Google's Bock advises B in computer science beats A+ in English

Thomas Friedman in his Sunday New York Times column recounts an interview with Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of hiring at Google, in which Friedman asked Bock to share advice for people seeking jobs at Google, or anywhere else.

In an earlier column, Friedman wrote that Bock had suggested that Google was open to hiring “exceptional human beings” who didn't go to college. In the Sunday column, Friedman quotes him as saying, “My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college.” However, he said, students should be “explicit and willful” about what they want to get out of their huge investment in education.

Bock advises against changing majors in pursuit of good grades—a B student in computer science is better off than an A+ student in English, with the computer science degree signifying rigorous thinking and the ability to handle a challenging course load.

A lot of respondents commenting on Friedman's column took exception to this last claim. Bruce, a college professor, wrote, “I have found that many students at my university avoid the English major not because they feel it is impractical, but because it is too difficult and rigorous.”

I would agree that a top English program could well be quite rigorous; however, a computer science program is almost guaranteed to be rigorous—so I can see where a company like Google would prefer a computer science major, whether the position at hand requires programming skills or not.

And Janet commented, “Google is a very useful tool. I am grateful that in those early days at Stanford there were clever computer scientist who improved the internet search algorithm.” However, she said Google is now a mode of delivering advertising with Google staff writing neither Internet content nor advertising, so there would be little need for English majors. “We aren't expecting the great American novel from any of you,” she writes. “Just keep those servers up and running.”

But even Janet may be underselling the importance of an English degree. In a November 2012 post I wrote about Michael S. Malone inviting Silicon Valley entrepreneur Santosh Jayaram to address his English students, asking that Jayaram not recommend that they switch majors. To which Jayaram responded (as recounted by Malone writing in The Wall Street Journal), “Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I'm looking for.”

According to Jayaram, as related by Malone, the NPI process has been turned upside down, with storytelling playing an important role in encouraging people to invest in your effort to exploit an undeveloped niche and to market your product.

Malone paraphrases Jayaram as saying, “Almost anything you can imagine you can now build, so the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent.”

And in a January 2013 editorial, I cited Krisztián Flautner, vice president of research and development at ARM, who in a keynote address at the 2012 International Test Conference described a cycle of vision, innovation, disruption, and reaction. Storytellers have important roles to play in this cycle, specifically in the vision and reaction phases.

And according to Friedman's Sunday column even Bock concedes the value of liberal arts, calling them “phenomenally important,” especially when combined with other disciplines.

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