I keep reading that the big tech companies, most notably Google and Facebook, are finding that job performance isn't highly correlated to an employee's college grades or even the reputation of the school attended. And I also understand that tech companies are less inclined to ask interview questions such as "Why are manhole covers round?" Apparently the answers to those questions don't predict future employee success.

So now Google and Facebook and perhaps others are using secret new methods of collecting information on the Internet to identify great candidates they can poach from other companies.


Sorry, my bullshit detector just went off.

I think what is really going on is that employee success in the tech industry is most correlated with luck. But if you work in Human Resources, and your job involves identifying good employees before they do something great, you need some sort of flavorful bullshit to make it seem as if there is science to what you do. Whenever I hear that someone has a secret algorithm, or they discovered something while data mining, I get highly suspicious.

In my experience, people who managed to get good grades from prestigious schools are indeed far more effective than people who didn't. I expect a Stanford grad to do be smarter and more effective than a Chico State grad at least 80% of the time.

But there have also been studies showing that the worst kind of work group is one that has too many smart people. Ideally, you want one smart person and several competent followers on a team, or so the studies suggest. So it doesn't surprise me that Google or Facebook could be hiring geniuses and experiencing project gridlock as the brainiacs stand around arguing. So that might be the problem.

I wonder how anyone can identify a great employee working for another company when that employee has only worked on teams. Often it is the team dynamic, the timing of the project, the chemistry of the group, the effectiveness of management, and a hundred other factors that create success. Most of it looks like luck.

I can see how a "Moneyball" approach works in the limited case of baseball. A batter is a member of a team, but the team has little influence on how he hits. A player's batting average is all about his own skill. But how do you evaluate, for example, an employee whose every move is part of a larger collaborative effort? You can't moneyball that.

I think the secret sauce that makes some groups successful is the chemistry of the team, along with luck, of course. And, as I mentioned, good team chemistry might mean having one smart person and several followers. The problem is implementing that system. Could a manager really get away with organizing teams by brightness level? "Okay, team. Susan is the smart one and the rest of you are . . . the other ones. Go do something awesome."



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Aug 4, 2013
Got to remember: the guy that got the position isn't necessarily the best person that could be found. It's the person that did the best in the interview.
Jul 30, 2013
There's no one answer. I know myself to be very capable in my line, but nearly worthless as a manager of others. At the same time, I've have excellent managers who matched my skills and then some. And some who somehow were excellent managers of teams whose talents they didn't fully understand at all -- but respected. http://duhoc360.com/du-hoc-chau-a/du-hoc-han-quoc
Jul 17, 2013
"I can see how a "Moneyball" approach works in the limited case of baseball. A batter is a member of a team, but the team has little influence on how he hits. A player's batting average is all about his own skill. But how do you evaluate, for example, an employee whose every move is part of a larger collaborative effort? You can't moneyball that."

You can, or else there would be no intelligence. This is the same problem faced by neurons, which need to increase your intelligence by learning things. You do something that your brain decides was probably right or wrong, and then it has to decide which of a billion neural connections contributed to that result, and reward or punish them. There are different approaches to this problem, such as temporal difference learning (which the brain uses) or backpropagation (which it doesn't). It can be done, but you need a lot more data.
Jul 17, 2013
"In my experience, people who managed to get good grades from prestigious schools are indeed far more effective than people who didn't. I expect a Stanford grad to do be smarter and more effective than a Chico State grad at least 80% of the time."

You have to specify whether they attended Stanford before or after 1975. Before the seventies, the main filter to get through, the filter that prevented most people from attending elite universities, was intelligence. After the seventies, it was wealth.
Jul 16, 2013
There is, unfortunately no direct answer to this, even with one individual who may behave differently in different !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ To give an example, an ex colleague of mine was a part of a team where he was constantly considered to be what you would call a 'bad hire'. Not getting along with superiors, fights with colleagues, laid back attitude, everything you could think of.

However, the entire team itself was soon poached by a competitor firm (this is an Indian situation I am talking of) and naturally, he was one who did not move along with them. This left 3-4 of us in the department to take the leadership in a crisis scenario.

There was an overnight change in the guy! Now in the drivers seat, over the next 5-6 months, he turned the crisis situation into a golden opportunity for recapturing market share. He was able to handle situations and provide solutions in cases where the erstwhile "star performers" had been at a complete loss as to what to do.

Just an example of how one person can be suited to one set of individuals / situation, while not to another
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Jul 15, 2013
Scott, your b.s. detector may be premature. I doubt they are saying that they can replace the whole interview and selection process, just how to identify which candidates to enter the process. For facebook, it might be as simple an algorithm as 'find people who only log on outside of business hours'. Coupling that metric with good grades would likely yield some very motivated and self-disciplined people.
Jul 15, 2013
I've been interviewing tech people for 15-20 years, and I think any claim by a company that they have created a better interview process is most likely BS, because the ability most well correlated to an employee's success is the one that you cannot get at in an interview: how well he can overcome problems, what I call "unstuckness".

