Inside Google’s recruiting machine

By Anne VanderMey, reporter

FORTUNE — In the hot war for talent being fought in Silicon Valley, no company has an arsenal quite like Google’s. Named Fortune’s Best Company to Work For in 2012, the search giant made a record 8,067 hires last year — boosting total headcount by a third. The thirteen-year-old firm’s recruiting has an almost mythical quality about it, particularly for the two million candidates applying to work there each year. In terms of elite American institutions, getting a job at Google ranks with being admitted to Stanford Graduate School of Business or becoming a Navy Seal. Behind the glitz there are a few Googley basics at work: data, money (lots of it), sophisticated programming, and an army of young, eager recruiters.

Google (GOOG) does not release its recruiter headcount. It is likely huge. In 2009, the company revealed that there were about 400 internal recruiters. John Sullivan, a San Francisco State University professor who has studied Google and advises companies on hiring, estimates that the number across all departments and countries is closer to 1,000, with about 300 full-time recruiters in the U.S. and more than 600 contractors. More conservative estimates put the tally at 500. Even if the lower figure was correct, Google would have one recruiter for every 64 employees. That’s a far higher ratio than the 577-to-1 average for most large companies, according to the Corporate Executive Board.

Who are Google’s recruiters? They’re young, highly paid and, often, on a six month contract. “They’re probably the company that I’ve seen that uses the most [contractors],” says Michael A. Morell, co-founder and managing partner of Silicon Valley recruiting firm Riviera Partners. “There’s a lot to be said for new people trying to prove themselves in the first six to 12 months.” It’s difficult to find an accurate or exact employee-to-recruiter ratio at the company, the number of recruiters varies dramatically. At any given time, Sullivan says, 70% of the recruiting staff might be on contract. That changes, though, as Google feels the need to gear up or cut back on hiring. “We want the best of the best to come to Google,” says Todd Carlisle, its director of staffing. “We budget what it takes to find the best of the best.”

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This lends the company considerable flexibility depending on its staffing needs. “If you need to scale down, you fire 50 people and it’s fine,” says one former Google recruiter who declined to be identified because of the company’s nondisclosure policy. “In two months you hire 50 to 100 and get it going again. It’s very efficient and very effective, but the thing is, it’s also very expensive.” Calling Google’s recruiting efforts a machine is not much of a stretch.

Sullivan says Google’s recruiting budget is the largest he has ever seen at a private company. The decision to pour in such resources comes, he says, from a calculation the company made early on that a top-notch engineer is worth dramatically more than an average one. If a great employee is worth 300 times more than average one, as one Google executive speculated in 2005, it makes sense to spend 10 times more on recruiting. That also partially explains why the company provides lavish perks, job flexibility, and time for personal projects. Not to mention, why CEO Larry Page still approves every hire personally. When it comes to picking up talent, “it’s not like they are number one and someone else is close,” Sullivan says. “They are in a different league.”

Which isn’t to say being a Google recruiter is easy. One common complaint is that the process is so well thought out, and so mechanical, that it gets boring for the human beings involved. Instead of relying just on seasoned, full-cycle recruiters (though it does have those), Google breaks down the process into different functions — sourcing, coordinating, college-only, etc. Zach Nadler, who now works in his family’s insurance business, interviewed for a sourcing job at the company, but abandoned the interview process after getting a feel for the position. “The pay would be fine, but it didn’t seem that exciting, surfing the Internet all day,” Nadler said. “The people that they have on the staffing side are the only ones that seem to grumble,” adds David Voss, COO of Foxhunt Staffing in Los Altos, near Mountain View.

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There are jobs for a wide variety of specific roles. “There’s a lot of guys I get paper on that says ‘Google recruiter,’” Morell says. “But you have to do a lot of probing to get to what was their function.” Many companies use similar strategies, but Google’s trademark analytics have made it into something resembling art. “Get guys up to speed very quickly and you just plug them in. It’s really what we do at the infantry level in the army. Keep feeding them into the machine.” Individually, they’re good. But working within the Google system? “They achieve stuff as a group that exceeds anybody’s expectations,” Morell says.

And joining the Google recruiting machine can be a very appealing proposition for budding HR professionals, even if the jobs aren’t permanent. “You can get more than $200,000 a year,” the former Google recruiter claims. “There’s no real stability, but it’s a fair amount of money for a 23-year-old.” Another former employee who declined to be identified says she “loved” work and the company, where she was a full-cycle recruiter for about 11 months. Plus she added, “It will probably never be easier to get someone to respond to a cold call.”

Like so many projects at Google, data pumps through the recruiting organization’s veins. An internally designed candidate-tracking program used by recruiters is said to be a thing of mathematical beauty. The company eschews job boards and embraces direct sourcing, to the point where many engineers in the Valley regularly hear from the company. Nick Bergson-Shilcock, a co-founder of hiring startup Hackruiter, says he gets an e-mail checking in about once every six months. So giant and so aggressive is Google’s machine, a possibly apocryphal but no less telling story goes like this: a happily-employed Google engineer finds a recruiting e-mail in her inbox — from her own employer.

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The system does have its flaws. Employees have complained that hiring is too focused on coding, that the emphasis on analytics misses creative talent, and that the interview system can be badly disorganized. A widely circulated 2008 e-mail thread of exiting Google employees excoriated the hiring process for being unnecessarily bureaucratic and arduous. The company, Carlisle counters, is constantly reworking the mechanics.

In the last year, Google has changed a few of the distinctive features of its hiring process. It scaled back the focus on GPA and standardized testing scores. “We no longer ask candidates for the GPAs if they’ve been out of school for three years,” Carlisle says. Standardized test scores are no longer required for any candidate. The company also got rid of most of its riddle-like questions such as, How many golf balls fit in a school bus? They have been replaced with questions more closely related to the job. “We used to look more at school selectivity,” Carlisle says. “Now it’s not really a factor as long as we can prove that the person is smart.”

Perhaps most importantly, Google has drastically cut the time it takes a candidate to wend his way through the process. Where it once toke as long as six months from application to hire, Carlisle says, it now takes about a month and a half. The previous average time was about 100 days. And where it was once commonplace to sit for 10 interviews, Carlisle crunched the numbers and found that every interview after the fourth one increased useful knowledge about an applicant only by about 1%. The company now caps the number of interviews at five.

Google is famous for hiring talent for talent’s sake, even when there aren’t any openings. The philosophy is cut-throat. The company is thinking, “not only do I have the best, but you don’t,” Sullivan says. As in basketball, “if you have all the 7-foot centers, you’re going to win a lot of games.” And they have the math to back it up, nowhere near a universal feature in HR departments. Studying the company, Sullivan says, has been humbling. Seeing it, “[You think] oh my God, this machine is going to take over the world.”

Clarification: Many Google recruiters are on a six month contract, but stay longer. Google disputes Mr. Nadler’s view.

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