Googling To New Heights
Laszlo Bock, Google's
first vice president of people operations, seems the right mix of
leadership skills, respect for smart people and love of fun. But
it's uncertain how long the honeymoon will last.
During his first few
weeks on the job as Google's first vice president of people
operations, Laszlo Bock was struck by how so closely aligned work is
"People bring their dogs
to work," he says. "There's a lot of great water-cooler
Ping-pong tables in
every building and massage chairs. People just love what they're
doing, and when I was interviewing, I was just amazed at how much
fun people were having. They work incredibly hard at Google, but
still somehow manage to have a great time."
The Yale-educated Bock,
brought on board in March 2006 to navigate the leading search engine
through a period of continued brisk growth, is seen in some circles
as belonging to a cadre of seasoned professionals -- grown ups, if
you will -- who have been recruited to infuse greater seriousness
into a spirited workplace that features a T-Rex dinosaur skeleton
and SpaceShipOne replica at its Mountain View, Calif.-based campus.
(SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded human space flight,
launching from the Mojave Airport in Mojave, Calif., on June 21,
Will brainy computer
engineers be asked to put away some of their toys and focus more on
work? Will the nearly decade-long party finally come to an end? It's
too soon to say, but certainly one irony is that, at 33, he's one of
the youngest HR leaders at a company the size and value of Google
"It's quite unusual, but
not unheard of, to have someone in their early 30s as the head of HR
at a Fortune 500 company," says Johnny Taylor, senior vice president
of human resources for IAC/InterActiveCorp and chairman of the
Society for Human Resource Management. If anyone would know, it's
Taylor, a lawyer by training who at 30 was told he needed a little
more gray in his hair when applying for a general counsel job at a
Bock was recruited from
General Electric where, he recalls, he was actually looking forward
to building a long career. What piqued his interest in Google was
its mission to organize the world's information to make it more
accessible for the masses, as well as a culture of innovation and
tremendous demand for HR and people support.
"It was an opportunity
to help shape the success of what people already built in a company
that's still growing dramatically, which was pretty exciting to me,"
For a company that grew
to 9,378 employees (and climbing) with $10 billion in revenue since
its 1998 inception as a privately held firm with just two people on
the payroll, embracing that growth remains a challenge. The head
count has nearly doubled in each of the past few years from 5,680 in
2005, 3,021 in 2004 and 1,628 in 2003.
Working at Google, whose
4 percent turnover rate beats other Silicon Valley firms, is
considered such a dream job that more than 1 million resumes flood
the HR department per year. Applications have spiked with each new
product or service, or office opening. The company was also ranked
No. 1 on Fortune's most recent Best Places to Work list.
Also recently, Google
became the first Internet stock to crack the $500-per-share mark.
With a $154 billion market valuation, it's now the nation's
16th-most-valuable company, according to Standard &
Future success at
Google, whose name is a play on the mathematical term for 1 followed
by 100 zeros, has been pinned, to a large extent, on developing the
sort of fully functional HR system that was never committed to until
today. Whether this change in approach and philosophy can be carried
out, and whether Bock is the right person for the job over the long
haul, remains an open question among skeptics.
Evolution of the HR
As with most Google
hires, the decision to bring Bock aboard was "totally instinctive,"
says Martha Josephson, who recruited him. "He had an incredible
empathy for people issues and a real understanding of the human
factors in decision making." Josephson, who heads the North American
HR practice of Egon Zehnder International Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif.,
a leading senior-executive recruitment firm, also describes him as
having the patience of Job.
Bock made his mark in
two GE divisions where he served stints from '03 to '05 as vice
president of HR for GE Capital Solutions and vice president of
compensation and benefits for GE Commercial Equipment Financing.
"We're now at a size
where things need to be systematized much more broadly, and there's
a recognition that the people side is big enough and critical enough
to Google that it requires someone who has worked in the field and
can bring in an expertise to focus on it full-time," Bock says of
his place along the company's HR continuum (see sidebar).
