What Happens in the Google Pittsburgh Office?
At Google’s Pittsburgh office, one of the major goals is to perfect mathematical equations and sequences of code to give users exactly the information they seek.
Photos by Laura Petrilla and Martha Rial and Google Pittsburgh's Ritendra Datta, Jason Parker-Burlingham, Amit Prakash and Bridget Spitznagel
It looks effortless: You type in the name of a product you want, and Google instantly offers pages of links that relate to it. But behind that seemingly instantaneous response is what engineering director Andrew Moore calls “enormous mathematics.” At Google’s Pittsburgh office, one of the major goals is to perfect those mathematic equations and sequences of code to give users exactly the information they seek.
They’re also trying to bridge the gap between local and online commerce by offering information on the Web about where a given product is available in the user’s neighborhood.
Another goal at the Pittsburgh office is to improve Google’s advertising system, which displays the advertisements that are most relevant to the search query. Google’s advertising system is based on keywords chosen by the advertiser and an auction system that selects only the most relevant ads based on numerous factors including relevance, geographic location, and various other factors.
But while product search and advertising relevance are the big priorities at Google’s Pittsburgh office, there are always many additional projects bubbling.
Some Pittsburgh staff members are involved with “reCAPTCHA,” a system of improving online security that also helps transcribe text for Google Books. Basic CAPTCHA screens ask you to prove you’re a human being (rather than a spamming program) by typing a word written in squiggly lines.
With reCAPTCHA, there are two words written in squiggly lines: one with a known answer (which you must type correctly) and another from scanned print that Google Books is trying to read as text, but can’t. By typing that word correctly, you’re helping Google recognize it and make it into searchable text.
Other projects here in Pittsburgh emerge from what Google calls “20 percent time.” Staff members spend 80 percent of their week on their primary assignments but are permitted to spend the remaining 20 percent working on independent projects.
“Everyone has their own little projects going on,” says engineer Kevin Serafini, and that creates a unique atmosphere. It’s as if there are dozens of tiny startups within the Pittsburgh office—all with different ideas bubbling.
Serafini collaborated with engineers John Taylor and Dominic Widdows to create the Sky Map App for Android for their 20 percent project. Sky Map combines physics, astronomy and computer science to let the user navigate the night sky via a mobile phone.
Point an Android phone at a particular spot in the sky, and the app will show which heavenly bodies are found there.
It’s been popular—more than 10 million downloads since launching in mid-2009—and last summer, the team shared its creation with the local community. The team members brought Sky Map-equipped phones to a Deep Sky Urban Star Party hosted by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh at the empty Leslie Park swimming pool in Lawrenceville.
The astronomers loved it—as do many fans who continue to e-mail the engineers. It’s fun and educational, but the most common bit of praise they’ve heard for Sky Map is this: “I used it to impress my girlfriend or boyfriend.” (Related: Google Skymap Takes to the Stars).
Other members of the Pittsburgh staff spend their 20 percent time doing “outreach to K-12 groups, focusing on middle school and high school students,” says engineer Brady Hunsaker. He says the priority is reaching “groups that are underrepresented in computer science, especially girls and racial minorities.”
Hunsaker and his colleagues give office tours to groups containing several dozen students. Afterward, he says, “we do some activities with them to try to introduce some ideas in computer science.” These exercises are done without the aid of computers: Students physically search for things, seeking ways to search more efficiently.
The goal is to get them thinking about creative problem solving, Hunsaker says, and to help them understand “how computer science fits in.” A question-and-answer session usually follows the exercise, and sometimes, students stay for lunch to chat with staff members about their work.
Google hosts about 250 students per year, averaging about one outreach event per month. But with the company’s expanded office space, Hunsaker and his team hope to do more in the future. That’s fine by Moore, who is happy to give his staff time for student outreach.
“It’s really important for the country and the world,” he says, “that we’re building the next generation of technologists—smart people who can change the future.”