Every few minutes in the 2013 comedy “The Internship,” someone praises a Google product, or there is a lingering shot of a Google bus, bicycle, dry cleaning service or nap pod. That’s by design. Google was “closely involved” in the film, Reuters reported, and had final say on how its products were portrayed.
What the movie touts most is Google’s supposedly cutting-edge, innovative office culture. But watching the film a scant seven years later, it’s clear that this culture is actually a nightmare.
The movie, directed by Shawn Levy, follows two middle-aged intern applicants, Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson), who wind up vying with a diverse group of disdainful twenty-somethings for the chance to work full-time at Google.
Google is a benevolent cult in “The Internship,” and getting to work there is seen as doing “something that matters.” “The place is amazing. They got nap pods, they got massage rooms, they got a volleyball court, they got the whole nine,” Billy says, toeing the party line.
Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay, reportedly got the idea for the movie after watching a “60 Minutes” segment that called Google one of the world’s best places to work. It’s an idea the film embraces uncritically, though real-life investigations into the company’s gender pay gaps, its harassment of advocates for racial and gender diversity, and its mistreatment and overuse of contractors would show that for too many workers at Google’s flashy campuses, it’s simply not true.
But the film is not concerned with honest portrayals of working conditions. It wants to depict Google as a force for good. This bloated promotional aspect was a big takeaway for critics when the movie was released. The New York Times panned the film as a “two-hour commercial for GoogleWorld,” and Marketing Land called it “a beautiful Google commercial,” albeit a funny one.
What the film really shows, in its portrayal of Google’s hiring decisions and office culture, is the kind of company you’d never want to work for.
This so-called “Google commercial” is actually a workplace nightmare.
“You’re shrunken down to the size of nickels and dropped to the bottom of a blender. What do you do?’’
This is the job interview question that will decide Billy and Nick’s chances of getting hired as Google interns. The two are “dinosaurs,” as one former boss puts it, attempting to reinvent their careers. These Luddite salesmen had survived on their personal charm, and after their sales jobs go bust, they seek a drastic career change. Cue Billy Googling “Google” and applying to internships for the both of them.
The duo rely on their familiar buddy banter to cobble together an answer to this bizarre brain teaser, which is reportedly the kind of thing Google actually used to ask in interviews.
“We sold blenders, and even the best model in the world is only gonna run maybe 10 or 11 hours. We’re getting out and when we do, we’re better off for it, because whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Nick says cheerfully. “You’ve got two nickel-sized men free in the world. Think of the possibilities.”
Although this question has nothing to do with the job, being nickel-sized men on the loose is apparently not the right way to answer it. Most of the intern committee wants to reject the pair, until a manager named Lyle (Josh Brener) sticks up for them, pitching these older white men as diverse candidates with different life experiences compared to the average young intern.
“Our final judgment is always based on the layover test, right? ‘Who would you rather be stuck next to at an airport bar for a six-hour delay?’” Lyle says. “The 10 millionth kid that knows if you shrink, your strength-to-weight ratio allows you to jump higher? Duh. Or the out-of-the-box thinkers who turned being stuck into the blender into an advantage?”
This is a version of the “airport test” that elite law, banking, and consulting firms have used to make subjective judgments about who is a good fit for the workplace ― and to exclude candidates they don’t find personally relatable on first meeting. In “The Internship,” to determine who should get a full-time position, managers judge the interns on their corporate “Googliness,” or Google’s version of culture fit. Googliness, a term that was actually used by Google employees, is defined by the fictional head of the internship program as “the intangible stuff that made a search engine into an engine for change.”
With a vague metric like that, it’s no wonder “Googliness” can end up favoring two candidates who lack technical skills (or that in real life, Google’s own data showed hiring was a “complete random mess.”) The film portrays Billy and Nick as underdogs in the hiring process, but the stakes never feel that high. Maybe if Billy and Nick were not heterosexual white able-bodied men ― the demographic that tends to get more second chances, and that’s over-selected for in hiring and promotions ― there would be real stakes. But that would be a more complex movie, and a better one.
