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Google dramatically expands its Kendall Square footprint, and the Boston tech scene is looking hotter than ever.

Illustration by Viktor Koen

Illustration by Viktor Koen

Walk into Google’s office at 5 Cambridge Center in Kendall Square and you’re likely to see all manner of quirk. Staffers hold meetings in beach cabanas and, on annual formal Fridays, come to work dressed in tuxes and prom gowns. A funky mural of Fenway Park adorns the rec room, and one of the hallways has been remade into a replica of a Beacon Hill street. Some engineers have hung a blowup racecar from the ceiling, and the setup even includes a geodesic dome that’s sort of like a mini jungle gym for nerds. They got their off-kilter office accents from a defunct toy store, making the workplace look like a scene from Dr. Seuss.

Soon the engineers will have much more room to play. That’s courtesy of the sales staffers, who are packing up and leaving. They weren’t laid off, though, just relocated. The search giant’s local workforce of more than 350 has outgrown its current 75,000-square-foot digs, so now Google is leasing another 60,000 in 3 Cambridge Center, complete with a chic new café that serves staffers the gratis gourmet meals Google is famous for.

The brand-new space, located right next door, comes complete with sleek furniture, futuristic light fixtures, and plenty of local flavor: The conference rooms are all named for hard-to-pronounce Massachusetts towns like Gloucester, Scituate, and Chatham.

But Google’s commitment to Boston extends past celebrating our patois: In nearly doubling its space here, the company is also doubling down on Boston. Google won’t make hiring projections, but between the two buildings, there’s room for hundreds more employees. (Even as the sales staff moves over, two of the three floors in the new space are still under construction.) What else can we expect to grow? The amount of cash Google injects into the local economy. The company figures that in 2010, it provided $2.8 billion worth of economic activity for the state’s businesses and nonprofits. Next year? Who knows.

All this expansion comes after Google rival Microsoft scooped up almost as much space in Kendall Square last year, with plans to move in hundreds of workers from its Waltham location. Then there was Mark Zuckerberg’s recent revelation that he hopes “at some point soon” to open a Facebook office in town (not to mention his musing that, if he’d known better, he’d never have left in the first place). With such hefty endorsements from some of the world’s most important companies, the Hub’s tech scene is red hot—a fact that’s especially notable in an economy that’s recovering with all the speed of a dial-up modem.

The first Google Boston (as the company’s operation here is usually known, despite it being in Cambridge) was actually in Boston proper: The sales outpost opened in 2003 in the Back Bay’s Park Plaza building. “This is a rich area for us, not only in hiring new college grads, but also people from industry,” says Brian Schmidt, Google Boston’s director of online sales. “Healthcare, financial services, retail—those are great grounds for us to find more-experienced talent.”

But soon Google wanted to hire local engineers to go along with that sales staff. So in 2008, Google Boston jumped the river to Kendall Square. In addition to the direct pipeline of new engineering brainpower from the area’s world-class schools (Google has more than 500 MIT alums on its payroll), Cambridge boasts a high concentration of tech companies, which makes it a magnet for more-seasoned pros.

And attracting this local star power has been key to Google Boston’s growth from the start. Case in point: Android cofounder Rich Miner, a Cambridge resident who was an early advocate for Google to take Kendall Square seriously. After Google bought his company, Miner convinced leadership to set up a venture capital shop—where he’s now a partner—in the neighborhood. Other early engineering hires included Robert Love, a Linux developer who helped launch the first Android platform, and Jon Orwant, an MIT alum who came up at France Telecom and was CTO of computer-tech publisher O’Reilly Media before becoming the guru behind Google Books.

Talented youngsters eagerly signed on to be part of the supporting cast to work with such established celebs. It’s sort of like the Celtics’ strategy: Bring together phenoms like Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, and build around them. Cambridge is now one of Google’s most relied-upon offices, a place with an outsize contribution to the company’s top projects. Engineers in Cambridge have their hands in all of Google’s product areas, including core services like Web and image search, YouTube streaming, the Chrome search engine, and the new Chrome operating system. There are also teams working on the Android operating system and Google+, the company’s nascent stab at social networking.

“We’ve just been really very fortunate in our ability to attract really high-impact projects here, and a large part of it is that the talent we have here is incredibly good, even by Google’s standards,” says Steve Vinter, engineering and site director for Google Boston. “We have people who are able to launch things that the whole world uses, and I think for a team this small working for a company that’s this large, that’s a really unusual opportunity.”

 

Many local business leaders see Google’s growing presence as a boon to the region—and a harbinger of things to come. For one thing, the opportunity to catch Google’s eye is a big enticement for area startup companies to stay put rather than relocate to Silicon Valley or some other tech hotbed. “They’re helping to cultivate the bench of companies that are developing here and growing to scale,” says Eric Nakajima, senior innovation adviser for the state’s Housing and Economic Development office. “They’re also investing in and enabling the growth of the next generation of employers.”

For instance, an infusion of Google venture capital has helped grow six local startups, including SCVNGR, a quirky smartphone-app company near Kendall Square. In April Google acquired another Cambridge native, travel-software developer ITA, in a deal worth $700 million. And Miner and company at Google Ventures are scouring the landscape for more promising business plans. He’s also had a hand in developing the Venture Café in Kendall Square, where entrepreneurs meet weekly to network with investors. The café is currently housed in the Cambridge Innovation Center, but the founders say they’re negotiating for space to open a full European-style version at street level.

Besides cultivating brands, some locals say Google can help export their ideas. “These global companies with a presence here have the power to connect us to the rest of the world,” says Tim Rowe, founder and CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center (he’s also involved in the Venture Café). “They’re the gateway, the arteries that carry the blood of innovation around the world.”

And supporters say that’s what helps make the Boston area an especially safe bet in an uncertain economy. “There’s more intellectual capital in this six-and-a-half-mile space than anywhere else in the country,” says Kelly Thompson Clark, president and CEO of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce. “That recipe is creating an opportunity for more companies to grow, and it’s obviously attractive to bigger companies because they’re coming here and absorbing some of the smaller companies.”

Cambridge may have lured Google away, but Boston, with its burgeoning Innovation District, is as active as ever. There’s ample real estate left on both sides of the river for companies to move in and build. Good thing. Because with Google having outgrown three addresses in eight years, it may not be long before it’s looking for its next one.

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