Working at Google: tips from the top
Allison Watson is the Staffing Team Lead at Google, responsible for recruitment across the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region. In this exclusive Q&A, Allison gives Jobs & Careers readers some of her tips for getting ahead of the field – and some insight into what it’s like recruiting for one of the world’s most sought-after employers.
Jobs & Careers: Allison, thanks so much for speaking with us today. Could you tell us, to begin with, what are the key characteristics you look for in a candidate?
Allison Watson: We do try to take a very rounded approach to how we look at candidates; we tend to look for people who are a little bit of everything; people who are very creative; people who are very flexible; very innovative people. Obviously for engineers, they would be highly technical and capable people. We look for diversity. We tend to look for those at the top of their game, of course – but really it is about the all-round picture and also the candidates’ fit into the culture of Google. There is a very particular culture, so they really need to fit into that and enjoy working in this environment.
J&C: Looking at that cultural fit, is that something you can tell at the interview stage – or can you even perceive that from a CV and covering letter?
AW: I would never write off somebody just from their CV; we would absolutely take a good look at that person. They don’t necessarily have to have huge, dazzling hobbies or interests; we would look very much at what they have done, their experience to date – is it relevant? Do they seem like they could be a good fit for that role? And then, if they have interesting things on their CV, that’s great and we’d definitely want to find out a bit more about them – and then in the interview, that’s when we would very much try to see that side of the person.
We’re very much a company that looks at consensus hiring. When you come in you’ll probably do an interview with four people, and they’ll range from your potential manager to your peer, and you will be assessed from a number of different angles to see how good a fit into the team you are. By doing that, we would assess whether you are a good cultural or good team fit; everyone has to agree you are a fit for Google and a fit for the team. That way, it tends to work out that we get colleagues that we like and we feel are ideal for the company – and you get to know that you are not just a fit for one role but overall for the company. And then, obviously, we do a lot of work around developing people internally, and trying to make sure that they have opportunities internally.
J&C: Presumably, things change pretty quickly around here and you’re rarely just hiring for a specific role with only that role in mind; are you always looking for what candidates can bring to the wider organisation?
AW: Yes, very much so. We’re looking for someone that has a very passionate, very innovative spirit; somebody who is genuinely interested in this area – and people who are quite entrepreneurial tend to work very well in Google. Definitely you need to be flexible; we are a company that moves very rapidly, so we like people that can adapt.
J&C: What should applicants do then to make themselves sought-after by Google – are there things that particularly tick your boxes?
AW: We get a huge number of applications – I think it’s two million per year globally. I think we had one week last year where we had 75,000 applications, and we don’t have any funky algorithm to sort through them; we have a lot of recruiters and we look through every single CV.
It needs to be very clear to us why you are fit for that role – and what I would say is that rather than going over and above, have a CV that is clear, that is very related to what you have applied for and where you can actually show your interests, so if you have a lot of digital experience, that needs to be absolutely highlighted, so that immediately I can make that connection. If you’re a student and you’re really keen in this area, then show us why and show us how: show us your interests. If you’ve written articles or you’ve written your thesis in this area, that’s fantastic; that’s great for us. So I would say those are the key things.
If you can, in order to improve your application, get to know people within the industry – and even better, get to know people in Google, I think it’s all helpful, because then you can get a better steer on what you should or shouldn’t do and what else you can do to increase your opportunities and your potential to get into the company.
J&C: Other than the fact that you look through every one of two million CVs a year, what sets your recruitment process apart from your competitors in the tech industry generally?
AW: As I mentioned, consensus hiring is a big thing for us. We never do something out of desperation; we’ll always spend a lot of time making sure this person’s a really good fit for the company and for the role. So that’s the first thing. The second thing, which is related to the first point, is that hiring is taken very seriously in Google all the way up, so Larry [Page] will be absolutely engaged in hiring – and you really feel that throughout the company. So we’re very lucky. From a recruitment perspective, all of the hiring managers are incredibly engaged; they really want to ensure they do a good job in terms of interviewing, in terms of assessing candidates, and I think it’s that engagement that makes us very different; there is a culture of “it’s a good company to work for and people enjoy working here” and of course that helps us in our role in recruiting as well. I would say, just from my own experience, I have never seen a company where there’s that engagement with recruitment.
J&C: Have your recruitment processes changed as a result of the downturn?
AW: We’ve been lucky – and I think that’s probably been because of the way recruitment is seen and considered by the company. We haven’t really changed very much because we’ve always been quite careful about what we look for and who we recruit – that’s since Google was founded. Obviously we take into consideration very, very carefully where we’re hiring and if this is the right area, is this the team that we want to grow? But we’ve been very consistent even through the economic downturn; there hasn’t been a huge difference.
J&C: Has there been consistency too in terms of the numbers you take on, or have you seen that fluctuate?
AW: So, regardless of the economic downturn or not, the way that we hire really will depend on where the company wants to put some resources – so whether there’s a big product launch or launches – and as I’m sure you can see, we have a lot of products coming out all the time. So I wouldn’t say we’ve changed because of the economic downturn. Our numbers change, but that’s more to do with the products and the way the company wants to move forward.
