The Google Recruiting Machine Rolls On With Google’s College Ambassador Program

Oct 27, 2008

There is only one way to accurately categorize Google’s recruiting efforts: they are a recruiting machine.

While you might have heard speculation to the contrary, they continue to innovate, particularly in the area of employment branding, where they maintain global dominance. Several years ago, I wrote a broad case study on Google recruiting that highlighted its overall approach, but I didn’t go into any depth about the company’s bold approaches in the area of college recruiting.

In this article, I’ll highlight some of the creative things that Google has tried in college recruiting, including its latest triumph, the amazing Google College Ambassador Program. (If you missed the original case study, or would like to revisit it, you can find it here.)

The King of Employment Branding

The recent collapse of the banking and financial markets has subdued much of the consulting and investment banking competition that Google once faced on campuses. Despite some turbulence, the high-tech industry is still a shining light in this economy, and Google is by far most students’ number-one choice of employers among high-tech firms.

Recent research reveals that 45% of engineering students would like to work at Google. Even outside of high-tech, Google’s employment brand still shines. It was recently selected as the number-one ideal employer among all undergraduate students by Universum. In their most recent study, 17% of the students participating selected Google, up from 13% last year. Those leads will undoubtedly be lengthened next year following the implementation of their new and innovative College Ambassador Program.

The Google College Ambassador Program

The number-one weakness of all college recruiting programs is their inability to maintain a “continuous presence” on campuses throughout the academic year. Every firm is forced by travel expenses and a finite supply of recruiters to limit the number of days they can have a recruiter on any particular campus.

Because of the cost, recruiters typically fly in, spend a few days, and then fly out. As a result of this “here today gone tomorrow” approach, some college recruiters have even been labeled “seagulls” because they are viewed as “flying in frequently, dropping a load of crap, and then leaving.”

Even Google has realized that it cannot afford to park its recruiting staff on every key campus for enough days during the year to really make a difference. As a result, they developed an “on-campus ambassador” program that I predict will soon be copied by many other major firms.

The premise is simple. Instead of periodically flying in representatives, why not recruit individuals who are already there (students) and convert them into ambassadors?

These on-campus ambassadors or representatives can then act on the firm’s behalf every day they are on campus. They can put together events and generally help spread the word about Google as a great place to work.

Some of the benefits of this “ambassador” approach include:

  • Credibility. Because ambassadors are students themselves, what they say is more credible and believable to other students. This allows them to effectively spread both goodwill and recruiting- and product-related information.
  • Knowledge of the campus. Because they have been enrolled at the school for years, they know the school’s culture and the best communication mechanisms.
  • Enthusiasm. By recruiting enthusiastic students, the firm has an opportunity to take advantage of their energy, enthusiasm, and extensive social networks. Obviously, this enthusiasm could be picked up by other students and it would likely spill over to their work representing Google.
  • Low-cost. Because the Google product and employment brand are so strong, students are willing to volunteer their time just for the opportunity to work with Google. Ambassadors will be given a small budget for expenses, communications, and events that they must operate within. They also get to share in the free food at Google events or what Google provides during exams. They also get free Google gear, numerous contacts at Google, and an opportunity to put “serving in a leadership role” for Google on their resume.
  • Relationship building. Because they already regularly interact with faculty, presidents of student organizations, and other students, these “reps” can quickly build relationships and influence others far better than any time-crunched recruiter.
  • Educating Googlers. These campus ambassadors also serve as a direct point of contact for Google teams. In their liaison role, ambassadors can advise Google employees and recruiters about their unique campus culture and the interests and needs of their fellow students, which are of course, different at every campus.

The program gives the firm an expanded campus presence and an immediate competitive advantage over Yahoo!, Microsoft, Facebook, and IBM (though QUALCOMM pioneered this concept).

I predict the program will get thousands of applicants and it will significantly further Google’s lead in building its college employment and product brands, but only time will tell.

16 Other Google College Recruiting Innovations

Google’s College Ambassador Program is just the latest in a string of what can only be called “bold and outside the box” approaches that Google has utilized over the years. College recruiting is a field that can be characterized as almost universally bland and one dominated by a “follow the leader” strategy.

