Thirteen Months of Working, Eating, and Sleeping at the Googleplex
The saga of Ben Discoe
Giving up the house key makes it brave. Anyone can sleep in the office for a night, a few nights, even most of the time. But to remove the option of escaping the office entirely—that’s what makes it heroic in Silicon Valley. And Matthew Weaver is always ready to be a hero.
Like, for instance, when U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald came recruiting last year for coders willing to provide their services to their country, promising that his hires could create their own titles. Weaver took the job and then told his new boss, “Bob, this is the part where I hold you to your word.” Weaver is now Rogue Leader of the Digital Service for Veterans Affairs.
Or there’s the time in 2005, when Weaver, then a 27-year-old “site ecologist” at Google, decided on a friend’s dare to do away with his 90-minute commute by living out of an RV in the Google parking lot. Other Googlers had been known to sleep on-site for a few days or weeks. To win the dare, Weaver had to last a full year. He did, and his record stood for about five years. Then Ben Discoe, another programmer, arrived at Google knowing nothing of Weaver’s feat. “An RV?” Discoe says when asked about it recently. “That’s cheating.”
In Silicon Valley mythology, sleeping at the office is second only to working out of a garage. According to a new biography by Bloomberg Businessweek staff writer Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk dozed on a deskside beanbag at one of his startups and showered at a YMCA, where he kept a change of clothes in a locker. Like many tech founders, Box Chief Executive Officer Aaron Levie worked out of his home, hiring people to work there until home wasn’t big enough. When the company moved to a bigger office, he took his bed. “I don’t think there was any downside,” he says. “I don’t think in any circumstance I would have been able to date anybody anyway, being pretty uncool and working all the time.”
While it makes sense for a founder to work where he lives, then live where he works, it’s a little different for software programmers, for whom giving up the key is less about devotion to a company than the quality of their code. “All of Silicon Valley is based on character defects that are rewarded uniquely in this system,” says Po Bronson, the author of The Nudist on the Late Shift, his 1999 study of Valley social mores, which included a photo of Yahoo! co-founder David Filo curled up in a sleeping bag beneath his desk after he was already a billionaire. “The utilitarian mind that gets them to code and think about things logically would say, ‘What’s the difference between sleeping on a bed and sleeping on a carpet? This is just a realm of convention.’ ”
When Weaver broke with convention, he bought a 24-foot 1995 Safari Roadtrek RV and parked it in Google’s lot, next to a building named Pi. He put some AstroTurf outside his door, surrounded it with a white picket fence, and invited co-workers to hibachi barbecues and regular Thursday evening cocktails. He ate the free Google meals, used the Google bathrooms, and showered in the Google gym.
Weaver got friendly with security. He dated when he was out of town. Sure, there were challenges. It turns out that RVs aren’t very insulated against cold and rain, the way most homes are. And it gets colder in Mountain View, Calif., than he expected. “Every exterior surface was a place where condensation happened,” he says. “Every wall, every window—they would all be coated in running moisture.” But minor inconveniences weren’t going to get between an engineer and his dream. “For a few months, I kept all my clothes in sealable plastic boxes and rotated a set of desiccants from the office,” he says. “You know, those silica ‘do not eat’ packages?” Weaver made it 54 weeks before finally moving to an apartment. (Google declined to comment for this article.)
Discoe, 44, lived at Google for 56 weeks, from October 2011 to November 2012. He has a long gray ponytail and clear blue eyes and is wearing an old T-shirt from the 1990s, back when he threw a lot of raves. He barely glances at the cocktail menu of an Oakland restaurant called Hopscotch before choosing an ectoplasm. He can’t resist the Ghostbusters reference.
In the interest of efficiency, he hands me his Samsung smartphone to save time describing himself. On the cracked screen, there’s a comic strip about how your favorite type of map reveals your personality. Discoe is a hard-core fan of the Dymaxion Map—Buckminster Fuller’s way of flattening the globe into a 20-sided mess that shows the earth’s landmass contiguously. The cartoon caption reads: “You like Isaac Asimov, XML, and shoes with toes. You think the Segway got a bad rap. You own 3D goggles, which you use to view rotating models of better 3D goggles. You type in Dvorak.”
Discoe points at the screen. “When I read this, I was like, ‘Does he know me?’ There’s only really me who fits this description. All my other socks are toe socks,” he says, excusing the regular socks he’s wearing with flip-flops. “I need to do laundry.”
In 2011, Discoe was newly divorced. The paradise he had planned with his wife when they moved from Manhattan to rural Ahualoa, Hawaii, to raise children in the same house he grew up in, fell apart before the kids came. He had alimony and a mortgage on the Hawaiian farm and had recently moved to the Bay Area to take a job at 510 Systems, working on a driverless car. (Discoe found that ironic, since as a resolute environmentalist he loathed cars and always biked to work.) In 2011 employees voted on whether to let Google buy the company. “My vote was to get bought by Google,” he says. “That’s like winning the freaking lottery.”
The only problem with the lottery win was that it meant paying rent in the South Bay. Sure, even paying alimony, he could afford a $2,000 apartment; he was earning a salary of $135,000. It just didn’t seem logical. “Only a fool would pay rent in the Bay Area,” he says. “People are curiously inflexible and locked into their programming. They want respect from their peers and to be considered normal. I never sought those things.” He picks up a handful of shredded, fried sweet potato with his hand and stuffs it into his mouth.
