The “Good” Student

I saw an article in the New York Times about Google’s hiring practices that reminded me of the differences between great big successful technology companies and small scrappy startups.

Marissa Mayer, Google on hiring

I love Google.I think its one of the smartest companies out there. And it hires very smart people from the best schools. And if you meet their criteria of a “good student”, you ought to go to work there.Or Microsoft or IBM. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Nothing makes me happier then to see my students getting great grades (and as they can tell you I make them very work hard for them.)

But what I remind them is that great grades and successful founders/technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation (and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative.)

BTW, by the standards mentioned in the Times article, the following people would never have been interviewed or hired at Google.

College Dropouts-Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison

College Dropouts – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison

These guys realized that customers don’t ask for your transcript.

There’s a big difference between being an employee at a great technology company and having the guts to start one.  You don’t get grades for having resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity.

You just get successful.

27 Responses

  1. Right, but Google isn’t looking to hire founders. Google is looking to hire workers. And founders don’t apply for jobs. They found companies.

  2. Customers don’t ask for your transcript. I love it.

  3. There’s a wide spectrum between A student and dropout. I think you have to be wary of assuming causation from correlation when you’re looking at the dropouts. Getting to be a billionaire takes time, and it’s not all that surprising that more billionaires are dropouts because it means they’ve been at it longer. But that’s a very small sample, and a different strategy probably makes sense for most people.

    Here’s a post with a summary of a Kauffman foundation study, which found that (contrary to conventional wisdom) most successful entrepreneurs do have degrees.

    This doesn’t ruin your point about Google, however. On my view, the best students (and employees) are the ones that are there for the enjoyment of the process. On average, I think enjoyment leads to success, so I expect more of the group that enjoys learning to be A students than a random sample. But the standard deviations are very wide because sometimes the student doesn’t bother to perform on the exams or papers because they’ve satisfied their own curiosity and have moved on to something else (another course, &c.). This was basically my m.o. in school. A+ in one or two courses every semester and mediocre in the rest.

  4. I would argue that all three of those guys would be crummy google.com employees. They are the way they are because the started their own companies and did it their own way. Just because they are at the head of some of the 3 biggest tech companies, does not mean that they would be good fits for google. That underlying assumption is completely false. Remmber, Google is NOT looking for the next Steve Jobs, they’ve got their own guys at the top trying to be him. Instead they’re looking for the next bright guy who can do the tasks that they need to be done.

  5. Steve,

    I found this and the Kauffman report intriguing. Do you know of any similar studies showing correlation between sales success and founder success? The three dropouts above were each, in their own way, some pretty slick sales guys.

    Kind Regards,

    Fred

  6. Add Evan Williams of Blogger, Odeo and Twitter.com

  7. ….and these three guys spent more time working with their subject matter than any ‘A’ student ever would have… Which is where the difference really comes in if you are trying to compare their expertise or capabilities with the subject matter.

    I’m sure Bill Gates would have been a great employee at Google, his 20% time would create some amazing products. If he wasn’t presented with the opportunity to create Microsoft, this might have been a great option for him.

    The great entrepreneurs are not necessarily ‘A’ students, nor are they serial entrepreneurs – they are people passionate about a subject matter and an idea – so passionate that they want to spend their whole life working on it (it’s the spending their whole life working on it that prevents them from getting the ‘A’ in every other subject, it also prevents them from being serial entrepreneurs).

    Serial entrepreneurs are another story – they live their lives interupted by a smattering of ideas – starting/exiting companies, starting/quiting jobs, starting/stopping studying hard enough to get good grades, etc

    The ‘A’ students on the other hand, are the students who have a desire to work within the bounds of the system (or know how to work around the system) – either way, they value the system for some reason and are working towards ordering their lives around it. This usually means that these people (the ‘A’ students) are good for any company who needs someone to interact with the system of society (any system that human culture has created), this is obviously valuable to and can bleed into the entrepreneureal side of things… for example businesses that are built around government contracts (like blackwater)… they have spent their lives working the system and can build a business to take advantage of it.

  8. “One candidate got a C in macroeconomics…That’s troubling to me. Good students are good at all things.”

    Actually, this statement is troubling to me. Its tone, diction, thought process, and vapidity reek of an unexceptional individual who excels at getting good grades, but is mediocre at all other things.

    Of course, I wouldn’t want to make a comprehensive assessment of character or ability based on a single data point.

