Geniuses wanted


Internally at Google it’s dubbed the “Lake Wobegon Strategy” – “only hire candidates who are above the mean of your current employees.”

That principle, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company says, enables it to maintain skill levels while roughly doubling in size each year.

It’s one of the few constants in the company’s every-changing profile, according to a Google Canada executive.

Hiring right continues to be one of [our] core objectives, said Wendy Muller, general manager of Google Canada Inc. She was addressing the Toronto chapter of Wired Women Society earlier this week. Wired Women is an organization that encourages women to actively participate in the tech sector.

Worldwide, Muller said, Google is expanding rapidly, taking on the equivalent of 19 employees a day. Last year, it doubled its global work force to nearly 6,800.

Despite such rapid expansion, she said, this strategy of hiring the best talent makes recruitment at Google far more than a mere numbers game.

It’s a strategy the company has adopted since its early years, she said, and was used by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to survive and forge ahead in a fiercely competitive market. “One of the most important lessons Larry and Sergey learned is to hire [exceptionally] talented people.”

When Google entered the Web search space, the territory was already carved up among the likes of Excite, Alta Vista, Infoseek, Ask Jeeves and Web Crawler.

It was widely believed there was no money in search engines and Google, then only a collection of servers mostly borrowed from Stanford University, was actually named BackRub.

But with an initial infusion of US$100,000 from “angel investor” Andy Bechtolstein in 1998, the pair moved operations to the garage of a well wisher Susan Wojcicki and began work in earnest.

Muller said the fledgling company used bungee cords for earthquake proofing and held servers to the wall with Velcro tape – “talk about shoestring budgets!”

Wojcicki, who was working for Intel at the time, didn’t come on board at Google until Page and Brin moved out of her garage. She is currently the company’s vice-president for product management.

Muller said Google’s main advantage was “they had a product that was better and one that scaled.” But the challenge was to find a way to make money out of it.

Early adaptors of the search engine included engineers and techies at Stanford University. “You had to be good if these people were using your [product].”

Quoting from Wojcicki’s papers, Muller said some lessons learned during this period were: build a product that users love, think big, solve an important problem, rally the company around a vision, and hire the best people.

The Google Canada exec said employees are encouraged to question accepted practices and invent the right one for themselves, base decisions on data, and wait for the information they need to do the right thing.

She recalled one early Google hiring scheme involved a mathematical formula and Web address pasted on a billboard in the highway. People who took notice, and visited the site to solve the problem, were led to another site with another puzzle.

Eventually the inquisitive prospect was led to a page inviting him or her to the Google office for an interview.

When wild banner ads were being pasted all over Web pages, Google kept its screen clean and settled for plain text sponsored links. The company also instigated a shift in advertising trend by charging clients only when people clicked at the client’s site.

With Google employees, Page and Brin enforced the 70/20/10 rule.

While it wasn’t done in the early Google, the company invests a hefty amount on exploration. Google spends 70 per cent on core products, 20 per cent on related products, and 10 per cent on research.

Engineers are encouraged to spend 20 per cent of their time on creative projects. This move was responsible for such successes as Google News but it also meant people had to be comfortable with chaos, Muller said.

The same strategy drove the development of the popular Google Earth, Google Trends and the recent Google Video.

Asked what worries Brin and Page these days, Muller replied: ” they lie awake thinking who could be the next duo working in a garage.”

The propensity to explore new technologies and revenue streams is in keeping with Google’s character, said David Senf, analyst and manager of Canadian application development and infrastructure software of Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd.

Senf said he sees the company steadily moving away from the standard search and indexing market. “Even Web advertising – now at US$115 billion a year – is a finite market.”

He expects to see more involvement is projects like Google Spreadsheets and Google Enterprise, which saw the company step into the business intelligence market.

“This does not mean the death of packaged software; Google only represents a drop in the bucket of information technology’s one trillion dollar market. But people have to keep an eye on Google because it’s an indicator of where the market is going,” said Senf.


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