Training Secrets From Inside The Googleplex

Think you’ve got training challenges? Try making sure thousands of your sales agents are up-to-date with the ever-changing online ad business. Google shows us how they do it.

President Obama with Eric Schmidt


Anyone who’s tried to keep up with the online ad business, especially lately, knows it’s a turbulent tumble of ever-changing products–search, display, video, mobile–with vastly different sets of advantages and potential payoffs. So imagine being one of the poor Google sales agents tasked with keeping up with the company’s dozens of offerings.

Its thousands of agents don’t have to master one or two products, but every single one. That’s why the company has tossed out the old-school, classroom-style of teaching.

Every other Friday, the company hosts a “Product Spotlight,” a dial-in conference call which Learning and Development Manager Debbie Newhouse tells Fast Company is run like a Jon Stewart-style “talk show” (well, minus any adult toy-themed spinning wheels). A moderator interviews a product manager about a particular new feature, as sales agents across the country, and around the world, listen in. Sometimes there are also slides or video to follow along with online, and the agents get to ask questions via chat. Maybe it’s more like Leno.

Once a quarter, the company tosses a larger training at the staff, called SalesPro, which takes a deep dive into one particular strategic issue, like display advertising or the mobile business. The soup-to-nuts program takes about six hours, but rather than delivering it all in one fell swoop, or even through a series of hour-long, do-it-yourself modules, Google breaks the information into bite-sized chunks lasting no more than seven minutes each, so agents can download and peruse them at their desks, on their commutes, even on their cell phones while watching Little League or waiting in line at airport security.

Online games help agents dial in their knowledge. Leaderboards foster friendly competition. And quizzes following each training make sure the agents are absorbing the new information.


“This is a new, complicated, and very fast-moving market,” Dennis Woodside, who took over as President, Americas, in 2009 when Tim Armstrong jumped ship to become CEO of AOL, tells Fast Company. “The challenge is: How do you get a comprehensive overview in a short period of time?”

Google’s new tack is a far cry from the traditional methods of corporate training, that of corralling staffers into classrooms or having them click through tedious online modules.

“People learn best from experts,” Newhouse says, “but they learn best from experts who are not droning on and on.” The secret to the Product Spotlights, she says, is that rather than relying on product managers to dream up a course, the moderator simply guides them to the aspects of the product most relevant to the sales staff.

Woodside says the new training method probably costs about the same as the old approach. It’s more investment, he says, than cost.

And given how fast other industries are starting to move, Google’s training approach could presage similar moves elsewhere. Indeed, some of Google’s larger clients, in a bid to keep their own media buyers up-to-date in the fast-paced world of online advertising, have already started using Google’s quarterly SalesPro trainings for their own people.


“You have to communicate to people in a way that makes sense for them,” Woodside says. “Bite-sized video is something they can consume even if it takes four hours to work through.”

[Image: Flickr user Justin Ruckman]

E.B. Boyd is’s Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.


About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan