Monday, August 2, 2010

Google and Academia

One third of Google employees has a PhD, and I believe this percentage is closer to one half here at the Zürich office. There are tons of people walking around with PhDs and post docs from the world's top universities. Many of them used to teach and work at traditional research centers.

I kept wondering to myself: what is it about Google that these people, highly trained in academia, find so compelling?

So I decided to conduct an informal survey and ask as many people as I could. Here is a summary of their comments and my observations:

  • Most told me that they really enjoy working on these sort of applied and large scale problems; and that their academic training has, in a way, prepared them to address these problems in a scientific manner. Almost everything here at Google is decided based on empirical research and data
  • Some also mentioned that they have a good amount of freedom to pursue their interests, albeit not at the same level that at an academic has of course.
  • One person mentioned that the number of good academic positions is usually fixed, whereas the number of PhDs is steadily increasing, making it very hard to get good academic positions.
  • Of course the salary also helps
  • Someone mentioned that they like the fact that it is the same crowd – I believe the word he used was 'clique'. The same level of smarts and remote interests as you would find roaming around academic halls or presenting at a conferences.
  • They also said that they like the immediate satisfaction that they get from seeing their ideas implemented. This is not always the case in academia, where a lot of the time the satisfaction comes from getting a paper accepted and who knows when (if at all) the idea makes it into practice.
  • And a lot of them were, to a certain extent, disenchanted with the academic process; where at the end of the day you are measured by the number of publications. This unfortunately produces lots of crappy papers with minute contributions to the scientific community.
  • This is not to say that they have estranged themselves from the academic world, most still publish every now and then. They are not required to, but Google supports them if they choose to. On the other hand they are heavily encouraged to file patents.
  • They also feel like they are contributing in other ways as well, such as their support to open source projects and releasing of useful stuff. During the conference in Mountain View the director of research mentioned that he would argue that things like releasing the API for Google Earth have contributed more to science than a lot of papers...

I definitely like this paradigm, and share a lot of their opinions.

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