You can choose compassion

In July, I received a snatchmail from a recruiter at Google who was trying to fill an accessibility job. I gave him a list of possible names, and then he very cannily turned around and said, “Well, what about you, Joe? Would you be interested in working at Google?” We had a long discussion about my plans, my refusal to move, and many other questions I had.

I spent the next week discussing the whole thing with my esteemed colleagues. I eventually realized I was being played, as the kids say. There was no extant job for me; the advertised position made no sense and nobody on the planet is qualified for it; and I doubted Google’s sincerity.

An industrial psychology was at work: Who wouldn’t be terribly flattered to be courted by Google (or Apple or Microsoft)? You’re expected to be impressed and to drop everything and do what they say. (In fact, an esteemed colleague was threatened with calculus questions and programming tests. Google was told to completely forget about asking such questions.)

Here are excerpts of what I later wrote to the recruiter:

I will not be the only person to tell Google that it misunderstands its own posted job. You seem to be looking for a programmer with accessibility knowledge. The whole complement of such people could fit into a minivan, and all of them already have jobs they like.

While it’s reasonable to recruit a B.Sc. or an M.Sc. for this position, it does not reflect favourably on Google to label the achievement of a Ph.D. the same way it labels an M.Sc. – “a plus.” Many of the occupants of that minivan do in fact have Ph.D.s and already have excellent jobs (often senior and prestigious ones) that they will not want to give up.

My assumption is that the person envisaged for the advertised job will clean up other programmers’ accessibility problems and/or just do all the accessibility work. This is too much to expect from one person and indicates that accessibility is viewed as something added on after the real work is done. Accessibility has to become pervasive at Google, i.e., you can’t ship anything till it’s accessible. One position will not aid significantly in that goal.

I think the job, or Google’s expectations, should be revised. You actually need accessibility and Ajax knowledge. I gave you some of the leading names you could hit up. But it will be nearly pointless to run through a recruiting script with them that asks programming or algorithm questions. It’s the wrong script. They are experts; they just aren’t that kind of expert. If you run through that script, every one of them will flunk it and you won’t hire any of them. But that says nothing about their actual ability to improve Ajax accessibility, which, for all the candidates I named, is high.

Google needs a department

Google needs a whole accessibility department. I could see myself as a kind of accessibility evangelist within and without the company, but I’d still need a team. Just keeping up with the accessibility working groups – of which WCAG is merely the best known and most troublesome – is a monumental task. (You’d need to be involved in WCAG, ATAG, UAAG, PDF/UA, IMS, EU, JIS, and 508, just off the top of my head.)

A company your size should have no fewer than ten people working full-time on accessibility. Even if you accept the premise of an accessibility department, I doubt I could persuade you to hire more than three people, and you’d try to hire nothing but programmers. While the foregoing is a supposition on my part, I view it as a problem.

Accessibility dilemmas

I don’t know which is the more important task, evangelizing accessibility within Google or trying to convince people with disabilities and advocates that Google takes accessibility seriously. Because really, Google doesn’t, and never has, despite any protestations to the contrary.

The company officially believes that good markup is unimportant compared to the brute force of algorithms attempting to understand what the page author actually meant. Good markup is a foundation of accessibility, but it is discounted.

The markup of Google search pages is generally poor. (So is Google Page Creator output.) Even Google Accessibility Search, developed by one of the three strictest standardistas on earth, has poor markup.

Another of the strictest standardistas has demonstrated that most Web sites have bad markup, findings that I fear are used, post facto, as a justification for Google’s own markup.

Google Video has no captioning or audio description. As with Microsoft’s Channel 9, if companies that rich can’t be bothered to make online video accessible, the impression it leaves is that pretty much nobody needs to. Google’s own recruiting videos, including videos intended to improve Google’s employee “diversity,” are inaccessible. (Google has curiously few employees with disabilities. You need to look at the reasons why.)

Google’s Ajax applications don’t work well in screen readers, even though, according to (conflicting) research, they could, as Ajax is not automatically inaccessible. That’s why you posted the job opening, of course.

Evangelism

There is, as I write this, no job for which I could apply. The null hypothesis is that I could talk my way into a job as accessibility evangelist. I possibly could, but I would need a more credible commitment to accessibility, from Brin and Page all the way down, before that would work. If I’m going to go out there and put “Google” and “accessibility” in the same sentence, my clientele would never believe me without a complete about-face from the Google of today.

I have not heard from Google since. Were they really serious?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.09.09 13:58. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2006/09/09/google-psych/

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