Being an aviation enthusiast means different things for different people. I like to consider myself an AvGeek generalist with interest in not only flights, plane spotting, and airline news, but also the behind-the-scenes of the industry. I have long considered myself a “culture nerd” as well, observing what makes some companies cohesive and successful, and others… well, not. In my work as a graduate student, I have dedicated a good bit of my study to culture, organizational behavior, and leadership strategy which has only intensified said interest. When in-flight WiFi provider Gogo offered a tour of their almost brand-new (to them) downtown Chicago HQ (referred to as The Gogo Building) I jumped at it. If you have an opportunity to let passions unite, fly with it!
Would #TheGogoBuilding have personality and charm like culture leader Southwest Airlines? Or, would their walls and decor be barren, and the general feeling something one might expect from the embodiment of the words “Corporate America?” I assumed something in between. I was wrong…
Arriving at the Gogo Building
The Gogo Building is conveniently located in downtown Chicago, in a diverse and busy area the locals refer to as “the loop.” I arrived to the 16-story, red brick building on an early Friday afternoon. Upon entering the lobby I was surprised at the dramatic difference between the outside and inside. The outside is well kept, but a typical turn-of-the century piece of architecture. The lobby, however, is bright, modern, and proudly displays a U.S. Green Building Council LEED Gold certification plaque demonstrating excellence in sustainability and conservation efforts.
As I approached the main check-in area, shared by all tenants of 111 N. Canal, the overhead music changed to Mr. Brightside by The Killers. I bring this up only because this isn’t what one would expect at a typical corporate office. Additionally, folks in the lobby seemed to be having a good time. Fun at work — what a great idea!
I was provided a visitor’s slip and told to scan it at a group of turnstiles behind me. Ok, easy enough. But what I wasn’t expecting was the turnstile to tell me which elevator to go to, with TV monitors directing me should I get lost. When I entered the elevator, it already had selected floor 15 for me — presumably based on my ticket scan. What a weird, but cool and technologically impressive, experience! Was this an elevator at the Gogo Building, or a turbo lift on The Enterprise? I half expected the doors to open in main engineering.
The Gogo building tour
Gogo occupies a number of floors at 111 N. Canal, but the customer-facing floor is 15. This is where my tour started. The doors of the elevator opened to a posh greeting area with great lighting and an over-sized logo, complete with Gogo’s iconic pointy-arrow cloud. Through a pair of large glass doors I came upon the mail room labeled as “Cargo” keeping with an airline theme which would become apparent very soon.
When I tour offices I’m sure to note how various employees behave in their habitats. For obvious reasons, those entrusted with tour privileges are sure to be cheery and pro-company, so it’s hard to get a good read. But how do folks on the periphery act? Are they smiling or falling asleep? Do they look stressed and unhappy, or do they seem to be having a good time? Yelling, or laughing? It’s these cues from those not involved in the tour that I tend to hone in on.
It wasn’t long before we approached a large glass conference room with a giant decal of the Chicago O’Hare airport layout. I raised my camera for a snap of the window and noticed the inhabitants laughing and smiling. Lucky me, I managed to catch the joy, as well as a shot of a very cool conference room.
Once past the conference room we entered a dining / break area bathed again in natural light and Gogo branding. The area was home to what seemed to be multiple potlucks running in tandem. My tour guide and I were offered food from a number of folks. If only I hadn’t eaten immediately before…
I want to stop for a moment to reflect on the brand reinforcement here. Gogo-stylized branding was on every wall, but it wasn’t overdone. On one wall a built-in displaying dozens of Gogo branded tchotchkes, in the opposite corner, a selfie kiosk, and up above, a plane running across the skylight. Major props to the Gogo marketing and branding teams for going the extra mile to make the Gogo building visually appealing, with lots of natural light, both of which are conducive to happy and productive employees.
The next stop on the tour was Gogo’s NOC, or network operations center. The NOC sits behind an extra layer of security, but you wouldn’t know that for the large glass wall allows passers by a nearly unimpeded view of the NOC employees and most of their system monitor screens.
An entire wall of the NOC is covered in various monitors, some with sensitive data that cannot be photographed and are cleverly just out of sight from behind the glass wall. Some monitors display system health, some national news, the rest display technical data relating to satellites, etc. Really, the majority of the displays could just as well have been written in Klingon, as I couldn’t begin to decipher their meaning.
One monitor in particular (seen above) caught my attention — a map of the continental U.S. with an overlay of hundreds of N-numbers of Gogo-equipped aircraft. It’s hard to see, but each has either a green or a red circle. Green aircraft mean the connectivity platform is operating as expected. Red means something isn’t quite right. We spent a few minutes scouring the canvas looking for “red” planes and came up with three. If you happen to find yourself aboard a Gogo-equipped aircraft with connectivity issues, find solace in the fact that you are the 1%!
Continuing down a hallway something piqued my interest. “What’s behind THAT door?” I asked, while pointing at an over-sized door that looked as if it belonged at the Federal Reserve or Fort Knox. My host phoned in a request to unlock the heavy door which he slowly pulled open. What’s behind the door? An AvGeek’s dream: A mock-up of an aircraft interior inside a radio frequency (RF) shielded vault.
This vault is where Gogo pays folks to test out their various in-flight connectivity products and portals. That’s right, Gogo pays people to sit in comfy leather airline seats for hours on end browsing the web, or doing whatever it is they would do if they were on an actual flight. This practice is called user acceptance testing, or UAT. I do a bit of UAT at my day job. Let me tell you, it’s not nearly as exciting. I mentioned to my host that AvGeeks would happily provide this testing service for free, or heck, some would even pay for the experience. Alas, AvGeeks are not a target demographic…too bad.
Why the RF shielding? Remember, the Gogo building is in the downtown of a large metropolitan area with a good bit of RF interference. To replicate the experience one would have at 36,000 feet, Gogo put their test room inside this completely shielded vault. My host told me to check my phone. Sure enough: No service. My iPhone had, however, connected to “gogoinflight,” a known network which I had connected to on a prior Gogo-equipped flight.
Our second-to-last stop would be the rooftop common area shared by Gogo Building tenants such as Uber, Twitter, and Potbelly Sandwich Works. It was a beautiful day, I could have spent hours enjoying the views and the weather, but there was one more stop on the tour…
What’s better than a rooftop common area? A private one, of course! Gogo has their own rooftop area on the other side of the building reserved for employees and their guests. On the day of my visit it was closed. However, to get there one must walk through a break room that seemed eerily similar to a bar. Would you be surprised if there was free beer for employees on Fridays? Of course you wouldn’t, because at this point in the story you know Gogo goes above and beyond for their employees.
Gogo’s HQ and its people remind me a lot of Southwest Airlines. To be compared to a company whose name queried on Amazon.com yields 5,095 books is perhaps one of the highest compliments I can offer. Rumors abound that Southwest is looking to move away from their dated Row44 (Global Eagle) in-flight connectivity and entertainment product. This Southwest A-Lister (elite frequent flyer) can only hope the airline teams up with culturally similar Gogo to secure their new speedy 2Ku service.
The facility which an organization inhabits says a lot about its culture (or lack thereof) and provides a glimpse into the personality of said organization. In today’s millennial-focused economy, companies are slowly realizing that it’s important to have a “fun” personality for customers, and a similar environment for employees. This goes a long way towards loyalty, and recruiting the ever-illusive (and picky) creative class. Gogo clearly gets this, and I believe it will allow them to keep their competitive advantage.
NOTE: Travel and lodging was courtesy of Gogo for an unrelated event. My opinions are always my own.