Like dogs? Google might just like you

Internet search firm refines its criteria for hiring workers

January 04, 2007|By New York Times News Service

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. --Have you ever made a profit from a catering business or dog walking? Do you prefer to work alone or in groups? Have you ever set a world record in anything?

The right answers could help get you a job at Google Inc.

The company has always wanted to hire people with straight-A report cards and double 800s on their SATs. Now, like an Ivy League school, it is starting to look for more well-rounded candidates, such as those who have published books or started their own clubs.

Desperate to hire more engineers and sales representatives to staff its rapidly growing search and advertising business, Google - in typical eccentric fashion - has created an automated way to search for talent among the more than 100,000 job applications it receives each month. Google is starting to ask job applicants to fill out an elaborate online survey that explores their attitudes, behavior, personality and biographical details going back to high school.

The answers are fed into a series of formulas created by Google's mathematicians that calculate a score - from 0 to 100 - that is meant to predict how well a person will fit into its chaotic and competitive culture.

"As we get bigger, we find it harder and harder to find enough people," said Laszlo Bock, Google's vice president for people operations. "With traditional hiring methods, we were worried we will overlook some of the best candidates."

Google's growth is staggering even by Silicon Valley standards. It has doubled the number of employees in each of the last three years. Even though the company now has about 10,000 employees, Bock says he sees no reason the company will not double in size again this year. That would increase the number of people hired to about 200 a week.

As a result, Bock has been trying to make the company's screening process more efficient. Until now, Google largely turned up its nose at engineers who had any less than a 3.7 grade point average. (Those who wanted to sell ads could get by with a 3.0 average.)

Unfortunately, most of the academic research suggests that the factors Google has put the most weight on - grades and interviews - are not an especially reliable way of hiring good people.

Bock said that he wanted the company's human resources department to use the same iconoclastic style as its Web site developers to the normally routine function of interviewing job candidates. "The level of questioning assumptions is uniquely Googly," he said.

So Google set out to find out if there were any bits of life experience or personality it could use to spot future stars.

Last summer, it asked every employee who had been working there for at least five months to fill out a 300-question survey with a wide range of questions.

Some were factual: What programming languages are you familiar with? What Internet mailing lists do you subscribe to?

Some looked for behavior: Is your work space messy or neat?

And some looked at personality: Are you an extrovert or an introvert?

And some fell into no traditional category in the human resources world: What magazines do you subscribe to? What pets do you have?

"We wanted to cast a very wide net," Bock said. "It is not unusual to walk the halls here and bump into dogs. Maybe people who own dogs have some personality trait that is useful."

The data from this initial survey was then compared with 25 separate measures of each employee's performance. Again there were traditional metrics - the employee's reviews by supervisors and peers and their compensation - and some oddball ones.

One score was what the company called "organizational citizenship," said Todd Carlisle, an analyst with a doctorate in organizational psychology, who designed the survey. That is, "things you do that aren't technically part of your job but make Google a better place to work," Carlisle explained, such as helping interview job candidates.

When all this was completed, Carlisle set about analyzing the 2 million data points the survey collected. Among the first results was confirmation that Google's obsession with academic performance was not always correlated with success at the company.

As things turned out, there was no single factor that seemed to find the top workers for every single job title. (And pet ownership did not seem to be a useful predictor of anything.) But Carlisle was able to construct several surveys that he believed would help find candidates in several areas - engineering, sales, finance, and human resources. Currently about 15 percent of applicants take the survey; it will be used for all applicants starting later this month.

Even as Google tries to hire more people faster, it wants to make sure that its employees will fit into its freewheeling culture. The company boasts that only 4 percent of its work force leaves each year, less than other Silicon Valley companies.

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