Google X: Where Engineers Are Told To Think Like Mad Scientists

ByVivian Giang

Within the walls of the "moonshot factory" in Mountain View, Calif., employees are told to think of "science fiction-sounding solutions:" ideas so futuristic and out of this world that they seem to be straight out of a science-fiction novel. 

These mad scientists are part of a semi-secret lab called Google X where the brightest engineers work on future technologies from self-driving cars to "smart" contact lenses that monitor glucose levels when they come in contact with tears.

In a rare interview with the BBC, Google X's "Captain of Moonshots" Astro Teller revealed that Google's success comes from its science-fiction like environment, which encourages engineers to think outside of the box — even if that means failing. In fact, Teller said he wants his staff to take risks and fail as often as needed. If Googlers think that their teams or managers are keeping them from achieving creativity, they don't need permission to switch teams.

"The result of this is that if your manager is an asshole, not only will you leave but everyone will leave and that guy is going to find himself voted off the island by his own people," said Teller.

"I think being afraid to fail is almost a guarantee of a glass ceiling on the success that can be achieved," Teller said in his BBC interview. This isn't the first time we've heard that science-fiction promotes ideas. Bryan Shinn of U.S. Silica Holdings told Forbes that his inspiration comes from science fiction books — not business books.

"I love reading books where people are postulating about the future," Shinn said. "In science fiction, you can go back and read books written years ago and and they have ideas in there for a Bluetooth earpiece or flip cell phone or iPad."

Google X's work environment has been discussed by several thought leaders, including Sir Ken Robinson. In his wildly-popular TED Talk, Robinson said that mistakes must be made in order for innovative ideas to take place. Basically, there is no longer "the one right answer" in today's knowledge economy.

While some great brilliant ideas have come out of Google's free-thinking environment, the culture doesn't work for everyone. In a Quora thread that asked Googlers what they hate most about working for their company, one Googler said employees are so awesome, a lot of them end up being overqualified for their jobs and as a result, are responsible for the most mundane tasks:

"Google has a very high hiring bar due to the strength of the brand name, the pay and perks, and the very positive work culture. As a result, they have their pick of bright candidates, even for the most low-level roles. There are students from top 10 colleges who are providing tech support for Google's ads products, or manually taking down flagged content from YouTube, or writing basic code to A|B test the color of a button on a site."

Read the rest of the Quora thread here.

Watch how Google's "smart" contact lenses work: