Kool Derby

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders. Photograph: Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal article, “Google: The Beginning,” caught my attention because it was about an employment interview recounted by Employee #59. In 1999, Douglas Edwards was quizzed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin for the position of brand manager.

As the story goes, Cindy McCaffrey, director of public relations, escorted Edwards to a conference room while they waited for Sergey to arrive. The 26-year-old Sergey made it to the meeting wearing roller-hockey gear, and the interview of 41-year-old Edwards began.

The Tough Questions

After reviewing Edwards’ résumé, Sergey asked the following questions:

  • What promotion did you do that was the most effective?
  • What metrics did you use to measure it?
  • What types of viral marketing did you do?

These are difficult questions for anyone because the responses require a high-level of competence in the marketing field. Sergey wants to know about a particular promotional approach that Edwards has implemented effectively in the marketplace.

One can only imagine the many follow-up questions that can arise, such as:

  • What made the promotion effective?
  • Who was involved in the promotion?
  • Did you meet the marketing return on investment (MROI)?
  • How could you have made it better?

The question from Sergey regarding metrics is terrific, and you must be prepared with an excellent response. A performance measurement question is designed to determine whether you are accountable for the work that you do. If you respond by saying that you were only in charge of creating the promotional plan, and not to measure it, you might as well find the nearest exit. The right candidate today must have a clear understanding of performance targets.

In 1999, Sergey was interested in viral marketing. That is huge! While “going viral” is used commonly today, very few people understood its potency back then. In other words, Sergey had a vision of how the internet was going to transform the way we market products and services to consumers. It now makes perfect sense that Google would purchase YouTube, which is a viral machine.

Here is another key question Sergey asked Edwards: “How much do you think a company our size should spend on marketing? Given the line of questions Sergey was asking, Edwards was prepared: “I don’t think at this stage you should spend much at all.” He continued: “You can do a lot with viral marketing and small budgets.” That was precisely what the Russian-born entrepreneur wanted to hear.

The Big Test

Sergey raised the bar and gave this assignment to Edwards: “I’m going to give you five minutes. When I come back, I want you to explain to me something complicated that I already don’t know.” I know that some of you HR-types are going to use this approach in a future interview, right?

My guess is that Sergey wants to hire people who are creative, and he is looking to see how Edwards is going to react under pressure. I think he also wants to see if Edwards has the guts to challenge the leadership team. Edwards found a piece of scrap paper and jotted down a topic he recently learned in an MBA program. Sergey was pleased with the topic, and invited Edwards for dinner with the staff. On Nov. 29, 1999, Edwards was hired as Google’s online brand manager.

Lessons Learned

Many interviews are too mechanical. The questions are boring, and require only high-level responses. You must ask the tough questions of prospects, and it’s best when they are situational. The point here is that you want people who are accountable, and not those who are largely concerned about meeting the minimum requirements.