Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
Beyond Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and Android, Google has sometimes had a very hard time developing products for consumers – especially social media products. Recall failures like Google Wave and Google Buzz.Pablo Villalba, a founder at a startup called Teambox, thinks he knows why. He blames Google’s hiring practices.
A couple days ago, Pablo Villalba wrote a blog post describing how, mostly for the fun of it, he went through the recruiting process at Google.
Pablo writes that his best skill is product design, but that his Google recruiters only showed interest in his ability to code.
There inlies Google’s product problem, Pablo argues.
Which kind of people does this process get you?
If you guessed mathematicians and back-end programmers, you’re probably right! And this might be what Google is mostly in need of: smart people to build very fast algorithms for very complicated cases.
But is this what will help Google succeed in the markets they are trying to penetrate? Read the list of failures I listed above. Those failures are not about users complaining about an algorithm being bad, or a system being slow. They are about products being poorly designed or poorly marketed. They are about hurting usability so badly that users move away from them.
Eventually, Pablo’s complaint made its way to the Hacker News community. Lots of other people who have interviewed for jobs at Google piled on with horror stories.
Eventually, a user who says he or she worked at Google and “interviewed a lot of folks,” wrote a long reply.
The jist of the ex-Googler’s post: We sucked at hiring because Google decides to hire people based on things it can quantify, and you can’t always quantify what we needed.
The process then (as perhaps now) was broken and some folks within Google understood that. The process and goals were pretty simple, hire smart people that get things done.
The process was aimed at finding smart people who get things done. That, like the phrase “largest integer” is easy to say and rolls off the lips but when you need to actually write out what it means gets a bit squirrel-y.
The first challenge is what does “get things done” mean? Well for college students it means you got your diploma and at the same time you contributed to some FOSS project. For people with 0 – 5 years experience it means you shipped a product where you did most of the coding. For people with 5 – 15 years experience it means you shipped a product where you did most of the coding. For people with 15 to 25 years experience it means you shipped a product where you did most of the coding.
Did you see what I did there? Google wanted smart people but the definition of smart was “you write a lot of code” and “get things done” was “that code shipped in the product/project.” Fundamentally they didn’t have any way to judge or evaluate the ‘goodness’ of what someone did if it wasn’t writing code. Designers don’t write a lot of code and they don’t generally have a good metric for what constitutes good which can be empirically tested. The process has a hard time accommodating that. And if you’re “good” at spotting problems in a process or getting folks organised around some better way of doing things? That’s not measurable either.
There was a company, BASF, a chemical company which had an advertising campaign around the fact that they were part of the process and materials that made quality products, their tag line was “We don’t make the products you buy, we make them better.”  And I noted that Google was exceptionally bad at hiring “BASF” people, which is to say people who bring the quality of other work up, or products up, or processes up.
The people who did those roles in Google all started out as coders and that is how they got hired. It was only after they were working there that they (and Google) discovered they had this leveraging effect.
So now, Google has a deficit of smart, clever product people and designers. Because hiring these types is so hard, it’s now trying to bring them in through talent acquistions, also known as “acqui-hires.” This morning, the NYT ran a big long story about the trend.
Still want a job at Google, despite the horror stories? You better study up: 15 Google Interview Questions That Will Make You Feel Stupid
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