How to hire like a top Google innovator

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Project Loon director Mike Cassidy indeed has one of the coolest jobs at Google–trying to deliver high-speed internet to some of the most remote parts of the world, using balloons in the stratosphere. At Quartz’s The Next Billion conference, he talked about the challenges of operating equipment in an environment that’s -50 degrees celsius, to bring the mobile internet to the 2.7 billion people that have no access. And in an interview afterward, he described how he goes about selecting people for his team.

Cassidy says he looks for the same core personality traits that he sought when hiring at the startups he founded before joining Google X, the lab focusing on some of the company’s most aspirational projects, like self-driving cars. When it comes to hiring the right people for these kinds of initiatives (“moonshots,” in the Google parlance), it’s all about intensity, and the ability to survive ups and downs, he says.

“When we launched our balloons, the first 60 burst—60!” Cassidy says. “We stuck to it. You can find the type of person. True character comes out during stress, and if they start pointing fingers, you don’t want that. You want to find somebody who’s gone through stress and can sustain a good attitude.”

How do you find people like that? Cassidy explains. (Interview condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Quartz: You emphasized speed at earlier companies you’ve been involved with. How did that carry into hiring, and how is it different at Google X?

Cassidy: In startups we had a very intense system. We’d interview someone in the afternoon; if it was going well, we would do independent third-party reference checks at the same time. I never took references people gave me. I’d always find someone at a company they worked at and call them to see how they were.

Before they even came we put together what their offer would be—salary, title, equity, even write the offer letter up for all candidates. Then if it worked out, at 5:30pm, we’d hand them the offer letter and say, “Congratulations, do you accept?” They’d say, “Whoa, I wasn’t expecting to get an offer right now and to have to answer right now.” I’d say, “Ok, I don’t want to rush you. Can you call me back at 9am tomorrow and let me know what your decision is?” It counteracts a lot of these counteroffers that people get. Then you stick on them, you invite them to dinner, you invite their spouses to dinner, you go on Facebook and find all mutual connections—and I’ll call them and I’ll ask them to call the person and tell them to accept the offer.

At Google X, we have the same intensity. We can’t have the same speed, but we have the same intensity. There’s a really good book called Topgrading, it’s got really good interview questions where you can really get to the heart of things, trying to find the same personality type as yours. You can ask them questions that reveal how intense they are. And then make an offer as soon as you can, and do the same thing, try to stick on them through the whole process.

Quartz: Is the personality you look for at Google X the same as you looked for at startups?

Cassidy: Yeah, it’s the same. You want people who are focused, people who take ownership of the project. You don’t want someone who will say, ‘Yeah that’s someone else’s problem.” You can find that in interviews. You want people to say, “Oh, there’s a problem over there—I’m going to go fix it even if it’s not my specific area.”

Quartz: You’ve emphasized using your own personal network. Does that ever backfire?

Cassidy: Well, it does occasionally impact friendships, which sucks. But yeah, I love hiring people I played ultimate frisbee with. If you’ve played ultimate frisbee with someone, you see someone dive, they lay out their body, they catch the frisbee, and they scrape the whole side of their body, that’s the kind of person you want on the team. There have been some friendships that suffered as a part of working together but there are many more that got even stronger.

Quartz: You’re looking for a wide spectrum of abilities, with the skills to build, or launch, or recover balloons. How do you find them?

Cassidy: For a lot of the stuff you’re referring to—launching balloons, recovering them—we found that military veterans are awesome. We have a bunch of Army rangers on our team, 101st Airborne veterans, Marine Amphibious Recon people. It’s great, too, because they all walk around calling me “sir.” If you say we need to get up at 1:30am tomorrow and launch these balloons, they’re like, “Yes, sir!” 1:30 in the morning! They’re really great at that.

Image via @justinhendrix