He's charged with making
HR part of the business fabric and deeply connected to every
manager's job. His aim is to develop an HR function that's robust
enough to help guide more thoughtful quarterly performance review
conversations that build on employee strengths and reduce weaknesses
as part of a more holistic view of the business. "Our managers take
great responsibility for training and developing people, but they
get a tremendous amount of support from the HR team," he says.
Bock traces the strong
impact on how talent and growth are managed to a "three-thirds HR"
hiring model in which one-third of his staff are traditional HR
generalists and specialists, one-third have strong consulting
backgrounds and one-third have exceptional analytical skills with
doctorate or master's degrees in organizational psychology,
industrial organization, statistics, mathematics or physics. "We
actually have a fair number of people in each of those areas, and
we're getting closer to an ideal balance," he says.
Several hundred people
are involved in HR-related tasks, though Bock would not specify
further. He's looking to grow his department faster than the rest of
the business, noting that Google is understaffed in every part of
the HR area relative to its dizzying growth.
"We're looking to hire
as many people as we can to help build the HR function," he says.
His wish is to have twice as many HR staffers to keep up with the
annual doubling of two career tracks that he describes as always
being in short supply: world-class compensation and
At the current rate of
growth, people who joined the company a year ago would today face a
doubling of their responsibility while those who joined, say, two
years ago would have seen a fourfold increase in tasks. This means
being able to hire people, including HR staffers, who can grow as
fast as the business.
"It's important that
people have a lot of trajectory in their careers, and I'd like for
the people I hire in the HR department to think they can one day
move into my job or [become] the head of staffing, benefits or
comp," Bock says.
Among the traits he's
looking for amid HR up-and-comers: intelligence, curiosity, business
acumen, outside interests, comfort with a fast-paced organizational
structure and solid track record of initiative and achievement.
"We're a very independent, entrepreneurial company and we want
people to take things and run with them."
Bock recalls how Google
CEO Eric Schmidt told him early on that one of the company's top
strategic priorities is to develop leaders. Plans include enhancing
leadership curricula to help managers cope with a staggering growth
rate by shortening learning cycles and feedback loops.
"Having the most
talented, capable and committed people over the long run will make a
difference between whether our business performance reverts to the
mean or we continue to grow," Bock says. "HR adds tremendous value
to the company and the thinking always has been that we need more
support in this area. We're sort of viewed as the front end for
growing the company."
When seen in a larger
business context, Bock's appointment eight years after Google's
founding isn't necessarily surprising. The lion's share of
organizational resources in Silicon Valley typically are focused on
research and development, as well as technical issues and sales
activity, rather than administrative or operational functions such
as HR, whose role is viewed as secondary, says Homa Bahrami, a
senior lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of
She says Google is
similar to other growing technology firms when it comes to
developing an effective recruiting function within the context of
nurturing young talent. Where it differs, from an HR perspective, is
in the influence of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, whose
ideas for building a better online search engine took root in their
Stanford University dorm room.
Like other rising stars
who missed out on the mainstream corporate experience, Bahrami says,
their pragmatic view of managing people is part of an effort to
eschew the structured approach of old-line companies -- something
entrepreneurs associate with bureaucracy.
Stephen Arnold, author
of The Google Legacy: How Google's Internet Search is
Transforming Application Software, sees Bock's hiring as an
attempt to help organize the company. He describes the workforce as
comprised of roughly 8,000 extremely bright "nerds" with core
competencies in mathematics, physics and network theory who respect
other brilliant people, and another 2,000 "touchy-feely" people who
attempt to ingratiate themselves with this group of employees.
Google now finds itself
at a critical crossroads, needing to keep alive its algorithmic and
engineering spirit while also trying to pursue a more adult-oriented
approach to business.
