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Google data-mines its approach to promoting women

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Four years ago, Google was confronted with a troubling stat: Its male engineers were raising their hands for promotions at higher rates than women. Google couldn’t understand why women weren’t going for better titles and higher pay when it had a system where anyone could apply for a promotion.

That volunteer system was exactly the problem, Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of People Operations, said in a recent interview. What happened next was quintessential Google, the world’s biggest Internet data monger that insists on putting hard statistics at the center of its internal operations, too.

Bock pointed to findings from two studies on gender inequality in schools and in business:

1) Girls don’t raise their hands as often as boys when answering math problems, even though they have a higher rate of accuracy when they do.

2) Women don’t offer up their ideas as often as men in business meetings, even though observers say their thoughts are often better than the many offered by their male colleagues.

Given those academic findings, why would Google’s females engineers behave any differently when told to advocate for their own promotions?

So, Bock tried an experiment. Alan Eustace, one of the heads of engineering, sent an e-mail to his staff describing the two studies and then reminding them it was time to apply for promotions. Immediately, the application rate for women soared and the rate of women who received promotions rose higher than that for male engineers. Every time Eustace sent the same e-mail reminder, female promotion rates climbed. When he once forgot to send that e-mail, the number of female applicants dropped sharply.

“The data was clear,” Bock said. “If we tried to have a small nudge by simply presenting information, it could fix part of the problem. We prefer this to a bureaucratic top-down approach.”

To be sure, Google isn’t exactly a role model for gender balance. It has only one woman on its senior management team. But its board is nearly half female. And just as Google confronts greater ethical questions over privacy, safety with its driverless cars, and competition, Bock notes the limits of data.

“Google is at the center of very real debates that at the end of the day can’t be answered just by data,” said Bock, whose non-techy bedside reading includes “The Art Forger,” “Essays by Christopher Hitchens” and the comic book “The Superior Spider Man.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Bock talked immigration reform and what keeps him up at night. For the notoriously byzantine recruitment process, he said the company looks for people who can thrive in ambiguity. He prefers generalists over subject experts. He's more interested in how you think rather than your GPA and will test you with real-time problems.

Here’s an edited version of the rest of our conversation:

Cecilia Kang: This week, new enrollments for highly-skilled worker visas, known as H1Bs, will open and likely be full within hours. How much does this affect Google?

Laszlo Bock : We try to get as many as we can and never get as many as we need. We have a luxury that small businesses don’t have. We have non-U.S. offices, so if we need to we can send people to our Toronto, Zurich or Hyderabad office. But there are three problems with that:

1) People work better when they are together.

2) If you are a small company, you don’t have that ability. My family came from Romania in the 1970s, and both my parents had small businesses. If they had wanted to hire someone from outside the U.S. they couldn't have afforded the H1B visa or the waiver process.

3) In the U.S., two-thirds of computer science degrees are awarded to non-U.S. citizens. They graduate and immediately go back to their home countries because we can't keep them. Why not keep that knowledge, drive and passion here?

CK: What is the real cost to Google? Surely you have mapped out the cost risks for that lost talent.

LB: Google has whole ecosystems around our own business. Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat were the creators of Big Table, which is the technology that morphed and became the language called Hadoop. Hadoop is what Amazon Web Services, Twitter, and Facebook use. If there were no Sanjay, who is an immigrant and who worked with Jeff on this, we would not have this technology that is fundamental to the Internet today.

CK: What worries you most in hiring?

LB: Software engineers are always hard to find, and very few people are from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds or are women. In recruiting African American computer science PhDs, my team told me this year they did pretty well. They captured about 50 percent of all black PhDs in computer science. But they said there were four, and two stayed in academia. So of the available two, we hired one. My heart broke inside when I heard that. We have scholarships and programs and partnerships with universities like Howard on computer science. But it's a problem.

The other big category are security experts. With the Snowden revelations, every company is after these folks. You need security experts for applications, networks, rapid response teams, security breach experts. There is a market demand for about 30,000 security engineers. To give you perspective, at Google we have 250 working for us, and we run a lot of data.

CK: Have you encountered more suspicion toward Google after the Edward Snowden leaks on NSA surveillance?

LB: I haven’t seen it from candidates. One of the challenges is that we disclose everything we are legally allowed to disclose, but some things you are not allowed to disclose. We are asked, "How is there not more?" But we say the law prevents us from telling you.

CK: Are the youngest and brightest software developers more interested in app startups than big companies like Google and Cisco that do the plumbing of the Internet?

LB: I've given a lot of thought to this, and my answer hasn't been popular. The biggest thing that's going on is that we are getting older. If you look back at every generation, when people are in their 50s and 40s they look at those in the 20s and say, "What's wrong with these kids? I worked harder and put my nose to the grindstone." We forget that we were like that at that age. The reality is that when I talk to people in their 20s, they say they want a great job that they enjoy, doing something cool and that means something. And they want to retire sooner than their parents did. That's the same as past generations.

The other thing going on is that there is a lot of cool stuff going on in consumer apps that is really exciting people. We make this mistake with the way our brains work in that we overestimate the odds of something good happening and underestimate the odds of something bad happening. That's what gets us out of bed every morning. But the odds of something getting the next WhatsApp deal are really low. We forget that 90 percent of startups fail. But that's a wonderful thing. That tendency is what makes us take chances.