Bonnie Brown was working as massage therapist at Google from 1999 to 2004. Before that, she ran a private school for 10 years. Now, Bonnie is traveling and also wrote a book called Giigle: How I Got Lucky Massaging Google. I met up with her on Google Talk (the transcript below has spellchecking and punctuation added).
Good morning.Where are you at the moment? Are you doing interviews all week for your book?
I’m in Nevada entertaining family and friends for the holidays. It’s been a very busy week interviewing and setting up interviews for the coming weeks.
Did you find a publisher for the book yet?
Decided to publish it myself for now.
Ah... do you want to use some online service for that or...?
I have speaking engagements coming up, so it looks like I have a venue to sell the book through my website and at book signings.
I want to go back to the beginning of your work for Google. That was in 1999 right?
At the time, did any of your friends actually know about the company?
No, and I had never heard of Google
Did you check out their site to prepare for the job interview? Like, try a search on google.com....?
No, frankly I was pretty computer illiterate!
Did you have a computer at the time?
Your job started out as part-time, 10 hours a week. What did you do the other time?
I had a massage business in Silicon Valley that was just starting out. I had private clients and did massage for other businesses.
Were many of your clients from tech startups back then?
I did massage for Tibco. But mostly trade shows, parties, random small business. But a lot of my clients were in the tech business.
You mentioned before that massaging the Google employees was a bit different. They are all very geeky, I suppose. What was that like?
Well, first of all, they are socially shy for the most part. They are very involved with their work so not a lot of time for interpersonal relationships. For those reasons, they told me they lacked touch in their lives and really enjoyed massage because they felt something that was missing.
Plus, they suffered from the stressed associated with working on a computer all day (and night). They had wrist, neck and back problems.
I see. The massage you are doing is them lying face down on a bed, right?
Yes, they start face down on a massage table with a place for their face that is comfortable. Then the flip over and I work on their head neck and limbs from that angle. They are draped the whole time with sheets.
Sometimes being “socially shy” or let’s say unaware of certain social etiquette can lead to unwanted rudeness... did this ever happen to you at Google?
“One time an engineer explained to me that they see no need for small talk, so if they never look at me then they could avoid that.”
I had a hard time adjusting to some not looking me in the eyes.
One time an engineer explained to me that they see no need for small talk, so if they never look at me then they could avoid that.
That’s interesting. I’ve met many engineers/ developers who also frown on small talk. Did you talk a lot with them during massages though? Or does it depend on the client?
Yes, many of the Googlers fell asleep because their workload was so intense that when they finally stopped for a break, they just shut down.
But at first, when they were nervous about the whole thing, they talked to get to know me and build trust.
Were they ever starting tech talk, and you had to stop them half-way through?
Actually, I learned a lot from them about the search engine, science, life from their perspective and loved talking with them. They were really intelligent and though I had a hard time understanding some of what they were expressing, I felt like I grew a lot from my experience with them.
OK. So in the beginning, there were like 40 employees with you, right? Did you massage all of them, like Sergey Brin, Larry Page...?
Yes, mostly all of them. Sergey and Larry included.
Did they sometimes seek your perspective too? Like ask for advice?
Well, considering the age difference, yes, they did consider my life experiences valuable and I think I taught them also.
When the company grew, did you swich to a full-time job with Google?
It was never a set, full time experience, because I was a contractor. I set my own hours, but the demand grew so great that I was working 5 days a week at the end.
And then someday the employees had to pay a fee for the formerly free massages for them, right? To cut down on demand...?
At first it was free, but I was booked 6 months in advance. It was hard for the new people to get an appointment. So, they instituted a co-pay and it slowed it down for a very short time, but that didn’t last long.
As a joke, people were offering their options to get a spot on the calendar.
Heh. I bet with that workload and the type of work, you were able to arm-wrestle down most male employees of the company :)
I think I was very popular. I could always cut in line in the lunch room and no one complained.
What’s the Google cafeteria like? And with whom would you usually sit down together?
Charlie [Ayers] made incredible food. Organic and extremely healthy. Great soups that we could take home after work in a Chinese take out container! I never visited the grocery store in those days.
I ate with anybody and everybody.
So the co-founders sit down, and people take a seat next to them. But I suppose that was not like that anymore after a couple of years...?
“I had a guest for lunch and Sergey was at the next table. He got up right in the middle of eating and started doing push ups on the floor. He had some kind of bet going with the people at his table. My guest was pretty surprised.”
The CEO, Eric, Sergey and Larry all ate with the rest of us. I’ve had lunch with them all. It is very relaxed.
Once, I had a guest for lunch and Sergey was at the next table. He got up right in the middle of eating and started doing push ups on the floor. He had some kind of bet going with the people at his table. My guest was pretty surprised.
How were new employees introduced to others at the time? I mean, when there were just hundred or more around. Was there a formal introduction?
It’s hard for me to say. My position there was removed from the “teams.” I worked on everyone, but on a very individual basis.
They had a meeting every Friday where I believe most introductions took place. I was ALWAYS doing massage, so hardly ever could attend.
Did you have a computer at work where you could check out e.g. the intranet MOMA and the employee profile pages for everyone?
Yes. My office had a computer that showed the schedule for massage and the intranet.
