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MOUNTAIN VIEW - "How do you mean to make money from this?" I ask Robert Glaser, one of Google's more senior engineers, and the man leading its social-networks platform project. "I don't know," he shrugs. What matters, he says, is that they're creating a world in which people do more things more efficiently online, and a world like that is good for business for Google.

You're a giant company with 16,000 employees, I note. You must have some idea how it will pay.

Glaser doesn't. "We don't think in the short run," he says. "That's why I'm here, to think how to change the world in a way that Google will succeed."

An hour later I try a target of tenderer years, but engineer Sumit Agarwal has no idea either. Agarwal, who leads a mobile communications team, adds that he doesn't care, for that matter: "We're focused on the customers' needs and know that if we do the right thing, we can think how to make money on it at the next stage." To first consider the money-making side and only then what to offer clients, is to place the horse before the carriage, he explains.

If I hadn't been sitting in the California headquarters of the world's most successful company, I probably would have treated these peculiar answers with scorn, which were repeated in all my exchanges with the engineering and management echelons alike. But when you're in the offices of Google, a $200 billion company that sprouted from nothing in less than 10 years, one's skepticism is evidently blunted.

After a day's visit at the Googleplex, the company's vast campus in Silicon Valley, I went over my notes. If the pages hadn't been dotted with the names of Google's engineers, one might have thought I'd been meeting with the leaders of a secretive cult or commune that aims to change the world.

At midday, as we made our way to the main campus, a TV network van passed us. What's that, I asked Jon Murchinson, one of Google's communications managers. He explained that on that day, Google was publicizing its new project to develop alternatives to coal.

New project. Alternative energy. Google, the search engine - probably at no other Internet company would the board of directors have approved an investment like that, and if it did, the company's stock would have tumbled.

That night, I checked what was happening on Wall Street and read analyst reports, and learned that the investment community was evidently willing to buy what seems to be the latest whim of the company that developed the most popular search engine in the world.

Analyst Jordan Rohan of RBC put his finger on what I'd sensed: "My first reaction when I read about this was, 'Is this a joke?'" He was already convinced that rivals in online search had no chance against Google, but he remained unconvinced that Google wouldn't hurt itself with its scattered focus. That, ultimately, is the company's greatest risk, he says.

Most analysts seem to feel the same, yet Google gained 1 percent on Wall Street that day, lifting its market capitalization to $217 billion.

No fear of flying

Agarwal, 31, is unfazed by my probing about Google's flightiness. He came to work at Google because "here we change the world. Here we break the status quo, here we influence the world to make it a better place." He also likes Google because it's a "flat" organization, with little hierarchy, that never penalizes for failure.

"People aren't afraid to fail? Let's be serious for a moment," I insist. "Their chance of promotion could be hurt."

Agarwal is firm: No, the company's motto is clear and you can hear it from Larry and Sergei, the founders: We celebrate rapid movement, we celebrate rapid failures, we learn rapidly from failure and move on.

And if some unhappy idea costs the company millions of dollars? Or an application bombs? "Zero stigma," Agarwal insists. "If you punish people for things like that, they will be afraid to bring up new ideas."

So what do people around here fear?

"There's only one thing that frightens us," says Agarwal: Not to be daring enough, not to be bold enough, not to think big.

Other engineers and people I talked to at Google, many of whom were entrepreneurs who had founded successful technology companies that had been sold for many millions, sounded much the same. That's Google for you: Its success has made it magnetic for the best people in Silicon Valley, and its unique organizational structure enables people who are by nature entrepreneurs and leaders, who are built to spearhead business ventures, to fit in and feel comfortable in this sprawling mega-organization with 16,000 workers.

Among the people I met at Google was Dan Nye, CEO of LinkedIn, one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley, the developer of the most successful online social network in the world. One of its main uses is to find jobs. A lot of companies cooperate with LinkedIn and participate in its network, but some are terrified of it, he relates: They don't want to lose employees.

"Google is the company that loves us the most, and apparently that's not a coincidence," says Nye: It is the most open, the most transparent and innovative.

Everybody's read about Google's remarkable campus. It's old hat, yet still, at the entrance to each building, near the lobby, are large containers advising you to toss in your laundry and shoes for dry cleaning and handling. There are yellow scooters tossed about everywhere for employees to use. The gigantic mess halls serve the finest foods and are deliberately located with prominence at the entrances to the buildings. The corridors sport huge coffee and food corners, all for free for the workers, of course.

I end my visit at the small office of the chief culture officer, Stacey Savides Sullivan, the person in charge of Google's corporate culture. Her jeans and small office don't let slip that she's one of the company's most veteran workers, and therefore probably owns stock options worth tens of millions of dollars. Hundreds of Google workers have options, or cash from exercising their options as the stock shot up. One of Savides Sullivan's biggest challenges is to make people stay at the company after they turn rich.

What corporate culture does she seek to imbue in employees? She doesn't imbue anything, she says: The culture belongs to the workers and her job is to make sure it stays there. The job of the managers, she continues, is to help the employees realize their ideas.

So who runs the show? Google hires people who don't need to be managed, Savides Sullivan says, people who manage themselves, who seek challenges and missions and take initiative.

I gave up. "How do you join Google?" I ask, and Stacey launches into a speech that beyond a resume studded with awards for everything you've ever done, you have to prove that you have achieved great things. Special things, inspiring things beyond the scope of your career and studies. In short, you have to prove that you have the stuff to make the world a better place with a more efficient Internet network, and that you don't have the time to do laundry.