Google really keeps employees on the 'bench' like in HBO's Silicon Valley

HBO's Silicon Valley, a satire of tech culture, is occasionally very accurate.

Google HBO Silicon Valley Hooli

When news broke last week about Google's "bench" program to hold onto execs who might not have a current role with the company, it immediately struck me as a case of life imitating art. Or the other way around, depending on how you look at it.

According to news reports, Google keeps some execs on the payroll "for months or even years at a time," even when they're not currently involved in a project. From this Business Insider article on the practice:

The bench system is an effective but little-discussed strategic tactic in Google's playbook as the company looks to expand into new markets and keep an edge over a growing crop of web challengers that are all desperate for seasoned internet business experts.

"Bench" mob vs. "rest and vest"

That makes it sound like a massive perk, but there's a darker way to look at it, as shown in episode of three of HBO's Silicon Valley from last year, when Hooli (the show's obvious stand-in for Google) hires a programmer for insight into a competitor's project, only to exile him to the bench when it turns out he can't help. From a synopsis of the episode

"[He] finds a whole world of guys who are "unassigned" at Hooli – there's a group of them who hang out on the roof all day and drink beer. They're waiting out their contracts, doing what they call "rest and vest."

Gawker's ValleyWag blog published a clip from the show last year that shows the fictional program in action.

Perk or punishment?

At first, the folks seem to be having a good time, but it doesn't take long for the hopelessness to become obvious, even to the day-drinking brogrammers.

We can only hope that the situation is more positive than that for Google's real "bench" team. But I wonder, despite the fat Google paycheck, whether sitting on the Google bench is really as sweet a gig as the stories make it sound.

Most people in Silicon Valley, and pretty much everywhere, would rather actually do something than just hang out and wait for months and years on end. Based on tales of the disgraced New York City teachers exiled into so-called Rubber Rooms rather than being fired, and the Japanese "window-gazers" who have to sit in empty rooms all day with no work instead of being laid off, this seems to be far more often a punishment than a perk.

But hey, maybe things are different at Google?

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