Mollly McHugh-Johnson · Dec 22, 2021 · 4 min read
When Dave Holmes started at Google nearly 10 years ago, he couldn’t have known how many projects he’d work on or things he’d help build. One of them he’s loved working, though, is Santa Tracker. “I’ve been working on Santa Tracker…Well, I think for nearly as long as I’ve been at Google.”
Santa has his own history with Google, too. A 2004 mapping software acquisition brought a new team to Google, and that team wondered: Could we put Santa’s flight on the map?
So we did. Santa Tracker launched in 2004, and has been an important project at Google ever since. While there’s a small core team dedicated to Santa, up to 20 or so Googlers volunteer to help make it happen every year, and it’s become a true community effort. It’s also a way for our developers to try things and see what Google products can do. Sam Thorogood, who’s led our work with Santa for the last seven seasons, thought he’d try it out and work on showing off cool new web technologies for a bit. “Turns out I enjoyed it a lot, and I kept coming back to keep improving it,” he says.
I like to say that everything I’ve learned at Google, I learned from Santa. –Dave Holmes
“We figured out how to do so many different things because of Santa Tracker - how to build things, how to launch things, how to make things accessible, how to improve web design, how to optimize tools,” Dave says. “I like to say that everything I’ve learned at Google, I learned from Santa.” And those lessons have benefited other areas at Google, like Doodles and apps developers create for events like Google I/O.
Some years the Santa Tracker team adds lots of new functions and fun interactions, and other years they simply tweak what’s already there. Santa Tracker, like so many things at Google, has adjusted throughout the years: For instance, the elves ride bikes instead of driving cars now, and last and this year Santa wears a mask to protect himself and others against COVID-19. Also this year, when you ask “Where is Santa?” on Search, you’ll see a fun surprise(no spoilers here!).
Among Dave’s favorite Santa Tracker projects is the Google Assistant integration, where people can ask to hear stories about Santa’s journey. He also enjoyed updating Santa’s soundtrack. He admits the team got a bit weary of hearing Santa’s same song on replay, so they came up with multiple tunes. “We ended up making a video similar to the crackling yule log ones, but featuring Santa.”(Go head and give it a listen.）
Some highlights for Sam over the years include adding Google Maps Local Guide’s photos to Santa’s route, and Code Boogie, a coding game where you can teach elves to dance. He’s also personally responsible for Elf Maker, in which you can create your own elf. “I’m really proud of that!” And he points out Snowball Storm, too, which another developer made that he was particularly impressed by.
There have also been little updates, like asking the creator of the Santa Tracker font to adjust the type so people all over the world could read it better. Of coursed, not everything Santa’s team worked on… worked. “One engineer who focused on AI and human movement came up with this idea for a game where you could enable tracking on your computer and teach the elves to dance,” Dave says, “and they would mimic your movement”. But just before launch… they found a glitch. “If the tracker lost you for a second… the elves’ heads and arms would go flying off!” Santa and the team decided not to launch the game. “That game was sent back to Elf engineering for further work,” Dave says.
Once all of this work is done, there’s the job of bringing Santa to everyone else. Part of Rachelle Lacroix’s work at Google for the past five holiday seasons has been doing exactly this. “Using marketing channels and social media, I help make sure people around the world can easily find and experience Santa Tracker,” she says. Rachelle says she’s loved seeing the creativity from teams come out in our work with Santa, but simply being a part of this group is one of the best parts for her. “Technical and creative Googlers alike really tap into their childhood when they work with Santa,” Rachelle says. “So much thought and care goes into every detail - and the team takes this work very seriously! Still, we find ways to have fun … it’s hard not to smile at all of the playful holiday puns that pop into our meetings and emails.”
Dave and Sam both feel the same. “It’s been the most fun meeting people - virtually or, in the ‘before times,’ by cycling around campus - who I wouldn’t otherwise interact with,” Sam says.
As the team prepares to help Santa launch this year, the work is winding down, and Dave and the rest of the group will return to their normal jobs. Still, the once-a-year project comes with its benefits. “It’s like a minor celebrity status,” Dave says. “I’ve loved telling my son I work with Santa.”