Hire like Google? For Most Companies, That’s a Bad Idea

Christopher Chabris and Jonathan Wai, Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2014

Laszlo Bock, the head of human resources at Google, made quite a splash with his announcement last year that the technology firm has changed the way it hires people. Gone are the brainteaser-style interview questions that so many candidates abhorred. But also gone, it would seem, is any concern with discovering how smart applicants really are. “GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless . . . . We found that they don’t predict anything,” Bock told the New York Times.

Let’s take Bock at his word and assume that the data-obsessed firm has crunched the numbers rigorously and found that the test scores of the people it hires really don’t predict how well they perform once they are on the job. If Google ranked its new hires by their SAT scores, and found that those in the bottom 10% of the list performed just as well as those in the top 10%, would it mean that traditional measures of intelligence are useless in the business world?

Unfortunately for Bock and his admirers, who range from Thomas Friedman to Rush Limbaugh, the answer is no, and most other firms would be making a mistake to follow Google’s lead.

Here’s why. First, decades of quantitative research in the field of personnel psychology have shown that across fields of employment, measurements of “general cognitive ability”—which is another way of referring to the old-fashioned concept of intelligence or IQ—are consistently the best tools employers have to predict which new employees will wind up with the highest performance evaluations or the best career paths. We shouldn’t rush to assume that Google, with its private data, has suddenly refuted all that work.

How could Google be seeing no correlation between IQ and performance in their company? For the same reason that, say, there is no correlation between height and scoring in pro basketball. The average NBA player is almost 6 feet 7 inches tall, which is taller than 99% of the U.S. adult male population. The NBA selects its players based on height already, and it selects people who are outliers. Those NBA players facing one another are almost all extremely tall, which means factors other than height explain scoring. But put a team of NBA players up against a random bunch of guys, and height will make all the difference.

{snip}

Bock pointed out that the fraction of people at Google without a college degree has increased over time and is now as high as 14% on some product teams. This means, however, that more than 86% of people at Google do have a college education (or more), and most of them come from the most elite schools. {snip}

These highly selective institutions have, by definition, already filtered students based on high school GPAs, SAT or ACT scores, and other factors. {snip}

What about those Googlers without college degrees? It’s true that, in the world of programming, a college degree is not a through ticket, but a clear demonstration of one’s competence is. Facebook uses Kaggle Recruit—a competition to program solutions to real-world software problems—to find people for its data team. Microsoft ran Code4Bill (Gates), a talent search in India that assessed analytical skills and coding ability, and currently holds the Imagine Cup.

{snip}

Researchers have long known that standardized tests—notwithstanding how they might be marketed or promoted—mainly measure general cognitive ability, and that general cognitive ability is highly predictive of educational and occupational success in the broad population. The small number of companies at the very top of their industries—like Google in technology—can afford to ignore or downplay these facts if they wish, because their candidates come preselected for high intelligence. For those companies, intelligence may not matter as much as leadership, creativity, conscientiousness, social skill and other virtues once an employee is on board.

The rest of the business world should not jump on Google’s bandwagon. All those other qualities matter, and which are most important may vary by firm and line of work. But having an idea of how well a candidate thinks abstractly, solves novel problems and learns new things is important no matter what the job or situation. Those qualities are precisely what general cognitive ability is, regardless of how you label it. If you ignore intelligence when hiring, you do so at your peril.

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  • Freedoooom

    I have no doubt Google is probably right about this, but its a unique case.

    Its kind of like surgeons having bad handwriting like other doctors, they have steady hands for surgery, but their handwriting sucks.

    • r j p

      Doctors really don’t have bad hand writing.
      They essentially write prescriptions in code.
      And that is why people think they have bad handwriting,
      because they can’t understand what that little piece of paper says.
      Prescriptions forgery would explode if not for this.

    • Katherine McChesney

      Surgeons take a dose of lithium before surgery to steady their hands. I know this as I once dated a Surgeon at a nearby hospital.

      • r j p

        I knew a nurse that said she would take a Valium before class tests.
        I have personally found that a drink before going to an interview calms my nerves.
        Medication is not necessarily bad.

        • I hear substance use is prevalent in the media, as well, for similar reasons. There’s a good chance the host and some of the guests on a given talk show you’re watching have been drinking before coming on. I heard the author of “The Late Night Wars” say in an interview that David Letterman used to down several Hershey bars right before each show just so he was flying on a sugar high. Sugar, alcohol, Valium, nicotine… whatever gets it done for you.

  • Who thinks that Google isn’t selecting for intelligence just because they don’t put much faith in GPAs and test scores? What do GPAs and test scores have to do with intelligence these days? Google probably knows what Education Realist knows, that Asians cram and cheat, so the GPAs and test scores that Asian job applicants present are fluff.

    • pcmustgo

      They probably have a lot of college/high school drop out geniuses there, computer geeks and nerds. Exceptions to the rule in terms of your average “drop-out”.

