Gov. Rick Perry has repeatedly touted his vision of Central Texas as the next Silicon Valley. Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations at Google, knows what kind of human capital it takes to make that dream a reality.
Bock has also been attracting attention for an approach to human resources that largely ignores what have traditionally been thought of as signifiers of achievement, such as grade point averages and standardized test scores, which the company’s analytics have shown to be not particularly predictive.
He has made it clear that the name of your college won’t be what gets you a job at Google. Rather, when considering applicants, he said, the company favors less tangible metrics, such as the ability to learn.
In an interview on Monday, he also said private companies should be less territorial and work together to expand options for individuals in their community, no matter where those people might end up or what they might end up doing.
“I want the universe people have access to to be a little bit bigger,” Bock said.
Bock sat down with The Texas Tribune during a visit to Google’s office in Austin, where the company has made a number of recent grants to try to get young girls interested in computer science, including $100,000 to a nonprofit called Girlstart and the Austin Independent School District to promote such courses to girls and $16,500 to a group called Latinitas for an upcoming all-Latina hack-a-thon.
The discussion touched on Perry’s vision for a new Silicon Valley, how students can better prepare for the workforce, whether college is worthwhile and how to create more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math — or “STEM” — fields.
The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Texas Tribune: The governor has been really big on the idea of Texas — specifically, Central Texas — being the home of the next Silicon Valley. Is that a realistic possibility?
Laszlo Bock: It’s a definite possibility. Actually, I think it’s a huge opportunity.
One of the greatest challenges is finding great computer scientists and people who understand programming and engineering. And even then, even if they don’t go into the field, the training you get is really helpful and useful in a lot of fields.
One of the areas that the field struggles with is that you really don’t see a lot of diversity. The proportion of computer science degrees awarded to people who are Hispanic is incredibly low, awarded to African-Americans is low, awarded to women is low.
I know Texas has a pretty diverse population. There’s a lot of opportunity. It’s part of why Google is here, but also why a lot of companies are coming to this part of the state.
TT: Is there more the state could be doing to enable that transformation into the next Silicon Valley?
Bock: I think there are probably a few things. Part of it just relates to getting people ready. We’ve done research at Google that relates to why people decide to go into computer science. The popular conception is that, “If Dad’s an engineer, then I’m going to become an engineer.”
But we commissioned a study looking just at this question, and what we found was that your parents don’t need to be in the field, you don’t have to know what you’re doing. You just need to create an environment where there’s some encouragement that says it’s a possibility. So point one is just raising awareness.
One of the challenges in our country today is that only a third of people finish college, a third attend some college but never finish, and a third never go at all. In Texas, I think it's only something like 20 percent of students who start a two-year program finish within three years, and only about half who start a four-year program finish in six years. And that’s of the ones who go.
So step one is raising awareness that this is a possibility as a field. That’s just communication and getting the word out, and the more the governor and others say about that, the better it is for our nation.
The second is making it easier for people to go to school and stay in school, and a lot of things could be done there.
The third, I think, is employers. And part of the reason Google’s here is because we actually believe we should put our money where our mouth is. We should have a presence and recruit and hire, so we go to all the schools in the area.
TT: You’re talking about computer science degrees. But you have also said positive things previously about liberal arts degrees. Is there a hierarchy of degrees that students should be considering?
Bock: Education is important and helpful. Liberal arts, in the way it’s classically done, is incredibly rigorous. The original liberal arts conception was you actually study ancient languages, you study math, you study science, you study art, you study philosophy, you study history — which is brilliant, if you think about having informed citizens.
Ideally, you want citizens who are able to understand the laws of the land. What happens is you have lawyers who write all the laws in ways that are impenetrable and difficult to understand. But if you studied Latin and logic and rhetoric, it’s a little easier to parse. So I think the liberal arts are incredibly important.
As a society, we need a portfolio of all these skills. As an individual, my main point is that you should be really thoughtful about what it is you want to study. Many of us, like me, if you’re lucky enough to go to school, you say, “Oh, I like this. I’m going to do this.”
No one tells you that people who study a quantitative field end up graduating and over their lifetime can make 50 percent or 80 percent more money than someone who doesn’t. It’s not that making money is the purpose, but it sure would be nice to know up front.
TT: Despite trying, the state has only managed to increase the number of STEM graduates each year by a little less than half of what they had hoped in the last 14 years.
Bock: There are a lot of things that make it unattractive as a student. The questions have right and wrong answers. The way a lot of sciences are taught is that the intro courses are weeder courses. You go in and the intent is for people to have a miserable experience.
