Google's Secret Weapon

Stevey's Drunken Blog Rants™

We do a lot of recruiting, here at Ye Olde Amazonne Headquarteres, and we've learned a ton about it in the past few years. Many of our lessons have been through trial and error. Like that time we discovered that you don't attract candidates by putting them in a tiny, crowded, poorly-lit, poorly-ventilated room, interviewing them mercilessly for 8 hours with only a lunch break, and booting them out with a quick "we'll call ya... a cab, that is." Thank goodness we've stopped doing that.

Although trial and error has taught us many lessons, perhaps our best source of information about ways to win at recruiting is the candidates themselves. They tell us all kinds of good stuff. For one thing, they often tell us what they like and dislike about our interview process. I can tell you this much: they all love the 'W' hotel in downtown Seattle. All of them. It must be nice. And they all dislike the US1 interview rooms (e.g. conf US US1 497, if you want to peer at one).

But candidates, especially college candidates, give us an even more valuable source of information. They have their collective ear to the ground, and they can tell us what the buzz is: who's hiring, which companies everyone wants to work for, which companies are known to be awful working environments, etc.

And most importantly of all, they tell us how other companies recruit.

You can't fake being cool

A UW student I just interviewed told me that his friend did an Intel internship this summer, and hated it so much that he turned down a fairly lucrative full-time offer from them. The friend said he's convinced that an Intel employee wrote the screenplay for the movie Office Space. Not only do people there have 5 or 6 bosses to report to, which is bad enough; they actually have TPS reports, and everyone has to do them. And when they change the cover page format, a memo goes out letting everyone know.

Although that's probably one of the more surreal internship experiences I've heard about, internship horror-stories are fairly common. And it's not as if the intern doesn't tell anyone back at school. Word gets around fast. Many companies have effectively blacklisted themselves at major universities. The UW student who told me the story says that now nobody in the the CS department is interested in working at Intel. Intel is still recruiting like mad on campus, but they've effectively closed the pipeline.

So be nice to your interns. At least let 'em use the old TPS cover-page format.

The real lesson is that you can't hide problems with your company. You can market yourself as a fun and interesting and dynamic company, but if you're not, people will find out. They'll tell their friends, and you'll be out of the running for a long time.

If we make a full-time offer to an intern, and they decline in favor of another company's offer, someone here has screwed up. I know I've done it. The intern may say it's the money, or it's the location, or whatever. But that's not how interns make their decisions. They decide based on the quality of the work and the quality of the team they're working with. They're looking for a community to bond with, and if they go somewhere else, it means they found a better community. The other company did a better sell-job.

First impressions matter

The recruiting pipeline has tons of touch-points for potential new hires. The information sessions, for instance, leave a huge impression on candidates. It may not be obvious in their vacant stares, but they're paying attention, because they want to get jobs, and they want to work somewhere fun and interesting.

I remember a talk back when I was at the UW — a representative from IBM came and gave an info session to about 100 students from comp-sci and comp-e. We were all ears. I distinctly remember that the rep talked to us for about an hour, and that for at least 20 minutes of the talk, she lectured us on the importance of wearing a suit to your job interview. She herself was wearing a suit, of course. If I recall correctly, none of the students were wearing suits, but several of them, including me, were wearing looks of astonishment. Twenty whole minutes — a third of the pitch — was on how important it is to dress professionally when seeking a job.

I don't think any of those 100 students applied there.

Every recruiting touch-point is a kind of first impression. You may have given a good impression at the info session, but if your interviewers are mean, or miserable, or apathetic, or dumb, then you've ruined their first impression of the engineering staff. And if you drop the ball on communicating with the candidate after the interview, you'll give the impression that your organization isn't really organized.

Amazon's doing a pretty good job with this stuff, better than many companies. To give a good info session, you need a pretty dynamic speaker, and I've heard from a few candidates at a few schools that we'd boffed the info session. That's bad. But usually the info session creates a lot of positive buzz for Amazon.

Which is good, because people still don't think of us as a technology company, and you have to keep proving it to them. You can't let up.

Support matters

The most frequently-asked question from college candidates is: "what kind of training and/or mentoring do you offer?"