      • APaige

        You are right. They will attract the best programmers not just the best educated. I once interviewed for a job as web programmer (perl) for a super-major company when the internet was still ‘young’-as was I. I did not get the job, but the guy conducting the interview told me he once hired a guy who came to his interview wearing PJ.s. He got the job because of his coding skills.

    • NM156

      They lie. No such thing as a geek learning electrical engineering or systems analysis in his or her bedroom during high school. Google’s entire infrastructure depends on educated, professional elites from highly selective universities.

  • “GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless . . . . We found that they don’t predict anything,”
    ______________________________
    I smell a rat. If test scores are worthless, then Google has the perfect excuse to put Blacks and Mexicans in line for employment ahead of Whites and Asians. This will make the Obamacrats very happy and win more government benefits for the company.

    • Aditya Vivek Barot

      OR: as “QD” observed, Asians cram (and to a lesser extent) cheat on these tests which does not demonstrate analytic ability or creativity – the lifeblood of Silicon Valley.

      Perhaps this is a ruse to ensure that only high-IQ candidates, overwhelmingly white (Jew & Gentile) will be hired as opposed to women, blacks, Asians, and other NAMs.

      • dd121

        There are plenty of high IQ white women who do quite well as programmers. They tend not to like the job of programming, but they can do it.

    • dd121

      I’m sure that a GPA isn’t predictive of success in jobs that require high cognitive ability. That would go to the Stanford-Binet, SAT, ACT and similar.
      I suspect that Google Inc. will to continue to find ways of hiring smart people.

      • Aditya Vivek Barot

        From what I gather, programming used to be a female dominated field which has reverted to male dominance in recent years. The reasons for this transformation are, to the layperson, unclear. I’d be happy to learn any insights you can share.

        Thanks.

        • Tim_in_Indiana

          I’ve never heard of a period in which programming was a female dominated field. There was a time during WWII when too many men were out on the battlefield and women were needed to calculate the ballistics tables in their stead. This was a temporary situation borne out of necessity.

          • Aditya Vivek Barot

            All I heard were second-hand reports from computer engineers. I roomed with computer engineers/programmers in college and know a few in El Lay as a very dear friend is a DBA.

        • dd121

          Starting in the late ’60s when programming took off as a commercial enterprise women were never dominant in the field. Don’t know where you got that. Some of the early workers in the the ’40s and ’50s are now promoted by the creators of new history to be important in the early development the field. I think some may have worked on compilers. I’m not trying to take away anything they accomplished.

          I’ve personally worked with some very competent female programmers. Mostly, they seemed to want to get into management because they didn’t really like doing that job. Just like guys like to tinker with cars and electronics, so too do guys like to tinker with computer stuff. Not so much the girls.

    • JohnEngelman

      A lot of people want to believe that. Stephen J. Gould made a good living saying it in his book “The Mismeasure of Man.” I doubt he believed it.

  • IstvanIN

    My employer has every new applicant write a brief paragraph before the interview and then read a brief paragraph at the beginning of the interview. Amazing how many college graduates can not write a simple sentence or read a simple paragraph. Amazing.

    • Aditya Vivek Barot

      Mine made me take a three-hour test (and a group interview and two personal interviews) before I was considered.

      • r j p

        The Wonderlic is fun. The NFL uses it, and other fields are starting to.
        It’s essentially a speed IQ test.
        30 practice problems in 8 minutes, then 50 questions in 12 minutes.

  • dd121

    The Google spokesman is being disingenuous at best. The code they write is created by VERY high IQ people and they know it. From experience I can say without any equivocation that the lowest 10% on IQ tests are totally incapable of writing computer programs of any complexity.

  • pcmustgo

    Google’s also extremely pro-immigration and all the immigrant workers there fly little foreign flags outside their office- it’s company policy. It’s very multi-nationalist/globalist.

  • MooTieFighter

    College credentials will lose some credibility in the future. We have allowed so many to slide by, honor quotas, affirmative action, online degrees, etc…. It simply does not mean what it used to. I have met many applicants with multiple degrees that I would not let manage my car payments. With that said IQ and real intelligence is a different category; however, this will not work out in the blacks favor, at all.

  • Spartacus

    I never miss a chance to post this :

    • Alexandra1973

      That twisted logic still makes me dizzy. I’ve never understood why anyone would try to “keep anyone down” just because of skin color.

      Turns out it’s not the case, never has been.

  • Marc Zuckurburg

    The way I hire at Facebook isn’t such a mystery.

    For me, it’s only the H1B visa holders that are best and the brightest!

  • Tim_in_Indiana

    The authors are basing this piece on an entirely false assumption.

    Google does NOT discard intelligence in hiring. It may not go by test scores, but it can find plenty of other ways to filter out the intelligent from the unintelligent, such as through previous accomplishments.

    There are few better tests of intelligence than trying to bend a recalcitrant computer to your will. Computers don’t take pity on programmers and pretend they’re doing a good job just to avoid hurting their feelings.

