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Google's Unconventional Idea of Professional Development

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There isn't much middle ground with Google. Observers tend to be divided into two camps: those that think the search giant has plenty of great ideas, and those that think it has mostly stupid ideas -- if not exactly stupid, then expensive and difficult to quantify. Or OK, maybe a bit of both.

 

Under which column does the way it hires and develops its product managers fall? Most folks will have some kind of an opinion after reading a Newsweek article that promises to offer one of those "rare looks" into the Google culture.

 

In this case, it's a program that sends associate product managers (APMs) on junkets to places like China, India and Israel to "network with fellow employees, learn about regional markets and soak up local culture." (And participate in contests, such as one that pits them against street vendors in India to see who can come up with the best deal -- a pretty interesting way to learn about negotiation.)

 

In an effort to find employees that fit into a culture that values bold thinking above all else, Google hires mostly twentysomething freshly-minted college grads -- folks who not only got good grades but also "have done something entrepreneurial -- editor of the yearbook, or started a company," says a Google recruiter.

 

Those hired as APMs don't have to work their way up through company ranks. Instead, they are immediately given responsibility for products like Google Checkout or GMail. Each one gets a fellow APM "buddy," a mentor and an outside management coach.

 

Though in theory the Google culture values diversity, the Newsweek article notes a number of similarities among its APMs, including a propensity to try skydiving and having parents who teach at universities. Even folks like Google's former director of engineering, a 54-year-old former Stanford University professor who is suing the search giant for age discrimination, apparently don't have the right stuff.

 

As has been noted elsewhere, the employees are expected to work pretty much all the time (getting an average of less than four hours of sleep a night while on APM training expeditions like the one described in the article), but are rewarded with a work environment that one APM describes as "like Fantasy Land." Earlier this year, it was described as"just like college" in a purportedly leaked memo from a Google employee that was widely distributed around the Internet.

 

Probably the biggest knock against the program is that, after all of the effort and expense, there is no guarantee that the employees will remain with the company. In fact, the article claims that "almost none of the APMs sees him- or herself at the company in five years."

 

Pundit Robert Cringely made the point earlier this year that Google's entrepreneurial culture could prove to be its biggest problem because of its tendency to produce folks that would just as soon take their best ideas and strike out on their own.

 

Google VP Marissa Mayer dismisses this idea, telling Newsweek:

We get two to four good years, and if 20 percent stay with the company, that's a good rate. Even if they leave it's still good for us. I'm sure that someone in this group is going to start a company that I will buy some day.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt calls the program one of the company's "core values" and says that he can see one of the APMs eventually succeeding him.

 

Maybe so, and yeah we get it, Google isn't IBM or Microsoft. But are midnight walks with Bedouin guides and singalongs to "Rubber Ducky" really important elements of a professional development program?

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