On April 3, Apple announced their hire of John Giannandrea, Google’s chief of search and artificial intelligence. In charge of Apple’s machine learning and artificial intelligence strategy, Giannandrea will report directly to Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook.
This sounds like good news for Apple. In terms of the AI field, the company has been lagging behind Google, which is a clear leader in AI. Google’s Assistant, for example, is considered much more usable and helpful than Siri, despite the fact Google released its assistant five years later. Perhaps Giannandrea’s insider insight will turn the AI tide in Apple’s favor.
But let’s consider another aspect of this story: How did Apple get Giannandrea? How did they convince him to leave the most successful company in his field? Is the best talent simply up for grabs for the highest bidder? Not quite.
How to woo a potential hire
As someone with years of recruiting experience, I’ve seen top talent stolen away from many an industry-leading company. To pull off this move successfully, companies must orient potential new hires by revealing three specific things: their vision, their problems, and the resources that will be available to them to solve the problems.
Share the vision
When seeking to recruit top players away from other companies, an employer needs to demonstrate transparency. While outlining the goals, plans, and desires of the position, it must also share the overarching vision for the company, demonstrating that it wants the candidate’s specific talents to help it reach those goals.
Share the problem
There’s something flattering about being needed. Potential new hires have to know what a company’s problems are so they can envision what it will be like to solve them. So if a company isn’t doing well in a certain department, being vulnerable and upfront about it is really the best option. Employers must seek to understand their own problems to make their open positions sound appealing.
Share the resources
Once the potential hire is interested in being part of a company’s vision and solving its problems, they need to know that the company will provide resources that will allow them to solve the problems. Employers must be prepared with a capable team, an attractive salary, a comfortable budget, and autonomy for the new talent.
In its hire of Giannandrea, Apple demonstrated these three things: a vision that included Giannandrea; a big problem to solve (the lagging Siri); and resources to sway a top-level person to leave a company like Google. Now one of Google’s most talented people is one of Apple’s most talented people.
What does this mean for Apple and other companies as they explore the AI frontier?
AI hiring and growth
First of all, it means that Apple knows how game-changing AI is and will continue to be. Research has found that “global GDP could be up to 14 percent higher in 2030 as a result of AI … making it the biggest commercial opportunity in today’s fast changing economy.” Unfortunately for other companies, Giannandrea is off the market (presumably for a long time), so they may not all get an Apple-sized slice of the commercial opportunity that is AI.
They make do, however, by recruiting from and forming partnerships with AI experts from universities. They also train internally, which may explain the 22,000 PhD-educated researchers currently working in AI. When they hire externally, most companies find talent in the data science world: Data scientist was ranked as the number one job in the U.S. for the last two years, based on job openings, salary and job satisfaction.
Apple’s status in AI
While stealing Giannandrea seemed like a bold move, it wasn’t totally unexpected. In the past three years, the number of AI and professionals in related fields at Apple has doubled. The company’s number of PhD holders in this area has tripled. Clearly, Apple is all-in on the race to build the smartest products. Apple’s big concern has been with privacy (which some speculate is why the company’s AI is behind), and perhaps these experts will help Apple maintain privacy while still making significant advances.
Currently, Apple primarily hires from Amazon and Microsoft. The next highest contenders are Yahoo and eBay, both notably struggling tech companies. Interestingly, Google, Facebook, and Netflix don’t make the list of Apple’s top 10 hiring sources; whether it’s because of vision, problem-solving, or resources, employees at those three tech company giants won’t — or can’t? — work for Apple.
Giannandrea is a notable exception. Before he was the senior vice president of engineering at Google, he was the CTO at Metaweb, a company that Google acquired in 2010 to help make its search results more relevant and useful. Google’s search results have come a long way in the past eight years, and it’s an easy logical step to conclude that Giannandrea’s work has played an essential role.
Now as a top player in Apple’s machine learning and AI strategy — with the added motivation of a serious problem to solve (still looking at you, Siri) — he may be what tips the scales in Apple’s favor. But Google has a solid foundation; this shake-up might just propel them to new innovations.
Google’s status in AI
Google is currently considered the leader of the AI industry. Its data, computing power, and talent put it ahead of its competitors. The research group Google Brain, specifically, has been successful not only in improving machine learning (as with search algorithms), but in making machine-learning advances profitable.
Because it is so successful on the AI front, its machine-learning-oriented employees don’t seem to leave. Google has always taken machine learning seriously, and this dedication shows in the obvious results.
A top AI player at Google is Geoffrey Hinton, a fellow at Google’s AI research department. Considered by many to be “the godfather of deep learning,” Hinton holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh and has authored or co-authored hundreds of peer-reviewed publications.
Because of his university affiliation and fame in the scholarly world, he may be a force that attracts talent from his alma mater and other universities to Google. His continuing research no doubt expresses his vision for, remaining problems with, and resources needed for AI to go forward. And that type of transparency, as we’ve discussed, attracts top talent.
What hiring that Google veteran may do for Apple
Clearly, Google has invested the resources necessary to be a world-class player in the AI game. Apple’s hire of Giannandrea isn’t only a singular win of a remarkable person — it’s a possible path to the knowledge, culture, and vision necessary to achieve a pattern of AI greatness.
We can expect to see strengthened machine learning from Apple not only because of the experience Giannandrea brings, but also his popularity. Will others follow him to Apple as the company begins to offer a more enticing AI environment?
That remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised. After all, hiring one person isn’t just filling one more desk chair with one more body. It could be the flutter of a butterfly’s wing that causes an AI revolution.
Taylor Cotterell is executive vice president and an executive recruiter at NaviTrust, a leading provider of full-service staffing solutions.