Any time Google comes up with something new in its hiring, the news is sliced, sifted and stirred like the tea leaves gypsies use to predict the future. Given that the company’s renowned for its smart and motivated workforce, it’s no wonder. Competitors regularly look to lure away its talent, and tech professionals plot their best approach to getting a seat on one of its wireless-equipped buses. Working at Google is a credential not only because of the projects you’ve worked on, but because it says you were exceptional enough to get hired in the first place.
So it was interesting to read Thomas Friedman’s interview with Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, in last weekend’s New York Times. When it comes to hiring, Google would seem to be the kind of place that puts an emphasis on both smarts and credentials, but it turns out that credentials only go so far. Google has spent years developing a unique culture, and how it judges who’ll fit in took me something by surprise.
For one thing, Bock told Friedman that some past accomplishments aren’t very important. College GPAs and test scores, he says, are “worthless” when it comes to hiring. Though good grades can help for jobs that require heavy math, computing and coding skills, ultimately they won’t be a deciding factor in who comes on board. Indeed, the proportion of Googlers without college degrees has been rising, Bock said.
So what’s the key? The ability to learn. By that Bock doesn’t mean what’s shown by your I.Q. or college record. Rather, he’s looking for the ability to process information and dynamics quickly, the ability to take bits of information, form them into a whole and then act on them.
Leadership comes into play, too, but not in the ways many employers emphasize. It’s not about being president of a club in college or successfully managing a department that increased results by X percent. In Bock’s mind, leadership is about taking charge of a problem when the need arises, and also stepping aside when someone else on the team is better-suited to the task.
As a part of those dynamics, you need to possess both humility and a sense of ownership, Bock says. It’s about feeling enough ownership to step in and solve a problem when the need arises, but also the humility to recognize when someone else has a better approach. “Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve,” said Bock. “I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.” Another key is “intellectual humility.” Without that, Bock believes, “you are unable to learn.”
There’s no clean line between any of these traits, but the way Bock sums them up adds some context: “What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’” As Friedman notes, “You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”
See the theme here? Google wants technical excellence, but in a package that includes curiosity, good communication skills and passion. It’s heartening in a way, because it demonstrates how one of tech’s leading companies is more focused on getting work done well than it is on finding people who come first and foremost with a certain kind of pedigree.