The company’s head of human resources tries to teach you to act like his best employees
Twice in the first 22 pages of Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, a book by the company’s “head of people operations,” Laszlo Bock, it’s mentioned that those who work at Google are called “Googlers.” Both times it’s brought up, once by Bock and once by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, great pains are taken to make it clear that Googlers have self-designated this assignation— they call themselves that, we’re assured, and it’s definitely not the sort of thing they’d feel pressure from above to adhere to. Not at all. They call themselves that! Who are we to stop them?
Maybe you know someone who works at Google. Try an experiment: Start up a conversation with a Google friend, and begin to refer to her exclusively as “a Googler like yourself.” Wait to see how long until the person stops and asks what you’re talking about. Mine took 45 seconds. The funniest takeaway from this book is not that Google is a cult, because it isn’t. It’s an extremely successful business. The joke is that Bock wants Google to be a cult, even as its employees, its Googlers, are normal people who work at a company that makes money because it’s excellent at indexing things on the Internet. It’s sort of mundane, but the author and others have convinced themselves it’s a calling. Bock came to Silicon Valley 15 years ago, from General Electric, and he’s directly tied to what Google’s become in those years. He claims to have personally looked at every résumé submitted since he arrived.
Work Rules! is textbook-like, meant to teach airport browsers to Googleify their own offices. Chapters end with check-marked tips such as “Find ways for people to shape their work and the company” and “Choose to think of yourself as a founder: Now act like one.” These maxims attempt to show how Google differs from other corporations in both construction and execution. But the book makes a better, unintentional argument that Google is like every other workplace. It has a product that people want and that it can sell. Bock, too close to the centre of it all, thinks this isn’t because of the product; it’s because of the culture.
So he will start a chapter with a problem—say, how to find the best employees—then toss out examples of how other places do it wrong. He particularly loves to note when Yahoo!, run by Marissa Mayer, a former Googler herself, messes up something. Take interviewing: Most companies let their managers make decisions on hiring, but Google has a universal system, horrifically called qDroid, that produces algorithmic questions meant to tease out various attributes of applicants. Bock concedes that the questions are often rote, but “it’s the answers that are compelling.” So compelling, in fact, that Google “scores” the responses with “a consistent rubric” it calls Behaviourally Anchored Rating Scales. He’s certain this automated process, which takes months for most applicants to complete, brings in the “most superb candidates.” Google does get top employees, but you have to be squinting pretty hard to think this is the right way to find them. The reason it has talented workers is that it’s a multibillion-dollar company that pays extremely well.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Bock’s relentless optimism. At one point he quotes Tolstoy’s “All happy families resemble one another,” while he omits the more famous “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He also has a tendency to inflate his own importance at the company. You don’t get to run “people operations” by coding your brain out, so he rarely mentions the many actual products his company makes. (Poor Google Glass slips by only once.)
By the end, Bock comes across as just another human resources guy, albeit one who’s discovered that, because he works for a company that feels like The Future, people will listen to his theories about human nature. Foremost: Bring your dog to work and be happier. As he extols his teachings, Bock worries that people will see Google as a “forced-march funhouse.” If they do, it’s his own fault.
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