Forward Thinking With Historical Precedent

This past weekend I watched The Imitation Game and it got me thinking quite a lot, not only about the Ultra project/Bletchley Park, but also about the many parallels drawn between Alan Turing’s work and Google as well as Silicon Valley as a whole.

There is certainly no mistaking the revolutionary work that Turing did during WWII. Deciphering the Enigma through the creation of a machine that would use brute force analyses to churn through all the possibilities led to the advent of the modern day computer. In recognition and respect of his work, Google even sponsored the New York screening of the film and invited people to take part in a code breaking challenge.

In learning about this, along with Turing’s original method for recruiting people onto his team back in 1942 by placing a crossword puzzle in the Daily Telegraph (image credit to Charis Theobald), I couldn’t help but remember back when I first moved to Boston and a mysterious billboard showed up in Harvard Square:

google billboard

Turns out, this was posted by Google as a method of recruitment with the final page of the website inviting you to submit your resume. The parallels between this approach and Turing’s crossword puzzle are undeniable to me, and reflect not only a clever recruitment method to join a creative and innovative institution, but perhaps a homage to Turing himself.

crossword

In the film, Keira Knightley’s character Joan Clarke is portrayed as a lowly secretary that was able to complete the crossword puzzle (and subsequent testing) well under the time that Turing had set as the goal. In reality, Joan Clarke was well educated and was independently brought on board as part of the code breaking team. Even so, the movie portrayal of Clarke again echoed to me some of the more recent interviews with top Google[X] team members where they talk about shifting focus away from hiring a specialized individual for a specific position to hiring talented (and “T-Shaped”) individuals. The logic is that like the movie version of Joan Clarke, if you possess a certain level of ability, then you’ll be able to adapt and excel at the task at hand.

This is one of the most fascinating things to me about how many of these major institutions in the Bay Area function. To have a goal of bringing together multi-talented individuals that each have a breadth of experience and capability paired with deep understanding of one (or more) fields to solve a problem is quite unconventional in the rest of the nation and the world. We are more used to filling position Y with someone that went to school/has experience in/got a degree in Y, rather than filling the position with someone that has the capability and acumen based on their CV, experience and innate ability to fulfill the requirements of position Y.

Google is certainly not alone in this approach. IDEO, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft all recognize and identify T-Shaped individuals, and build teams, facilities and initiatives with such people.

The apparent innate ability of Keira Knightley’s (fictionalized) character in the movie also speaks to the individuals that were responsible for the genesis of what we know today as Silicon Valley. Wozniak, Jobs, Gates, and Allen among others (Zuckerberg for one) all dropped out of college to pursue their passions and ultimate success. There is constant discussion in the startup/innovation realm about how formal degrees do not necessarily equate ability. Although the subject is parodied in Mike Judge’s show Silicon Valley (clip here) and demonstrated by Knightley’s character, there is truth in this as well.

To me, the movie comes at a pivotal time in this age of innovation, startups and tech. Clearly, we have gained inspiration directly and indirectly from the concepts and work of Dr. Turing, while at the same time the fictionalized components of the movie reflect modern day ideas (and perhaps ideals) injected into the storyline.

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