What’s Right and Wrong with Tom Friedman’s Interview with Google

Tom Friedman’s NYT interview with Lazlo Bock, Google’s chief of HR, has reignited discussion about educational pathways to promising careers (like working for Google). In Part 1 of the interview, we learned that Google doesn’t care about college degrees; they care about what people know and can actually do. According to Bock, college degrees are no longer a clear index of success within their firm.

Part 2 (here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google-part-2.html) follows up on the earlier discussion and makes similarly provocative claims. One of them is this: “I told [a] student they [sic] are much better off being a B student in
computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a
rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student
will be one of our interns this summer.”

Although Bock surely must know what kinds of employees Google needs, his general assumption about what happens in English departments is dubious. As many people in the “comments” section point out: English degrees at good universities are extremely challenging and require mastery of different modes of inquiry, symbolic interpretation, analysis and communication. Such skills and critical thought processes do not come “naturally”; they are instilled via years of rigorous and careful training. Many students, in fact, never properly acquire them. Meanwhile China, Eastern Europe and India are producing an overabundance of coders.

Bock’s other eyebrow-raising observation is this: “Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical,
structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn.”

Bock’s suggestion is that students should study computer science or other STEM disciplines since one set of skills is inborn while the other set requires arduous training. The fact is that companies and organizations worldwide complain of a severe shortage of creative talent. And the explosive growth of design and innovation labs on American campuses tells a different story from Bock’s: that creative thinking can and must be taught to meet the current market demand for innovation.

Bock does finally make two important points: 1) that students need to proactively take charge of their education, and 2) that a premium is currently placed on unique combinations of skills. Instead of thinking in either/or terms, such as English or computer science, or more broadly, the humanities or STEM, students should explore both.

I suspect that part of the mixed message in this piece
comes from a split vision within Google’s hierarchy: the HR
chief’s immediate hiring exigencies (e.g., rank and file coders) inform a view that does not cleanly align with the creative vision of the leaders at the top. Indeed, a previous post on Google in this blog contradicts Friedman’s interviewee: Google Searching for Humanities Students – Humanities. It also comes from the wrong-headed assumption by Bock (and apparently Friedman) that the current needs and hiring strategies of Google should determine the educational choices of all students. From where I sit, this view is short-sighted and easily refutable.

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