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Shyamal Majumdar: Google's 'airport test'

Though often criticised for an arduously long recruitment process, the digital giant knows what it takes to hire right

Shyamal Majumdar  |  Mumbai 

Your flight is cancelled and you are stuck at the airport with this guy for the next three hours. How happy would you be about that? Would you look for the nearest way to escape? Or, would you look forward to a couple of hours of interesting conversation with him or her?

That’s roughly the set of questions that recruiters at ask before they hire someone. calls it the “airport test”. Many things have changed in the company that has graduated from a Stanford dorm room in 1998, to a 33,000-employee powerhouse — but the airport test has remained a constant.

The rationale is simple: At Google, you work on projects with different groups of Googlers, across many teams and time — so adaptation and ability to spend long hours with varying teams are a must. So, some of your interviewers would be potential teammates and some would be with other teams. Feedback is taken from each one of them to see how the candidate might collaborate and fit in at the company.

Nikesh Arora, Google’s senior vice-president and chief business officer, had a taste of that. In 2004, after he was interviewed by the co-founders, he had to meet 18 more people before could decide whether to hire him. The airport test, Arora says, is a result of the company’s belief that the people it recruits need to be multi-faceted in life — as the company itself will change many times in the future. “We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes. We can’t have too many specialists in just one particular area. In short, we’re less concerned about grades and more interested in how you think,” Arora says.

For instance, an degree with a high score is great, but Google thinks it’s even better if a person was the first in the family to go to college, and did well while working an extra job.

The other way to make sure that the recruitment is on the right track is to judge whether the candidate is passionate. For example, Google has hired candidates who have been world knitting champions or have won an Olympic gold in figure skating. It so happened that they also had A grades from top universities. “We hired them because they have learnt to sacrifice a lot of other things to excel in a discipline of sport. For example, we hired a rowing champion. Look at it this way. It’s not easy to wake up every day, early in the morning, to practise on a sustained basis, and become a world champion. That’s the kind of perseverance and passion to win that we are looking for,” Arora says.

The importance that Google attaches to its recruitment is evident from the fact that even the seniormost executives didn’t have the final say in recruitment till sometime back. For example, Arora was told by the co-founders that one of the few things where he won’t have a final say is hiring — that’s something and would do themselves.

Although that has changed somewhat with the company’s size increasing rapidly, Google has often been criticised for its arduously long and bureaucratic In response, the company has drastically cut the time it takes a candidate to wend his way through the process — from an average six months to about a month and a half. The number of interviews has been crunched from an average 10 to five.

For all its warts, there is no denying that Google is obsessed with hiring right and is willing to make extraordinary efforts to do that. Here is an example: Hours after selecting a candidate, Arora found that she was being pursued by another company as well. He sent a bottle of wine to the candidate with a note saying he looked forward to working with her. The candidate sent a thank you note, but opted to work for the competitor. A year later, she came to Arora asking whether there was a slot for her. The same day, they had a drink from the same bottle of wine that Arora had sent her — which only goes on to show that these little things in life matter, however sought after you are.

Finally, since the initial step in getting an entry into the company is all about your brain, here’s a sample question that Google has asked its candidates: “What number comes next in the sequence: 10, 9, 60, 90, 70, 66…?” The trick is that nothing you have learnt in school is likely to help you find an answer.

In case you haven’t cracked it as yet, here’s the answer: 96. And, here’s why. If you spell out the numbers, you will see that they are in order of the number of letters in the word. So, “sixty six” has eight letters, and the next number should have nine. That’s “ninety six”.

First Published: Fri, November 23 2012. 00:11 IST