Podcast – Tech Recruitment and Why Recruitment Algorithms Don’t Work – with Matt Alder

Another podcast, this time with the excellent Matt Alder.  Matt is compiling a series of excellent perspectives on recruiting called Recruiting Future, you can listen to the whole series here.

To listen to me talk about Startups, scale-ups and sledgehammers hit play below…

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How to be Happy – Time to call off the “Engagement”

“Yes that’s right, we had a one hundred percent response rate to the survey.”

The speaker from a international airline proudly stated his results. His lovingly compiled pie charts labelled “Engagement” were resplendent in the Power Point behind him.  The audience were incredulous, a one hundred percent response rate how was it possible they asked?

“…well, of course, we made the survey mandatory”.

Whilst there are many different definitions of “Engagement” in the HR world broadly speaking and employee’s commitment to and involvement with their work and their organisation seems a decent place to start.  Like most HR initiatives the will to measure engagement starts out as well intentioned and a move towards concern for the employees themselves.  However, too often, in the application and the building of processes around this the notion of “Are our employees OK?” has been replaced with “Are our employees productive?”.  The change is a subtle one and has occurred as the results of surveys have been used as the answers to questions for which they weren’t intended.  Engagement, when measured effectively can be broken down into constituent parts.

  • Intellectual engagement – Does the person feel challenged in their work, are they thinking.
  • Emotional engagement – Does the person feel positive about doing a good job, is there an efficient emotional reward structure in place.
  • Social engagement – Does the role facilitate positive interaction with their co-workers.

When used incorrectly they are answering different questions.

  • Productivity – Is the employee producing the requited amount of labour that the company expects
  • Performance – Findings of surveys here are used as a proxy to explain results.

The shift is small and goes beyond just the semantic. For one set of employers “engagement” is now about measuring what we can “get out” of a workforce.  Like many other terms the human aspect has become distanced and now the people in the organisation can be reduced to a resource, counted and catalogued accordingly.  Even the manner in which these surveys are conducted can affect the results.  An annual engagement survey sent to everyone in the organisation is little more than the pointed stick poking at the bloated corpse of your organisation’s apathy.  Everything they measure has already happened, it’s post-mortem and the changes it would be possible to make are already too late.  A few click boxes on a website once a year is a chore not a meaningful interaction, regardless of the best intentions those questions are compiled with.

Some forward thinking companies have found a better solution.  In 2003, Fred Reichheld, a partner at Bain & Company, created a new way of measuring how well an company treats the people whose lives it affects—how well it generates relationships worthy of loyalty.  His Net Promotor Score or NPS was widely adopted and in use of companies of all sizes, segmenting the people into Promoters, Passives and Detractors with it’s simple one or two questions.  There are a great deal of benefits of adopting this approach and adapting it for employees.  When creating an eNPS (employee NPS) the annual laundry list of questions and ratings is replaced with a more frequent check-in, trends in happiness can be linked to real changes in the environment.  An entire team’s mood seems to be changing? Maybe it’s that new office space? Maybe it’s that new manager? Waiting 6 months to a year later to issue a survey is all too late.


So engagement surveys are too little too late and misused tools for measuring productivity.  eNPS is an improvement but in it’s attempt to be as answerable as possible still misses some of the larger aspects of the employee experience.  Some companies seem content to only measure those periods of time they are extracting effort from their employees, ignoring completely the fact there are external influences that might occur after 5pm.  The current toolset of HR is ill-equipped for the reality that the productivity and performance are great to measure but just as important are those things that employees themselves want to get out of work.

There is an alternative that more progressive organisations are adopting and in doing so re-humanising the process of collecting this data.  Instead of asking if an employee would recommend a place of work or waiting a year to prod at them with a laborious survey they ask a one question daily.  “How happy were you today?“.

Happiness at work and employee engagement are similar ideas but have unique and subtle differences in meaning.  Imagine you are managing a team and told to make them “more engaged” it might sound like a request for more meetings, for incentivising longer hours or an edict to start “cracking the whip”. Compare this with a manager tasked to make their team “happier”, this request isn’t about driving productivity. It feels more like a search for ways to empower the team, remove obstacles and better motivate them.