"I don't think they can
pull it off," says Arnold, president of Arnold Information
Technology in Harrod's Creek, Ky., who thinks the company might
enjoy another eight or 10 years of success before reaching a plateau
-- much like the length of IBM's track record prior to Microsoft's
dominance. His sense is that the ongoing Herculean effort to manage
growth will eventually turn Google "into a toothless
He adds that Bock must
"prove to the 8,000 people who are smarter than he is that he
warrants some of their limited attention, and if he can't, it will
be like he's not there." No doubt his MBA from the Yale University
School of Management will help convince employees he's on their
intellectual level and worth listening to.
But Arnold offers a more
cynical assessment of Bock's future with the company: "He's got
Google stock units, will go to meetings and stick around for three
years, and then cash in and do something else. Maybe he's the
greatest HR person on the planet since Jesus or Mohammed, but you
don't get anywhere with Google just because you're pretty and smile.
You have to be probably the smartest person among your
On the "Turning Away
From Conventional Media" Web site, one blogger going by the name
Grendel offered a recent critical look at some job-interview
questions credited to Bock about a candidate's past, personality and
He said Bock's GE
background could tarnish Google's trailblazing image among
prospective "Googlers" (as employees are known internally) by
showing the company "has indeed morphed into a big business from a
Bock describes typical
Googlers as "scary smart," but says working with them is no
different than others in terms of meeting their needs and solving
their problems. Since joining Google less than a year ago, he has
greater tenure than up to 40 percent of the workforce, which means
there's not much seniority to get through when attempting to earn
He is also getting up to
speed on computer programming and what it means to be a software
engineer so he can intelligently converse with employees and fully
understand the business.
"Having high IQ and EQ
aren't necessarily mutually exclusive," Bock says about Googlers,
who are known more for their deep intellectual, rather than
emotional, capacity. "Part of the reason our offer rate is low
relative to the number of people who apply (for instance, only 6,000
of 1 million job applicants were added to the payroll in 2006) is
because we want to make sure people are successful here. Having a
high cognitive ability and being intellectually curious is
essential, but coupled with that, we also screen for people being
engaged, taking responsibility and caring about their environment.
When you put that together, you find that people are pretty good at
working with one another."
Josephson describes Bock
as "a very smart guy who could sit around and match wits with the
best of them at Google, even though his background was in a
non-engineering function. Google appeared to be ready for a
different kind of intelligence so long as it's really good." She
adds that Google's culture values people over anything else.
Another point worth
mentioning is that when Ivan Ernest came on board nearly two years
ago as HR leader in the engineering and operations function, his
hiring initially was greeted with skepticism. But after about a year
on the job, the senior vice president of engineering told Bock he
wanted 10 more people just like him. "I had no idea how much value
the HR function could have," Bock says.
Ernest has been able to
drive positive change and growth through that part of the
organization, whose culture is more consensus-based, transparent and
adaptive than most other work environments. The kudos, Bock adds,
came by way of building trust, improving operations and seeing
around corners on a wide range of people issues.
Bock was hired more than
a year after Brin acknowledged to analysts that the bar for hiring
had been raised so high it was interfering with expansion plans -- a
situation that's already said to be improving. In June, the company
conducted an employee survey that served as a tool for helping
identify key variables that could shape future recruiting.
For example, answers to
roughly 300 disparate areas featured in the survey were analyzed
against 30 or 40 job-performance factors. Google mathematicians were
called into action, feeding data into a series of complex formulas
designed to calculate a score that predicts a candidate's cultural
The new automated
approach to trolling for talent emphasizes the need for well-rounded
candidates and downplays the traditional one- or two-time interview,
which Bock considers a poor predictor of performance.
Where Google once
obsessively balked at hiring engineers whose grade-point averages
were less than 3.7 and hazed prospects with brain teasers, the
company now wants to know what kinds of pets or magazines someone
has or whether their work space is neat or chaotic. The reasoning:
Academic performance doesn't always correlate to success at the
Now, when people apply
for a job at Google, they're asked to fill out a job application and
questionnaire examining their attitudes, behavior, personality and
biographical information, which are evaluated alongside a resume and
academic performance portfolio.
