Four years ago, Google was confronted with a troubling stat: Its male engineers were getting promoted at far higher rates than female employees.
Google could not understand why women were not going for better titles and higher pay when it had a system where anyone could apply for a promotion. That volunteer system was exactly the problem, Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of people operations, said in an interview.
What happened next was quintessential Google: The world's biggest Internet data monger insists on putting hard statistics at the center of internal operations, too.
Bock pointed to two studies on gender inequality in schools and in business:
* Girls don't raise their hands as often as boys when answering math problems, even though they have a higher rate of accuracy when they do.
* Women don't offer up their ideas as often as men in business meetings, even though observers say their thoughts are often better than the many offered by their male colleagues.
Those academic findings pointed to the problem at Google: Female engineers were not speaking up for their own promotions. So Bock tried an experiment. Alan Eustace, one of the heads of engineering, sent an email to his staff describing the two studies and reminding them it was time to apply for promotions.
Immediately, the application rate for women soared and the rate of women who received promotions was higher than for male engineers. Eustace began sending the email routinely. The one time he forgot, the number of female applicants plummeted.
"The data was clear," Bock said. "If we tried to have a small nudge by simply presenting information, it could fix part of the problem. We prefer this to a bureaucratic top-down approach."
To be sure, Google is not exactly a role model for gender balance. It has only one woman on its senior management team. But its board is nearly half female.
As Google confronts greater ethical questions over privacy, the safety of its driverless cars and competition, Bock notes the limits of data.
"Google is at the center of very real debates that, at the end of the day, can't be answered just by data," said Bock, whose non-techy bedside reading includes "The Art Forger," a book of essays by Christopher Hitchens, and the comic book "The Superior Spider Man."
In a wide-ranging interview, Bock talked about immigration reform and what keeps him up at night. For the notoriously byzantine recruitment process, he said the company looks for people who can thrive in ambiguity. He prefers generalists over subject experts. He is more interested in how you think and will test you with real-time problems.
Here is an edited version of the conversation:
Q: This week, new enrollments for highly skilled worker visas, known as H-1Bs, will open and likely be full within hours. How much does this affect Google?
A: We try to get as many as we can and never get as many as we need. We have a luxury that small businesses don't have. We have non-U.S. offices so, if we need to, we can send people to our Toronto, Zurich or [India's] Hyderabad office. . . . But there are three problems with that:
1) People work better when they are together.
2) If you are a small company, you don't have that ability. My family came from Romania in the 1970s and both my parents had small businesses. If they had wanted to hire someone from outside the U.S., they couldn't have afforded the H-1B visa or the waiver process.
3) In the U.S., two-thirds of computer science degrees are awarded to non-U.S. citizens. They graduate and immediately go back to their home countries because we can't keep them. Why not keep that knowledge, drive and passion here?
Q: What is the real cost to Google? Surely you have mapped out the cost risks for that lost talent.
A: Google has whole ecosystems around our own business. Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat were the creators of BigTable, which is the technology that morphed and became the language called Hadoop. Hadoop is what Amazon Web Services, Twitter and Facebook use. If there were no Sanjay, who is an immigrant and who worked with Jeff on this, we would not have this technology that is fundamental to the Internet today.
Q: What worries you most in hiring?
A: Software engineers are always hard to find. Very few people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and women. In recruiting African American computer science Ph.D.s, my team told me this year they did pretty well. They captured about 50 percent of all black Ph.D.s in computer science. But they said there were four, and two stayed in academia. So of the available two, we hired one. My heart broke inside when I heard that. We have scholarships and programs and partnerships with universities like Howard [University] on computer science. But it's a problem.
The other big category are security experts. With the [Edward] Snowden revelations [about the National Security Agency], every company is after these folks. You need security experts for applications, networks, rapid response teams, security breach experts. There is a market demand for about 30,000 security engineers. To give you perspective, at Google, we have 250 working for us and we run a lot of data.
Q: Have you encountered more suspicion toward Google after the Snowden leaks on NSA surveillance?
A: I haven't seen it from candidates. One of the challenges is that we disclose everything we are legally allowed to disclose but some things you are not allowed to disclose. We are asked, "How is there not more?" But we say the law prevents us from telling you.