There are a number of new tools that seek to give a better insight into this broader question, at Forward Partners we use the MoodMap tool from Happiness Works. The tool asks the single question “How Happy were you today?” every day at 5pm.  I can answer in one click of the mouse.  Monthly “Climate Studies” probe deeper and allow more insight but not at the cost of provoking respondent apathy or the feeling that it’s all “too little too late”.  Better yet the tool allows respondents to offer “ideas” for improvements in the workplace.  In our use of the tool it’s been interesting to note that these ideas mirrored almost perfectly sections of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The first suggestions were physiological or environmental – the air-con is noisy, my chair is uncomfortable etc.  In fixing these small, nagging, yet solvable items the “ideas” we’ve captured have evolved too.  There have been ideas for conference attendance, skill sharing, training budgets and social outing suggestions.  How’s that for “engagement”?

moodmap.io example

No software tool is magic and whilst it has been incredibly beneficial perhaps the biggest benefit is in facilitating the conversation around employee happiness.  For those companies looking for a way to gain insight into their employee’s well being and then empowering them to improve themselves and their environment these tools could be a great way.  Of course for the rest of you you have about 12 months to sharpen that pointy stick, or maybe wait to get that insight at the exit interviews?

pointy stick

Video – Employer Branding Panel at Stack Overflow Careers – London Tech Talent Week

Stack Overflow hosted a panel on Employer Branding in their shiny new offices and they were kind enough to let me offer some thoughts.  It’s interesting that when thinking about Employer Branding the panel often didn’t seem to be using the same definition.  With the growing interest in the area as companies seek to differentiate themselves via their “culture” hopefully you’ll find this of interest.

The entire panel is split over three videos so settle in… fetch popcorn…

Podcast – How To Shape Startup Culture Using Archetypes – The Lexoo Blog

Lexoo are one of the startups I’m lucky enough to work with at Forward Partners. They asked me to talk to them about the culture of Forward Partners and how we defined what that really was. We talked about Jungian archetypes, why Nike is the hero in their own story and why we have a whip and lightsaber in the office.

There’s a transcript and some other links to the workshop presentation here.


The Bidding War for Talent – When Motivation is More Than Money.

The war for talent is a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey & Company in 1997.  It has since become a cliché. It’s used as both a rallying cry and a cause for concern for HR and recruiting professionals everywhere.  Whilst the “war” metaphor is overused and without appreciation of the nuance of hiring it has become popular to look upon hiring people as either winning or losing.

In the current labour market certain skill-sets are at a premium.  The current demand for developers/programmers/software engineers, call them what you will, in both the tech giants and the smallest of startups has led to an increase in the cost and the style of hiring.  Scarcity or the perception of scarcity has meant that salaries have increased.  This is even happening to the point that certain programming languages become annually fashionable, “Ruby was so last year darling! It’s all about Python now!”.

In support of the notion of that scarcity a raft of tools have begun to appear and enabled a new breed of recruiting professionals – the Sourcers.  In the new paradigm more weight is given through the sifting of information and “finding” is the goal, occasionally it seems, at the expense of hiring.  The market seems to support this as more companies are created to solve the “problem” of talent discovery. In turn salaries rise and more tools appear.

I am in favour of developers being paid a fair wage for their work.  I’m even more in favour of the more skilled coders be paid better.  In my time as a recruiter so far I’ve personally hired developers on basic salaries as low as £25,000 to as high as £2,000,000 (really!).   However, there’s a problem in how the industry is accessing this skill set.  Increasingly, recruiting departments facing the need for volume have dehumanised the very people they are seeking to attract to the point of commodification.  This seems to have affected developers even more so as the traditional HR departments demonstrated their lack of understanding of their technical staff.  In the climate of scarcity and increased demand the recruiting industry has responded by shifting the easiest lever to pull, money.

This seems to make sense at the surface level.  Surely people will be more motivated to apply for a new job if the salary is higher than their current remuneration?  The latest aberration of this mindset is the online auction for talent, Hired.com.  Here recruiters effectively bid for the opportunity to interview candidates. There’s even urgency injected in the form of a time limit on the “auction”.  Here’s the real problem for me, any tool that changes the behaviours of an organisation it is being utilised by is also changing or at least reflecting a different culture.  For the candidate who is looking for a role having a rabid pack of companies compete for you may seem flattering but the truth is in this eBay of humans the “product” being sold is the very people Hired has ostensibly been set up to help.

