Episode 4: How to hire in a world where unicorns don’t exist
Following on from the last episode of Pi & Mash, we’re mixing things up, turning the tables around and taking a look at how technology companies can ensure their teams have all the skills needed to stay at the cutting edge of innovation. We’ll also myth-bust the idea of the ever-elusive unicorn candidate and find out what our guests have to say about job hunting in this ever changing industry.
Guests in order of appearance:
Ant Davis – Security Response Engineer (and podcaster, in his spare time)
Andreia Silva – Data Science Team Lead
Marcin Druzkowski – Senior Research Data Scientist
AJ King – Organisational Scientist
Alex Howard Whitaker – Cloud Services Engineer
Zara Belmar – Technical Recruiter
Written and hosted by Holly Godwin
Produced by Green Barge Audio with original music by Nic Sims
Episode 4 – How to hire in a world where unicorns don’t exist
Hello and welcome to Pi & Mash – The show that takes a step inside the world of technology to shed light on the human stories behind the big ideas fueling this ever accelerating Information Age.
Last week we heard from Ant, Alex and AJ about their different routes into technology careers, and discussed the fact that any skills you pick up along the way to your dream job, are always transferable and useful. Your life experience will only add to your ability to problem solve, collaborate and work effectively as a member of your team…
You see age is another one as well, because I’m probably the oldest person on my team, bar my manager, and at the same time, I’m probably the least technical member of my team. But, I’m near enough most of the subjects and topics we come across, there is valuable input I can give, because my background or my experience hasn’t been so focused or so… technical. I’ve lived a little or experienced the workplace; how it would affect other teams, that sort of thing. And looking at it from the outside in, definitely with the role I do, it does kind of help
In this constantly evolving and ever growing industry, we can’t always find people with the desired skill set and a lot of experience with the latest technologies. And the skills gap is just continuing to grow. Sometimes, the best outcome can be gained from building a team with all the right skills, who will each approach a problem from a different perspective, rather than holding out for individuals that can fulfill all of the businesses needs.
Continuing on from our last episode, this week we will be look at how to put together the perfect team with a variety of skills and experience, and we will be asking our technologists for their top tips when it comes to job hunting.
So now let’s switch things around and look at the recruitment process from the other side of the interview table.
When searching for a new candidate, you may have built up quite a list of skills on your team’s wish list. Depending on the role you’re advertising, you may be concentrating on a breadth or depth of skills, or in some cases, both.
Data science is one such field. Not only does it require an in depth mathematical and technical understanding, but also a knowledge of the business, experience of improving company processes and the necessary communication skills to convey all of this to the many relevant teams to begin collaborations on fresh ideas. This is understandably quite an ask of your nervous new candidates. On top of this you’re probably looking for someone who has their finger on the pulse when it comes to industry developments, thinks outside the box, intends to stay long enough to pick up the nuances within your particular team, has a valid visa, fits in with your dynamic as a group… the list goes on.
Once in a blue moon a candidate that has developed all these skills before retirement age comes along…
A rare mythical creature that many never live to see, the unicorn rarely steps into the dappled light of the glade, keeping mostly to the shadows in the dense forest. Their magical properties and vast array of skills mean they’re high in demand – the hunt is always ongoing. When trying to attract a unicorn (especially for a role that isn’t specific to your company) you need to bare in mind that there are probably many others trying to do the same thing. This means they will be easily scared off by sudden loud noises (or unreasonably high demands without the salary to match) – Most importantly, don’t let the unicorn know it’s a unicorn too soon, or arrogance will break the spell and the magic will be lost.
Mythical creatures aside, if unicorns are so rare and hard to catch.. I mean hire, is it ever worth holding out for one?
So how do we make sure our teams have all the skills they need to work effectively. Simple. Make sure as a group they posses all the component parts. This is not in effect any worse than hiring a team of unicorns (with the added benefit of being within the realm of possibility), as it encourages collaboration. Each person’s strengths make up for another’s weaknesses, and they all approach the problem from different perspectives. Everyone falls into a defined role more easily, and you’re hiring process is a lot faster. Besides, unicorns are typically solitary animals, who don’t lend themselves well to working in large groups.
I dropped in on the Ocado Technology Data Science team to get their take on the elusive unicorn and how they go about building given the fact they very reliant a vast array of both technical and business skills.
