Leading companies such as Google and Microsoft select their employees carefully. What the expectations of these companies can us about the changing work requirements of the digital age.

At the end of February Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about Google’s process of recruiting new employees. Based on the interview of Google’s HR chief, Friedman presented the principles one of the world’s leading tech giants is said to use to assess applicants.

Needless to say, Friedman’s article gained some online attention – and also some rather bitter remarks about Friedman willingly doing the job of Google’ s HR department. In any case, it’s quite clear that the recruiting methods of world’s biggest companies always garner some interest. For instance, the puzzles used in Microsoft’s interviews for years have been much talked about among the techie crowd.

In my opinion, the methods used by Google and Microsoft reflect something bigger – an image of an ideal professional in the new digital workplace.

Naturally the American software industry is a place of its own and both of these companies are in many ways rather different. Hence we should be careful when using insight gained from these companies to make predictions or assessments about, say, Finnish companies and work culture. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to believe that we can view these things coming from the US – the epicentre of global high tech industry – as signals of our zeitgeist and the changing global world.

So, what can we learn from these leading companies about what is required from employees in the new digital workplace?

Formal education and grades are not that important

First remark that we can make is that formal education and good grades seem to carry less and less weight. This is because they are rather poor predictors of one’s performance in the new work culture. I’m not saying that you should drop-out or pay no attention to your grades – according to Google these things still matter when applying for a position that requires special talents and knowledge on, say, mathematics – but grades are not the most import thing. In Google, 14 percent of employees do not have college level education.

When applying for a technical position, the applicant’s coding skills are naturally evaluated. Yet the most important general evaluation criterion is the applicant’s cognitive skills. This does not mean IQ, but the ability to quickly learn new things and to combine different knowledge to come up with new solutions. In Microsoft’s interviews the goal is to identify the creative thinkers who can adapt their ideas to the constantly changing circumstances.

These kinds of cognitive skills are prerequisite in the modern work environment that is based on creative problem-solving.

One must be able to take and give responsibility

Another important criterion is leadership, specifically emergent leadership that arises in new situations.  We are not talking about the traditional concept of leadership – how many chairman positions the applicant has held in various hobby clubs, etc. Instead, what is evaluated is whether the applicant can lead in a group when it is necessary to solve some problem the group is faced with. Microsoft has emphasized that its new employees have to lead the organization towards the future – and this leadership can come in many shapes and forms.

Just as important as it is taking the lead, it is also important to give room for others. Agile corporate culture requires understanding when it is best to step down and give others chance to take things forward in their own way.

Google also evaluates the applicant’s humility and ownership. Ownership here means that the person is willing to commit in working towards greater goals and make these his or her “own”. Humility means openness to other’s ideas and the aforementioned ability to step aside when one’s contribution to the cause has been made.

Self-confidence does not mean stubbornness in the face of facts

The so-called intellectual humility is also important. It is based on person’s awareness of the limits of their own knowledge and on lessons learned through failures. The development of constantly successful person can plateau because they do not get the opportunity to learn from their failures.

It is important that the person is confident with their ideas and defends them vigorously – until they are informed about new facts that will change things. These kinds of situations require ability to assimilate the new knowledge and change one’s views accordingly.

Microsoft has asked applicant’s to display their ability to come up with creative solutions from various questions. Depending on the job position, the questions might be technical (“Design a parachute”) or more about communicating with other people (“Explain cloud computing to your grandma”). According to one statement this creative problem-solving separates candidates who are smart and get things done from the others.

Lack of experience can be compensated with capability

The least important criterion, at least for Google, is experience from similar positions. People with high cognitive skills, intellectual curiosity, willingness to learn new things and some leadership skills, will usually do well in almost any situation. After examining things carefully, they tend to propose similar solutions as the people who have previous experience on the job.

Capability can compensate lack of experience because – let’s face it – most jobs are not impossibly difficult to do, at least not for talented and motivated people who already possess the required innate abilities. Sometimes inexperienced people will naturally fail, but sometimes they also come up with completely new solutions to old problems.

People applying for a job at Microsoft or Google are one of the most talented and skilled people in the world. These companies have the ability to pick up the best from the best. Their ideal is a gifted person who is motivated to solve problems and to thrive in a constantly changing environment. This person is constantly connecting different areas of knowledge and learning new things. Formal education matters less and less, the important thing is to have the abilities needed for the task. Experience is a good thing, but not as essential as generally thought, because work itself has become a continuous learning process.

But what these cutting edge professionals can teach about the future of Finnish work culture? Many things are already a reality here, such as the demand for constant learning. In addition, the number of people working with large amount of data is increasing. And, perhaps most strikingly, the traditional emphasis on education is starting look even more old-fashioned.

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