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What the Head of Hiring at Google Doesn’t Understand About Skills

Try as I might, I just can’t seem to let it go.

When Laszlo Bock, of Google, tells the columnist Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, that he would prefer to hire a computer-science student with B grades over an A-plus student who studies English, it doesn’t surprise me. Google is in the business of computing, after all.

But then I read Bock’s rationale, and that’s when I nearly lose a mouthful of Cheerios: Unlike English—and presumably other non-STEM fields—computer science “signals a rigor in your thinking,” an ability “to think in a formal and logical and structured way.” He said what?

Bock, head of hiring at Google, offers refreshingly candid and mostly thoughtful information for potential job seekers. But this one’s a whopper. Left unchallenged, the erroneous assumptions behind his statement will do great harm—not only to outstanding students majoring in English or another rigorous humanities or social-science discipline, but also to the science majors he singles out for praise.

In “Dante’s Hell and Its Afterlife,” an undergraduate course I teach at my university, students have to work hard to achieve good results (not to mention an A-level grade) on a research essay. The “excellent” paper will contain a substantive thesis that is appropriately focused, coherent, and interpretive, not merely descriptive; a detailed analysis of well-chosen examples to support the argument; a logical ordering of parts, each contributing to the whole, with transitions and topic sentences that advance and crystallize the main points; an effective use of information from credible sources, correctly cited and documented; and all expressed in clear, concise, grammatically correct prose.

My course—a large-format class in which students read Dante’s Inferno in English translation and examine its resonance in other creative works—is one of many “signature courses” offered across disciplines at my university. To fulfill core requirements, students must take at least one of these courses, whose objectives include developing the writing and critical-thinking skills evaluated in the research essay.

Performing at the highest level on this kind of assignment is a challenge for everyone. But the degree of difficulty increases for STEM majors who have been fed red-meat lines mistakenly suggesting that they will learn to think with rigor, structure, and logic in computer science but not in English. To be fair, Bock acknowledges that other courses, too, train students to think this way. (His own eureka moment occurred in a business-school class on statistics.) But logic and analysis are hardly for science and business majors only. That assumption is just plain wrong.

The look on my students’ faces when I tell them I have a bachelor-of-science degree in computer science and mathematics makes the question about my career choice almost superfluous. But it gets asked anyway, and after the requisite joke about why I left an actuarial position in a major corporation to become a professor in the humanities (“to make big bucks!”), I deadpan the truth, which strikes my students as even more unlikely: To pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities was more stimulating for me because, in part, it presented a greater challenge. Faring best at their age in mathematics, computer science, chemistry, and physics, I would have killed for that A-plus in English.

At that, students’ faces express even greater bemusement or shock (“He said what?”). Seizing this teachable moment, I quickly segue into a serious discussion of majors, disciplines, and education in general. I fondly recall the training I received as an undergraduate majoring in computer science and mathematics. Indeed, it even helped me to write stronger, better-structured papers on literary topics. But the depth of analysis and argumentation required in my writing and other humanities coursework likewise helped me to think through difficult problems in advanced calculus, and to create elegant computer algorithms.

Bock’s college and graduate-school memories are not nearly so pleasant. In an earlier interview, he recalls being frustrated because “you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer.” He understandably looks beyond that limited educational model for “people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.” Bingo. It sounds like he wants those topflight English majors after all: graduates adept at conceiving, articulating, and supporting their own ideas—not some “specific answer” the professor is looking for. Bock just doesn’t realize they are what he is looking for.

Thankfully, many other business leaders do. Nearly all 318 employers participating in a survey conducted last year on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities included among their highest priorities the ability of college graduates to innovate, think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems, regardless of their majors. The best programs in English (and indeed in departments across all branches of learning) help to produce such students.

So dismayed as I am by Bock’s blunder, I have to let it go, finish my Cheerios, and get back to work. Ninety students, half of whom major in the sciences and engineering, await my feedback to help them write papers with sharper arguments, deeper analysis, tighter structure, smoother integration of research, and clearer and cleaner prose. I’m guessing that by the end of the semester, they will find Google Guy’s putdown of the A-plus English major as boneheaded as I do.

Maybe I should look for a new job myself. Even with a B.S. in computer science and mathematics, I won’t hold my breath waiting for an offer from Google. Nor would I want one—unless it’s to train or assist the current officer in charge of hiring. In that case, by all means, let’s Gchat.

Guy P. Raffa is an associate professor of Italian studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He combines his loves of literature and computer technology as project director of Danteworlds.

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