Google Recruiter Mike Junge on Startups, the Biggest Mistake Job Applicants Make, and Why It Pays to be Nice

Michael Junge is a recruiter on staff at Google, focusing on hiring executive level talent for the company. But he’s also written a new book for a broader readership, about mastering the job search process in the digital age.

Called Purple Squirrel —  a insider’s term that recruiters apply to hard if not impossible-to-find talent — the book comes out in a couple of weeks. Hoping to find out why Junge wrote it, what lessons it holds, and what outsiders can learn from Google’s recruiting process, I caught up with him yesterday. Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length.

First, I should tell readers you’ve just let me know you can’t answer any but the broadest questions about Google. I guess this means I have to crumple up a list of penetrating questions I’d prepared for you.

I’m really sorry. The company doesn’t like discussing its processes publicly, and while I have the full support of the Leadership Recruiting team [at Google], this isn’t a Google-sponsored project.

It’d be strange if it were. You wrote a book for job seekers, from a place – Silicon Valley – where there isn’t enough talent for the jobs that exist, at least on the engineering front.

It’s true that at a high level, companies, including Google and Facebook, are dealing with a shortage of talent at the elite engineering level that they pursue. Talent attraction and retention is a very big issue right now, particularly in the software space.

Can I ask if Google’s reorganization under Larry Page makes it even more so? If I were an engineer, I might be worried about particular groups or projects being killed off.

In general, I don’t think that’s an issue for Google. From the perspective of hiring senior talent, I haven’t seen that as a problem.

What about convincing young engineers to work at a company that’s already as richly valued as Google?

A lot of big employers deal with that issue by looking at the bigger picture. The number of startups that have a positive payout is [pretty miniscule]. Meanwhile, big, successful companies tend to build wealth and success and stability by focusing not on a short-term payouts but a long-term success cycle. But I’d prefer not to discuss Google specifically.

How about this: What’s one of the biggest mistakes job applicants make, at Google and elsewhere? When you have someone interviewing right there in the office, where do they tend to go wrong?

One of my pet peeves is that people often say things to recruiters that sound horrible, including terrible things about past bosses and coworkers and other off-the-wall comments that they assume won’t hurt them in their job search.

That’s interesting. So they wrongly see you as a confidante?

Recruiters have a mixed reputation. A lot of people see us as a necessary evil; others see us as a powerful ally. It’s interesting how that plays out in people’s attitudes and behaviors and the way they interact with us. The reality is that we’re trying to make sure we’re hiring the best people, including people who have the best attitude as well as skill set. Anytime someone tells me, “I would never say this to a hiring manager, but…” whatever comes after the “but” does not advance their cause.

What are other red flags for you during the recruiting process?

Generally, people who are perpetually late for phone calls, or who get wrapped up in little details [can make poor hires]. You can also learn a lot, usually later in the process, by how someone handles the negotiation around their salary. I’ve seen people become very emotional when we start talking about money. I’ve also seen them make commitments and then back out. One specific red flag is not being willing to share salary history, or misrepresenting salary history.

Is that a deal killer?

It can be if a candidate blatantly exaggerates his pay. If someone making $80,000 says they are making $110,000 in order to get a better offer, that can be [a conversation ender].

What do people underestimate when it comes to competing for a job?

Attitude. One of the things that Google —  and most major companies — look at is personality among two or three key defining attributes that they’re evaluating. In general, friendliness is very highly sought after. It’s hard to overstate how much impact that can have on the hiring process.

What of the fine line between confidence and arrogance?

It’s a tough balance. You have to sit with someone one on one to see where they fall on that spectrum. But I’d say to try to come across as confident but humble. Being brilliant is fantastic, but it’s an inherited attribute. So answer questions with confidence, but don’t act like you’re the best thing since sliced bread.

And when it comes to engineers? Perhaps very wrongly, I’d gather that personality matters a little less.

There’s some truth to that. Longer term, I’d say there’s no substitute for doing things that are helpful [in your current job]. Employers are always trying to check references to validate that you’re good at what you do. So it’s really important to figure out how to listen to the people around you and to go out of your way to be helpful. The more of a difference you make to the people you interact with – your bosses, your colleagues, your customers – the more money you’re going to make, the more job opportunities you’re going to have, and the more people will be interested in hiring you. And I think that transcends any specific field or practice.

Any advice to employers about retaining talent, once they land it?

To retain the best talent, you have to have a partnership-oriented attitude. The more value that employees give a company, the more the employer should be willing to reward them back. Many of the best employers have already figured this out or are starting to. When you have great people and they’re doing great work, you have to incentivize them and make them feel good about going above and beyond.

Some companies have used the economy as an excuse not to do more for employees. But the cost of hiring and training a new employee is enormous — from tens of thousands of dollars into upwards of half a million dollars, depending on the skill set of individual. You can save a few thousand bucks short term, but the cost of turning off a good, valuable employee is orders of magnitude higher.