J&C: Have you found that there’s been more interim hiring because of that project-by-project basis?
AW: I have to say over the last two years, we’ve had huge hiring on a permanent basis, and we’ve grown significantly. On a worldwide basis, Google employ approximately 31,000 full-time employees. We increased our employee base by over 10,000 since the start of 2010; we’ve been really busy. In terms of hiring contractors or temps, we haven’t seen a change; I think we’ve continued to work on hiring permanent staff.
J&C: Has the type of person you’re looking for changed as a result of the downturn?
AW: Because we are looking for people fairly consistently, I wouldn’t say it’s changed particularly much. I think the industry has changed hugely, and I think that there’s a lot more growth in online marketing – and people really now understand the industry, which is great for us. So I definitely think the type of people that we’re able to hire are probably those with a lot more experience naturally, because this is an industry that’s grown.
J&C: What about the type of applicant you’re getting? Have you noticed a shift there?
AW: Yes, I think we’ve seen a lot more variation – partly because of the economic downturn but also I think historically there was a perception that Google hired engineers full-stop, which isn’t the case, and luckily I think people now understand that we are a lot broader than that: we’ve got a lot of variation in the types of roles that we hire. And I think that generally, people are a lot more interested in technology than they were, so I think we’re starting to see a new generation of people who have grown up with it and are more familiar with it and really want to get involved.
When we call people now and say we’re calling from Google, they understand why we are calling and it’s not a shock to them if they are in digital marketing, for example; they’re not going to be surprised that we’re calling them. And I think that there’s definitely huge change, even from when I started working in this area, in terms of the type of people that apply and just generally the perception of what the company does. Potentially in some areas people would still immediately associate Google with engineers – and obviously we still hire quite a lot of engineers! – but it’s definitely changed.
J&C: Looking outside Google specifically, do you feel that there’s a skills deficit in the UK? And, if so, how does this manifest itself in what you see on your desk day to day?
AW: I haven’t seen a lot of it and I think that’s probably because more and more people are moving into our industry – so for us it’s probably going the other way: we’re actually seeing more talent coming through. I asked the engineering recruitment team this question as well and they said the same; they said they don’t have a problem hiring strong engineers in the UK – which is great news! I think with traditional media – because there’s such a change from traditional media to online – we’re actually seeing more and more people move into online media and that makes our job a lot easier to find people with the right skill sets.
J&C: Is there a lot of geographical crossover in terms of what you do? Are you recruiting for a geography in particular or are you recruiting for Google within that region – would you look only within the UK for a UK role for example?
AW: Most of the time we’re very much focussed on a UK-based person for a UK role; that’s what makes sense because it’s the people that have the contacts and understand and have the experience in that market. I think it really depends on the level that you’re looking for – so, for example, we have the EU headquarters in Dublin and they need a lot of language skills so obviously we spend a lot of time speaking to candidates from different countries and seeing whether they’re interested in roles in Dublin. For us, we would probably be looking more for candidates in that region and we would focus on that; some roles could be potentially be based in one location or another but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
J&C: A lot of our readers are now thinking about “where can I go for work?” rather than getting stuck looking for something that suits them location-wise. It’s interesting to hear how a big multi-national company does that country by country.
AW: I think it’s very difficult to market it to a global audience because, really, when you’re looking for quite a specific skill set, a lot of the time we also require experience in that particular market. It very much depends upon the role though.
J&C: Rather than focussing on what you do here at Google specifically, what are your key dos and don’ts for job-seekers generally?
AW: First things first: I would tell everyone to double, triple, quadruple-check their CVs. I’ve told you the number we get – so when we’re looking through CVs, it needs to be crystal-clear. The more simple, the more clear that information is the better. Keep it consistent, grammatically correct (no errors!) on a CV; double-check and have someone else triple-check.
J&C: Do you have a preferred page limit or length for CVs?
AW: Not particularly; it varies. I wouldn’t rule anyone out because of the length of their CV. I think the standard “anything from one to three pages” is fine. Obviously, it’s not an autobiography – but equally if they have a lot of experience and they’re trying to squeeze it all into one page, it doesn’t make sense either. That would be the first thing. Also, why do they want that particular role? That should stand out – and in fact that should be the first point I see on the CV: why they’re experienced for this particular role.
I would definitely recommend that they don’t just send a CV blindly, you really should target it because every CV for every job is going to look a little bit different because you’ve got to highlight why you’re relevant for that exact job.
The second thing is really simply doing your homework, really preparing for the interview and preparing for the job: what are the market trends? What’s happening and what’s happened with that particular company? What’s happening within that type of role? Where do they see their scope? Also, genuinely have an answer for why you want to apply for that role. You need to show that you’re passionate about it: that needs to come across ideally on the CV but definitely in the interview. And finally, just be honest and very up-front with the interviewers and show them why you’re a fit for the role.