Googling for Talent

Hacking machines is easy. As technologies become friendlier to use and more and more powerful each day, bending technology to the will of this or that culture is getting easier and easier. 

People, on the other hand, are not so easy. Hiring people takes real time and resources, especially if you’re seeking to build a machine that fires on 16 cylinders, the kind of chemistry that powers a trifecta of awesomeness for your next big winning streak (hence the image above).

I’ve spent enough time interviewing people, making mistakes and triumphs, this year alone, to feel I can write my own book about best practices. Interviewing is real work on a circular list that never gets shorter because there is always a need to find good people.

After having lunched with several recruiters over the past several weeks, there is concrete evidence that this is not simply my perception. The market is tight and everyone is looking for bona fide talent. Hiring is hard enough just to put butts in seats but hiring the right people is critical to the success of a business and its culture. This isn’t a new idea, but it is one of those things that does not seem to get any easier with practice.

After a particularly trying period with it, I was inspired by many others who’d already read it so I made some time to read ‘How Google Works’, by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. It was up to me to shift my thinking about how to craft better hiring practices and adopt some new tools into the process. These are what follow here, within some key passages from the book, especially these:

Intelligence even over expertise

“Favoring specialization over intelligence is exactly wrong, especially in high tech. The world is changing so fast across every industry and endeavor that it’s a given the role for which you’re hiring is going to change. Yesterday’s widget will be obsolete tomorrow , and hiring a specialist in such a dynamic environment can backfire. A specialist brings an inherent bias to solving problems that spawns from the very expertise that is his putative advantage, and may be threatened by a new type of solution that requires new expertise. A smart generalist doesn’t have bias, so is free to survey the wide range of solutions and gravitate to the best one.”

The LAX / SNL-bathroom test

“As important as character, though, is whether or not a candidate is interesting. Imagine being stuck at an airport for six hours with a colleague. … Tina Fey has her own version of the LAX test, which she credits to Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels: “Don’t hire anyone that you wouldn’t want to run into by the bathrooms at three in the morning, because you’re going to be [in the office] all night.”)”

A person who passes the LAX /Googleyness/three-a.m.-in-the-SNL-bathroom test has to be someone you could have an interesting conversation with and respect. However, he or she is not necessarily someone you have to like. Imagine that person with whom you are stuck at LAX has nothing in common with you, and in fact represents the polar opposite of wherever you stand on the political spectrum. Yet if this person is your equal (or more) in intellect, creativity, and these factors we call Googleyness, the two of you would still have a provocative conversation, and your company will be better off having the both of you on the same team.

We often hear people say they only want to work with (or elect as president) someone they would want to have a beer with. Truth be told, some of our most effective colleagues are people we most definitely would not want to have a beer with. (In a few rare instances they are people we would rather pour a beer on.) We must work with people we don’t like, because a workforce comprised of people who are all “best office buddies” can be homogeneous, and homogeneity in an organization breeds failure. A multiplicity of viewpoints? Diversity? These are our best defense against myopia.

Interviewing is the most important skill

“The most important skill any business person can develop is interviewing.”

“Conducting a good interview requires preparation. … You should first do your own research on who the interviewee is and why they are important. Look at their résumé, do a Google search, find out what they worked on and do a search on that too.”

“Your objective is to find the limits of his capabilities, not have a polite conversation, but the interview shouldn’t be an overly stressful experience. The best interviews feel like intellectual discussions between friends (“What books are you reading right now?”).

Questions should be large and complex, with a range of answers (to draw out the person’s thought process) that the interviewer can push back on (to see how the candidate stakes out and defends a position). It’s a good idea to reuse questions across candidates, so you can calibrate responses. When asking about a candidate’s background, you want to ask questions that, rather than offering her a chance to regurgitate her experiences, allow her to express what insights she gained from them. Get her to show off her thinking, not just her résumé.

“What surprised you about…?” is one good way to approach this, as it is just different enough to surprise a candidate, so you don’t get rehearsed responses, and forces her to think about her experiences from a slightly different perspective.”

Max length of interviews should be 30 minutes

“Who decided that an interview should last an hour? Oftentimes, you walk into an interview and know within minutes that a person is wrong for the company and the job. Who says you have to spend the rest of the hour making useless conversation? What a waste of time. That’s why Google interviews are a half hour. Most interviews will result in a no-hire decision, so you want to invest less time in them, and most good interviewers can make that negative call in a half hour.”

Max number of interviews should be 5?