Google stands out because it uses an array of tools and approaches, including:

  1. Google games. Google is famous for holding competitions between noted schools (including Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, and Harvard). Often these competitions include Lego games because Google’s founders are fond of them because they once used Lego bricks as the external expandable casing for one of their early hard drives. Even today, they can be found all around the Googleplex.
  2. Billboards. Google used highway billboards that included a math “brain teaser” to excite and eventually recruit math majors.
  3. Contests. Google is clearly the #1 firm in using external contests to get ideas and to recruit and assess potential candidates. Their worldwide “CodeJams” are PR magnets as well as being extremely successful candidate and idea generators. Other Google contests have included Google Space, Android, and its famous “Summer of Code” which received over 7,000 applicants this year.
  4. Focus on high school students. The best college recruiting starts early in order to capture the loyalty of young minds before other firms have a chance. Google’s “Highly Open Participation Contest” demonstrated Google’s support for the “open source” concept. It also received extensive PR and it successfully involved over 400 high school students this year.
  5. Pizza during exams. Google championed the concept of giving free food and pizza at major universities during final exams. The message to students is clear: “we think like you and we understand your needs, so here is free food when you need it the most.”
  6. Green recruiting. Google is committed to its green employer brand and demonstrates its deep commitment to sustainability (i.e., solar panels on its headquarter’s roof, its free WiFi shuttles, free bike repair, its subsidy of employee-purchased hybrids, its focus on electric cars).
  7. A fun place to work. It’s easy to find stories on the Internet about Google’s “fun” practices. They include free food, pajama day, movie day, martini blowouts, bring your dog to work, and most important, its “20% free time.” Google even made fun of the ubiquitous “aptitude tests” that all college students have to endure when it developed GLAT. Which is a humorous takeoff on aptitude tests put together by Google Labs. Their “testing on the toilet” even makes on the job learning stand out from the traditional.
  8. The value of top talent. Google leads the way in “Topgrading,” the practice of trying to hire 100% “A” players. This focus is partially driven by their bold move in quantifying the value of recruiting and retaining top talent (one top-notch engineer is worth “300 times or more” than the average).
  9. CEO and founder talks at campus events. Google is among the handful of firms that have calculated the recruiting value of having senior executive speak on campus. Google also encourages employees to give talks at student professional organizations and to bring real Google problems into the classroom (a Google manager visits my management class each semester).
  10. Practical training classes on-campus. Google has designed and supported actual courses related to “cloud computing” that become part of the curriculum offerings in order to educate as well as to attract and assess college students (Internet scale program).
  11. Blogs. Google excels at encouraging its employees to blog. These blogs make learning and asking questions about Google products and recruiting much easier.
  12. Videos for recruiting. Google has created some of the most powerful and most watched recruiting videos.
  13. Faculty relationships. Google hires a large number of PhDs (on the premise that they enjoy exploring areas that no one else has explored). To accomplish this, they have developed a network of direct relationships with several hundred professors at major schools.
  14. Campus buildings. Google placed buildings and staff on or near college campuses (i.e., Michigan and ASU) to improve their campus visibility. This “expensive to copy” practice also provides both students and faculty with the opportunity to work directly with Googlers and on Google projects during the regular school year.
  15. Friends of Google. This tool creates an electronic email network of people who are interested in Google and its products (but not necessarily interested in working for the company). By signing up these individuals and then periodically sending them emails about the firm’s products and events, Google can build a relationship with thousands of people.
  16. Internships. Google has an outstanding internship program that hires hundreds of interns each year. The program has an excellent conversion rate to permanent hires. Interns in Mountain View can hang around with Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin during the company’s regular Friday evening fireside chats. They can also participate in bowling nights, scavenger hunts in San Francisco, ice cream socials, and bay cruises. Interns also get to hear free on-site talks by various business and Internet icons.

Still Room for Improvement

Eventually, even Google’s vaunted recruiting machine will be challenged by Facebook or some other aspiring firm managed by individuals who are also passionate about recruiting. So, if Google is to maintain its dominance, it can’t be complacent.

Instead, it needs to work on some areas that are still weak within college recruiting. Those areas that need improvement include “remote” college recruiting, a formal student referral program, better college metrics, and a more focused approach on new technologies that can be applied to recruiting like social networking, texting, wikis, and video games as recruiting tools.

Final Thoughts

If you think fancier posters, glossier brochures, or better pizza at information sessions will work, think again. These approaches are “so last year,” and only a few firms (E&Y, Enterprise, Qualcomm, and Intuit come to mind) have even attempted to move beyond the traditional into more exciting and productive strategies and approaches to college recruiting.

If you’re not among these elite firms in college recruiting, now is the opportune time to ramp up recruiting on campus because the economy has demoralized the competition. Don’t let the down economy distract you; instead, use Google’s boldness to inspire you to greatness!

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