At my company, almost everyone is smart, like top 1% smart. Even the dumb people here are smart, just like that crappy fourth-string QB on your favorite football team who is actually an unbelievably gifted athlete, just not quite AS unbelievably gifted as the three guys in front of him. Excuse the pun, but hiring for brains is a no-brainer; you can tell how smart someone is in five minutes, determine their skill level in 15 more, and get a pretty accurate read on their experience with another 10.

What you can't do is to truly get at their ability to overcome problems, for the simple reason that that ability only manifests itself over time. I've never seen an accurate way of judging this character trait without watching someone's performance over many months. Like jakesdad, in interviews I use questions that require the candidate to ask for clarification, but I do it mostly to see if they WILL ask -- that willingness being the best approximation of unstuckness that I have found. It's not perfect, because people act differently in interviews than they do when actually working. They can keep up an effort for an hour or two that they can't (or won't) over the long haul. But it's better than nothing.
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Jul 15, 2013
Hey Scott, propos of nothing, have you seen pacific rim yet?
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2013
There is an easy predictor is success. Diligence. Smart diligent people will do better than dumb diligent people, but even dumb diligent people o better than lazy, smart people. What they don't understand, they learn. They concentrate. They try harder when they fail, and they keep looking for new way to do things. It takes 10 000 hours to become an expert and someone diligent gets through those 10 000 hours in a shorter time than someone who plays golf half the time.

That said, when forming a project team choose [only] one really smart "left-field" thinker (tech smart), one socially adept person (who is everyone's shoulder to cry on, organises lunches and team stuff out of love not duty) (people smart), one charismatic, ego centric and good looking guy that runs the project (politically smart), and one anally-retentive idiot that everyone can hate but keeps the reports and documentation in line (financially smart). You need one "set" of these misfits for about every 15-20 people on a team. The rest of them are the ones who do the real work, and should not fall into one of these categories.
Jul 13, 2013

" Raw brainpower is over-rated and does not necessarily make one a good team member or leader. Emotional stability is a good trait. Good work habits, consideration for one's teammates are plusses too. Attributes negatively correlated with very high IQ?"

From what I recall, attributes like kindness and compassion correlate very much with high IQ.

However, success in life does not. It increases with IQ up until 125-130, and then drops off.

The smartest ones tend not to make much money. I imagine philosophers in hermit-caves, to be honest.
Jul 13, 2013
I think you make a good point, which is that success in tech is mostly random and many of the people at Google think they're there for competence, when they're succeeding because they're there. Common mistake.

However, I think you misread his comment.

It wasn't that what school you attended wasn't important.

It's that (1) your GPA and (2) your performance on trick questions in interviews are irrelevant.

GPA is often a function of detail memorization and evading professor trickery. This has zero correlation to real-world success, which demands an entirely different thought process.

The Google interview questions were in my view completely dumb. Thought-experiments are neat and all but don't measure the ability to apply knowledge, which is what the job requires.
Jul 12, 2013
WTF is wrong with Chico State? Just sayin ..
Jul 12, 2013
"If I put a person into a job, and he or she does not perform, I have made a mistake. I have no business blaming the person, no business invoking the 'Peter Principle', no business complaining. I am to blame."
Peter Drucker
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 12, 2013
The problem I have with the assumption that good grades/school = better employee is, most major inventions that have benefited society were created by dropouts. Perhaps all good grades/school does is create a better corporate lemming. Which is fine since the world needs great corporate lemmings. But the true genius comes from those who abhor structure.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 12, 2013
until recently I was a director at a reasonably top 25 .com (not google or FB but in the next tier below them). I batted >.800 on my hires (~a dozen or so) which is not a huge p value but more than anecdotal. my basic strategy is to ask questions that force the candidate to ask me questions - I can tell a lot more from a candidate's requests for clarification than I can from their answers.

secondly, I'm far more interested in how they support their answers than what they are - ex: I like to ask "Android or iPhone & why?" it forces them to take a stand on a 50/50 ? they have no idea what my position is. if they hedge I have no use for them! I actually had one say windoze mobile & while I don't agree I was impressed w/their argument (& willingness to answer outside my options). I much rather hear a well-reasoned argument for BlackBerry than a fanboy/kool-aid drinker...

finally, I'm a big believer in "you can't coach speed!" there are four quadrants to a candidate: intelligence, attitude, knowledge & experience - most people hire for the last two but those are the most malleable! you can fix those & you can move the attitude needle some (varies by individual) but you can't move the first. I can take a guy who runs a 4.3 & teach him the playbook/give him reps but I can't take a 4.8 guy who know the book & get him to run a 4.3. I know HR doesn't want to hear that but it is what it is..
Jul 11, 2013
An interesting post.