“We did some research and discovered that each additional interviewer after the fourth increased our “decision accuracy” by less than 1 percent. In other words, after four interviews the incremental cost of conducting additional interviews outweighs the value the additional feedback contributes to the ultimate hiring decision. So we lowered the maximum to five, a number with the added benefit (at least for computer scientists) of being prime.”

Have an opinion

“Remember: From the interviewer’s standpoint, the goal of the interview is to form an opinion. A strong opinion. A yes or no. At Google we grade interview candidates on a scale of 1 to 4. The average score falls around a 3, which translates to “I’ll be okay with this person getting an offer, but someone else should like them a lot.” As an average, 3 is fine, but as an individual response it’s a cop-out , since what it really means is that the interviewer can’t make up his mind and is passing the buck to someone else to decide. We encourage interviewers to take a stand. For example, on the product management team the score of 4.0 meant “This person is perfect for this role. If you don’t hire them, expect to hear from me.”

Hire by committee

“Hiring decisions are too important to be left in the hands of a manager who may or may not have a stake in the employee’s success a year later. That’s why at Google we set up the process so that the hiring decision is made by committee . With hiring committees, it doesn’t matter who you are: If you want to hire someone, the decision needs approval from a hiring committee, whose decisions are based on data, not relationships or opinion. The primary criterion for serving on a hiring committee is that you will not be driven by anything other than what is best for the company, period. Committees should have enough members to allow a good range of viewpoints, but should be small enough to allow an efficient process; four or five is a pretty good number. The best composition promotes a wide variety of perspectives, so aim for diversity: in seniority, in skills and strengths (since people will often favor people cut in their own mold), and in background.”

So, in synthesizing this inspiration into some useful tools, I came up with the following:

Evaluation Form

Ask everyone on your hiring team to fill this out upon completing interviews while their impressions are still fresh. It won’t take them long and can have a positive impact on both the short-term experience and longer-term process of refinement:

1) Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Rate the candidate on a scale of 1–4 for each trait, and provide an example from your interview to support your rating.

1 = Does not meet cultural standards
2 = Good, but not good enough
3 = Very promising
4 = “This person is perfect. If you don’t hire them, you’re a fool!”

2) Leadership Capacity: Will this person inspire other team members, and be able to mobilize teams in various situations?

Scale? 1 2 3 4

Data – What’s one objective thing you observed that informed your score? What did you notice? Be specific. Focus on detail even over your interpretation.

3) Role-related Capacity: Does this person have the knowledge and skills they need to excel in the roles for which we’re considering them?

Scale? 1 2 3 4

Data – What’s one objective thing you observed that informed your score? What did you notice? Be specific. Focus on detail even over your interpretation.

4) General Cognitive Ability: Will this person help us to solve problems in new ways, and raise the level of insight we bring to our work?

Scale? 1 2 3 4

Data – What’s one objective thing you observed that informed your score? What did you notice? Be specific. Focus on detail even over your interpretation.

5) Cultural fit: Is this person relentlessly curious, empathetic, authentic, excited about our purpose, and generally ‘bout it?

Scale? 1 2 3 4

Data – What’s one objective thing you observed that informed your score? What did you notice? Be specific. Focus on detail even over your interpretation.

Good interview questions

I have a constantly evolving list of interview questions that gets updated periodically. Make your own list. Here’s mine as it sits, currently:

Please explain how your current organization is structured.
Explain the day-to-day/week-to-week process of your working team. What works great? What’s broken?
If you could redesign your current organization from the ground up, how would you design it?
What books are you reading?
Tell me story about one of the biggest challenges you’ve ever faced. Was it a life-changing experience? It could be personal or professional, your choice.
What’s something you’ve accomplished that you’re proud of? What was challenging about that? What did you learn? What made it a success?
How do you perceive yourself? Designer? Strategist? How does this contrast with how others perceive you?
What are you geeking out about these days? What rabbit holes have you been down recently?
What surprised you about [insert a previous experience that the candidate has had]?
What’s one of the coolest things about your current job? If you are offered and accept a role here, what will you miss?
When you’re in a crisis, or need to make an important decision, how do you do it?
Explain a problem that you’ve had and solved, or describe one you’re currently working on, and ask the candidate to help you solve it. See how you riff together.
What’s missing for you in your current job? What are you looking for in your next job?
If we end up making you an offer, and you decide to turn us down, why would you say no?

There is obviously no silver bullet because finding and interviewing talent continues to be a process. However, it is worthwhile to work steadily to continue to improve and refine it!