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TOP PLACES TO WORK

The Google mind

The Internet powerhouse’s secrets for hiring the best

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By Michael B. Farrell
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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Jeff Moore, Google Inc.’s lead recruiter in Cambridge, can’t contain his grin. He’s about to escort a visitor into the second floor of Google Cambridge. It’s their coolest space, he said - high praise in an office like a designer dorm room around one corner and a techie fantasy land around another.

Moore walked into a room tricked out to evoke a Nantucket beach house. The photo mural of the ocean on one wall is not quite convincing, but there’s real wood planking on the faux porch. Googlers - the company’s very Googlish term for employees - lounged on Adirondack chairs and tapped on MacBooks.

Moore was right. It’s over the top.

But playful office design alone does not make a company exciting. Google Cambridge is the number one medium company in this year’s Top Places to Work survey because employees believe they are among the brightest minds in technology, working together in a supportive environment to change the way the world communicates.

Across the globe, the Google talent pool is legendary, with ground-breaking developers, Ivy League brainiacs, and plenty of millionaires.

Moore, who joined Google soon after it expanded to Massachusetts almost six years ago, recalled hiring some of its first engineers and saying they were the best he’d ever recruited. And then he’d hire some more - and they seemed like the best.

Google’s approach to getting that talent is the stuff of technology lore.

“Raw intellectual horsepower is important here, but I don’t think people should see that as the only thing that could get you here,’’ said Todd Carlisle, Google’s director of staffing, who works at its corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Google’s hiring process is exhaustive. For software engineers, it involves solving hard problems (on white boards and in real time) and five in-person interviews (mostly conducted by other engineers) once you clear an initial phone conversation. The idea is to involve other Googlers, who will help hire other sharp, creative people.

As you might expect from a company whose dominant product - Internet searches - is driven by algorithms, the decision on the number of interviews was data-driven, said Carlisle. In Google’s early days, prospective hires could face more than 10 different interviews.

And questions can be real mind-benders; according to one book about Google interviews, candidates might be asked to describe a chicken using programming language, or to design an evacuation plan for San Francisco.

In 2005, Carlisle discovered that after about five interviews, each additional encounter gives you just a 1 percent increment in the value of the information you have on the candidate. And he found that Google could save about 50,000 engineering hours by limiting the number of interviews. Last year, Google capped them at five.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched the company in 1998 inside a Menlo Park, Calif., garage. Today, Google employs about 29,000 people worldwide and is in its busiest hiring year.

The Cambridge office added 50 engineers this year, bringing its staff to more than 300. Since the beginning of the year, the office has received about 20,000 applications.

Google seeks four attributes in a candidate, Carlisle said: cognitive ability, expertise, leadership, and “Googliness.’’

You hear a lot about Googliness when talking to Googlers. “What that means to me is whether you are intellectually curious . . . passionate about changing the world,’’ said Brian Schmidt, director of online sales in Cambridge.

Stacy Wong, a software engineer on the Google patent search team, walked out of her interview last year thinking she did all right, “but I definitely didn’t slam-dunk it. My recruiter told me that nobody slam-dunks a Google interview.’’

Wong said the interview was the toughest she has had. “A typical interview question at Google has no limits,’’ she said.

Questions are often designed to see how candidates think, and may not even have right answers. “We certainly turn down people who are ridiculously smart, but who won’t be collaborative when they get here,’’ Carlisle said.

His recommendation for candidates: “Keep trying and check back, because we have a lot of jobs that are open right now.’’

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.