  9. Of course, the other way to look at this is that formal education should become more like working at a startup if we want students to stay engaged. People like Ken Robinson have been pushing that for a long time and I think it’s true. Academic environments can be too sterile to engage some otherwise very smart people. If we want more creative students, then we should make an educational system that rewards creativity.

    A hidden corollary to this, I think, is that enjoying work doesn’t necessarily mean doing work that you enjoy. What I mean is that following “your passion” often leads down a blind alley, whereas picking a really big goal and then doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal (including many things that you are decidely not passionate about) ends up being enjoyable. I like what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says about work in this regard.

  10. C in macroeconomics though? I mean, that is pretty pathetic. Heck, I would be suspicious of a B in that course.

  11. It seems to me that the most creative and motivated students will get excellent grades in subjects that interest them but sometimes mediocre grades in other subjects. Sometimes they just drop out and do their own thing. No one has to tell them to do that.

  12. [...] From the king of customer development, Steve Blank: [...]

  13. [...] serial entrepreneur Steve Blank says that aspiring entrepreneurs who don’t meet these standards shouldn’t be put off: What I remind [my students] is that great grades and successful founders / technology [...]

  14. Steve,

    Agree 100%. Blogged the exact quote when it was published in Feb. Google’s attitude is ensuring that they will become the next Microsoft, the good news is that will open up a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs like me.

    Jamie

  15. On the inanity of wanting to choose between working at Google and starting your own company: as you said, Steve, if that’s your dilemma, go work at Google.

    The two options are like the Jets and the Sharks from Westside story. Sure, you might fall for your enemy’s girl (or at least snap at her), but you don’t choose to be one or the other. In most cases, at that point you just *are.*

  16. Steve, one of the problems in your sample is what’s called survivorship bias. That is, how many people dropped out of college, started a company, and then failed anyway? There’s no question the three examples you give were successful — but how many tried to emulate them, and failed?

    If one looks at the total pool of college vs non-college people, and what each group’s career trajectories look like in the aggregate, I think Google’s position is more justifiable.

  17. This reminds me of this article about top students not doing well in the dating scene:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-alex-benzer/why-the-smartest-people-h_b_169939.html

    Apparently academic success doesn’t lead to “sales success” in the dating world. So “good students aren’t good at all things.” Maybe they’re just good at all things that are easily measured.

    Do the C students get the girl and get to own the company?

  18. She shouldn’t reject him for getting C in macroeconomics. She should reject him for putting his macroeconomics grade on his resume.

  19. After gutting it out through my last term of business classes while starting my business, I pretty much came to the same conclusion, but not as succinctly.

    I’m printing and framing this one.

  20. Some of the best engineers I hired out of school were not 3.5+ GPA or better. HR would rarely even circulate less than a 3.2 and the cutoff was 3.0. When recruiting was hard the functional managers started looking at 2.8-9s. The advantages this group has is that they have encountered adversity and had to overcome it instead of sailing on through as 4.0 level students. These lower GPA students learned how to “climb back onto the horse”, how to be tenacious, how to look from different multiple angles, …. When the circuit doesn’t work and nobody can say why, that tenacity to attack again and again until it DOES work is what these candidates bring that is valuable, they have learned through and of “failure”. Besides, if your circuit always works the first time, how do you learn to trouble shoot?

  21. She shouldn’t reject him for getting C in macroeconomics. She should reject him for putting his macroeconomics grade on his resume.

    Google requires transcripts for new grads. (And even not-so-new engineers.

  22. [...] (anti) correlation between good grades in school and success in entrepreneurship.  He remarks in The “Good” Student something I’ve been curious about for a while too: Google’s Hiring Practices.  Talking [...]

  23. [...] “Customers don’t ask for your transcript: no grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, and tenacity.” Steve Blank [...]

  24. [...] Great grades and successful founders/technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation. Written by Chris F. Masse on August 31, 2009 — Leave a Comment “There’s a big difference between being an employee at a great technology company and having… [...]

  25. [...] http://steveblank.com/2009/04/07/the-good-student/ I saw an article in the New York Times about Google’s hiring practices that reminded me of the differences between great big successful technology companies and small scrappy startups. [...]

  26. This is somewhat orthogonal, but it strikes me that in the country’s run-up to STEM education (which no doubt is sorely needed and is a big part of getting into a place like Google — I know…heaps of my students went there in the early 2000s), we are missing a couple letters that really mattered to people like Steve Jobs: As Gavin Newsom says, “It’s not STEM, man…it’s STEAM…don’t forget the arts.” Or maybe STREAM: Science Technology READING Engineering ARTS Math.

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