Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Thomas Friedman Tells Us How to Get a Job at Google

Thomas Friedman Tells Us How to Get a Job at Google

I am about to commit the same sin as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times by writing about an area that is outside of my expertise.  Mr. Friedman interviewed Laszlo Bock, head of personnel for Google, and passed along Mr. Bock’s career advice for people seeking their first jobs.[1]  Mr. Friedman’s latest offering has all the elements of a misguided column.  First, he wanders away from what he knows: foreign policy.  Second, he offers the unfiltered opinion of someone he’s just interviewed.  Third, he leaves his readers with broad conclusions based on extremely narrow evidence.
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According to Mr. Laszlo, as favorably recounted by Mr. Friedman, economic success requires students to focus on quantitative disciplines even if their strengths and passions are in the liberal arts.  He suggests that students are better off getting a B in computer science than an A+ in English because technical disciplines are more valuable than creative ones.  When asked by Mr. Friedman to explain where creativity will come from, Mr. Laszlo suggests that creativity is an inherent and ample human characteristic that is best supplied by people who can access both the right and left side of their brains.

This isn’t the first time Mr. Friedman has gone off on a technocratic solution to our educational and economic problems.  The prescription contained in Mr. Friedman’s column may be good for Google and its competitors, but it doesn’t offer much useful advice to the vast majority of young Americans seeking career opportunities.  Moreover, it provides very little practical advice for America’s diverse economy. 

Google had better hope that Mr. Laszlo is never put in a position where he can influence educational policy, because his ideas would destroy Google.  Without liberal arts and creativity, the Internet would have very little content, and Google’s technological know-how would be useless.  For the past decade Google has been scanning millions of books into their database.   Who created that content?  

In my former profession some of the most gifted investors and business executives have been philosophy, English, or history majors.  I’ve found that people with diverse backgrounds are often better able to understand the world around them than those with a conventional business background.  In recent decades, Wall Street’s fixation on quantitative skills has all too often contributed to financial excess and accidents.  We might have been better off having a few people around who could see beyond the numbers, especially the dollar signs.

Paradoxically, Mr. Friedman’s column is extremely short on creativity.  He makes the mistake of focusing on today’s hot employment opportunity – coding – instead of trying to think deeply about what our economy and society might look like and require in the future.  Mr. Friedman should stick to foreign policy, and I should return to writing about investing.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google-part-2.html?ref=thomaslfriedman

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