Programmers are like atheletes, and learning computer science at a University is like training for the Mental Olympics. You get used to learning and improving your skills, and the best candidates don't want to stagnate. They want to know that they're going to continue to improve, and they know that the best way to do that is by getting high-quality formal instruction. The competition, the structure, the pace, and the instructor quality all push you to learn the right material faster than you're likely to do on your own. There aren't many easy computer science courses, and you only have time to take a subset of them before you graduate. A diminishing subset, at that, since the curricula are gradually expanding to accommodate advances in the field. So students know there's more to learn, and the best ones want to learn it.

Moreover, students know they're going to have a steep learning curve, regardless of the company they go to, and they want to know what mentoring you'll offer them. Many teams at Amazon set up a mentoring program and/or a buddy system; the managers of the teams couldn't imagine doing it any other way. Other managers just throw their new hires into the water and hope they don't drown.

One UW interviewee just told me about Ford Motor Company's mentoring program, which Ford had apparently used as part of the sales pitch they do for interviewees. [I've elided the details, as they weren't really relevant. -stevey 3/1/2006] The student had absorbed it all in amazing detail. That doesn't really surprise me, because it's one of the things candidates care about most.

Competition Matters

This blog entry was originally titled "How to Win Big at Recruiting". I thought I'd go through some of the great Dos and Donts of recruiting, and mention a few of the good things Google's doing in passing.

Why Google in particular? Well, in case you hadn't noticed, they're kicking our butts at recruiting. Even in our own backyard. Professor Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington told us last year that Google's getting about 3 times as many UW hires as we are. A candidate at last week's recruiting trip told me that of the nine or ten students he considered to be the best programmers at the UW, about half of them went to Google; only two went to Amazon, and the rest went to "no-name" places.

Actually, his story had one more interesting tidbit: he said that although Microsoft is considered one of the top three places to work by the UW CS students (along with Google and Amazon), he claims that Microsoft is hiring lots of mediocre programmers. He said they gave offers to a whole bunch of programmers who he knows aren't any good — and this guy was my strongest interviewee of the trip, so I was inclined to trust his judgement. He said that in his eyes, this disqualified Microsoft as a potential employer.

That's not to say we don't lose candidates to Microsoft. We do! Microsoft has determined that Amazon is very good at talent assessment, but crappy at selling the candidates and clinching the deal. So when Microsoft hears from a candidate that they've got a full-time offer from us, Microsoft doesn't even interview the person. They take the candidate for a ride in the company hummer, have execs wine and dine them, let them spend the day with the team they're going to join, show them the private office with a door they'll get so they can concentrate on innovation... it's a straight sell job after we've made an offer.

Did I mention there's a lot of competition? Well, I thought there was, and this blog started off as a set of tips for how to win big at recruiting. But after talking with the UW candidates in this last onsite interview trip, I'm not so sure anymore whether a few "tips" is really going to make a difference. We might need something bigger than that.

Before Google, everyone pretty much used the same time-honored approach. Interview, offer, lather, rinse, repeat. But I think they've changed the game.

Google's Not Recruiting

Everyone knows Google's doing a good job at hiring smart people. It's not just anecdotal; the numbers speak for themselves. We lose a lot of our best candidates to them. They're clearly doing something right.

What's not so clear, I think, is that Google is actually so good at technical recruiting that it's not just a difference in magnitude; it's a difference in kind. What they're doing can hardly be called recruiting anymore. The term "recruiting" implies that you're going out and looking for people, and trying to convince them to come work for you. Google has managed to turn the process around. Smart people now make the pilgrimage to Google, and Google spends the bulk of their time turning great people away.

Google is apparently unique in the industry in that they're treating recruiting as a network effect, similar to auctions or operating systems. Smart people go where smart people are, which enables them to launch cool stuff, which attracts more attention, and suddenly you have a feedback loop. At some point, enough smart people want to work there that it's not simply enough to be smart; you have to market yourself.

That kind of feedback loop is happening here too, but not at the same scale, because Google is being far bolder, cleverer, and more overt about setting up the feedback than we are (or anyone else is, for that matter.)

If you think about it, marketing ourselves as programmers isn't really something we've had to do in a very long time. When I was in school, worried about job interviews, a more senior guy in my class told me not to worry — he said that your first interview is you marketing yourself, but after you have some experience, the companies are all competing to hire you. You get to pick and choose. I felt a rather awed disbelief at the time, but experience bore his assertion out, for the most part. In the 1990s, as long as you weren't a complete idiot, interviews tended to start and end with "when can you start?"

