Google isn’t big on college degrees, although the search giant is inundated with applicants touting perfect GPAs from Ivy League schools. Google’s chairman and head of hiring, Laszlo Bock, has given a few insights in the New York Times on how he sorts through a multitude of bright applicants. The upshot is that Google values the skills and experiences that candidates get in college, but a degree doesn’t tell them much about talent or grit.
You don’t need a college degree to be talented
“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people,” Bock said.
Many businesses “require” a college degree; at Google, the word “college” isn’t even its official guide to hiring. With the rise of self-paced college courses and vocational learning, plenty of driven people can teach themselves all of the necessary skills to work at the company.
Demonstrate a skill, not an expertise
“If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an HR person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do,'” Bock said.
College degrees are, almost by definition, a certificate of expertise. A degree in journalism is a giant badge meant to tell the world that you know at least a little bit about the trade of telling stories and interviewing people.
But a degree really doesn’t say what a graduate can do. Can they present an idea in front of a crowd? Can they build a website? Can they think interestingly about problems, or did they just pass some tests?
Logic is learned, and stats are superimportant
“Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn,” Bock said. “I took statistics at business school, and it was transformative for my career. Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.”
Logical thinking goes way beyond programming. For instance, back in 2010, Facebook put up a blog post claiming that political candidates with more fans were more likely to win their race, implying that getting more Facebook fans would improve their chances. In no uncertain terms, this was a phenomenally bad argument.
Maybe candidates who were already more popular just happened to have more fans. And what about candidates with fewer fans that won their races? In these cases, why did fans not matter?
The Facebook employees who ran the statistics understood some basic logic, but they didn’t demonstrate analytical thinking. Sifting through data requires training in the latest techniques for understanding causality and creatively exploring patterns (FYI: Facebook has gotten a lot better about these types of political claims since 2010).
“It looks like the thing that separates out the capable students from the really successful ones is not so much their knowledge…but their persistence at something,” Google chairman, Eric Schmidt said.
For some people, college is just really easy. They can play 10 rounds of beer-pong until 4 a.m. and still ace an organic-chemistry exam the next day while their studious roommate is up to their eyeballs in color-coded flash cards and squeaks by with a B.
A college degree can’t tell Google whether an applicant is naturally smart or is a hard worker. Apparently, Google would rather mold someone with grit rather than someone who is a lazy high-achiever.
If you go to college, focus on skills
“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college … most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going and what they want to get out of it,” Block said.
Both Bock and Schmidt are adamant that most people should go to college but that skills and experience are more important than the stamp of expertise. Bock says Google is looking for the kinds of projects candidates completed or what they accomplished at an internship.
I honestly can’t remember the last time someone asked me what my major in college was. If you want a job at Google (or some other prestigious company), don’t focus so much on your major, and make sure you graduate with all the skills and experiences you need to do awesome things in the world.