Edward L. Deci is a Professor of Psychology and Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, and director of its human motivation program.  Deci has conducted a multitude of experiments on human motivation and uncovering the “why” of why we do the things we do.  Far from agreeing with the prevailing thought that explicit financial reward was a motivator for increased performance he found the opposite “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity”.   The basic certainties we hold about labour and “work” haven’t really been updated since the industrial revolution.  The initial boost of productivity offered in response to the external motivation of money soon wears off – to hold interest and that increased productivity there has to be something more.

Employers who base their attraction strategy solely on a financial driver are missing the opportunity to attract potentially better suited candidates to their roles.  Whilst is may be true that working in a larger organisation may offer a higher financial reward this may come at the cost of other areas of reward – the ability to make a personal impact on the product, recognition or even a sense of personal pride.  As an employer who competes only on price you always run the risk of being priced out of the market yourself.  A developer role at a games company may be fulfilling and a passion project for someone, a larger games studio can afford to pay more and cherry pick individuals, however when those skills suddenly become important to an investment bank with even deeper pockets individuals motivated by money can be further tempted away.

Corporate recruiters have blindly accepted that the way to engage the job seeking community is the price tag and minimal description of the role or why it matters to the larger organisation.  As recruiters we are taking away some of the best ammunition we have in this “War for Talent”.  If you can communicate what a candidate will be doing, who they’ll work with, why that’s important and how they’ll go on to contribute to the future of the company you might just see a greater engagement from those that see the ad.

If winning isn’t just ownership of the “resource” but winning the engagement of a person, the “hearts and minds” if you will how can we compete?  The answer is to know your true value proposition.  You might even want to consider talking to your current employees and asking what made them join. Tell your potential hires why they might like to work for you, not just that you have a spare desk and have priced their skills in relation to your competitors.  Venues like auction sites are not the answer for true long term engagement, for that we need to make sure we are creating roles that people would love to do – that they are paid fairly in relation to their peer group and rewarded for the value they add should be a given.

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” – Maya Angelou

The Mis-Match of Algorithmic Recruitment

It’s the not so distant future.

A mobile app linked to a wrist mounted wearable wakes you, at precisely the right moment.  It monitors your sleep patterns and pulse rate and greets you each morning with a chipper “Go get ’em!”.  You dress and get ready to leave the house, the fridge has emailed to remind you that you’ll need to buy milk on your return.  You lock the door behind you with a swipe of your cell phone, keys are no more.  Outside, you step into a self driving car and take a different route to the usual commute – the car knew about the traffic before you did.  You arrive at work and boxes are moved into the previously vacant office next to yours.  You weren’t aware of a new co-worker. There were no interviews. They were algorithmically selected from the passive talent pool.  Kept warm on a diet of Pinterest photos of the office and Youtube videos of kittens selected to be the most humanising for the Mega Corp you happen to work in…

As far as predictions of the future go the vision I offer above is hardly advanced.  The technology exists for the wearables, the Internet of Things and the self driving cars, it’s just that last part that seems incongruent.

In the growing adoption of technology for HR departments seeking to differentiate their sourcing efforts, the idea of algorithmic matching is seen to be the magic bullet in the “War for Talent”.  Beyond the clichéd war metaphors and gullibility of HR Tech buyers is the future of recruitment to be left to the robots?

Technology has made the discipline of talent acquisition better.  We’ve moved far beyond the data entry and green screen databases of a decade ago.  As a modern workforce migrates to online services so their digital footprint increases making them all the more easy for the new breed of sourcers to find.  Now the future, according to some, looks set to be the automated addition of new workers and a touted increase in the skill of selection.  I’m no Luddite but I can’t help thinking this is a version of a technological utopianism whose primary supporters are those that seek to benefit financially from the adoption of the technology in question.