That’s very different from the way a lot of Shakespeare classes are taught. Few professors start a Shakespeare class by saying, “Look to your right, look to your left. By the end, one of those people will be gone.”
The difference between that and science, computer science and physics is that anyone can pick up a book and read. It’s so much more accessible than picking up a math textbook.
TT: You are most known for eschewing the traditional credentials markers of high achievement. So if a student is choosing between a renowned school with a great reputation and a more affordable but less well-known option, what is the better choice?
Bock: The education is equivalent at most of these institutions, especially if you’re a motivated student. As an employer, I’d much rather hire someone from the top 10 percent of any school than somebody in the top 50th percentile of a top 10 school. They’ve worked hard, they’ve applied themselves, they’ve shown grit, there’s something there.
Unfortunately, the answer is kind of, “It depends.”
But the key thing for me is you should figure out what is most important to you. If you think what you’re going to want is to work at big companies, or I want to be a professor at a well-branded institution, versus something that has less pedigree, it creates options because of the brand.
But if you know what you want to do, what you want to study, you should get the best education you can. And if there’s a financial component, I would almost do the thing that does not ruin you financially, because a well-branded degree is no longer a guarantee of financial success or security.
TT: You often talk about what students could do to get hired, but what could schools do to better prepare students for the workforce?
Bock: I think every school should have students sit down and spend some time thinking about this stuff.
In fairness, we’ve all been 18. You’re pretty confident you know how the world works and this isn’t top of mind for you.
But there are a couple things I think schools might do. One is give people more information. For example, let students know what happened to all the alumni at the schools and let them know how much debt they graduated with.
You could easily tell students, once they’re admitted, the average person who went to this school graduated with this much debt. And you could easily go on LinkedIn and find out what most people are actually doing. And a lot of schools have alumni databases.
So it wouldn’t be hard to say, “Welcome to this school. Most students with this major graduate with this much debt, and these are the kinds of careers and jobs they have.” Then it’s easy to figure out how much they pay, and people can make an informed decision.
I think that would be huge.
The second thing is, I think institutions — schools and companies — don’t do a good job of teaching people how to interview for jobs and how to market themselves.
There will be points in everyone’s life, whether you want to be a professor or a doctor or a consultant, where you interview. There are better ways to do it and worse ways to do it. There’s a right way and a wrong way, and no one tells you. And you don’t really get feedback. You get a job or you don’t. You don’t know if you really did well or not.
TT: The University of Texas System actually does this to a certain extent. They have a public database of alumni earnings and debt. Could that become the norm?
Bock: No, I wish it would. I don’t think it will because not every institution has a great story to tell, and unless you’re very well-intentioned and principled as an institution, your incentives are not to share that. Otherwise, they would have been doing it already. But I think it would be powerful if they did.
The government could also do it. Or companies like LinkedIn who have the data could put the reports out.
TT: So finally, what is your take on that increasingly asked question of whether or not college is worth it?
Bock: All the analysis on this says college is worth it. People who have college degrees earn more. Because they earn more, they have better health and health outcomes over the course of their life. There are all kinds of benefits that are correlated with a college degree.
I think what people should think hard about is what are the trade-offs associated with each option.
Saying “Should people have a college degree?” is like saying “Should people have a car?” When really, the question at age 18, is “Should I buy a Ferrari or should I buy a Kia? Or should I buy a Yugo?”
Some institutions, where if you get in, just go. They are world-renowned, you’ll get a great education, you’ll meet great people, doors will open for you. There’s a whole bunch where, if you get in, you should probably go, but you should think carefully about how you pay for it and what you’re going to study. And there’s a handful of institutions where you probably shouldn’t go.
But in the majority of cases, more education is better, and it’s valued in the market.
If I bring it back to the Google perspective, what we value at Google is learning ability. Having been formally educated is a signal of that, but it’s not the only one. We look for all kinds of other signals.
What we find is, there are brilliant people everywhere, but not everyone has access. The biggest challenge, I think, for institutions and for companies and for governments is to think about the two-thirds of people who never finish college.
They are just as smart and just as capable; they just didn’t have the opportunity. Life is tough and there’s a lot of randomness and luck and access that impacts what ends up happening to you. It’s why we think actually reaching out to people at different points is important, like this Hispanic girls hacker event. It sounds like a one-off, but it creates this possibility for people.
I think the best thing, the most inspirational thing, we can do as a company, as a government or as academic institutions is create more inspiration. All these amazing people will do great things if we give them a path to help get there.
Disclosure: Google and the University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.