Monday, April 05, 2010

Hiring Committee Stories

Google's engineering hiring is unique as far as I know. Patterned after faculty hiring by top universities, Google engineering had no hiring managers. None. This meant that all the usual job search advice by any number of books and web-sites didn't apply to Google. Bypassing HR and trying to get to a hiring manager didn't do any good. About the only thing that could have been useful would have been to get a strong employee referral (i.e., get an employee who thought the world of you to say so when he submitted your resume). The interview process went like this: you would interview with a panel of engineers, who would then write feedback to an internal database, which would then go to a hiring committee (also composed of engineers) to evaluate the feedback and provide a go/no-go decision. Since engineers might have to live with the code (and personality) of a bad hire, the hiring committee tended to be conservative on hires. Phone interviews and in person interviews were conducted almost exclusively by engineers, with directors brought in only if the candidate requested a meeting with a manager explicitly, or if the candidate himself was interviewing for a manager/director position.

For reasons explained in my book, I ended up on the Site Reliability hiring committee. At that time, the hiring committee was composed out of relatively senior engineers: Lucas, Ben, Bogdan, and various engineering big-wigs like Bill and Urs. Frequently, when the committee found feedback on hiring to be ambiguous, it would assign another interview to an engineer well-known to be decisive (i.e., someone who would be willing to stick his neck out and say "hire" or "no-hire"). This happened surprisingly frequently because many people dislike rejecting people, and occasionally, someone would write feedback that wasn't really informative enough.

We didn't always have the luxury of a second-interview, however, since some folks had to be flown in from far-away places. Google was truly a global company, and in its pursuit of talent would consider resumes from literally anywhere in the world. Now, I didn't think that Google's interviews were particularly hard, compared to startups and other well-known firms in the industry. In general, quality companies reject a large number of engineers because most people who call themselves programmers can't code.

A few incidents came to mind as being particularly funny:

One day, I came to the hiring committee and started reading feedback from interviewers. One of them turned out to be a candidate I had interviewed earlier in the week. I was doing as much as 5 interviews a week at this time, so I didn't always remember the candidate by the time I got to the committee. Lucas's feedback for the candidate started with, "I spent the first five minutes of my interview calming the candidate down after his interview with Piaw..." When the others got to this part of the feedback there was a lot of laughter. I think that was the moment I realized that Bogdan and I would get along, because he high-fived me across the table. The candidate was a no-hire, but I don't think it was because I was particularly harsh.

At one point, we came across a candidate who had to be flown over from the other side of the world. Since we knew there was to be no chance of re-evaluating this candidate if the feedback was insufficient, we asked the recruiters to make sure that we had decisive, experienced interviewers for this candidate, who seemed pretty senior. She replied, "How about Piaw, Ben, Bogdan, and Lucas?" When he heard this, Bill put his head in his hands and said, "Why don't we just save ourselves and the candidate some time and just send him a rejection letter now?" The room burst into laughter.

Our committee took hiring seriously. We agonized over many hiring (and no-hiring) decisions for many years, learned the idiosyncrasies of many interviewers, and tried to match them up to candidates as well as possible. It was very high intensity work, and on one or two occasions I had to go head-to-head and argue my case in front of VPs because I felt strongly about one candidate or another. I didn't always win, but at every point everyone's opinions were considered. I'm sure we made mistakes, but looking back, I'm not sure I would have found a better process. I for one think that the decisions the committee made were far better than the decisions each of us individually would have made.
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