In “The Internship,” no one can resist Billy and Nick’s approachable charm, and they are given mentorship and second chances.
There are a few setbacks, of course, for plot. The friendly banter that won over a hiring committee and clinched sales deals in the past has its limits. Billy and Nick don’t actually know much about technology, and it shows. As Neha (Tiya Sircar), one of their fellow interns, puts it during a team technical challenge: “Look, guys, I’m sorry, but you’re not helping. You’re saying a lot of words really fast that mean nothing.”
But eventually, the film proves Neha wrong. You can get very far at this company by talking and being convincing, even without actual substance.
At one point, the interns compete in a game of Quidditch as the head of the internship program, Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), oversees them, to... judge how well interns can catch a man dressed in gold lamé?
“What does this have to do with computers?” Nick laments when his team is losing, and I agree. How does one’s ability to run around with a broom reflect one’s suitability for a tech company?
It is Billy and Nick’s smooth-talking sales language that wins them their final mission to complete the biggest sales deal. It confirms the film’s unchallenged message: Getting along with your co-workers matters more than knowledge related to the actual role. (In fact, role-related knowledge was not the top hiring priority recruiters looked for, according to a Google human resources veteran in 2017.)
The culture of overwork and personal biases portrayed here is toxic.
At one point, a Google employee (Rose Byrne) out on a date with Nick asks him what has made him a better person, and Nick replies, without irony, “90% Google, 10% you.” And when Billy, Nick and their team of interns eventually score full-time jobs at Google, uplifting music swells. Their life’s mission is complete.
Nick and Billy have fully bought into the Google cult, where working until midnight is considered normal, even praiseworthy. Many of the brainstorming and study scenes for intern challenges take place late in the evening, and Nick’s love interest works late every night. Spending most of your time on Google’s campuses is simply what’s expected, even though working more than 50 hours a week is known to be bad for business and bad for people’s health. Their transformation into corporate drones is complete.
Though Billy and Nick are assessed on their technical ability, they are ultimately being judged on how well they “fit” into the culture. How far are you willing to go for the job? It turns out “Googliness” means “being liked by the people in power.” That’s reinforced by the film’s ending, when we find out why two technically unqualified candidates were given jobs over hundreds of other applicants.
“I didn’t have a fancy education like most of the people here. I had to work hard to get to where I am. And I recognized a similar tenacity in you two gentlemen,” explains Chetty, the intern committee’s deciding vote. Even while singling out Billy and Nick’s mistakes, Chetty was in their corner. That’s the film’s parting message: All you have to do to land an internship at Google is have a career story that reminds the hiring manager of himself.
Hiring managers are known for being susceptible to this. It’s what researchers call looking-glass merit: People tend to make guesses about a candidate’s future success based on how closely the candidate mirrors their own career story. “In the absence of concrete answers to interview questions and reliable predictors of future performance, assessors purposefully used their own experiences as models of merit, believing that because they had been at least somewhat successful in their careers, candidates who were experientially similar to them would have a higher likelihood of job success,” researcher Lauren Rivera wrote in a study on this phenomenon.
It’s telling that for all of Google’s collaboration on the film, these subjective biases were not too problematic to complain about, while other, less “Googley” actions were. An internship manager appearing “mean-spirited” and not “Googley”? Google took issue with that. But an employee using personal biases and arcane behavioral questions as a basis for giving people jobs? Good enough by Google.
In real life, Google has stopped using bizarre brain teasers in interview questions, finding them to be “a complete waste of time” that “serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.” But whatever Googley metric is now being used to hire candidates, it hasn’t substantially improved diversity in the company’s actual workforce. When Google first released its diversity statistics in 2014, only 2% of its employees were Black and 3 percent were Latinx. Seventy percent were men. Those numbers, by and large, have barely changed.
Billy and Nick would fit right into the status quo at the fictional Google or the real one. They are two cultural outsiders unaware of what “X-Men” are, but their backgrounds present no problem. Taking a chance on “diverse” interns still means two white guys getting a job, and male hiring managers extending a hand to men who fit into the culture. That’s not a radical concept. It’s an all-too-common one.