Laszlo Bock, the head of human resources at
Let's take Bock at his word and assume that the data-obsessed firm has crunched the numbers rigorously and found that the test scores of the people it hires really don't predict how well they perform once they are on the job. If Google ranked its new hires by their SAT scores, and found that those in the bottom 10% of the list performed just as well as those in the top 10%, would it mean that traditional measures of intelligence are useless in the business world?
Unfortunately for Bock and his admirers, who range from Thomas Friedman to
Here's why. First, decades of quantitative research in the field of personnel
How could Google be seeing no correlation between IQ and performance in their company? For the same reason that, say, there is no correlation between height and scoring in pro basketball. The average
In the social sciences, this is known as the problem of "range restriction." When you measure people on a dimension (height) that doesn't vary much (in the NBA, almost everyone is very tall), that dimension will not explain much about how those people perform on another dimension (scoring). And Google's workforce is a textbook example of range restriction — not on height but on IQ.
Bock pointed out that the fraction of people at Google without a college degree has increased over time and is now as high as 14% on some product teams. This means, however, that more than 86% of people at Google do have a college education (or more), and most of them come from the most elite schools. As a former Google employee observed on Quora, there may even be a surplus of skill: "There are students from top 10 colleges who are providing tech support for Google's ads products, or manually taking down flagged content from YouTube."
These highly selective institutions have, by definition, already filtered students based on high school GPAs, SAT or ACT scores, and other factors. Google in effect uses attendance at those colleges as a hiring criterion, so Bock — who happens to possess a degree from
What about those Googlers without college degrees? It's true that, in the world of programming, a college degree is not a through ticket, but a clear demonstration of one's competence is. Facebook uses Kaggle Recruit — a competition to program solutions to real-world software problems — to find people for its data team.
Google runs its own annual Code Jam, a worldwide programming competition in which anyone at any age can show he or she has talent. The event has been held since 2003, and in 2012 the winner was Jakub Pachocki of Poland, who defeated a pool of 35,000 competitors to become the champion, earning $10,000 and a likely job offer from Google. In an interview, Pachocki described the content of the competition as "more like mathematical work or solving logic puzzles." To win the Code Jam, then, you don't need a college degree, but you do need extraordinary cognitive ability. In that respect, Google's 14% may not be too different from its other 86%.
Researchers have long known that standardized tests — notwithstanding how they might be marketed or promoted — mainly measure general cognitive ability, and that general cognitive ability is highly predictive of educational and occupational success in the broad population. The small number of companies at the very top of their industries — like Google in technology — can afford to ignore or downplay these facts if they wish, because their candidates come preselected for high intelligence. For those companies, intelligence may not matter as much as leadership, creativity, conscientiousness, social skill and other virtues once an employee is on board.
The rest of the business world should not jump on Google's bandwagon. All those other qualities matter, and which are most important may vary by firm and line of work. But having an idea of how well a candidate thinks abstractly, solves novel problems and learns new things is important no matter what the job or situation. Those qualities are precisely what general cognitive ability is, regardless of how you label it. If you ignore intelligence when hiring, you do so at your peril.