But not at Google. Now even some of the smartest people wonder whether they'd get a job there. Rumor has it that if you don't have a Ph.D. or equivalent, don't bother applying. Regardless of whether that rumor is true, it's contributing to the marketing hype.

So Google has no trouble finding good people, because through careful maneuvering, they've convinced most of the world that Google is where the smartest people work. By doing so, they've begun to create a network effect that's leaving many of their competitors to scrabble for "leftovers".

We're Still in the Game

Don't get me wrong; Amazon's no slouch. Students at the UW and many other universities consider us to be a strong contender. We still manage to land somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 as many of the really good candidates as Google does, which is far better than most of our competitors are doing.

Part of this is our brand name. While candidates still tell me in interviews that we're not a technology company, they realize that we must have some technical challenges, given that so many companies are trying to compete in our space and (for the most part) failing at it. But it's not super clear to candidates what percentage of that success is due to our technology, as opposed to operational excellence, good retailing practice, great customer service, and first-to-market network effects like customer reviews.

With Google, on the other hand, it's pretty obviously technology. So we have a slightly harder marketing sell than they do.

But we're doing a decent job. Our brand name and enthusiastic intern stories are enough to get many smart candidates to talk to us, at least. And we've learned (I hope) that every interviewer needs to spend some time selling the company, even for candidates who don't make the bar. Word of mouth is critical, so a positive interview experience is critical.

Little by little, one candidate at a time, we're making solid progress.

3>Google's Not-So-Secret Weapon

The problem is: Google's not doing it a little at a time. They're using marketing tactics that make our approach look nickel-and-dime by comparison.

That might sound harsh, but when's the last time you took a serious look at everything you know about Google's recruiting tactics, without even doing any research on it? Just off the top of my head, let's look at some of the things they're doing.

Some people may take a dim view of my posting this information here, but it's all publicly available; Google's practically forcing it down our throats. I'm not telling people anything they don't already know; I'm just saying it all at once, in the hopes that folks wake up and realize the dire seriousness of the threat Google poses.

I'll stick with stuff we're not doing:

    1. Programming Competitions — every year for at last the past 3 years, they've held a TopCoder coding competition that's attracted thousands of contestants. Not only does this make them seem cool, it gets them lots of resumes, and the applicants are already nicely stack-ranked.

    2. Billboards — everyone knows about the famous billboard that had a puzzle on it. Didn't have Google's name on it, just a URL with a math puzzle. If you happened to drive by, realize what it was, solve the puzzle, and visit the website, you were awarded with... another puzzle. Solve that one and you got an interview with Google. Again: lots of hype, and also some pretty good candidates came directly to you, without any old-school recruiting on your part.

    3. Poaching — you've all heard of the design center they're opening up in Kirkland. Rumors abound; they're hiring 300 engineers, they're hiring 2000 engineers; no, it's 600; I heard it's 1200. One thing is clear: their motive. They announced they're going to be hiring primarily from the University of Washington, from Microsoft, and from Amazon.

    4. Job Marketing — have you ever visited Google's job site? I have. They have the "Top 10 Reasons to Work at Google", or something like that. While we can match several of the 10, some of them we simply don't compete with. We don't have on-site doctors and yoga and free day care. We don't have free lunches; heck, we don't even have free parking. Maybe perks are expensive, but to candidates who are doing an honest appraisal, the perks add up, and can make the difference in their final decision.

    5. Gimmicks — see the GLAT yet? It's the Google Aptitude Test; something they circulated recently (was it in the IEEE? I'm forcing myself to generate this list off the top of my head, so I can't go look) that looks like a tough version of the GRE or GMAT for computer scientists. It's non-trivial. I don't know whether it's real and you have to take it to get an interview there, or if it's just a gimmick. Either way, it's getting them a lot of press, and it's one more thing that's elevating their status as "company that only hires smart people". Another example is the rumor that circulated about a supposed announcement that their engineering staff is 25% Ph.Ds. I don't know if it's true, but does it really matter? PR is all about buzz.

    6. Compensation — Google's got a reputation for paying well. Their pre-IPO stock, of course, has been a big draw, but they also reputedly have unusually high salary and great benefits. Now that their market cap is soaring, it's hard to say whether the stock will still be the huge draw. And now that they've got an office in Kirkland opening, we may be able to get better information on whether their compensation packages have really just been cost-of-living adjusted for Mountain View. Regardless, it doesn't hurt to have a reputation as a company that pays well.