So many of the products available that claim to have solved matching are the same providers who don’t recognise some of the fatal flaws that their products exacerbate. The primary example of this is the reliance on the quality of data on both sides necessary for a match.  The majority of matching systems are parsing CV’s and then matching against a job description analysed in the same way.  This is exactly the limited key word matching that these systems say is so weak.  Even when other data are relied upon to beef up the input, suggestions of LinkedIn profiles and even LinkedIn endorsements are laughable. Especially in the case of unverifiable LinkedIn endorsements like mine for “Midwifery” and “Cheese Making”.  Of course I’m totally brilliant at both of these things…

Even the more advanced of the matching algorithms that incorporate some elements of semantic search (context of search, location, intent, variation of words, synonyms, generalised and specialised queries, concept matching and natural language processing) are constrained both by the data the candidates provide and the job description or criteria the employer matches against.  Anyone who works in recruiting will be able to quickly see that both of these sources of data are flawed and subject to constant change.  Data in both these areas can be knowingly falsified, incomplete and always out of date.

This data is inherently flawed because people themselves are inherently flawed.  Candidates will always seek to portray themselves in the best light, hiring managers will always add some extra “nice to haves” or even make the work of two people into one mythical job description.  A matching algorithm is forced to make sense of too many moving parts and results will suffer.

In moving towards this style of recommendation the people in the processes are reduced to the status of commodities.  Subtle nuance is lost and the chance for innovation curtailed by inelastic parameters.  People are not a product.  When Amazon presents you with a book based on your buying preferences it has only to reckon with your fickle, transient tastes.  A book doesn’t reject you because it feels it’s too far to get to your house, or because the other books on the shelf don’t feel your reputation is strong enough, a book doesn’t want to work from is own home or have a counter offer from a series of rival readers…people do.

Recruiting is a constant stream of edge cases.  Whilst a matching engine might work for less complex roles at large numbers, it won’t help you compete in winning that all important “War for Talent” you were so desperately spending your way out of.  The current level of technology is no match for the ability of a good recruiter.  This is not an indictment of the technology, it’s an acknowledgement of the greater problem that exists in the institutionally flawed HR departments and Recruiting processes the world over.  Using a tool like this to gain another datapoint to inform decision making is a valid use – it’s the shame of HR Tech that every new tool is paraded as “the answer”.  If the industry could wean itself off it’s obsession with the novel and shiny we might be able to tackle some of these issues at the root cause and realise that the skills we learnt whilst toiling at our green screens might not be entirely redundant.

“They’ll buy anything” – 10 steps to selling terrible software to Human Resources Departments

There’s so much investment in HR and Recruiting tech at the moment there’s never been a better time to monezite your confirmation bias, join the chorus of “Recruitment is broken!” and release a tool that ignores the “human” in Human Resources!

Now all that stands in your way are the shadowy, purse-string wrangling HR directors.  How can we get past them?  Here are ten things you can do right now to start up, cash in, sell out and bro down!

STEP ONE – Say “It has an algorithm”.

First of don’t worry if you don’t know what an algorithm is, neither do the majority of buyers of HR software.  What they will know is that the internet services and companies they have heard of all have algorithms.  They all use Google and the more savvy amongst them might use terms like “matching” or “ranking”, in these cases it’s best to just keep saying that your new tool has an algorithm and to look knowingly at them.  Remember it’s always good practice to use the strength of your algorithm to cover up horrific design choices.  If a prospective customer is thinking about buying another tool be sure to belittle it and claim that the ugly, clunky interface you preside over is “hardcore computer science”.

STEP TWOHold them to a lengthy “implementation period”.

Remember the good old days when we all sold databases and they had to buy hardware and software to make it (sort of) work? Sadly the wealth of better software in other areas has made HR buyers expect more before signing those contracts.  Help indemnify your company against any expected or promised service levels by insisting on a lengthy “implementation period”.  In almost every other discipline software is now sold as a service, like a utility with data stored on servers in the cloud.  Tell your buyers this is insecure and “a risk”. The mention of “risk” is the kryptonite of the HR department.

STEP THREEDon’t have a API – Make them pay extra if they want to use their existing data or integrate with another tool!

After you’ve held your buyer to the customary length implementation period it’s time to deliver half of the functionality they originally requested.  Be sure to leave out any particular features that they liked when they saw the software as these can be added later as “modules” and priced accordingly. Similarly if they’d like to import their existing candidate or employee database make sure that you charge for this.  Remember – Compatibility is for wimps! Why would you want to let them use another tool that’s better than yours? Make exporting that data just as difficult as importing it was!

