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2011, May

Tinkerers at Google rewarded with time in new workshops
By Michael Liedtke ASSOCIATED PRESS Workshops for qualified employees encourage garage-roots creativity
[caption id="attachment_281" align="alignleft" width="335" caption="Software engineer Ihab Awad does welding in space created for Google employees. New CEO Larry Page started the workshops to encourage the creativity that got Google started."][/caption] MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - Amid all the free food and other goodies that come with a job at Google Inc., there's one benefit a lot of employees don't even know about: a cluster of high-tech workshops that have become a tinkerer's paradise. Workers escape from their computer screens and office chairs to weld, drill and saw on expensive machinery they won't find at Home Depot. Besides building contraptions with a clear business purpose, Google employees use the shops for fun: They create elaborate holiday decorations, build cabinets for their homes and sometimes dream big, like the engineers working on a pedal-powered airplane with a 100-foot wingspan. The "Google Workshops" are the handiwork of Larry Page, who co-founded Google with Sergey Brin in a rented garage. Page authorized the workshops' opening in 2007 to try to reconnect the company with its roots. The workshops offer a peek into ways that Page might try to make the Internet giant work with the verve and creativity of a garage-bound entrepreneur. Page thinks the 13-year-old company needs to return to thinking and acting like a feisty startup as it faces competition from younger Internet stars such as Facebook, Twitter and Groupon. "There is a feeling here at Google that all good things start in a garage," said Greg Butterfield, an engineering-lab manager who oversees the workshops. "Larry wanted to create the same kind of environment he and Sergey had when they started Google - a sort of a playground or sandbox for pursuing their ideas." Originally known as the "Pi" Shop, the geeky getaway is open only to a privileged few among Google's 26,300 employees. Workers must pass a test that includes questions such as "When you are using a band saw, what speed would you use to cut through aluminum?" There are four rooms - for metal, wood, welding and electronics - tucked into an isolated corner of Google's 4.3million-square-foot headquarters in Mountain View. Besides heavy-duty equipment, such as an oscilloscope, plasma cutter and miter saw, there are children's toys. One gadget under construction partially consists of Legos - the same material that Page once used to build an inkjet printer, years before creating Google. Among the projects that have emerged from the workshops are a giant tricycle designed to haul 250 pounds of high-tech photo equipment. The trikes supply the company's online mapping service with pictures of streets and other areas inaccessible by cars. Engineers have used the shops to work on early prototypes of smartphones that run on Google's Android software, and they have customized parts for the automated, driverless cars that the company is testing. Most Google employees, though, use the shops for personal purposes. The ideas percolating are so unpredictable that employees are encouraged to drop off scrap metal or other detritus just in case the junk might suit someone's project. During a recent visit, a couple of old wheel axles and the rusted tailgate from a truck were sitting in the welding shop. "You never know what you are going to find in here," Butterfield said. Google's workshops are free to all employees, like virtually all the company's perquisites. But the workshops are much more exclusive than its other benefits. All employees must be certified to run the machinery before they are issued a badge to enter. The screening usually falls to Rodney Broome, 63, a veteran machinist who teaches the craft at nearby San Jose City College when he isn't busy as the foreman of Google's workshops. About 300 Google workers, or 1percent of the work force, have been certified. Most are engineers, although badges have been given to a few in ad sales. Broome said there have been no injuries in the workshops so far. Screening standards are so strict that a college degree in mechanical engineering wasn't enough for software engineer Ihab Awad. He attended a local high school's wood-shop class for a semester before earning clearance. Awad's biggest accomplishment: a rocket-shaped bar equipped with a keg to pour beer at the end of long days in the office. "The workshops are my No.1 perk at Google," he said. "They're the main reason I will be a Googler for life." What a great way to keep employees happy; not only offering them a respite from their work, but also allowing them to engage in activities they enjoy--that stimulate the brain in a different way from their "desk job."  This is is a proven tactic to increasing productivity on the job by keeping people fresh and motivated while at work. A happy employee makes for a happy employer, and vice versa! I'm a firm believer of keeping your employees happy and motivated; the end result is that they will work hard for you! At Clark Heintz Tools & Equipment, we offer "bench testing" of our plasma cutting equipment at our shop. As a potential customer, you can walk in off the street and test out any machine you'd like, right there, on the spot. I guess it's not exactly the same thing, unless you happen to show up on your lunch break and feel the need to change gears! You may not only walk away with a new plasma cutter, but also feeling refreshed and ready to roll again when you return to your job....