    7. Free Targeted Advertising — have you ever visited a Google search-results page and found an ad for... Google? That's right, they do targeted job ads on their own pages. Everyone uses Google, including smart, qualified candidates, and Google's been using this fact to recruit selectively with their own site.

      1. When I say "selectively", I mean it. You won't see a Google job ad if you type in "C++". Try typing in some of the fanciest stuff you know and see if you can get a hit for a Google job ad. No? Guess you'd better hit the books!

    8. Technology — as I mentioned before, people naturally think of Google as a technology company. And not just any technology, either. Search is central to computing and computer science; it's in some sense the foundation of artificial intelligence, and has applications in a wide variety of problem domains that have nothing to do with "web search" per se.

      1. If you were a candidate assessing the long-term potential of Amazon, Microsoft and Google, and you were speculating: which of the three will be first to create practical artifical intelligence, or find cures for cancer, aids, and aging? The retailer isn't going to leap to mind, nor is the operating-systems company. Google's technology is going to make a huge difference. So is Amazon's, but it's not as clear to people how, and this puts us at a natural disadvantage in the sales pitch.

    1. Culture — when people make the decision to accept a job offer, they're accepting a culture. They'll spend more time with the people at work than with any other group, including their spouses. Culture matters.

      1. Google has a fabulous reputation for being a great culture. Their website marketing is top-notch, and stories abound of soccer games on building rooftops and other crazy fun stuff. But what really gets people is the "work on whatever you want for one day a week". As long as it's an approved project, you can spend a day a week working on anything you want. It's your own little R&D laboratory. You can't fake a culture like that. Google knows how to treat engineers.

    1. Training — Google's got a huge reputation for training, because it's one of their selling points in their interview process. Candidates tell me Google gives people a ton of training: weeks of it (at least). I'm not clear on the exact amount, but it's more in line with Microsoft's ongoing career and technical training than it is with our 2 days of developer boot camp. This is a huge cultural difference; Amazon has traditionally said "learn stuff on your own time" (as if we have any time.) This year is the first year we've had an actual training budget or any formal training at all. Again, this is something candidates care a lot about, and it's something you can't fake — you either have it or you don't. And they have a lot more than we do.

    2. Focus — Google's corporate motto is "Don't Be Evil". Microsoft's is only slightly different: "Be Evil". At least they're honest about it. The bad guy really does sometimes win. When Microsoft combats Google's recruiting network-effect by simply buying a great engineer, everyone including the engineer knows what's going on. But Evil has a lot of money, and that's kind of hard to ignore. So Microsoft has managed to staff up a lot of great minds in their .NET and CLR groups, and plenty of other groups as well.

      1. Amazon's motto along these lines is somewhere in the middle, something like: "Do Stuff." It might have been "Just Do It" if that weren't already taken. We don't think much about good or evil; we focus on revenue and customer experience, which pulls us in both directions a bit. Certainly we've realized that "Get it Done" (at all costs) has gotten us into a bit of code-base trouble.

      2. Your company focus is hard to hide. Our isn't as clean as Google's, although I still prefer it to Microsoft's. But it puts us in a slightly harder recruiting position than either of them.

That's the stuff I could think of off the top of my head, without pausing or thinking very hard. I bet you can think of other recruiting-related stuff they're doing that we're not. They've clearly got a massive recruiting campaign going.

And you know that behind the scenes, they must have tons of interview training, tons of people working on interview questions and calibrating candidates, tons of work going on to decide what their bar is and what skillsets they need. Just like we do. But more of it. It has to be more — I don't know this, but given the externally-observable campaign they've got going, why is there any reason to believe they don't have a bunch of focus on it internally as well?

How to Win Big at Recruiting

What does it take to do a massive recruiting campaign? It takes dedicated resources. You need people, including technical people, whose full-time job it is to do recruiting. Think of the small army of people it must take to do all the things in the list above. Who wrote the GLAT? Who designed the TopCoder problems? Who came up with the billboard math problem? I assure you: they have smart technical people doing recruiting full time as their primary job.