STEP FOURThey’ll want “analytics” – Add a graph!

If you’ve been to any of the conferences you’ll have heard that “Big Data” is the next cool thing to have.  You should start by dropping into conversation that your tool/app/rebranded ATS has a “Big Data approach”.  Don’t worry about getting called out on this, like “algorithm” it’s one of the #HRTech magic words.  You will however have to ensure that you provide some “analytics” to your users.  It’s important to either not measure anything that will encourage the user to ask more questions or to make generating a report on the data so impregnable and counter intuitive that the user will rely on the templates included and not be encouraged to expect anything that is of real use.

STEP FIVE Advertise it as “White-labelled” – Allow them to upload a low resolution jpeg of their logo.

“Culture” is so hot right now. When selling to HR and Recruitment buyers tell them that your software can help them “differentiate” themselves and “level the playing field”.  For most of your buyers “culture” will probably boil down to them uploading a photo of their office and a logo.  Let them do this and maybe even let them link to their Pinterest page.  If your buyer talks a lot about their unique culture remember to always refer to candidates and applicants as a “talent pool” they’ll love it.

STEP SIXCopy a competitor’s tool.

There are so many products available for recruiters and HR professionals out there at the moment that there will undoubtedly be a tool that does the same thing as the software you’re selling, probably better too.  It’s not enough just to rely on buyer ignorance or indifference.  In some cases it will be prudent and ensure the sale, to implement a “sort of” feature that does “almost” the same thing.  Don’t worry that it’s not as good as the original tool you’ve copied you’ll still hit the requirement on the buyer’s checklist and there won’t be any comeback as they are invariably not the ones who’ll have to use it!

The best thing about these MSF’s (minimum saleable features) is that with enough of them you can call the resultant Frankenstein’s monster a “platform” and make even loftier claims.  Whilst the most prudent recruiters will use the right tool for the right job it will pay you to remember that the buyers aren’t the users here and if you can sell them the dream of seamless interaction they’ll be nice and blinkered later on when the reality is a cobbled together hotchpotch of “almost tools”.

STEP SEVENSay it’s “Social”.

The “social” bandwagon is still trundling along nicely and whilst the forerunners have already realised it takes time and a personality to be truly social, there’s still money to be made from those wanting a shortcut.  A link to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn should be enough, remember the best thing is that “social” can’t be owned by a service provider, instead it relies on the user investing time and authenticity – if it fails it’s never the tools fault! Brilliant!

It’s important as a vendor to only talk about “social” in very broad terms, HR departments are a flighty bunch and it was only last week they had all banned the use of any social media at all now the other extreme is true and all their current “social tools” spit out and reiterate their job postings to the few that follow them.

STEP EIGHTReinvent the wheel – take a free tool they are already using and make them pay for it!

When adding features it’s important to monetize tools that HR and Recruitment currently use for free. Skype and Google Hangouts are both free and been in wide usage for years by interviewers all over the world, cost benefits abound and these are saleable.  Of course you’ll have to argue that Skype and Hangouts are of inferior quality or use value to your shiny new tool, you can do this by adding weird functionality like recorded responses. Video interviewing is great because is allows a human connection, let’s get rid of that and have people record their answers to posed questions! Thus robbing the emotional interaction and reducing the tool to some voyeur’s delight and reducing the recruiter to a passive couch potato condemned to watching the worst reality TV show ever imagined…

STEP NINEForce the customer into your workflow.

Despite their protestations that they all want to be unique and different, it’s never stopped a vast number of companies forcing their candidates into redundant form filling and duplication of effort.  As the software provider you should only care about the buyer, candidates should be made to apply in triplicate if it so pleases the bill payer.  Remember you’ll only actually reveal the absurd workflow or user interaction after the buyer has signed, users may end up doing insane things like emailing resumes to themselves but after you’ve got your money that’s their lookout.  Regardless that the client will be wanting to differentiate themselves to prospective employees it’s less time and hassle to make them all leap through the same hoops.  If your tool does include candidate contact feel free to include some email templates – it’s best to make these non-editable and send at random points just for fun…

STEP TEN DO NOT talk to anyone who will actually use the tool during requirements capture.

