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Want to work at Google? You’ve gotta be zany

Want to work at Google? You’ve gotta be zany
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First Published: Tue, Mar 20 2007. 09 46 AM IST
Updated: Tue, Mar 20 2007. 09 46 AM IST
Eric Morath, New York Times
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Shally Madan wanted to work at Google so badly that she wore a Superman costume to her job interview at the company's new Ann Arbor office last Halloween. Waiting to grill her about a Cornell education and work at a California advertising agency was Grady Burnett, head of Google's Ann Arbor operations — dressed up like a duck.
She may not be faster than a speeding bullet, but Madan did her research and knew that she had to stand out to land a gig at one of the most popular — and zany — workplaces in America.
With 3,000 applications a day pouring in, the search engine giant can afford to be picky about who it hires. Indeed, many of its workers at the Ann Arbor office that opened in September hold Ivy League degrees and talk about working abroad or pushing start-ups off the ground.
However, that doesn't mean a Central Michigan University grad or displaced salesperson doesn't have a chance to become a Noogler — a new Googler.
In fact, Mountain View, California-based Google is refocusing its already notable hiring process to shake the reputation that it hires only the most book-smart candidates.
“We want the brightest and best, but that doesn't necessarily mean they went to MIT or Harvard,” said Burnett. “We are looking for people who have been successful in areas of their life. Getting a 4.0 is one way to demonstrate that, doing philanthropic work in your community is another.”
Google's employment procedure does have a few unusual wrinkles, but it's not as crazy as some have said. How well a candidate fits the culture is a big deal, but employees are not asked how they treat their pets or booted if their interview apparel doesn't match the day's theme.
To land a job at Google, you do need to sell yourself in an online application, be ready to take surveys and tests and prepare for a battery of phone and in-person interviews — perhaps even with a duck.
A workplace culture that includes pajama days and Mr. Potato Head toys on every desk doesn't stop its quirky ways just because candidates are coming to interview. And candidates are coming frequently to Google's Ann Arbor location, which intends to have hired 1,000 employees by 2011.
So when Madan, 27, showed up for her interview last Halloween, it wasn't out of the ordinary for Burnett to be wearing feathers, suited up to match the costume of his 2-year-old daughter, whom he would take trick-or-treating later. He was far from the only Google employee in the spirit.
“I had interviews with a duck, a pilot, a computer black screen and a devil,” said Madan, a Troy resident who got the Google job.
Perhaps she was hired because she fit in so well. Madan came to the interview in a sharp black suit — but went from Clark Kent to Superman by unbuttoning her blouse to reveal an ‘S’ T-shirt, removing her glasses and donning a bright yellow belt.
“(A co-worker) came back and said, ‘I just interviewed someone who is so Googly,’” said fellow new hire Lindsay Stradley, 26, of Madan's interview. Stradley, now an Ann Arbor resident, started with Google in September.
Although not every interview is held in costume, Google's hiring practice focuses as much on how candidates' characteristics will match the company's culture and mission as on how their credentials suit them for the job.
All Google candidates start at the same place: www.google.com/jobs.
Even internal referrals go through the same online application process that asks for a cover letter, resume and education background.
Such online applications are becoming the norm among large employers, said Terri LaMarco, associate director of the Career Center at the University of Michigan. Those out of the job market in recent years may find it more impersonal than sending individually addressed cover letters.
“That means you need to work harder to make a personal connection, whether it's an on-campus interview, job fair or through a professional connection,” LaMarco said.
Google, the world's most prominent search engine, insists that every candidate's application is viewed by human eyes. Selected candidates are contacted for a phone interview. If all goes well, job-seekers are asked to come in for an in-person interview and do a little homework.
One newly added assignment is a survey that seeks to determine if a person's attributes will make him or her a successful Googler, regardless of the resume.
The survey asks questions like: Have you ever started your own business, even a lemonade stand? Have you ever led a group?
The multiple choice test, which takes about 20 minutes to complete, was derived from a much larger survey of current employees. Analysis of the employee survey ruled out questions such as “Do you own a dog?” deciding that attribute doesn't equate to Google success or failure.
“The survey is designed to reduce the number of great people we miss,” Burnett said.
Such surveys also can thin the candidate pool by identifying characteristics that may not be evident on resumes, said John Challenger, CEO of the job outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
“You want to put your best foot forward, but don't volunteer negative information,” he said. “Some people will reveal information on a test that they would never divulge in an in-person interview.”
Those who land in-person interviews can expect to talk with Googlers up — and down — the company ladder.
Like most companies, Google has prospects speak to superiors and their would-be peers. But management candidates also must interview with would-be subordinates, and Google gives those underlings a say in who is hired.
“I’ve been happy to help decide who gets to join,” said AdWords associate Matthew Neagle, 29. “I think it's important that people who work within the company have some role in who their colleagues will be ... we care a lot about how people will fit into the team culture.”
Neagle, a Saginaw native, recently transferred to Google’s Ann Arbor office after spending time in the company's California and India locations. Before that, he worked in Panama and Europe after graduating from the University of Michigan.
Challenger said that although interviewing with a range of employees is fairly rare, it's a smart move for Google. “This is a company that gets it,” he said. “Relationships with those above, and below, you are key to how you fit in the organization.”
He said Google has had the reputation of hiring only the very smartest people. “Now they realize that the smartest people don't always work out, because they don't always fit into your organization.”
After the final interview, but before an offer is extended, every Google hire, all 10,000-plus through 2006, is approved by one of Google's founders, Sergey Brin or Michigan native and University of Michigan graduate Larry Page.
Once the offer is extended, and accepted — the party begins.
Nooglers say after they received the first call from their supervisor, they were flooded with calls and e-mails from other interviewers and co-workers they met during their visit.
New workers are greeted with balloons on their cubicle, Mr. (or Mrs.) Potato Head and a lava lamp on their desk, and a goody bag that includes an “allowance” at the Google store (www.googlestore.com).
“There was a lot of welcome and a lot of celebration,” Googler Stradley said. “My buddy (mentor) came over and was beyond excited to see me.”
While no employee has worked in Ann Arbor longer than four months, early hires such as Stradley, a Yale alum who helped open a charter school in post-Katrina New Orleans, are considered old vets.
The rule of thumb is once your helium balloons deflate, you're no longer a Noogler. On a recent Wednesday in the Ann Arbor office, several sets of balloons floated above the cubicles.
No surprise: The office is quickly expanding.
Now at more than 50 employees, the office has 14 current openings and some 950 more Nooglers to hire in the next five years.
That means Google will welcome plenty more new hires in pressed suits — or pajamas, as was the case for Halloween-hire Madan. Her first day was worldwide Google pajama day.
“I wore Cookie Monster pajamas and big fuzzy slippers my sister bought me,” she said. “A lot of people wore big fuzzy slippers — I loved it.”
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First Published: Tue, Mar 20 2007. 09 46 AM IST
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