Eric Schmidt & Jonathon Rosberg – How Google Works (#7 of 26)

So another non-fiction management book which landed on my lap courtesy it being ‘gifted’ at work.



This is a nice anecdotal,  breezy (I overuse that word, I know) look at what happens at one of the most admired, respected and aspirational organizations in the New World. How they deal with people, problems, innovation, decision making and beyond. It is also, without there being two ways about it – a hagiography of an organization (is that even possible?) which wants to eventually get us to stand up and clap for, bow down to and salute Google for how wonderful they are.

There are two ways to approach a book like this I feel. Once is as a ‘nice to know’ kind of stance – it’s interesting to know what happens in this organization that rules our world, what are the kind of issues they face and admire how cool and wow they are.

The other way would be to question everything and try to draw something out of it to apply in your world. And for that, this may not be the best work. Schmidt and Rosberg, despite their best attempts, are biased. They frequently border on contradicting themselves. Their fall back options are to hire really smart people, give them space, and trust the founders.  A heady cocktail which when topped of with being in the right industry and the right time, opens up a lot of doors which the rest of the world doesn’t have. So if you’re looking for answers to how the same thing can be done in x, or change the terms of their anecdotes – you may not necessarily get those answers or it may seem more frustrating.

My 2 cents – read the book as without expecting to go back without great insights into the running of the modern day organization. There is definitely enough in there for something, somewhere to have applications in your world as well. For the rest of the time, let’s all salute Google for all the great things they’ve been able to do – with a nice pinch of salt – and appreciate that it’s a different world.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★


Not getting into the whole book review for now, this is more Knowledge Management for the chapter I found most interesting:

Talent – Hiring is the most important thing you do

Google’s notorious focus on hiring is well known. This chapter from How Google Works was therefore full of observations that will make you go in that order
(1) That isn’t how it works – challenging conventional wisdom
(2) That makes a whole lot of sense -making it intuitive
(3) Wait a minute, does it now? – practical cold facts kicking in

A chapter run through follows:

Jonathan Rosenberg’s interview at Google is the pivot for the chapter upfront. And its a lovely interview question he gets – ‘teach me something complicated that I wouldn’t know‘. I personally always loved sitting in on esoteric functional interviews as well, because even as a supporting/secondary interviewer I would always learn something and come out of the room smarter. That doesn’t typically happen when you’re scratching over an Excel sheet.

Hiring is the most important thing top managers would do and should be doing. They draw parallels to sports coaches who will never compromise on trying to get the best player into the team. Training can only work to a limit. No amount of strategy can substitute for talent.

Another parallel is to academia. Rarely are professors fired. But its very very tough to get in and become a tenured one. Also these decisions are made by committees – never by 1 person – an employee isn’t hired just for a role so why should he only be signed off by a reporting manager. He’s going to work with a lot of people other than the manager as well more often than not. The hierarchical model of hiring therefore doesn’t make sense – hiring through peer interviews, or committees. It also prevents managers from ignoring potential candidates who may be smarter than they are and usurp their fiefdoms.

The Herd Effect

Great people (or smart people) attract great people. Put enough great people together and they will *cough cough* ‘create magic’. I think this is more likely to work in some industries than others – in most places you also need executioners and too many ‘smart creatives’ as they call it together may not always get the job done. But point taken. If You’re Brilliant, We’re Hiring.  Get smart people on board whenever you find them and make room for them. They’ll find a way to get work done.

I also assume by smart these guys mean people who’re not just eccentric high IQ guys but high IQ as well as well rounded social creatures.