I have a different take on the subject. People seem to perform most effectively, both as individuals and in teams, when the goal they're attempting to reach is both perceived to be important and agreed to by the group.

The goal also has to be clear-cut. If the goal is vague or open to interpretation, people spend more time arguing about it than trying to reach it.

We've all seen the old sci-fi ploy where aliens invade the Earth. Suddenly, all the people in every country on the planet put aside their petty differences and work to defeat the Evil Empire. There you go.

I recall being involved in the sale of a complex piece of software, made up of many modules. The very knowledgeable domain-expert designers would argue for literally months over the most ridiculous minutiae of functionality. They both had the goal of having their point of view win out. There was no person in charge to focus them back on the real goal, to wit: getting the frigging software done so we could sell it.

I also have been involved in situations where a new sales 'leader' was brought in. The 'leader' would say things like, "Our goal is to increase sales by 30% this year. So all of your quotas are going up by 30%" And that would be it.

When the 'leader' would be asked what additional resources, products or investment would be brought in that would lead to this increase, they had no answer. I call that 'management by magic;' such managers set a goal that can only be reached, in their company's current environment, by waving a magic wand.

Much of success, I have found, starts with leadership. The leader must be able to set ambitious but realistic goals, and then build a vision of how those goals can be reached. The employees he or she then hires should be appropriately skilled people who strongly believe in the goal, understand how they will gain personally from it, and both share and agree with the vision of how that goal can be acheived.

The leader must also credibly demonstrate how those employees will benefit when the goal is reached. Vague promises of possible future largess are ignored by all but the most ignorant. If the leader attempts to snooker the employees in this way, he or she will build a culture in which a bunch of Wallys waddle around looking for ways to assign blame for the inevitable failure on someone else.

American management, in general, has two fatal flaws: first, they believe punishment works better than reward. Second, they blame people rather than processes for failure. Dr. W. Edwards Deming tried to point that out to US businesses; they ignored him. So, he went to the Japanese. They embraced him, and then they promptly started to kick our butts in manufacturing quality and efficiency.

Scott believes that success in business is a matter of luck, and that being able to hire effective employees is a combination of luck and chemistry. If that were the case, the most effective hiring solution would be to put all the candidates' names in a hat and hire the ones you pulled out first.

I can now see why Scott has never updated and re-released "The Dilbert Principle."

+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 11, 2013
I think you're mostly on the mark, but I wouldn't use the word "smarter" when comparing leaders to followers. The best follower may be smarter than the best leader; leadership and IQ probably have very little correlation. I would prefer a team in which everyone was brilliant (and certainly want no duds) but with COMPATIBLE personalities. Building one is an art and probably cannot be reduced to science. It's a hallmark of good managers (more so than technical competence).

I believe that hiring is also an art. Test are probably quite effective for technical positions, but how do you test someone for a marketing role? Or management (running a department)? And some people hate tests and don't do well on them even though they're very competent.
Jul 11, 2013
Generations alternate - one which achieves and one which falls back - often in spite of a much better education.

Attendance at top Universities has more to do with how well Daddy (and/or Mummy) did than how good the kid is. And the easy route - having things paid for - hardly incentivises them to go out and create for themselves.

What Google is after is not the kids who took the easy ride through school and University on their daddy's coat-tails, but those who have learned to think along the way.

The Richard Bransons (who had a Stowe and Oxbridge education, but rebelled and set up and made a success of a publishing company while at school).

In Maslov's hierarchy of needs, there is a 3 level pyramid. In the HR world, academic success only gets you to first level. It doesn't measure Emotional Intelligence which is much more important.

Google is not looking for the "bricks in the wall" churned out by the industrial age academic system. It is looking for the linchpin, the artist, the "Think Different" individual. Much harder to quantify.
Jul 11, 2013
Whtllnew: The original Peter Principle was that the smart ones would be promoted until they reached a job they couldn't do -- their level of incompetence. There they'd remain, until the entire organization chart was inevitably filled with people not quite capable.

Then there's the more Dilbertian view, that management is sort of a priesthood/pseudoscience where confident incompetents place themselves -- and others like themselves -- in charge of the people who actually know how to do stuff.

There's no one answer. I know myself to be very capable in my line, but nearly worthless as a manager of others. At the same time, I've have excellent managers who matched my skills and then some. And some who somehow were excellent managers of teams whose talents they didn't fully understand at all -- but respected.

And of course, a few who thought being allowed to delegate tasks they couldn't do personally made them John Galt. These last never grasp they're merely facilitators of the competent, not their masters.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 11, 2013
Interestingly, in the banking industry, occasionally you'll see when people are hired away from one bank to another, they bring their whole team (usually 5-10 people) with them. This is considered the top level of poaching because essentially the whole institutional knowledge about a particular area will go, as well as the relationships with the clients.

That said, usually the team isn't as successful in the new environment, though you get the occasional mega success story, which is usually followed by the team splitting off and forming their own hedge fund for their particular type of financial product.
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