June 6, 2004
What's Google's Secret Weapon? An Army of Ph.D.'s
EY, it's not rocket science. And it's not brain surgery. But if your background is in either, you're welcome to take a shot and apply at Google. The company's employees include a former rocket scientist and a former brain surgeon.
Mostly, Google has concentrated on recruiting those with a background in what you would expect: computer science. Founded by two near-Ph.D.'s who have purposely placed Ph.D.'s throughout the company, Google encourages all employees to act as researchers, by spending 20 percent of their time on new projects of their own choosing.
As we take our seats in the Coliseum to watch the latest challenger go up against mighty Microsoft, handicappers will see that Google has two advantages, one of which it has disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission: washing machines are provided at the company for employee use. The other, it has not: with a Ph.D.-centered culture, Google's co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have assembled the industry's most unorthodox portfolio of human capital since Microsoft began intense recruiting of computer science majors at top undergraduate schools in the 1980's.
Microsoft has 56,000 employees, but its research group, with 700, is separate. Google has 1,900 employees, and no separate research group, so all 1,900, effectively, are charged to "boldly go where no one has gone before" (its words). You have to like Google's chances.
Employee motivation is tied to sundry conveniences and happy stomachs, or so it would seem. When Google filed its initial public offering plans in April, it enumerated employee benefits like those washing machines, free meals and doctor visits at company offices. It warned prospective investors to "expect us to add benefits rather than pare them down over time."
Moving in the opposite direction, Microsoft said last month that it was making some minor cuts in benefits, rankling employees, who are as aware as anyone of the $50 billion sitting in the corporate treasury.
It's no contest: Google is going to win a battle of benefits, what with its on-site gym, on-site dentist and on-site celebrity chef who previously served the Grateful Dead.
Yet none of that matters, really. What trumps all else is Google's willingness to organize the entire company around the insight that top talent likes to work with other top talent, tackling interesting problems of their own choice. It's the same reason that some computer science students complete a master's degree and then persevere for three to five more years for a doctorate. It entails deep original research for a dissertation, while subsisting on a meager fellowship that allows for a celebrity chef only like Colonel Sanders.
Rajeev Motwani, a computer science professor at Stanford, says: "Good Ph.D. students are extreme in their creativity and self-motivation. Master's students are equally smart but do not have the same drive to create something new." The master's takes you where others have been; the doctorate, where no one has gone before.
Until recently, when computer science students completed their long Ph.D. training and stepped into daylight, they were treated warily by industry employers. American business has had to overcome its longtime suspicion of intellect. "Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men," an article published in the 1920's in the American magazine, is a typical specimen of an earlier era. In modern times, computer scientists are hired, but a doctorate can still be viewed as the sign of a character defect, its holder best isolated in an aerie.
Xerox famously put together a dream team of computer scientists in the 1970's, placed it on a hill in Palo Alto, Calif., and received, in short order, the modern easy-to-use personal computer and the laser printer. Unfortunately, neither the researchers nor Xerox corporate had any idea how to bring these creations to market, and the experiment was a business failure.
Steve Jobs avidly hunted and hired Ph.D.'s during his ill-begotten entrepreneurial experiment at NeXT Computer in the late 1980's, while he was away from Apple. His NeXT computer, what he called a "scholar's workstation," was marketed exclusively to students for the low, low introductory price of $6,500. It failed for some inexplicable reason to sweep campuses. He has not been heard since to boast, as he did then, that 70 percent of his manufacturing employees had doctorates. (Admittedly, these were few, as the factory was highly automated.)
In 1991, Microsoft established its separate research organization, following contemporary orthodoxy, and sought Ph.D.'s to conduct research full time. Its mainstream recruiting, however, remains focused on undergraduates and master's students.
"We're not heavy into Ph.D. recruiting," explains Kristen Roby, Microsoft's director of recruiting at colleges in the United States. "We're huge believers in hiring potential."
Google, however, prefers those who have been trained for the maximum time setting on the university's dial and who have experience in organizing their own research agenda. The company has not released data about its Ph.D's for two years, but based on its history, the number is probably more than 100.
Instead of sending them to a separate, high-walled compound, the company places them among the rank and file. In the typical Google job listing, which asks for a bachelor's degree or a master's degree in computer science, is a three-word phrase rarely seen elsewhere: "Ph.D. a plus."
Because Google is in the "quiet period" required after the filing of its public offering plans, the company will not say a word about its Ph.D.'s or anything else. But go to the top-ranked computer science departments, and you'll feel the irresistible gravitational pull of the Googleplex. At Stanford, for instance, Google's recruiting of computer science Ph.D.'s has been, in Professor Motwani's diplomatic phrasing, "more successful than others," which he attributes to the critical mass of talent the company has assembled.
Ed Lazowska, professor and former chairman of computer science at the University of Washington, says Google's policy of reserving one day a week to do your own thing is "hugely attractive to potential employees." Google has about as many Ph.D.'s from his university as Microsoft, but Microsoft is almost 30 times larger.
As the earlier failure of Mr. Jobs's NeXT Big Thing shows, the prize does not necessarily go to the new kids with the highest density of Ph.D.'s on the map. Google is vulnerable to attack from anyone who devises a better search engine. And Microsoft may add search capabilities to Windows faster than Google can go on the counteroffensive and install its own plumbing in the PC.
WORKING in Google's favor is its practice of putting new Ph.D.'s to work immediately in the exact areas where they have been trained - in systems, architecture and artificial intelligence. Google, the company, may falter, but Google, the human resources experiment, is unlikely to be the cause.
Microsoft has yet to disavow old templates for hiring. Its chief college recruiter, Ms. Roby, says that among computer science Ph.D.'s, "it's less likely to find someone with the desire to work on projects that will ship every 24 or 36 months."
Her intention is to convey the fast pace of product-development cycles at Microsoft. But the notion that software is released at intervals measured in years, burned on a CD-ROM, stamped with a new version number and stuffed in a box, is as relevant to Google's continuous Web site improvements as a punch card. Nor is the notion that Ph.D.'s are unsuited for the punishing pace of the business workday empirically justified.
When the cone of silence is lifted, ask anyone at Google, starting with the chief executive: Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., computer science.
Randall Stross is a historian and author based in Silicon Valley. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.