It looked like lunch hour at computer science sleepaway camp.
Inside Google's 8th floor cafeteria in Manhattan last Saturday, 175 self-proclaimed computer geeks sat at lunch tables in front of laptops and furiously tried to solve brain teasers devised by Google engineers. There were free cold cut sandwiches and donuts, but eating was an afterthought, and bites were squeezed in only between tense brainstorming sessions.
It was a race, after all. Each completed puzzle, including a coding competition, resulted in a Lego piece that would ultimately be used to build a small toy car.
After several hours, the five members of the first team to finish their car won bragging rights and the newest Google Android smartphone, which goes for $529 retail. The individual winner of the bonus round won a Xoom tablet computer that price at $599 and up. Runner-ups won Google t-shirts and snuggies.
Google has been holding Google Games events since 2007, but this was the first at its New York City headquarters. The Games allow the search giant to promote itself to the next generation of professional engineers, but getting inside the building isn't a guarantee of a job or an internship.
"We're not going to offer you a job just because you won the coding competition," said Jessica Lulovics, a Google university programs specialist who hosted the NYC event, in an interview.
That doesn't mean that some of them aren't still trying.
Eric Kudler, a computer science major at Stony Brook University said that Google is "probably the best place you can possibly work." He applied for a winter internship at the company, but was told that they only had a few spots to fill and that he wouldn't be chosen. He's applied again for a summer internship, but hasn't heard back yet.
In between the puzzles, Kudler, 19, chatted up one of the Google engineers who volunteered to supervise the games. He said that he didn't want to be too forward, but that eventually he'd try to get the engineer's contact information and ask him more about life at the company.
Showing off your skills and competing with students from the Ivy Leagues can't hurt your career, Jonathan Scheiber, 19, a sophomore at Stony Brook and teammate of Kudler's, reasoned.
"If you ever do get the dream interview at Google, you can say, 'Oh, I won your coding competition,'" he said.
Looking out at the Manhattan skyline through the cafeteria's windows, Scheiber beamed: "This is where it all happens. It's just amazing to be here, seeing what it's really like inside the world's search engine company."
Others were less impressed. "We've only seen this room. Maybe if we got to walk around later, that would be cool," said Jeff Hodes, 21, a junior at Princeton who will work on Google Maps during his summer internship with the company in its Mountain View, Calif., offices.
Google advertised the event through the computer science departments at Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers, Stony Brook University, and the University of Pennsylvania. It was open to all comers and no one was turned away.
Some students, like Princeton senior Adam Hesterberg, had no desire to work at Google. Hesterberg, 21, is on his way to MIT next year to start a doctorate in applied mathematics. He wants to be a professor. Hesterberg ended up leading his team, Chicken Magnetic, to first place.
"I came here for the fun of doing puzzles," he said.
Columbia senior Epying Hung, 22, said he already had a post-graduation job at Boeing in Seattle, but admitted that "there's some mystique" to being at the Google offices. "You can say to your friends: 'I was at Google today.'"
Google has 2,000 employees at its New York office, and nationally the company will have its biggest hiring year ever in 2011, it says, topping the 6,000 hires it made in 2007. The New York office will have over 200 interns this summer in the areas of engineering, product development and sales, among others.
Lulovics said that Google Games are just one piece of the company's outreach to college students. It also holds "tech talks" on campuses, sponsors scholarships, and invites students in for tours of the office. It's at these more focused events that Google finds the engineers it will hire for internships and jobs.
Google Games, though, helps to reinforce the image Google has cultivated for itself: a unique company whose employees show up to work not just for a paycheck, but for the intellectual stimulation of solving riddles and even changing the world with Internet products. The kind of employees who would spend a couple of hours on a commuter train to write code and play word association games on a Saturday morning.
"We're forming relationships with students," she said. "We want them to remember Google after coming back from wherever they're heading off to this summer. We bring a little fun to them and show them what Google's all about, that way when they come back in the fall, they remember this event and think about us again."
Write to Joseph Walker