Interview: Google Chicago Engineers

By Chris Karr in Miscellaneous on Oct 23, 2006 5:26PM

This month, the news that Google purchased YouTube for a cool 1.65 billion dollars was the fodder for much speculation about the company's plans for the new acquisition and what it means for users at large. Google's a big name here on the Internet, so it's no surprise that the YouTube deal was such a big deal.

A few weeks ago, several of our editors visited Google's Google Chicago offices here in the Windy City. We met with the entire Google Chicago engineering staff -- all three of them -- and we talked about what the company was up to in the Midwest. We were fortunate to speak with some of the people doing interesting work within Google. Rather than develop top-secret ad and search technology, the trio we spoke to are very publicly involved in software development. The group manages Google's "Summer of Code" project, where the search company awards a nice stipend to students over the summer to contribute to open source software development. Since we're fans of open source here at the Chicagoist offices, we thought that this was rather nifty. We were interested to hear about the engineers' projects, their thoughts on working for Google, and how they managed to land a great tech job without having to lug themselves out to the Bay Area.

Chicagoist: We had no idea that Google had a Chicago office. What does this part of the Google empire do out here in the Midwest?

Brian Fitzpatrick: You are in good company because most of the world and Google has no idea that there's a Chicago office. This office is mostly salespeople who sell Google ads to Fortune 1000 companies. The three of us are just an engineering enclave off in the corner.

Jon Trowbridge: We're the guys who didn't want to move to California, basically.

Ben Collins-Sussman: Because of the team we're on, they're tolerant of us working here. It's not a general thing that happens with Google. Usually when you get hired, you're expected to move to an engineering office. The big offices are in California or New York.

(More after the jump.)

C: What brought each of you to Google?

BF: I was working at CollabNet on Subversion with Ben. [Subversion is a popular piece of "infrastructure" for software developers. It allows developers to collaborate on development and keep a history of the changes made. -ed.] A friend at Google approached us and said, "Hey, why don't you come out here to Google?" And I said that there wasn't a chance in hell that I was moving out of Chicago, so forget about it. I'd have to find a new house, a new wife, and that's a lot of work. So he worked something out so Ben and I could work from Chicago. So after that, he said all we had to do was pass the interviews, which was formidable.

BCS: So Fitz and I were working at CollabNet. Fitz was there for two years?

BF: Two years.

BCS: And I was there for five years. CollabNet was the company that started the Subversion project. They hired engineers and said, "Build the successor to CVS." So a few of us started and Fitz came in the middle of the process, and we all left about at the same time.

JT: I'm the odd man out in this equation. Previous to this, I worked for a company called Ximian, which was a software company making desktop software for Linux. And then Ximian was acquired by Novell. So I was at Novell for a couple of years working on desktop search for Linux. These guys approached me and said that they had a good Google thing going on in Chicago.

C: What is open source, and why is Google supporting it?

BCS: I think of open source as software that's in the public domain. There may be a copyright assigned, but it's so liberal that effectively anyone can do what they want with [the software]. It's software that's essentially worked on by volunteers collaborating over the Internet. They do it because it's a hobby, they love it, they want recognition, or they want the world to be a better place. Some of the software is fantastic, as good as commercially-developed software. There are a lot of examples of that. A lot of it is better, and a lot is terrible and never sees that light of day. It's a product of the Internet and would be impossible to do without everyone in the world being connected.

C: What's Google's interest in funding it and promoting it?

JT: Google uses a huge amount of open source software internally on their own systems. Most people have heard of Linux by now, but most don't realize that they use Linux every day because all of Google runs on Linux. When you do a search on Google, that's hitting Linux. Because Google's a huge consumer of open source, they have a natural interest in it right there. They benefit from it tremendously and want to make sure that open source stays healthy and continues to improve. There's also a feeling of wanting to give back.

BF: Open source also creates a level playing field. On the level playing field, you're forced to compete and cooperate based on your merits as opposed to locking people in. There's a lot of things that open source does well for Google. And people use Google because it's the best search engine, and they have a choice in the matter.

C: How about Google's "secret sauce" - things like the PageRank algorithm? What principles does the company use when deciding to work on something openly or not?

BCS: You hit the nail on the head - secret sauce. There are certain things like the PageRank algorithm, which they'll never release. And there are some things like anti-spam and anti-fraud where there's a benefit to keeping it secret. It's more effective if spammers and people committing fraud can't see what we're doing. Things like that will always be secret. There's no rule of thumb, but only the most hardcore open source zealot would have a problem with that.

A lot of the stuff that we're working on could be released as open source software. That's what we're working on. Getting more and more of our code out so others can benefit from it.

BF: It tends to be more commodity stuff at this point. Freestanding stuff. It's easier to extricate that from our processes and dependencies. Our main goal is to put stuff out there that's useful. We don't want to dump a lot of code over the wall and claim that we've "open sourced" it and when you look at it, it's a pile of garbage.

BCS: There needs to be a community around it. It gets back to what makes an open source project successful - it's not just a pile of code sitting out in the public domain. It's the fact that there's a community of people developing it and supporting it to keep it alive.

JT: It's like a product in any sense - it has to solve a problem. It has to be useful for somebody. If a product - free or commercial - doesn't do that, it's not going to succeed. Given that it takes engineering time and effort to open source code, we focus on the code that's going to have the biggest benefit for the largest amount of people.

C: Why do you choose to stay in Chicago when most other programmers move to places like Silicon Valley or New York?

BCS: It's much more livable here. It really is.

BF: I came to Chicago in 1988. I fell in love with the city. There's so much to do. My wife and I purchased an old home in the city and have been working - will be working for the next nine or ten years - to restore it to its 1912 grandeur. You can't do that in the Bay Area. It's 1960's ranch and tract houses and costs twice as much.

BCS: It's infinite suburbs, essentially. And far too expensive for the average person to afford. I could sell my home right now and buy a shed in Silicon Valley. A small shed, and that quality of living change isn't worth it to me.

BF: One of the things that I don't think about is that it's fall now. I would gladly sit through six or seven months of Chicago winter to experience fall. Autumn in Chicago is the favorite time in my life. Public transportation, too. I can ride the train to work.

BCS: I have a kid and I'd much rather raise him in Chicago. San Francisco has more pets than kids. Which is astounding.