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by Phil Stott | March 22, 2011


Do any research into finding a job at Google, and two things quickly become apparent. First, that the company is a major employer and creator of jobs, especially for technologists. Second, that it treats those employees very well, offering the kind of perks that most wage slaves can only dream about—and we're not just talking on-site dry cleaning or the legendary free cafeterias either; Google is a firm that allows employees—any employee—to use 20 percent of their time to work on whatever they like, in the hope that they'll hit on the next big idea.

Google Resume CoverBut there's just one problem: getting hired by Google is difficult. Very difficult. The company has incredibly high standards for candidates, and turns away applicants who would make the grade at almost any other company they chose. Even after they make it through the notoriously difficult "brain-teaser" portion of the interview.

So what can you do to increase your chances? Gayle Laakmann McDowell, a former Google recruiter, and author of The Google Resume, spoke to Vault and offered some key pieces of advice.

Key traits of a Google employee

When it comes down to selecting employees, McDowell says the company is looking for a couple of very distinct things: "Obviously intelligence, but also just fearlessness in tackling a problem. Google is particularly notorious for asking very tricky questions and candidates need to be fearless in saying 'OK, here's a problem. I have no idea how to solve it, but I'm going to start working through out loud solving this problem—even at the risk of appearing stupid because I say something dumb."

GPA: not the be all and end all

"A candidate graduating college with no experience and a 4.0 has a decent shot of getting interviewed but lots of candidates get interviewed with very low GPAs when they have other things that are really excellent about them," says McDowell.

And she should know: she describes her own college performance as "not fantastic," and yet still managed to get hired by Google. The key is to recognize that "every candidate has weaknesses and there are lots of those ways to compensate for that. Ultimately a resume screener wants to see that you're smart and that you tackle hard problems and you work hard. GPA is one way of showing that, but if you've done other things—you've started your own little software consulting business or you TA'd for a while and you did really well at that, if you made a really huge contribution to a nonprofit, took on a leadership role—there are all sorts of other ways that you can show a track record of achievement. GPA is one way, but it's not the only way."

Focus on behavioral questions

For anyone applying for a position that is not a direct software engineering role "behavioral performance is one of the easiest ways to really change your score," says McDowell.*

The reason for that?

"In most roles they play a decently heavy role in whether or not you get an offer," and it's one of the areas that is very easy to do very poorly on if you don't prepare that well," says McDowell. "It's a very good area to really shift your interview performance. As opposed to brainteasers where you can definitely get better with practice but it takes a lot more practice."

It's not that there's no point in practicing the methodology for figuring out how much you'd charge to wash all the windows in a given city. It's just that, "At some point, performance on some areas does come down to intelligence," says McDowell, "and so it's harder to change performance [in those areas]." Plus, no matter how many of those questions you can nail in practice, there's no guarantee which types are going to come up at interview.

Behavioral questions, on the other hand, are so formulaic that McDowell has preparing for them down to a science—and all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil.

Interview Preparation Grids

McDowell dedicates a sizeable segment of her book to interview preparation grids, and it's easy to see why. While they "can't possibly cover every behavioral question," they are nonetheless "a very effective way to make sure when your interviewer asks you something like 'Give me a time when you gave a presentation to a group of people about something where they didn't agree with you' […] you can come up with examples much easier."

So how does one create such a grid?

"Basically you create a grid where across the columns for every project or component of your resume, and down the rows are the major sections of questions like leadership, communication, influence," says McDowell. Then, "you fill in 'what were the ways I showed leadership in this particular project?' 'What were the ways I influenced people?'" Once you've done that, you have a framework for answering any behavioral question that might come your way. The key then is structure.

Structure what you communicate

Having seen hundreds of candidates struggle with behavioral questions, McDowell notes that "a lot of people will get very flustered […] and try to come up with any answer. But every question isn't just about whether you can come up with an answer but what it shows about you."

An example of that: "If you influence people by basically appealing to higher management, that doesn't necessarily say anything that positive. And so you want to think about 'what are you really trying to communicate?'"

Bottom line: "deliver your answer in a very structured manner that makes it very clear what you did and what the impact was."

*Note for potential software engineers: McDowell says behavioral interviewing is "almost irrelevant"—either you can program or you can't.)

Read part 2 of Vault's interview with Gayle Laakmann McDowell: Working at Google: Pros and Cons


Filed Under: Interviewing