Hiring IT Staff: Learning from Google's Mistakes

How should tech firms find staff? Many of the most common methods appear deeply flawed.


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

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Posted January 15, 2007

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle

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Google, like most companies since the 1970s, has focused on grades as one of the key requirements for hiring. As a result, it probably not only lost out on good people, but ended up with a lot of folks who were not the best the company could get for a given job. Google recently announced they are devaluing grades in order to focus more on personality and experience.

Google continues a heavy focus on interviewing but has also cut down on the number of interviews and forced a faster turnaround on decisions as they attempt to grow the company quickly. It isn’t hard to remember an earlier fast-rising company, Netscape, that went down a similar path. And the decline of that company was, at least partially, attributable to the large numbers of unqualified people that resulted.

Google is to be admired for what there are attempting. But, unlike the company’s other interesting ideas (most of which have worked out) they are now entering an area that has been deeply researched, and one they too should spend a little time on before they catastrophically break what may not be that badly broken.

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Given that interviewing is known to be a very unreliable way to select employees, you would think the tech industry would apply some type of technical test to applicants that, in a short period of time, could assess by reviewing background, education, and personality whether they come close enough to the ideal to be worth taking a risk on.

Previous Decades

Back in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s there was a lot of work done to do exactly that. Massive studies were used to develop and refine tests that applicants could be given that would assess their capabilities and best match them to jobs. For many of us these tests started in high school as part of a process to help us pick careers we would find rewarding. While relatively unreliable at first, over time and with experience they increasingly were able to help parents work with their children to mold education plans to best match natural skills.

But the problem with testing was that it tended to preserve the status quo and put similar people together. This probably reduced tension and increased productivity but it also tended to lock out ethnic diversity, which clearly was a major problem. As a result testing was tossed out and as companies grew up they focused largely on big-name schools and grade point average for selection. This didn’t solve diversity problems either, so programs to ensure diversity were implemented, which often allowed lower standards for new hires. While some of these new employees should have had been offered more on-the-job training requirements, this was seldom done, and as the workforce became more diverse, social problems related to uneven skills and metrics sometimes resulted.

Grades as a Metric

Grades are often a poor metric of future on the job performance. “A” students often get their grades by gaming the system or by working very hard largely on their own as opposed to collaboratively. Courses are designed to provide an educational framework but seldom focus on the very real day-to-day tasks needed by a company. In short, the scores often have little or nothing to do with the employees’ actual capability and they may not, depending on how the system was gamed, not even have anything to do with how hard the student actually worked.

This isn’t to say grades have no value, only that they should be taken as just one metric and that – without some due diligence – may not even be reliable as that one metric. If you aren’t careful, if you focus on “A” students you may simply end up with a lot of employees who are gaming the company and not doing much in terms of actual productive work. You see this in firms where it seems that accountability is lacking, meetings proliferate, and projects don’t meet expectations or timelines. The employees are simply reflecting the skill set they were hired with and probably are being rewarded for.

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