Life at PARC: Organic food, Unix parties, coyotes, and geeks

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What’s everyday life like at Silicon Valley’s most famous research center? To find out, I talked to YF Juan, a director of business develpment at PARC, and communications manager Linda Jacobson.

Much like the research that goes on behind the laboratory doors, PARC’s culture and atmosphere were designed with painstaking precision. The 14-acre facility was custom-designed by Gyo Obata, a founding partner at the world-renowned architecture firm HOK. At founder George Pake’s request, each employee was to have his or her own office with a view of either the courtyard or of the rolling Palo Alto hills. Of equal importance to privacy were the common areas. The entire building is divided into pods, and each pod has offices, labs, and common spaces with themed decors designed to inspire different types of thinking&mdash the social science pod boasts a colorful, Scandinavian feel, whereas the computing science common area has a more traditional look with shelves lined with books on networking and computing. Outside the building walls, bush-lined walkways lead from sunny patios to trails of undeveloped lands inhabited by hares, chipmunks, lizards, coyotes, horses, and migratory birds. “The idea was to design an environment that would encourage collaboration as well as solitude for creative problem solving,” says Jacobsen.

Life at PARC, it seems, is a unique blend of nature and technology, public and private, social and geek, artsy and science-y that melds into a one-of-a-kind creative environment conducive to extreme innovation. Keep reading to learn about the different types of geeks, spontaneous parties, and global cuisine that keep PARC employees happy.

BBG: So are you guys all geeks?

YFJ: There are two general categories. The first is the celebrity geek. Three doors down from my office is a guy named Van Jacobsen. He’s the guy who wrote the TCP stack for the internet protocol. He’s like the guy. And then there are the default geeks, the real subject area experts. These people really understand what they’re talking about & we can have very meaningful, intelligent conversations about what makes sense and what doesn’t.

BBG: Tell me about the one-second UNIX party that you wrote about on your PARC blog.

YFJ: UNIX time as we know it was started on January 1, 1970. On Friday, February 13, 2009 at 3:31:30PM, the number of seconds since midnight on that day became 1234567890. So there was a quirky event to honor a major &mdash or rather, a very minor milestone in computing science. Someone sent out a mass email, and we just gathered around and took pictures around a computer and had coffee and water.

BBG: Did you do keg stands or get drunk?

YFJ: No, we don’t do stuff like that. The culture at PARC is very collegial &mdash people wander by each others’ offices all the time. We’re often hanging out, except that when we hang out we’re talking about how to address a particular computing problem. We hang out in our own geeky way.

LJ: It’s actually a pretty serious place. We have scientists and technologists here from literally all over the world. There’s also a very large age range. Younger scientists come here to work with these accomplished veterans who have deep credentials and mentor them.

BBG: What about women? I noticed very few during my visit.

LJ: That’s true. I’ve worked in high tech for so many years, and 25 years ago it did feel really sexist, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore &mdash people are judged on the quality of their work and how they get along. Even with the preponderance of dudes, there’s a tremendous amount of respect for all people here. I admit I do feel excited when one of the women scientists is receiving special recognition for something, but there isn’t the sense that we need to bond together to help each other.

BBG: I noticed you guys have a killer cafeteria with an amazing food selection. Is this like Google, where employees basically “live” on campus?

LJ: Not at all. PARC definitely strikes a good balance between work and life. People work really hard &mdash sometimes I exchange emails with people at 10-11PM, but we also realize that in the longer term a happy working environment where people don’t burn out and spend time with their families is better. It’s a lot different from the other places I’ve worked at in Silicon Valley.

We always eat well. The food is subsidized, and the kitchen makes every attempt to provide foods that are organic, natural, and locally grown. We have Mexican, Japanese, Italian, and Indian food. It’s great.

YFJ: And Sushi Wednesdays.

LJ: When George Pake conceived of Xerox PARC, one of the principles he set forth was to give employees the best tools and environment to enhance their work and satisfaction. That’s why we have a fitness center, gardens, a cafeteria, and a dining room. We have a rotating art gallery that changes every quarter, and talks every Thursday afternoon with guest speakers that are open to the public. This week’s talk is about how to reduce global warming through cooking; last week it was robots. People also get to pick what computing system they need to do their job &mdash there’s no standard issue. Currently, of 250 employees, 80 are Mac-based.

BBG: What’s the best thing about working here?

YFJ: PARC has always been part of the folklore of Silicon Valley. I was born in Taiwan and raised in Austria, but have been in Silicon Valley at start-ups and large corporations for a long time. I am excited to finally be able to work with the real geeks who started everything.

About Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.
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