About four or five
in-person interviews are typically set up for each candidate so
management and prospective new hires are both exposed to what Bock
describes as enough "data points" to make an informed decision.
Sometimes, additional interviews are scheduled, so that it's not
unusual for anywhere from five to eight such interviews to be
conducted per person in Silicon Valley.
While Google has a
reputation for hiring the best and brightest on the engineering side
of its business, the search for top-level employees has extended to
finance and sales professionals as well as human resources.
The company has sought
to broaden its search for talent so it doesn't miss any perfect
matches and has built a significant sourcing capability in the
process -- one that does not outwardly include raiding the bench of
competitors but, increasingly, will transcend the high-tech arena
and target companies known for having great talent pools in general.
Google recruiters also
troll the Internet for candidates who might have published papers or
given presentations, and post messages on the alumni boards of
"What we found is some
of the best people don't apply or return recruiter calls because
they're doing great work at amazing companies and having a wonderful
time doing it," Bock says. "At the end of the day, it's about
finding the right fit, and finding great people is our biggest
constraint to growth."
Other creative avenues
for recruiting organized by Bock and a team of HR staffers involve
competitions that invite people to solve difficult
computer-programming problems with the lure of prizes and a job
offer, as well as a partnership with Teach for America, described on
the group's Web site as "a national corps of outstanding recent
college graduates of all academic majors."
To help grow its massive
online sales organization, Google held an essay contest in India for
its local hires there because writing skills are so critically
important when e-mailing advertisers. More than 15,000 people in
that country participated in the first round, leading to the hiring
of a large number of outstanding candidates there.
Once onboard, employees
enjoy the freedom to nominate themselves for promotions -- a request
that's reviewed through the proper channels as part of an approach
that puts the onus for training, career development and growth on
the individual. They receive written feedback twice a year from a
supervisor and four to six peers, as well as a quarterly performance
There also are
opportunities built into Google's culture that enable employees to
rub elbows with members of the senior-management team at internal
meetings on a range of topics dealing with product development,
marketing and remote offices.
A flat hierarchical
structure allows for accessibility across job title and department.
Early on, the company's founders held court during a weekly event
named "TGIF" during which they reviewed key events of the week and
opened the floor to discussion on any topic.
In addition, there are
internal listservs and anywhere from two to five informal
educational presentations at the company at any given time of day on
various innovative ideas by staffers or outside experts -- a program
that has since been expanded to include discussions about women's
issues and participation from authors.
Is there room for
improvement in the HR department at Google? Absolutely, says Bock.
"People here have done some amazing things, but I think we can get
so much better in every single thing we do," he says. A huge
challenge will be preserving the unique culture amid further growth
in such a way that the additional investment in communicating
"across a bigger footprint with a more heterogenous population" pays
For example, when new
offices open, the trick is balancing the over-arching Google culture
with the local culture, whether it's in a region of the United
States or overseas. Bock is also concerned with helping new hires
prepare for their new jobs more quickly and efficiently so they can
begin contributing immediately to the company. Some of the
approaches mentioned above should help with that, he
In terms of measuring
the effectiveness of HR practices, Google conducts a number of
annual surveys that target different segments of the employee
population in addition to a companywide "happiness" survey,
smaller-scale surveys, benchmarking and focus groups.
Specific processes are
subject to rigorous measures. Recruiter performance, for instance,
is based on 17 metrics that include how quickly candidates are
responded to, what their experience was like and the proportion of
people who get hired versus those who do not get hired.
"We measure everything
and this gives us a sense of what's working and what's not working,"
Bock says, "and we're constantly asking what we can improve. In
fact, Googlers are not shy about telling us what we can do better."
According to him, Google
doesn't outsource any part of its HR function because "it's so
closely tied to everything we do" and it's doubtful that an outside
provider will understand the company and its unique corporate
culture as well as internal staffers.
"I think outsourcing
these pieces would cause a fair amount of damage," he says.
March 2, 2007
Copyright 2007© LRP