Google may provide access to most of the world’s information, but if Laszlo Bock’s statements (or at least Tom Friedman’s restatement of them) in last Sunday’s New York Times are an indication, that informational access is no guarantee of wisdom. Mr. Bock’s opinions on what skills make a job applicant competitive overlook five major issues that any reader should consider before embracing his advice in its entirety.
Issue 1: Confusing what is best for acquiring a job at his company with what is best for the individual. I will assume (I believe safely) that Google has ten applicants for each opening that is available. For its technical positions (and even many non-technical roles), it may prefer applicants with a strong coding background. As a result, if the question is “how do you get a job at Google,” being a slightly stronger coder may improve your chances by 20. But your chances of landing that job have only increased 2 percentage points, from 10% to 12%. If the rest of the job market has a greater volume of opportunities in, for example, welding, and you could have studied welding instead of coding, Laszlo’s advice would be perfectly valid from his perspective (i.e., it maximizes your chances of getting a job offer from him), but unhelpful for the student who cares less about specifically receiving a job offer from Google than about receiving a job offer broadly. It is worth noting that this evaluation is agnostic as to one’s personal abilities or preferences, which skews the decision further. If others are better at coding and learning to code than I am, but I am a talented biochemist, the principle of comparative advantage states that I may well be better served in terms of income, job satisfaction (and job security) by joining a pharmaceutical corporation than trying desperately (and unhappily) to learn to code.
Issue 2: Not accounting for opportunity cost in his “return on investment” approach
Coding courses are available online for free or very low cost. Recommending that students spend $ 40k+ in tuition for additional time to practice programming is incongruous with his statements that students should think about what they are getting for their investment. If a student spent four years practicing coding and paid for their room and board, the price tag would be lower and she would likely be at least as good a technical programmer as she would from earning a CS degree (and taking the distribution requirements at most schools). The program will either work or not, and the student will be able to self-correct; even best practices on efficient coding are fairly readily available. If, however, that same student wants to have her writing carefully critiqued by a group of similarly high-talent peers under the guidance of a professional writer, or wants to perform research on human decision-making in diverse circumstances in double-blind, controlled studies, she will have an exceptionally difficult time conducting such experiments or receiving the same caliber of feedback outside of a traditional higher education institution.
Issue 3: Confusing specialization with differentiation.
Mr. Bock’s reference to “differentiating yourself in the marketplace” is perplexing. Differentiation is, rather obviously, achieved by being different from other applicants for any particular position. A job applicant must always have the background skills required for the job that he/she is applying for, but assuming that the applicant has acquired the requisite level of skill to perform the job, true diversification is achieved by having had experiences that other applicants for the position have not. In the 1980s, learning a programming language may have been a true differentiator. In 2014, it is a skill, but one possessed by so many applicants that it is no longer reliably a differentiator. The truly differentiated programmer is likely not the one who took the most programming courses, but rather the one who took enough to become competent, but also studied Music Composition or Russian Literature.
Issue 4: Understating the breadth of opportunities even at his own firm.
Google recently advertised openings for holders of journalism degrees. After nearly a decade of declining traditional print media, it would be hard to think of a degree more derided as “behind the times” (besides the mythological “underwater basket-weaving” degree). But the skills that journalists develop are even valued by the newest of technological companies, because, contrary to Laszlo’s stated belief about creativity, human beings are no more “naturally” able to communicate clearly and effectively to a broad array of audiences than they are to program. Mr. Bock’s advice is entirely focused on the technical side of Google, and overlooks any description of how students might gain the leadership or management skills that they would need to advance beyond a straight programming position.
Issue 5: Ignoring half of the solution set to the “portable job” problem.
Laszlo’s interest is in having as many elite programmers apply to his company as possible, so perhaps it is not surprising that he astutely analyzes that “many jobs can be done anywhere” and recommends that applicants should try to be the best in the world at what they do. This ambition is commendable, if an applicant is interested in such a field (programming being one). Alternatively, a college student or other future job seeker could identify jobs that are more difficult to ship elsewhere, and seek to be excellent within his/her local market (e.g., civil engineers, news anchors, and teachers are all harder to outsource).
This type of one-size-fits-few article reinforces two dangerous fallacies:
- That there is a single set of answers or actions that people can take to secure themselves. Blacksmith and telegraph operator used to be high-tech professions, and every industry and role (including programming) may be subject to disruptive technological change overnight. Job security can only come from developing a broad base of skills and continuing to add to it, so that self-reinvention is not impossible.
2. It conflates present success with future trajectory. Google continues to do effective and exciting research across a broad array of fields, but anyone who wants to work for “the next Google” is not looking for a job at Google today. I expect Google to continue to benefit from its network effects, substantial cash advantage over competitors, and household name status for a long time to come, but Kodak, Lehman Brothers (no relation) and Enron were also massively successful corporations in their turn, and Google has yet to reach its twentieth anniversary. New graduates considering a 40-year career should acquire skills based on their interest and ability, not trust that any individual employer will put them in a position for success.