I was disappointed to see this post by Peter Norvig on the Google Research blog – disappointed because it’s so silly, and because I have had feelings of near-reverence for Norvig in the past (based mainly on his AI Programming book from back in the day).
What’s wrong with the post? Well, it’s one of those facile little pieces that takes a complex reality (technical hiring) and assumes enough of the interesting bits away that the rest can be made to look like a simple physics experiment. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to shout “SCIENCE!” (as in she-blinded-me-with….).
In the first part of the post, Norvig demonstrates with a simulation that a higher standard of hiring (hiring above the mean) leads to better employee quality than a lower standard (hiring above the min), when both strategies are given an inexhaustible supply of candidates, and “interviewing” has zero cost. The first question you have to ask is: why would anyone be surprised by this, or predict anything different? And does anyone seriously propose hiring-above-the-min as a good idea?
And I’m curious: if hiring-above-the-mean is better than hiring-above-the-min, then why hasn’t Google tried hiring-above-the-max (i.e. insisting that each new hire be better than every current employee)? My initial investigations show that this simple strategy can make the quality of new hires approach 100% very quickly (although the simulation runs are taking a really long time to complete for some reason…)
In the second part, Norvig does another simulation to demonstrate that doing away with hiring managers is a good idea (hires are made by the company as a whole and then assigned to teams and projects later). The assumptions underlying this one are interesting. First of all, hiring managers are assumed to be completely greedy hirers, who will never fail to fill a position even if they have no candidate that’s minimally suitable. That’s an … interesting model of trust, shall we say. (I would have to agree that any individual hiring manager who acts that way is probably bad for his/her company, so if we assume that all hiring managers act that way, then I would agree that they’ve all got to go. (Disclaimer: I’m a hiring manager.))
But the more interesting implicit assumption is: there’s no cost to removing all informational connection between projects/teams and hiring. For one thing, fitting candidates to teams or projects is a non-issue by definition (because candidates are reduced to a single “quality” score, equally good for any project or team). For another, there’s no connection between the amount of information you can share with candidates in job offers and your success in getting candidates to accept those offers. (I am happy to say that I know of at least one counterexample: a game-changingly inventive and productive guy, currently working at Yahoo!, who decided to take the Y! offer over a “better” offer from G, because Y! could tell him something about the projects and co-workers in advance…)
I’m not even saying that I’m sure that decoupling projects from hiring decisions _isn’t_ a win – I’m just sure that if you simulate an inherently tradeoffy proposal like that by including all the benefits and none of the costs, then your simulation will probably tell you that it’s a really good idea. (Or as Norvig puts it: “We’re pleased that these little simulations show our hiring strategy is on top.”)
Anyway, if you personally would like to have your talents, abilities, and interests mapped to a single score at application time, and then agree in advance to join a “pool” of interchangeable workers, with no prior information about what you’ll be doing or who you’ll be working with, you should know that the Google hiring philosophy can make your dreams come true. On the other hand (shameless plug time), if you’d like to talk to different teams doing significantly different sorts of work, and then make an informed decision about what you’d like to work on and who you’d like to work closely with, drop us a line at Yahoo! Search. Each to his own, right?
(Disclaimer: in case you couldn’t guess already, I work at Yahoo! Search, but am not speaking for Y! here.)