Searching for unicorns

Andrew (Andy) Warr
Oct 26, 2014 · 6 min read

I recently read an article in Business Insider, titled, ‘Here’s Why You Probably Won’t Get Hired At Google’ — quite the headline. Having worked at Google I was intrigued to read the article — wondering if I could ever get a job there again — this is not an invitation for recruiters to contact me. One stat that caught my attention was, ‘Of the 3 million applications it receives each year, Google only hires 7,000, or about 0.2%’ — I knew a similar stat when I was there, but it was confidential back then. The article did not actually go on to say why you probably won’t get hired — as with most journalism, it lacked substance. As such, I decided to write this article, telling you qualities that may help you get hired at Google and other tech companies. I am not going to give away any inside information (Google actually does a good job of describing it’s hiring process), I am just going to tell you the qualities I think make a good hire, which may or may not reflect the beliefs and values of my past, current or future employers.

First of all, why do I think I am qualified to write this article? I have been employed by Microsoft, Google and Facebook/Instagram — I am not a one-hit wonder. I am also a research and hiring manager, which means I have sat on many interviews and hiring committees. I should note the caveat that I am a Research Manager, and the qualities I describe may not be applicable to all disciplines — that said, if you cannot translate these qualities to your own discipline, you probably won’t get hired.

Go wide and deep. It is important to show a breadth of skills with an in-depth understanding of a few of them. For example, a researcher may be familiar with a range of research methods, knowing the pros and cons of each, as well as when to apply them, but only be an expert with one or two of them — note that no one is an expert of everything. There is a balance between being a generalist and specialist.

Be creative. Anyone can follow a recipe — break the mold. For example, a researcher could develop a screener that a recruiting agency uses to recruit people for a research study based on some criteria that identifies some behaviors of people to be studied. What if you could identify people in-the-moment exhibiting some behavior with a product and give them the option to participate in a live, remote research study — is a tool that allows you to do this by the way. Go beyond what you learned in a textbook — write the textbook.

Wear many hats. You will never work in a silo. For example, a researcher should not just write up the results of a research study and hand it off to a designer, engineer or product manager and expect them to act of it. At a minimum the researcher has to work with these other disciplines to translate the findings from the research into something that can be acted on. A step beyond this would be to wear the hat of another discipline, such as creating a mock, building a prototype or writing requirements or a specification — this is usually a quality you see with seniority. Know your stakeholders, how to work with them and be them if needed.

Be different. What sets you apart? It could be anything — a skill, a trait or a point of view. For example, I am a researcher who has experience with experimentation — learned during my PhD — ethnographic research — learned mostly during my post-doc — and I have a background in Computer Science, which I still embrace today. This is a relatively unique skill set — a mix of quantitative and qualitative research skills at extreme ends of the research skills spectrum, with a technical background. Think about what makes you unique and sell it.

Know thy stuff. Just because you read something, does not mean you know it and should list it as a skill on your LinkedIn or resume. Make sure you are familiar with the skill, know it’s pros and cons, especially with regards to other methods and most importantly, make sure you have applied it. I am going to give a specific research example — ethnography.

Ethnography (from Greek ἔθνος ethnos “folk, people, nation” and γράφω grapho “I write”) is the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. An ethnography is a means to represent graphically and in writing the culture of a group.

Strictly speaking, an ethnography is a written description of a culture. However, it is often used to describe a qualitative research process. The methods used in an ethnographic research study include, but are not limited to participant observations and interviews. One of the things that is often described as unique about ethnographic participant observations and interviews is that it is in-the-field. Note that contextual inquiry employs similar methods in-the-field. The component that is often missed is the understanding of a culture. Scope your skills to what you know well.

Stay passionate. I remember a great quote from one of my Computer Science professors, “You will not learn to code in the lab”. He was trying to say that we would not be programmers by just going to the labs and completing our assignments — we had to be constantly honing our skills. So, if you are a coder, write code and publish to Github; if you are a designer, design and publish to Dribbble; and if you are a researcher, order a coffee, sit on a bench, observe the world and ask ‘why?’.

Stay focused. When I was studying undergrad Computer Science I applied for an internship at Ford in the UK. I did not get the position, because I rambled. One of the reasons I rambled was to fill the silence. I have never made that mistake since. Be comfortable with silence. Answer questions directly, providing succinct rationale — if someone wants more information, they will ask for it.

Know when to say no. One of the lessons I learned at Microsoft was to say ‘no’. There is always more that can be done and people will often ask for your help. The trick is to maintain a healthy workload of high quality within a given timeline. It is better to do fewer things well, than many things poorly. Learn to realistically scope your work.

Don’t limit yourself to ‘I don’t know’. First, it is fine not to know something — it is human nature; and no one is going to punish you for not knowing something. But there is always a way to find something out. As such, a lesson I learned at Google was to say ‘I don’t know, but…’ and describe what actions you would take to find something out.

Ask lots of questions. You only know what you know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions — there is no such thing as a stupid question. Particularly for interviews, I actually find it suspicious if someone does not have questions for me during an interview — an interview is not only an opportunity for the interviewer to learn about you, but also an opportunity for you to learn about the interviewer and the company they represent.

Think aloud. No one knows what is going on inside your head. As such, verbalize your thoughts and get your thoughts down on paper or on a whiteboard. Engage in collaborative conversation and thinking. Ideas are not the result of individual thought, but rather arise through our interactions with others. To quote Bill Buxton, “The days of the Renaissance man or woman are long over.”

Once again, exhibiting these qualities will not guarantee you a job at a tech company, but it won’t hurt. Good luck!

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