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The unsurprising truth behind ‘The surprising thing Google learned about its employees’


In the December 20th 2017 edition of The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss’ column on education at The Washington Post, Cathy N. Davidson aims to burst the STEM mythology about employment. Davidson sets us up to be surprised: “Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company [Google] on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.” 

The big reveal comes when soft skills supposedly top STEM skills in the hiring process: 

“In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last.”

Unfortunately, Davidson doesn’t link to Google’s Project Oxygen, which as it turns out, isn’t about hiring at all. According to the The New York Times (2011), Google undertook this study because: 

“They wanted to build better bosses. So, as only a data-mining giant like Google can do, it began analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. They correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints.” 

The NYT article goes on to outline how Google’s initial approach to management assumed that they should “Leave people alone. Let the engineers do their stuff.”  Management would only have a role if engineers “become stuck”, and then the assumption was that “they’ll ask their bosses, whose deep technical expertise propelled them into management in the first place.” However, “What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Even though Project Oxygen was not about Google’s ‘hiring hypothesis’, Davidson draws a counter-intuitive conclusion aiming to topple the focus on employability – or what now becomes ‘success’ as an employee – and STEM: “Those traits [Google identified] sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?”

But if we step back a moment, there is no lesson about employability and technical training to draw from Google’s hiring practices here, but rather a lesson about what employees want from a good manager. Is Google hiring theatre majors to manager their teams? It’s doubtful, unless they have a deep technical knowledge to go with it. A more pressing problem with the simplistic STEM degree = success narrative is that there are more STEM degrees than jobs (except in computer science) and most of the real job growth is in low-paid, highly feminized and racialised, care work. 

Davison concludes her article with a deep point about what we should really be educating for: “Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.”

If we are really concerned with helping students to thrive in a changing world, why the obsession with Google’s hiring policies? If we want students to be ‘world ready’, why should we care who makes a good manager in Silicon Valley? I am troubled by the Silicon Valley synecdoche where ‘Google’s hiring practices’ stand in for ‘the future’ and ‘the changing world’. Aside from the narrowly technical, it’s not clear that much changes in Silicon Valley at all. According to Google’s diversity record, they have a long way to go: men hold 79% of leadership positions and only 2% of employees are Black.1I have written about this topic here also.

In The Globe and Mail, Tamsin McMahon dissects the toxic masculinity in Silicon Valley that has “somehow managed to replicate the boys’-club trappings of the old economy: tight networks of white males who have graduated from elite universities, untouchable executives and investors, and a cutthroat competitive spirit that rewards companies who place unstoppable growth ahead of ethical considerations. … Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University [link – BD], meanwhile, have determined that Google’s algorithms were six times more likely to display ads for senior executive jobs to men than to women.”

The STEM = success narrative is too simplistic and restrictive, but the same goes for the Silicon Valley synecdoche. It’s also no path to a better future for anyone except the very privileged and few. 

Header image by Carson Arias

References   [ + ]

1. I have written about this topic here also.
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