The Winds of Change Blow Degrees Away in Business

James Marcus Bach is an expert in software testing and the author of Secrets of A Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success. We met at an unschooling conference a few years ago and we had some great discussions. I asked James about his self-education experiences and how he was able to work for companies like Google and Apple without conventional degrees or certificates. James replied that he could never work at Google since they were so degree oriented in their hiring process; however, Apple gave him a chance. You can read how that turned out and learn more about his thinking in his fun book. The main reason I mention James is because of how quickly things are changing for people without college degrees. Google is now not only hiring people like James—they recruit them.

On February 23, 2014, Thomas Friedman wrote How to Get a Job at Google with the subtitle, Hint: Getting hired is not about your G.P.A. It’s about what you can do and what you know in the New York Times. Friedman quotes Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, who says:

“There are five hiring attributes we have across the company,” explained Bock. “If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

Earlier in the year, The NY TIMES business section did an interview with Bock and he revealed some fascinating details behind the broad generalizations above.

Q. Other insights from the data you’ve gathered about Google employees?

A. One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.

What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.

Q. Can you elaborate a bit more on the lack of correlation?

A. After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different. You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently.

Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.

It turns out, Google isn’t the only large company looking hard at their assumptions about what constitutes good signals that someone will be a good employee. An article in The Atlantic about corporate use and misuse of people analytics ends:

One of the tragedies of the modern economy is that because one’s college history is such a crucial signal in our labor market, perfectly able people who simply couldn’t sit still in a classroom at the age of 16, or who didn’t have their act together at 18, or who chose not to go to graduate school at 22, routinely get left behind for good. That such early factors so profoundly affect career arcs and hiring decisions made two or three decades later is, on its face, absurd.

But this relationship is likely to loosen in the coming years. I spoke with managers at a lot of companies who are using advanced analytics to reevaluate and reshape their hiring, and nearly all of them told me that their research is leading them toward pools of candidates who didn’t attend college—for tech jobs, for high-end sales positions, for some managerial roles. In some limited cases, this is because their analytics revealed no benefit whatsoever to hiring people with college degrees; in other cases, and more often, it’s because they revealed signals that function far better than college history, and that allow companies to confidently hire workers with pedigrees not typically considered impressive or even desirable. Neil Rae, an executive at Transcom, told me that in looking to fill technical-support positions, his company is shifting its focus from college graduates to “kids living in their parents’ basement”—by which he meant smart young people who, for whatever reason, didn’t finish college but nevertheless taught themselves a lot about information technology. Laszlo Bock told me that Google, too, is hiring a growing number of nongraduates. Many of the people I talked with reported that when it comes to high-paying and fast-track jobs, they’re reducing their preference for Ivy Leaguers and graduates of other highly selective schools.

There is still a long way to go before we can say people will be considered for employment based on their personal skills and merits instead of the school they graduated from, but I think these developments are increasing signs that the value of self-directed learning, long nurtured and promoted in the unschooling/alternative education communities, is moving into the mainstream.