Passionate people don’t use the word

This was very relate-able and something that gnaws at me from within on many a quiet night. If someone really loves something, cares about something and has made the effort to become an authority on it – that is a great positive signal there. I remember an IIM interview which was just about pulaav  and really that symbolizes this perfectly. They point out that very often these extracurricular passions can also have great benefits because passionate people try to look for ways to bring their passion in everywhere. It also shows I guess – that you can really care about something if the situation presents itself

Hire learning animals

Learning Agility or Growth Mindset or as someone I know calls it – curiosity, is the other key factor with intelligence & passion to be looking for. The reason for this is specialisation is a ticking time bomb. You may be really really good at something, but there’s a very good chance that suddenly that ability may no longer be relevant. Okay sure, the skills behind that ability may still be relevant – but you’re going to need to reinvent yourself to understand how to re-deploy them. Or basically go further back and use the intellect you used to learn those skills to now learn something else.

How do you find identify who is a learning animal and who isn’t however is not very clear. Pick a recent trend – did you expect this? What did you predict right and what did you get wrong? Why? Okay, surely there’s a better way to pick this trait. Apparently this is supposed to tell you if evolve your thinking and learn from your mistakes. But point taken. Learning Animals is the game you hunt.

The LAX test

Next after Intelligence, Passion and Learning Agility is umm..character? Someone who’s nice apparently – they’ve taken the centuries old example of the guy who’s nice to the receptionist/secretary/cleaning lady winning the race eventually. Fine, I mean I’d love to have people like that around me but sometimes the smartest, most passionate people who’re also great learning animals are absolute pricks. I’m not sure that’s always a dealbreaker. An unethical guy or a cheat – yes. Someone who’s just generally an asshole? Naah, maybe I’d manage with one of them.

The last factor and this is a bit of a cop-out is someone who is interesting, which is where this whole LAX test comes in. Okay this isn’t phrased very well, but essentially a person who is ‘interesting’ is what they’re trying to say. Again, yes for some roles (a C-suite one for instance) and no for others (does it really matter if your best accountant is someone you can’t spend an evening at an airport with?). And on top of that they’ve clubbed the veritable who’s who from HR Jargon Central as Googlyness which consists of – here goes: ambition, drive, team orientation, service orientation, listening and communication skills, bias to action, effectiveness, interpersonal skills, creativity and integrity. Right sure. That was a frax right up there with my attempts to dance at any social gathering.

Insight that can’t be taught

Step right out of Googlyness to saying its okay if your colleague is one you can’t sit down to have a beer with. Huh? This is about diversity – in thought not just in numbers. How different people, different backgrounds, different experiences all add up. There’s a lesson in here for managers who’re trying to build a team and how they should be looking at sourcing people. For now however it’d be a relief to just look beyond ‘gender’ when we talk diversity.

Expand the aperture

Be bold in sourcing. Feeding from all the points above, a smart creative as they call it will pick up the skills needed even if he doesn’t have an exposure to them before. So take risks and expand your sourcing universe. Look at people’s trajectory – how quickly people grow. Yes you may not get a stable tried and tested performer, but there’s the chance of hitting the jackpot with an extraordinary superstar who may do something unthinkably brilliant. And HR Heads can come from law partners, McKinsey consultants and whoever is smart. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the example chosen was an HR Head and not a Finance or a Legal Head [:-|].

Everyone knows someone great

Use referrals as your premier sourcing channel! Everyone knows someone great. Then why isn’t it everyone’s job to recruit that one great person? Recruiters should manage the process but everyone should be involved in hiring. Easier said than done you say? Well, the answer is as usual – measure it. Count referrals, interviews, how quickly feedback forms are filled , enthusiasm to attend recruiting events. Everyone’ll fall in line.

Interviewing is the most important skill

No you don’t become a good interviewer by just rising to the top. Conducting a good interview needs preperation. Do your homework. Make the interview seem like an intellectual discussion. What books are you reading right now? Don’t ask about experiences, ask what was learnt from them. What surprised you about…? How did you pay for college? What’d I see if I looked at your browser history?

Scenario questions are best suitable for senior candidates, generic answers to them are give-aways. Brainteasers are elitist – but hey, it’s okay to be elitist in hiring. The important thing is to make sure your brainteasers aren’t already public knowledge – otherwise you’ll have an host of candidates who pretend to crack them while behaving like they heard them for the first time! 😀 And candidates who ask good questions are surprise surprise – good candidates.

