ that has these special features either. Amsterdam’s Google office has indoor cycle lanes, Zurich’s HQ has a giant slide between floors and in Boulder, Colorado there’s a climbing wall. It’s like working for Willy Wonka.

The Energypod by Metronap - one of many sleep pods you'll find dotted around Google HQ.

The Energypod by Metronap – one of many sleep pods you’ll find dotted around Google HQ.

En-suite, on site

Short of supplying pyjamas, slippers and room service, the Googleplex offers its workers everything they need to survive and thrive without ever leaving the campus. There’s evidence that some employees occasionally crash at work overnight, even if they don’t go to the same lengths as Ben Discoe and Brandon Oxendine.

“The moon room is very comfortable,” says Google employee Sherwin Yu, “It’s entirely dark and there are huge bean couches. I’ve accidentally stumbled on people sleeping there at night, and I’ve spent several nights there myself.”

“There’s nothing in the culture or corporate position that openly condones it,” said Ben Discoe when we asked if Google encouraged its employees to camp there, “On the other hand, it’s all upside for a tech company to have its engineers close-by, so they’d have no reason to oppose it either.”

In fact, living on campus is such a natural part of the culture that tips were openly shared on the local network.

“There is a page on the (old, internal) Google wiki called “Living at Google” which unfortunately can’t be shared, but it’s really funny,” Ben revealed at Quora, “I added useful tips to it.”

“The Wiki talked mostly about sneaking naps in the buildings, showering in the gym etc,” Ben told us when we followed up, “It was lacking much information about sleeping in a vehicle, so that’s mostly what I recall adding, I gave details on my van and how it was customised.”

Now Ben has gone on to work elsewhere and a new generation of youthful Googlers will be taking up internships and entry level positions. Some of them may well be accessing that old Wiki, gathering tips and starting to scour the Craigs List ads for reasonably priced, used camper vans.

Envious? Us? You bet we are.

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