Last I checked, recruiting was our HR group's 8th priority or so, after the Q4 CS/FC rampup, badging systems, perf reviews, PeopleSoft enhancements, and a bunch of other stuff. Amazon Recruiting has no dedicated engineers, and they're stuck begging for project resources from other groups who don't have time. We have no technical people doing recruiting full time. And while we've got a strong campus hiring program, and it's keeping us within Google's hiring numbers (within an order of magnitude, anyway), it smacks of door-to-door salesmanship compared to Google's recruiting megastore. How much longer can we hold out against that kind of concerted effort?

Our recruiting organization is awesome. It's the strongest recruiting org we've had in our history: the recruiters, the sourcers, the coordinators, the campus recruiters; they're all doing a truly amazing job. And we've got many people who spend a huge amount of time, mostly unrewarded and unrecognized at review time, on the extracurricular work of technical screening, interviewing, trips, and training. People at Amazon are passionate about this place. It might seem amazing that we can compete with Google at all, given our ragtag rebel troops of interviewers and our lack of technical support for the recruiters. We're doing a pretty good job anyway, and you have to appreciate that.

But Google's "non-recruiting" is really a new kind of threat. I want Amazon to be successful, and I know we can be. But we have to respond in kind.

(Published on Nov 16th 2004)


You forgot to put the phone number for Google's Kirkland office ;)

Posted by: Anonymous at November 16, 2004 09:43 PM

Just to comment on internships and Amazon vs. Microsoft. I interned with both companies before I came here fulltime. I would say that Microsoft is better at wining and dining interns, but Amazon had cooler stuff to work on.

At Microsoft you feel very very small. You might be the guy who owns one button on a toolbar. At Amazon I got to rewrite an entire piece of our procurement pipeline that's still in use today. So this is how Amazon is better, and it's what ultimately got me to work here full time.

In every other way the Microsoft internship is better. They pay interns more. They feed them more. They have more activities for them to do. They constantly have tech talks about major upcoming pieces of technology or with giants of the industry. They give them memberships to the Pro Club. And they require them to pay less for their housing.

The most important thing they do is help them get a rental car for their entire internship. Most interns don't have a car and are too young to get a rental car on their own for a decent price. For about $200 a month I was able to split a fully insured rental car with my two roommates for three months. This allowed us to have fun doing different things in the area every weekend like going hiking, skydiving, paintballing, etc.

Amazon lets interns get a rental car for two weekends. Other people may have already used their rentals so it's hard to coordinate any trips with more than one car full of people. There might be one trip up to Vancouver, but for the rest of the time our interns are stranded in Bell Town. This especially bad when it comes to grocery shopping. They all have to take a bus up to Queen Anne for groceries, which is no fun.

Posted by: Joel at November 16, 2004 11:01 PM

Another thing that Google is doing is using the Press (newspapers) well about their need for really smart people and how they will work on cool features.

When we announced that we were going to hire more SDE's it got lost in can Amazon afford it?

I think another way to reach candidates is to use the press, articles in magazines, etc. When we go on recruiting trips does it show up in the local newspaper that we are in town looking to hire? Even if a person does not show up for the recruiting event an impression has been left that we too are looking for smart folks to solve big technical problems.

Posted by: Brent at November 17, 2004 08:27 PM

Google also advertises in a select number of publications — for example, mensa. But there advertisements are puzzles and the people who can solve them and submit their resume get interviews. Pretty clever if you ask me.

In addition, they have a whole different org structure, where all managers are engineers. They also have a very flat organization where people work in teams and instead of being held accountable by one person (their manager) they are held accountable by their peers.

Posted by: kate at November 22, 2004 06:10 PM

Steve, this is a very insightful analysis of our recruiting vis-a-vis Google. To this I would only add that you are completely correct about the importance of Google's "network effect" recruiting. This is especially true at my alma mater, Stanford—the proportion of Googlers with Stanford backgrounds is so high, it's almost incestuous. (Example: I had the opportunity to lunch in the Google cafeteria this summer, and not only did I see familiar faces, I had a former student whom I hadn't recognized come up to me and thank me for having been his operating systems TA.) All these Googlers have friends who are still Stanford CS students — and you can bet all of them are telling their friends how awesome it is to work at Google (I have yet to find anyone who's unhappy working there). All this positive feedback within the social network carries a lot of weight, perhaps more weight than any amount of work by a recruiting team could ever carry.

Posted by: Lim at December 10, 2004 06:47 AM