Friday, January 12, 2018

Lessons from Google

I read this Washington Post article that says in America, students are advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects – believing that’s the only way to become workforce ready. 

And yet two studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills”. 

More surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google. 

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. 

Google originally set their hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities. 

In 2013, Google decided to test their hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. 

Project Oxygen alarmed and even shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. 

The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas. 

Sad to say but many, if not all, of these characteristics, are missing in a vast majority of Malaysian graduates. 

I know we know this  but do we continue to be in self-denial and just let it be? Or will we face up to this and do something about it? 

Those traits sound more like what one gains as a social science or humanities major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? 

After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged their previous hiring practices to include other majors, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain. 

Project Aristotle, a study released by Google last year, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. It analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. 

Google takes pride in their A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. 

Their data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room. 

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard. 

Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. 

Another survey of 260 employers by the non-profit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. 

Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: Interestingly, he looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed. 

I certainly agree with the said article that STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today – BUT technology alone (as Steve Jobs famously insisted), is not enough! 

We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational. 

Therefore, no student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. 

Certainly, broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. 

What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready. 

Let’s spread the word about this to everybody and anybody. It is indeed worth sharing.

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