Did the intranet news interest you? Or I suppose you were always busy anyway...
It was very interesting. I read when I could. Every now and then someone missed their appointment and I had a break.
Did the atmosphere and buzz change when new products or sites were about to be rolled out?
Yes. As you probably know, they go by an 80/20 rule there. 20% of their time is used for creating new ideas. There were so many interesting things going on all the time, it seemed like there was no lack of excitement.
Did you have your own 20% time? :)
Are you kidding? NO! My job needed no more creativity. It was very intuitive and I gave it my all.
I wanted to ask, what was the weirdest thing that happened during your work with Google over the years?
If you read the book, you’ll find out!
Heh, OK. Did you ever meet celebrities at Google?
Yes, I met Al Gore.
Oh yeah, and Ben Affleck.
In 2004, Google went public. You had some stock options from the beginning of your job right?
Yes, I was offered options on an ongoing basis throughout my work there.
At what point in time did you realize, I’m probably ending up a millionaire here thanks to these options?
Toward the middle of 2003, it started to look pretty promising. But I’m an optimist and I hoped for the moon right from the start.
It was you who pushed for options, I understand... in the beginning...
Yes, I asked for that in my contract.
During the build-up to the IPO, what was it like? The New York Times estimated Google produced as many as 1000 or more millionaires. Was that time in any way weird?
I talk a lot about the build up in Giigle. It was a very stressful time. The quiet period required by the SEC was painfully quiet.
Except for an interview by the co-founders with Playboy...
True, true. Everyone makes an error now and then. :)
A couple of months later, you left Google. Why?
My hands hurt.
Seriously, it was just time. The company inevitably would grow more “corporate” and the feeling of the start-up changed. I felt it was time to start something else.
Yeah, I heard today at Google there’s a bit of a distance between pre-IPO and post-IPO employees...
I can’t imagine how it could be otherwise.
Were there many people calling it quits a while after the IPO?
Yes, I believe most of the first 100 people left the company during the first year.
Did you have a party when you left?
I just took a nap.
Heh. What did you do after taking a break? You started writing the book?
I wrote a lot of the book while I still worked there. I moved to Nevada and then did some serious traveling.
In another interview, you mentioned you help people during your traveling, and that you started a foundation. What exactly do you do?
I have a private foundation that makes grants to different charible causes. It is a lot more gratifying to be able to do some hands on work rather than just writing a check.
I have visited many needy sights and helped by just loving people and showing human compassion. I am able to help financially for the basic necessities, food, water and shelter.
I am a lover of the Bible and have had the exciting opportunity to help with the discovery of Biblical Relics.
Noah’s Ark. The Ark of the Covenant. Mt. Sinai.
These days, do you still keep up with news about Google?
“When I first worked at Google, there was no stress in my life, so I took flying lessons to create some.”
Yes, I am on an X-Googler’s site and the pilots at Google site.
What’s the pilots at Google site?
There are a number of pilots at Google. Eric Schmidt is a pilot. They have a mailing list where flying adventures and info is shared. I love flying!
Wow. So you got a pilots license? Since when?
When I first worked at Google, there was no stress in my life, so I took flying lessons to create some.
And now, of course, Google got their own jet....
... and their own landing place shared over at NASA I heard!
Everyone loves Google!
Some human rights groups have criticized Google in the past though, what do you make of this?
If you knew how socially responsible the founders are, there would be no room for criticism.
What of Google’s tools do you use today, if any?
Google maps, finance, email, this, umm...calendar...
I try all the new stuff.
Did you also try your hands at Blogger.com?
Of Course. That’s where I saw that lovely picture.
Where I was discussed in a way that stabbed my vanity.
Do you perhaps refer to a forum comment made on Google Blogoscoped by James...
Probably, it’s all becoming foggy lately...
What other websites do you check out regularly? Where’s that Ex-Googlers site, by the way?
It’s an email set up for ex-googlers that is invitation only.
I read the news on Google and keep up with my investments on Google’s terrific finance site. I read sites about my favorite topic, eschatology.
What is eschatology?
The study of end times.
On this mailing list for Ex-Googlers, is there a lot of nostalgia, or criticism of today’s Google? Or what is being talked about there?
It’s kind of like a support group. SWS was difficult to maneuver alone.
They do talk some about today’s Google and they remember the good ol’ days.
Sudden Wealth Syndrome. Don’t laugh, it’s a serious issue.
What are the symptoms?
Not fitting in. Having no one to play with. Feeling unuseful. Guilt.
Have you actually heard of Ex-Googlers re-applying for a job at Google?
I have not.
So how do you “treat” SWS?
I give. That helps. And just knowing others are experiencing the same feelings, makes you feel a little less nuts.
Did you find yourself having a lot of new “friends” after 2005? That’s when you were able to sell stock right?
Luckily, I have always been rich with friends. But sadly, some people have a hard time adjusting to you when they perceive that you are suddenly wealthy.
I have new business “opportunities” often. ;)
I see. Bonnie, anything else you’d like to share with us? Anything I should have asked you?
I appreciate your interest and it was fun typing with you.
One more question... What is Google’s best-kept secret? :)
If there is one, it is best kept.
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