Earlier this month, Core77 ran an exclusive look at the design team behind Google X, the semi-secret lab responsible for Glass, self-driving cars, stratospheric Internet balloons and other projects they won't tell anyone about. As we described in that story, X is actively looking for new design talent—so as part of our ongoing Getting Hired series, we wanted to provide some job-seeking advice for readers who think they have what it takes to work in Google's "moonshot factory." For that, we turned to Ricardo Prada, who leads X's central user-experience team, which essentially incubates new projects. Prada and his researchers crystallize concepts, design early prototypes and test products with real users as soon as possible. As a hiring manager, Prada also negotiates resources, sets hiring priorities and interviews everyone who comes onto the team.
Can you walk us through your process for hiring a new designer?
We're looking for designers, user researchers and hybrids of the two. The strength of our team is in the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that come to the table to tackle big problems. When we're considering a candidate, there are a few key components: resume, portfolio and interviews. First, the resume. We want to see a well-written and carefully designed resume that shows you're an expert in your specific area, but that you can apply your knowledge and thinking across diverse areas. Your resume should tell a "T-shaped" story that goes deep in one core area, but branches out into other areas where you've been able to apply your thinking and expertise. For example, one of our researchers, Dhvani, holds a PhD in developmental psychology, went into public policy around children, did usability testing at a tech company and went on to work with hardware in Google X. Her deep, deep understanding of how people think and learn makes her extremely adaptable.
Then, the portfolio. If we think after reviewing your resume that you might be a good fit, we'll have you come in to present your portfolio. This will give you the opportunity to tell us your story more fully. Here we want to see a breadth of ideas, but also the lens through which you see the world. The next step is in-person interviews. This part is really important because we want to get to know you. We want to know how you think about design, and how you tackle problems. We're also looking for the optimism, expertise and niceness we call "being Googley."
During the interviews, we'll give you design exercises where we ask you to spend a short amount of time trying to tackle big problems that are similar in scale to the stuff we do in Google X. For example, we've asked candidates to show us how they might design a jetpack to replace cars. Good candidates are able to break the James Bond stereotype. They might think about the ergonomics of accommodating elderly grandmothers, how to communicate flight paths, how to position and price the product in the market, or how reaction times might impact safety—and then create viable plans to get to the product launch efficiently. We also will spend a lot of time trying to understand how you think about design and the design process. What does the future of your field look like? Why should it be that way?
Ricardo Prada leads the user-experience team at Google X, which incubates new projects.
What makes good candidates stand out?
We're looking for fantastic experimentalists, whether they're designers or researchers. We need people who can operate quickly, learn from failure and iterate all along the path from ideation to launch. As with the resume, we look for what we call "T-shaped people." These are people who are deeply skilled in one area and are often the best in their field, but also have a T-shape which branches out to other things. For example, I've worked on airplanes, cars and websites. There are zillions of commonalities between these types of users, goals and tasks. I might note that they all involve serious amounts of expertise that can be upset by the appearance of a rare or unexpected task. The same cognitive processes that allow a pilot to safely divert an airliner in an emergency are at play when a Gmail user wants to add an e-mail signature.
We look for fearlessness—meaning the ability to take a stand. We want people with an opinion about their craft—a design perspective—and the ability to argue it. They need to be willing to take a risk, even if it's unpopular. We're working with some of the smartest engineers and scientists in their field; our design team should be of the same caliber. We need people who can break out of the screen and think about how their product works in the world. Our X projects involve hardware, and we're not necessarily tethered to a mouse or touchscreen.
We're also looking for an entrepreneurial spirit, or the ability to take an idea from beginning to end. That usually includes adaptability, persistence, passion and a principled approach to their craft. Joy. We spend about as much time with each other as with our own families, so we should be having fun, teaching, learning and getting awesome things into the hands of people. It's so important to be inspired by those you work with every day. You have to be comfortable with unpredictability; we want people who can thrive in the ups and downs inherent to creating new product categories. Lastly, we look for people who are going to design things that nobody else has designed before.
And what are some red flags that might disqualify a potential hire?
There are a few things that might signal to us that Google X is not going to be a good fit for you. You're dogmatic about process—meaning that things have to fall into really neat stages and you don't like to stray from a plan. We need people who are able to deal with ambiguity and fast-moving deadlines. You need to be excited by a place where your primary project can be cancelled the same day you're assigned to it, then replaced with something totally different and strange. Your processes should be as nimble as X is. You shouldn't feel limited by your job description, but instead feel empowered to go outside of that. Also, anyone who spends too much time talking about ideas, and not enough time creating prototypes or watching users. X-ers get anxious when we can't point at it, break it or graph it.
When I ask people to do seemingly impossible things, we don't want people who have intense fear—or who are overly eager. We need people who are like, "Yeah, that might be doable." These people are usually incredibly good at what they do and confident in their ability to look at a problem, yet also skeptical. We're a team of passionately objective optimists.
Mac Smith (left) is a senior researcher on X's user-experience team. Mitchell Heinrich founded and runs the Design Kitchen.
Once candidates make it to the interview stage, what are the big dos and don'ts?
Do be goal-oriented. Like all of Google, we want to get things done and into the hands of end users as quickly as possible. Be yourself first, and be honest. We're not looking for people who know everything, so you don't need to fake it. We are looking for people who know how they might add value to anything. Be game. Know when to generate ideas without a filter, and when to bring focus, pragmatism and execution.
Don't forget that research and design work best in the service of others. One easy way to mess up an interview with us is to spend most of it talking about things that excite you, rather than figuring out what exciting and useful stuff we can do together. Don't shy away from failure; failure is inevitable if you're asking big, hard problems. The best candidates build being wrong into their plans, focusing on how to learn and iterate quickly.
What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to land a job—and was it effective?
We actually haven't seen anything very crazy; anyone trying that aggressively is probably trying to compensate for something. We're looking for well-rounded pros, and we'll meet with anyone who's a strong fit, so people don't need to resort to theatrics. We know it's hard to get noticed, but we try our best to talk to anyone who's a good match for what we need at the moment. You might be too senior, or too junior, or have the wrong skill set one year, and be perfect next year.
We do want to see that you've made a splash in your community. Nothing is better than finding someone who already pulled off a moonshot elsewhere. You don't have to be in X to do that.
What other advice can you offer to designers hoping to work at Google X?
Google X is a wonderland, not a utopia. We're dealing with real-world, messy, awesome and occasionally mundane problems. We need creative people whose hands are stained with whiteboard ink, but who don't take themselves too seriously. This stuff is fun. Don't feel limited by the tools you used last. Be open to looking at new problems, and trying or learning new tools.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.