It's nice if a pilot has a background in flying. It's really quite special if a colonoscopist has a background in medicine. But does everyone who heads up a department at Google really need to have a background in engineering?
I should be lying in the sun rather than pondering this existential mind-twister, but I was moved past reluctance by a blog post written by Don Dodge, developer advocate at Google.
Dodge, who used to perform advocacy at Microsoft, wrote this post to celebrate surviving--I'm sorry, I mean enjoying--six months at Google.
In a section titled "Engineering Rules!," Dodge offered the following: "Google has always been driven by outstanding engineering talent. Google hires only the best engineers. The legends of complex interview questions and coding problems are true. Educational achievement is valued at Google."
Do complex interview questions really test your educational achievement? Or do they merely test your ability to answer complex questions asked by, no doubt, complex people--people with certain complexes--in an interview situation?
But even that mind-number isn't the one that keeps me from the sand.
It was this: "Engineers are at every level, starting at the top, in all kinds of positions at Google. Nearly all the top management at Google have engineering backgrounds. Marketing, sales, business development, product management, are all more likely to be former engineers."
My troubled educational achievement suggests to me that Dodge is holding up this intellectual monochrome of leadership as a good thing. He is suggesting that this is a company that is so immersed in engineering that only those who understand its complex rudiments can be trusted to, say, market Google's products.
This is how Dodge explained it: "The engineering background brings a rigorous thought process that questions assumptions and requires accurate data in the decision process. That doesn't mean every decision will be perfect, but it will be based on data...not opinions."
Perhaps some will be heartened, given how much information Google manages to collect about their everyday interests and proclivities, that Google is a company where opinions do not rule.
Yet there is something slightly shiver-making about this supposed data worship. It might remind some of frenzied arguments they have had with the lovers when one party screams at the other: "You just don't understand me! You're not an engineer!"
Is it really possible that there exist so few human beings beyond the educationally superior dome of Google who might not be able to muster an idea or two about how Google might market its highly complex engineering products? You know, like those highly complex all-copy ads that sit at the side of search results?
Does one really need a background in engineering to wonder how best to offer real people, whose closest relationship to engineering might come every time they go over a bridge while humming along with their iPods, a browser?
And how much of an engineering background does it take to decide which of 41 shades of blue really is the right one?
Please, I don't wish to offend the world's greatest engineering talents. Whether they work for Google or not. If I say something too mean, I know they have the power to sever my ability to communicate with the world.
They could prevent me from watching Justin Bieber videos. They could steal information from my Wi-Fi signals, reveal all the e-mails I have written to my closest friends, Cameron Diaz, Lady Gaga, and the archbishop of New York. They could make it so that my garage remote control will never work again.
However, I wonder whether such slight, but no doubt data-driven, infelicities, such as the launch of Google Buzz, the riotously misguided home page designs, or the launch of Nexus One, might have done with one or two fewer data-driven managers and one or two more people who offered suggestions about what real people like and how they might react?
Google does many interesting and clever things. But, at this stage of its development, its office does seem to be full of too many people with the emotional maturity of Dwight Schrute.
At a time when the company needs to create more products that become an essential part of real people's lives, it often seems incapable of communicating the worth and, dare one suggest, the magic of such products to those very people.
In my fanciful though intellectually inferior way of thinking, I can see the head of Google's marketing department walking into a Parisian bakery, ordering the most exquisite pastry, tasting it, delighting in its complex wonder until his lips are moist beyond imagining.
Then he hears the lady behind the counter say: "Ze baker. He has a degree in archaeology."
A true Googlie would, naturally, put the pastry down and walk out of the bakery. Well, at least that's what the data would tell him to do, wouldn't it?