Looking back, Discoe’s childhood could be said to have prepared him to live out of a vehicle. His parents, in their second marriage of four apiece, met in Berkeley and got involved in Zen. His dad became a Buddhist priest and moved the family to the Hawaiian countryside. After the divorce, both of his parents moved back to Northern California; when he was 7, he moved again to Hawaii. He was one of the only white kids, and by far the nerdiest. It was so socially uncomfortable he persuaded his mom to home-school him. Then, when he was 10, his dad gained custody and moved him to Mill Valley, Calif. In Discoe’s online bio, he writes that his years in Mill Valley were a time of “total alienation at school for being smart, long sickening school bus trips and general, all-around misery.” He moved back to Hawaii for the last three years of high school, and it wasn’t any better. He got into Caltech based on the programs he had written but dropped out after two years, unable to keep up after a lifetime of not focusing on school.
When you move that much, immerse yourself that deeply in computer coding, and are raised Zen, you don’t care about possessions. For a long time, Discoe owned one pair of shoes. When he became a Google employee and rejected the idea of getting an apartment, he realized that all his stuff could fit quite easily in a van. He went on Craigslist and paid $1,800 for a white 1990 GMC Vandura.
Google’s internal Wiki, now defunct, had an entry on “Living at Google.” Like a few of the people who offered tips on the page, Discoe put a twin mattress in the back of the van, sawed 2 inches off an Ikea frame, and built some shelves underneath it. The Vandura was a “burner van” that had taken many trips to Burning Man and had been custom-fit with handmade green curtains, wood panels, and blue velour. It never moved from its parking space. “The thing is a V8. I’d shred my environmental credentials if I drove it,” Discoe says.
He not only ate free but also as healthily as he ever had, preferring Google’s Café 150, which sources all of its organic ingredients within 150 miles. “If you’re bored of Google food, just move on to another restaurant,” he says of the 25 places to eat on campus. “It was awesome.” He charged his phone, tablet, and laptop in the office. If he needed the bathroom in the middle of the night, he would badge back into the building. Other than his mobile phone bill, Clipper card for public transportation, and laundry service, his living expenses were close to zero.
Unlike Weaver, Discoe didn’t invite people to barbecues or cocktail hours. He parked by Permanente Creek, which runs through the Googleplex, and the few people at work who found out about it would always break into the same impression of Chris Farley as a motivational speaker on Saturday Night Live: “I am 35 years old! I am divorced! And I live in a van down by the river!”
It wasn’t the happiest existence, especially when Discoe thought of Hawaii. “I was sad, missing my home and my community and my chickens and my tea,” he says. “Being in a corporate parking lot far from my home is sad that way. I could talk for hours about my chickens. The sustainable future of humanity is not possible without chickens.”
Discoe kept his van life up through the cold winter to save money to pay off his farm and retire early, which he’s on track to do next year. His farm, he believes, is one of the few places that will be fine when the environmental dystopia slowly arrives. “It was all about being able to afford a place for my grandchildren,” he says about avoiding rent. The irony is that it was hard to find a woman who wanted to have kids with a guy who slept in a van.
He didn’t mention living in a parking lot in his OKCupid profile, though he worked in the fact that he owned a farm in Hawaii. “You mention the van on the third date, once there’s an emotional buy-in,” he says. He always waited until after he dropped the “G-bomb” about his employer. “My little running joke was, ‘I keep a little place, close to work.’ ” When dates went well, he went to their place. Almost always. “One girl wanted to make out—not full sex but just make out,” he says. “The bed groaned. It was not really meant for two people.”
Google wasn’t the first office where Discoe slept. When he worked at Intel’s graphics workshop lab in 1997, he laid some cardboard down on the floor of his cubicle, put some silk around the bottom, hung a disco ball, put one of those soothing Zen water fountains on top, and slept in a sleeping bag. He stayed at his girlfriend’s house a lot and even got her to come to “his place,” though they didn’t have sex. “She was a pretty cool raver girlfriend to be even down with sleeping there,” he says.
In 2012, when Google transferred Discoe to a job he found boring, he left, landing at Leica Geosystems, in San Ramon, Calif., where he works in mapping. Even without the company’s infrastructure, he continued to live in his van, parking outside the Hacker Dojo—a giant co-working space in Mountain View with cheap membership that Discoe calls “a halfway house for overqualified geeks.” There were four other coders sleeping in vans in the parking lot.
“Finally,” Discoe says, “I wasn’t alone.”
When he did get a long-term girlfriend, she made him move to an apartment, which he wasn’t happy about. “Two freaking thousand dollars to rent basically a basement in the Mission District. Freaking insane,” he says. “She never even went there. We broke up.”
He has another girlfriend now, one he hopes will move with him to Hawaii and make babies and help him sell the tea he grows himself and roasts in his mom’s wok. They live together in a place with four walls in Oakland, though he still has the van. As our dinner wraps up, Discoe ties his hair back into a ponytail and leaves to go meet his girlfriend at San Francisco International Airport. She’s been gone for two weeks. “I’ve had no reason to come home after work,” he says. “So I’ve been sleeping in the van.”
Living entirely inside the Google office building can’t be done, he says. “There’s no comfort or privacy, and the vacuum cleaner comes at 2 a.m. Those Google nap pods are a joke. It’s an awkward bench with a cone over your head. It couldn’t hold a candle to the van.”
But on Quora, the online forum for specialist knowledge, a senior engineer boasts of having indeed lived inside Google for more than a year. Overlapping with the period Discoe was by the creek in his van, the poster claims to have spent 13 months sleeping in a combination of nap pods, beanbags, meditation rooms, massage rooms, and every windowless conference room with a sofa. The engineer wishes to remain anonymous.