Lesson 2: People Matter

April 18, 2008

Peter Norvig, director of Google Research, wants to hire people who are better than he is. He wants to make sure candidates are able to do their jobs, but he also wants to be able to save face if those candidates fail.

Business is about relationships, not credentials. Anecdotal exhibit A: George W, who has pretty much been handed the keys to the kingdom, and run every venture he’s headed into the dirt (Biased Source with quick run down of utter failures). More immediate and less controversial examples include all the barely competent, superficially friendly middle managers you know. There is a reason they exist, and the reason isn’t that they’ve hoodwinked their superiors.

The reason is that those middle managers are known quantities, and can handle themselves in interpersonal situations. As your boss, I want to maximize your output while minimizing your volatility. That means that sometimes I want a guy who is only okay, but that is okay 99% of the time, instead of a rock star who shows up high on vicodin and goofballs half the time. It’s worth mentioning that what I really want is a rock star who rocks 99% of the time. You just have to make me believe you’re that person, and do it in a way that I can justify to my boss.

One part skill, two parts Massage

Everyone likes a Massage

Peter Norvig will hire a guy from MIT before he’ll hire a San Dimas Community College drop out. This is only partially because he thinks the MIT guy is actually better — the underlying reason is that if the candidate turns out to be a dud, Peter has to answer to his boss. How can someone blame him for getting the one bad apple coming out of MIT?

This is a lesson of the fast track: people and relationships matter. A cynic who realizes this becomes a brown noser. What I’m advocating is simply sensitivity: become aware of the motivations and pain points of the people around you, and maneuver to make their life easier. Nota Bene, O cynic, that I’m speaking truthfully: discover what makes people tick, and play to those quirks in a productive way.

If you know the hiring manager wants someone who can perform, and who looks good on paper, then be those things for him. If you are a sub par candidate, who worms your way into a position by schmoozing, then you’re a rotten bull shitter, and you’ll get yours in due time. On the other hand, if you know you’re the candidate for the job, and you say the right things purposely to make the manager trust you, that’s just playing to your audience.

What I’m saying is that you should be skilled, but also massage the needs of the guy who hired you. Make his life easier, more relaxed, more carefree. Make him feel utterly confident in you.

Confidence is an Aphrodisiac

Be Confident

The way you inspire confidence is to speak from the heart, with an eye to your audience. Jerry was my boss’s boss at Acme Inc., and as nice as Jerry was, he was afloat in his position. A garage band rocker until the age of 35, Jerry dabbled in programming a bit on the side. He happened to meet an Eastern European MBA type, who had an idea for a software package that Jerry managed to hack together with the help of Jim, who was slightly more technical. 5 years later, the product has been acquired by Acme, he and Jim are reporting to Mr. Eastern Europe, and he’s living the dream: big house, Porche, bonus bigger than the GDP of Chad.

The problem is that Jerry was really just a garage band rocker in his heart. He’s not technical, he’s not really a manager. His number one need is to feel like the people under him are in control, because he himself is not. He loved it when he had a huge issue, and I would calmly tell him that I would take care of it for him, and not to worry. I’d give him enough information for him to believe I knew what I was talking about, and I made him believe everything that came up was a minor problem that was easily fixable.

This was essentially contextual fiction. I could easily have told him about how serious the problems were, and lament over the crumbling product that we were trying to maintain. That would’ve done exactly one thing: alienated me to him. It would’ve made him feel stressed and anxious, and he would associate that anxiety with me, not the crappy product.

I made him feel good, and I delivered on my promises. I worked there one year and got more bonuses than most people get in 5, and I got perks ahead of people who had been there much longer. I was competent, but that isn’t the reason I got those things. Almost everyone in the department was competent. The reason is that Jerry was in love. Confidence is an aphrodisiac.

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4 Responses to “Lesson 2: People Matter”


  1. […] the People Matter lesson, you know what’s important to this person. You want a promotion, and they want stability, […]


  2. Norvig wants to hire candidates better than average. It would be a very rare candidate who was better than Norvig. I doubt he has much interest in covering his butt, either; programmers can tell pretty fast who the bright ones are.


  3. Er, Norvig wants to hire candidates better than Google’s current average, not better than average generally.

  4. Ken Says:

    If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.
    -David Ogilvy

    Norvig is an unusually bright programmer, yes, but my point isn’t about Google or Norvig, it’s about Oglivy’s admonition seek talent.

    As for sussing out good programmers by scent… there is a constellation of characteristics that suggest programming talent, but it’s not a science. Also, success in programming has a lot to do with people skills just like any other job, so the idea that Norvig has some kind of epiphenomenal rockstar radar doesn’t seem to follow.


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