More conventional wisdom : The more you practice about interviewing, the better you’ll get at it. Grab every opportunity you can. For organizations, make it a privilege to interview, not a chore.

Schedule interviews for thirty minutes

Long interviews aren’t necessarily better – better to schedule short ones to cut your losses short. If it’s a good interview, you can always extend it. And beyond a certain number, more interviews don’t help. 5 is a good number.

Have an opinion

The goal of an interview is to take a stand. So encourage that. Intermediate cop-outs should be discouraged. The language of your rating scale can play a role in that at a subconscious level. This is really easier said than done, especially in a committee where you will always have to explain your stance if it’s even slightly different.

Friends don’t let friends hire (or promote) friends

This came up right up front but whom you work with matters more than whom you work for.  So no manager gets to ‘build’ a dream team as he wants, however you swing it. And that’s why hiring decisions should be made by committees. Beyond a size of 5 their incremental value goes down, but the point is it shouldn’t be a unilateral decision. Google has a hierarchy of commitees in fact culminating with a committee of 1 – one of the top honchos. A hiring docket – based on data, not opinion – keeps getting built for every candidate which succinctly keeps adding up the information needed to be allow the eventual committee of one to make a decision in – if he so desires – 120 seconds.

While the sentiment is appreciated this does seem like a lot of paperwork for what is essentially a tick mark activity. I mean is this super important person going to turn down what an hierarchy of committees have recommended (unless he can make some sense of the data which no one else has)? Or will the hierarchy ever allow someone there’re not sure about to reach this level?

Urgency of role isn’t sufficiently important to compromise on quality of hire

Yep. Neva eva. Speed up the process. Restrict time for interviews – half an hour. Restrict number of interviews – 5. (All of these figures arrived at scientifically of course). Mandate prompt interview feedback. Make your dockets better to allow faster decisions. But if you’re not sure, you’re not sure. H1 error – missing a good candidate is better than an H2 error – hiring a wrong candidate.

Disproportionate Rewards

People who do well are paid more. Egalitarianism has no place in today’s world if you want to breed an organization of superstars. Cristiano Ronaldo may be paid more than half of his team put together. That’s cool. And this shouldn’t be restricted by level either. If a minion does something earth-shattering, reward him not his boss. Smart Creatives aren’t swayed by or going to make decisions based on salary. Just pay them what they work, they’ll care more about good work and the chance to bring their pets to office.

This is again running around to catch your own tail. If pay doesn’t matter then why be so fussy about pay? Recognition may be as important as compensation here. And I’m not entirely convinced that smart high performers are not petty or fussy about pay. The urge to compare yourself with your peers is a primeval one which extends from kindergarten students to CEO’s in their ivory towers.

Trade the M&Ms, keep the raisins

This isn’t really a hiring thing per se, but what they’re trying to say is to allow your best people – your M&Ms – to move to bigger and different challenges. Don’t push out people whom you can’t work with or who aren’t working out to someone else in the organization. Smart people will want to move on to other pastures, its up to you to help them find green ones internally.

If you love them, let them go

And there still may be some people who decide to go beyond what you can offer. Convince them to stay, offer them genuine advice on how you can help them do so (looking at all of you startup founders). Sometimes they can take some more time, and that’s time they can (hopefully!) still contribute effectively to you. And relations take time to develop, so someone stepping out of the organization may still be an ally for life. Leverage the power of alumni networks.

Firing Sucks

So don’t hire bad. Bell curves are passe as everyone and their dog has told you by now. If you really think the bottom 10% of your organization maaay be dispensable, it probably is – ideally there should be no one in your team whom you wouldn’t fight tooth and nail to retain. And final lesson, anyone who enjoys firing or keeps that as an option to deal with thing is an issue in himself!



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