This is the most important step.  Before you sell anything to anyone, before you even start to build any software, don’t under any circumstances talk to a user from HR or Recruitment.  Most people who will eventually use your tool will actually want to be saved from repetitive tasks or data entry, they’ll want a tool that enhances their abilities, they’ll have a list of workarounds that they currently endure with existing tools and they might even have ideas of their own.

Whilst these would result in a more useable tool they won’t necessarily be attractive to the buyers in HR (who won’t be using the tool you’re building), the potential investors who will want to buy your tool or even confirm your own bias as to why “Recruitment is broken”. It’s best to completely disregard potential users of your software and applicants/those who will be used by the software.

Armed with this sage advice you’ll be well prepared to produce a tool that will garner a lot of attention and sizeable investment whilst adding almost nothing to an organisations ability to hire or retain people.  Remember there’s no individual or human interaction that can’t be successfully repressed or ignored by a well implemented process or tool!


Job Titles and Perception – Ninjas, Gurus and Rockstars?

Somewhat unfairly, I tweeted this comparison recently.

The photo compares the titles afforded to two luminaries of the technical world.  One is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, he implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet and is often credited as being the “Inventor of the World Wide Web”.  The other is David Shing, a speaker and futurologist for AOL, the American mass media organisation.  I offered the comparison, as unfair as it is, flippantly and the seeming disparity for Berners-Lee’s humility and Shing’s presumption seemed to hit a nerve with the twitter audience.

As a recruiter it makes me think.  If we can all see a disparity so huge in this example that is becomes absurd why do we still see people using titles that seem at odds with an individual’s function in an organisation?

Your job title communicates a lot more than you might realise.  Regardless of what an employer calls you most are pretty indifferent to you presenting yourself differently online.  The titles people self identify with can have a larger affect on the perception of the individual than you might expect.  Particularly in technical organisations there are a wealth of titles that are used to describe the same role – so how does the onlooker separate the Ninjas, Rockstars and Gurus from the Craftsmen, the Programmers and the plain old (like Sir Tim) Web Developers?  In making a choice and opting for a “wacky” title you make a statement that will shape the perception of others.  In most of these cases, for most of the people I’ve spoken to, they see a correlation with self claimed Ninja, Rockstars and an overestimation of their own skills and abilities.  For most of the people I’ve spoken to there is a connotation to brogrammer culture and the identification as the “Ninja” in question seeking to portray themselves as the hero in their own particular story…

All of this might be fine.  If the employer you want to work for has this culture you’ll fit in well and probably be successful.  I don’t think it’s helpful for potential candidates to seek to be seen in this light.  The best technologists I’ve worked with, “best” here being the feedback from peers and the community, were also the most humble.  These were the people who had created tools and languages the world over, known in their fields as leaders and yet they let their achievements speak for themselves.

What then of a company that advertises to hire a “Rockstar Developer”? If a company advertises for Ninjas, Gurus and Rockstars does the reader infer that they are a fun place to work with little hierarchy or that the environment will be competitive and celebrate the individual over the team as a whole? For me that distinction is too great of a risk, I wouldn’t want the advert to put people off applying for a job they might be otherwise perfect for, at the very least I’d prefer a part of the process to determine their fit rather than their reaction to a joke job title.  Whilst this might be true for me and the companies I recruit for if might not be the same for your organisations.  For example this video, recruiting developers for Kixeye, might illustrate they’d love some Ninjas to apply.  A company advertising might want to take the time to reflect on what their job title means for attraction.  Remember that whilst you might love the fact your business card proudly states you’re a “Ruby Ninja”, a “Marketing Badass” or even the “Chief Instigation Officer” (yes really!) the communication of these ideas is a two way street and your true meaning will always be affected by the listener’s own values, attitudes and beliefs.

Whatever your job title and however you want to portray yourself, awareness is key.  The next time you have to respond to this type of job title this site might help.  For employers who might be using these job titles just for the shock value, I’m afraid that time has already passed, perhaps you could consider becoming a not for “Prophets” organisation?