On Early Employees and the Google Chef Situation

A recent Wall Street Journal article caused controversy regarding Zynga’s path to an IPO. Did Zynga have any right to declare that early employees give up their stock options?

The quote below also caused a stir in the blogosphere:

Built into that arrangement [stock options] is the chance that … some very early employees will end up with bigger windfalls than latecomers who contribute more to the company. Many in Silicon Valley cite an early-hired Google Inc. cook whose stock was worth $20 million after the firm’s 2004 IPO.

Zynga attempted to avoid such pitfalls. In meetings last year, Zynga executives said they didn’t want a “Google chef” situation, said a person with knowledge of the discussions.

The Google chef situation refers to an early employee at Google, Charlie Ayers, who made $20 million from his stock options at Google. Does this seem fair/right to you? Well, if you read this former Google engineer’s response, you’ll understand why the chef was important to the company. This software engineer argues that what Charlie contributed to Google on a daily basis was more than he (the software engineer) ever did. It’s a must-read post:

Working at a startup is hard. The hours are long, the stress can be brutal, and there is no guarantee of success. In fact, the odds for a raw startup (which is what Google was when Charlie joined) are very much against you. I have no idea what Google’s deal with Charlie was, but typically you take a pay cut for a shot at the brass ring. Charlie didn’t make $20M for cooking, he made $20M for taking the risk that the company he was joining would fail and that he could end up five years older, unemployed, and with nothing to show for his trouble.

But it is not Zynga’s failure to grasp this basic fact of startup economics that bothers me, it is their singling out of Charlie in particular because he’s a chef. As someone who was there in the early days I can tell you that Charlie Ayers contributed more to Google’s success that I did, and I was a senior software engineer.

Providing quality food to an ever-growing roster of hungry engineers is not an easy task. Charlie and his staff worked harder on a light day than I ever did (or probably ever will). If you doubt me, take a job in a restaurant kitchen some time. Not only that, but the stakes are higher than most people realize. Feeding a few hundred people in a professional setting is not just taking the process of preparing a home-cooked meal and multiplying. If a software engineer screws up, the site goes down. But if a chef screws up, people get sick. In extreme cases, they die.

If I were to point out that no one ever got sick from eating Charlie’s food most people would consider than to be damning with faint praise, but that is just a testament to how well Charlie did his job. Not only did he keep us well feed and free from salmonella, he inspired us. When I said that the best restaurant in town was Google’s cafeteria that was no exaggeration. Charlies food was outstanding, day in and day out. (It still is. If you’re in the Bay Area, do yourself a favor and have a meal at his restaurant.)

But Charlie’s contribution to Google’s early success went even well beyond that. Charlie was a friend and a cheerleader. Everyone at Google got to know him because everyone went through the lunch line, and Charlie was always there making sure everything was ship-shape. And Charlie got to know us, got to know our individual tastes and preferences, and bent over backwards to accommodate them, but never at the cost of compromising on his principles of making his offerings healthy and sustainable, principles he still adheres to. Being fed by Charlie was a privilege. It was inspiring. It was cool. It kept us going.

Don’t tell me Charlie deserved his payday any less than the rest of us.

What a compelling blog post. The lesson? Don’t dismiss a particular employee of a company: they may be doing more to keep the company going than you realize.

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