    Bock pointed out that the fraction of people at Google without a college degree has increased over time and is now as high as 14% on some product teams.

    So what? Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college. A degree is not synonymous with intelligence.

    Google makes the best search engine and some of the best interfaces out there. It would not be able to do this if it did not have ways of separating the top performers from the underachievers and promoting the best and the brightest to the top positions.

    IQ tests are not the only ways of doing this.

    • IstvanIN

      You mean a BS in 19th Century Trans-Afro Studies isn’t an indication of intelligence?

      • Edruezzi

        19th century trans-afro studies: does that mean black transvestites in the 1800s? I mean, without antibiotics or anesthesia and the germ-theory of disease, could anybody survive the required surgical procedures in the 1800s.

        • IstvanIN

          They had eunics a lot earlier than that.

  • John Ambrose

    We now have the LA Times on record for acknowledging that “IQ [tests] are consistently the best tools employers have to predict which new employees will wind up with the highest performance evaluations or the best career paths.”

    So why again is legalizing millions of Mexicans with an average IQ of 89 a good idea?

    • JohnEngelman

      So why again is legalizing millions of Mexicans (average IQ of 89) a good idea?

      – John Ambrose

      That sounds like a question on an IQ test I cannot answer.

      • Alexandra1973

        Do you have to be truthful?

  • Einsatzgrenadier

    There’s no such thing as intelligence or “general cognitive ability.” Everybody has the capacity to become a rocket scientist, provided they’re exposed to the right environment and we throw enough money at them. If blacks and hispanics are underperforming academically and economically, it’s because of white privilege and institutional racism. We’re all the same and we all bleed red. This means that we all have a right to equal outcomes, rather than equal opportunities. Did I forget to mention that race doesn’t exist?

    • Edruezzi

      I don’t know about the more rarefied precincts of theoretical physics or pure math but most students of average intelligence can become a rocket scientist if given the right preparation.

  • Magician

    I actually know quite a few people who work for some of the well known high tech firms around the world such as Google and Apple, and there are actually quite a few people who quit working at Google after working there for a while, or refused a job offer from Google, because Google is simply another company and it is not interested at all in turning each and every employee into a millionaire one day. Its entry-level employees get paid neither well nor poorly. Lesser-known start-up companies pay its employees significantly better.

    Another guy that works at Apple did not tell me exactly how much he gets paid, but he just reminded me that his family members would not be overly impressed to hear the exact amount of his salary.

  • Dale McNamee

    It’s only a matter of time before Goog;e’s products become crap…If not so already…

    • Ron Cheaters

      I’ve recently been booted and deleted from Youtube because I posted on a video which was about a black in San Francisco who murdered a couple of white girls.. there was a lot of evidence agqinst him. But they brought up that they had found the imprints of Air Jordans early in the show.. before any other info.. so I wrote “Air Jordans.. as soon as I heard that, I knew the suspect was black”
      I got IP banned for that. So think about it.

      • Alexandra1973

        I sometimes watch “Hardcore Pawn” on YouTube and people are dropping the n-bomb right and left in the comments. I’ve commented (without using The En Word) and so far my account is fine.

  • r j p

    Grades don’t matter? BS.
    The Google hiring process lasts 6 months I am told.
    Multiple anal probings by teams of people.

  • disqus_Xz3UA6obwj

    Google has an egalitarian agenda and they will lie to advance their cherished dogma.

    • Edruezzi

      Google makes very few physical products and so intellectual property is important to it, especially given that it competes in a zero-sum game with Microsoft, Apple and so on. It has to hire the best and it will find a way to find them. Colleges that admit less well prepared students can pass on the costs to the state or to the wealthier students or out of state students and so on or inflate grades or whatever. Google cannot afford to do that.

  • Edruezzi

    Let’s see how long Google can last if it hires dashing illiterates for some years. The difficulty of academics weeds out the unintelligent and the lazy and those without tenacity. Grades are an excellent proxy for a lot of characteristics.

  • Alexandra1973

    When I was 11 I was familiar with BASIC. In fact I was able to come up with short little programs. Call clear, call color, hexadecimal system for colors, all the fun little commands…has it been 30 years already!?

    But that’s no doubt peanuts compared to what’s out there today. I can probably make up my own mods for my Sims games, for example, but you have to know what does what to what and I just don’t have the free time to mess with it. Meh, I’m proud of myself for having made a name template for TS2 so townie Sims don’t have off-the-wall names! (After someone showed me how to do it, that is…. LOL)

    But it’s best to learn to do for yourself if you can, there are situations where it can save you some time and money. I once fixed a car with a paper clip–the accelerator cable had detached somewhere in my engine, so my gas pedal just stayed to the floor, and I just reattached the thing!

  • Edruezzi

    About Asians: a while ago a neighbor suggested I have my kid learn Mandarin. Well, from current international headlines Asians can neither fly planes nor find downed ones. So much for the coming Asian century.