As Google tells it, the company wanted to hire two engineers who lived in Seattle. The engineers didn't want to move to Mountain View, California, Google's headquarters, so the company opened up a Seattle office.
That was four years ago, and now Google employs around 400 people in the Seattle area. Google has two offices, one in the suburb of Kirkland and another recently opened in the much-hipper Fremont neighborhood of the city, locally known as the center of the universe. Fremont is so laid-back that it has its own time zone: A welcome sign in the neighborhood instructs visitors to set their clocks back five minutes.
Whether or not the story about the two engineers is true, Google was also likely drawn to Seattle because of the University of Washington, long a breeding ground for computer scientists who naturally slid into jobs at Microsoft.
Google executives speaking at a press open house at the company's Fremont offices said they didn't know if engineers they hire from the university also entertained jobs at Microsoft. But Shiva Shivakumar, vice president of engineering at Google, said this: "We haven't lost to too many other companies in the area." Google currently employs 35 engineers with doctorates from the university.
For its part, the university seems happy to supply graduates to either company. As an example of its openness, Ed Lazowska, who holds the title of Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, attended the event at Google on Tuesday.
Engineers in the Seattle office, which just barely slips into third place behind Google offices in New York and Mountain View in terms of size, have worked on a number of products including terrain maps on Google Maps; tools for Web site developers such as Website Optimizer; and Google's instant messaging service.
In the future, the Seattle engineers will increasingly focus on systems, said Brian Bershad, an engineering director and the Seattle site director. He was hired in late October after serving as a professor of computer science at the University of Washington.
By systems, Bershad means that his engineers will work on developing technology that helps the search engine very quickly sort through the mountains of data in the company's data centers in order to present results back to users. "It's not enough to just organize the world's information, we have to be able to answer questions quickly," Bershad said.
Engineers working out of the Fremont office, which just opened in October, have plenty of inspiration to help them solve this problem. The offices overlook a picturesque canal. Workers can clear their heads by hopping in company-supplied kayaks for a trip up the canal, where they can float by the houseboats that line Lake Union, made famous in the movie "Sleepless in Seattle."
When they return to the office, they can sooth their aching muscles by either sitting in a massage chair or getting the services of a real masseuse. Later, they can grab a free lunch in the cafeteria overlooking the canal.
The rivalry between Google and Microsoft must only run so deep, as evidenced by the Xbox 360 in the employee game room. Employees relax and let off steam playing Halo 3, said Greta Cook, a software engineer who works in the Fremont office.
Google executives wouldn't be drawn on expectations for how many people they might hire in the Seattle region in the years to come. But clearly the city welcomes the search giant. "We know you call another part of the country your headquarters... for now," Seattle's Mayor Greg Nickels joked at the event on Tuesday. "But we think you'll find this a great place to do business."