Google now employs over 50,000 people but it's unlikely that the company would have reached its current size if it hadn’t found the right staff in its early days, according to one of the internet giant’s first employees. 

Urs Hölzle, Google’s eighth employee and current VP of technical infrastructure, said most startups die because they underestimate how important hiring the right talent is and subsequently recruit the wrong people.

“You let the pressure of meeting someone overcome your selectiveness and that’s a great way to die,” he told Techworld in Dublin last week after announcing Google is giving away $20 million of cloud credit to startups. “Being really focused about a single, really talented person, might be much more important to your startup than two or three really average people.”

Hölzle, who holds a PhD in computer science from Stanford University, said Google draws on a wide variety of sources to gets its talent. 

“Many of our best employees are from no-name places," he said. "They didn’t go to Harvard, Stanford or Cambridge.”

For example, Hölzle highlighted that two of the Silicon Valley giant's latest recruits are women from Egypt and Iran. "Not somewhere you would expect to be a source of talent," he said. 

Interviewing counts

In order to find the right people for the company, Google typically gets candidates to go through four rounds of interviews.

“We used to have six but we showed statistically that the accuracy of the decision wasn’t getting better with the extra two so it was a waste of time for us and the candidate,” said Hölzle. 

During one or more of the interviews, Google presents candidates with a problem and asks them to solve it. 

“The main thing we’re doing is skills-based interview so it’s not what have you done but ‘Hey, here’s a problem - what would you do about it?’” said Hölzle. “You work with people and understand how they apply their skills to actual problems.

“We’re trying to remove the interviewer in being too dominant in the outcome because some people are more outspoken and some people are more timid. That doesn’t mean the more outspoken ones are more right and so we actually make the hiring decisions separate from the interviews.” 

The interviewers then write up their feedback and a separate group of Googler employees look at it, before making a final decision. 

Google first developed its interview process in 1999, a year after the company was incorporated. 

“Today it’s a much more tuned version of what we did then,” said Hölzle. “Now we actually have software tools to support it and so on but I think in spirit it’s very similar to what we developed in 99.”

Harder than Harvard

Google is understood to be 10x harder to get into than Harvard University and several years ago it received 75,000 job applications in a single week. People are attracted by the company's "coolness" and the six-figure salaries. 

In addition to hiring the right talent, Hölzle said today's startups should focus on creating “something that matters”.

“If you succeed then it’s really going to be a big success and that makes it easier to get the right people too,” he said. 

While Hölzle was keen to pass on advice to the next generation of startups, he revealed that he probably wouldn’t form his own company if he was to leave Google. When asked what kind of startup he’d do, he said: “I haven’t entertained anything," adding that he'd probably rather work for an environmental NGO. 

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