A Unicorn Data Scientist is not easy to find because of different math backgrounds, or different backgrounds, or no business perspective, or no software engineering skills. So it only comes with experience, and even when you have experience, you will probably have experience in one specific thing or one specific area.
Data science may sound quite abstract and broad, as it’s essentially understanding and using data to guide business decisions, but to put this into context, data science teams are often behind processes like personalising online shopping experiences.
Andreia has now worked as a data scientist for more than two years, but before her current position she was in academia, completing a PHD in data mining. This meant that while her technical knowledge didn’t leave much to be desired, she felt she had a lot to learn when it came to providing business value from that knowledge.
If your team is not a pure research team, then you need to balance the business perspective – if you’re putting things into production, you definitely need the business perspective, because you need to prove that there is a business value, ‘what’s the impact of this for the business’. You need to have the software engineering skills or communicate with the software engineering teams to understand the production requirements and what are the tools we can use, and implement these things.
Marcin is currently leading a team of four within data science, and originally comes from a software engineering background.
So at Ocado we are trying to have the self sufficient team, the unicorn team – the unicorn data science team, to have all the skills needed onboard and people who are working for Ocado in data science space, comes from many different backgrounds, many different companies…
Creating the perfect unicorn team (that’s not a team of unicorns, but a team with all the constituent parts of a unicorn) isn’t always easy, but with the right approach it is doable. You have to be honest when it comes to assessing your strengths and weaknesses as a team, and find the person who best fits in with that in mind. But variety is the spice of life and creating a team with all the necessary skills from various backgrounds will only serve to promote an all important culture of collaboration, while also making life a little more interesting.
Maybe a lot of people, after finishing education, they may believe that it’s all about a singular domain strength, and they may be less thinking about, as you were saying, “what is my breadth as a person?”
A little existential there, but Alex’s point is valid. It’s easy to get bogged down in whatever field you’ve focussed in on, without considering what other skills you will bring to the table.
So, after all this, are there any job hunting top tips today’s guests could agree on?
Before I started as an applications support engineer, I was effectively in this weird limbo of technically being employed, but not being paid any money…
In case it needed saying – if you’re a new graduate looking for your first job, always make sure you are paid fairly, especially for long term roles that overshoot being categorized as work experience. No one will think any worse of you for knowing your own value, and requiring a salary is normal.
At one point I was so convinced that I had a job in Paris that I told all my friends I was doing that, packed a suitcase and broke up with my girlfriend.
welcome to Hatfield… *laugh*
I’m young, this is an opportunity for me to go abroad and do something exciting and different and I have nothing that drags me down in life at the moment, so I should seize that moment. I actually went to school in Letchworth Garden City, which is not many miles away, it’s in Hertfordshire.
Well it’s nice to see you got far…
It’s the second best garden city it’s true.
It is, fortunately I live in the best garden city, so I get the best of both worlds. But, yeah – eventually the concept of the dream job versus… I was sort of given this one opportunity where I could continue along the not paid or egregiously underpaid route, with the ‘get a foot in the door and be heavily exploited for two years’’- it’s not that bad actually, I’m sure it’s fine, be somewhat exploited for two years but possibly come out with something incredible, or I could take the real opportunity that was actually just someone wanting to take a chance on my potential…
There are a lot of schemes out there that require you either pulling 70 hour weeks, or having support from family and friends to afford three square meals a day. They are most likely not worth it, no matter what they’re offering in terms of experience. If you’re keen and willing to learn, there will be a job out there for you, and taking the time to search and be turned down a few times is worthwhile.
It was a little worse than not paying you, it was giving you training and telling you that if you left you’d be legally liable for the cost of your training.
But my advice to new graduates listening would be, do try and make sure you get paid… Any good graduate scheme, and there are plenty of sensible companies that run once a year graduate schemes, should be paying you a reasonable wage to be able to live and commute.
Unless they’ve got a free canteen…
Looking at it from the perspective of someone looking for a career move, Ant had this to say…
I’m probably a prime example of someone that’s done various different things for 10, 12, 14 years before coming into the career I should have started 15 years earlier, but I didn’t. And, you know… there’s never a wrong time to do it – if you’re passionate about it and you want to do it then throw yourself out there, prepare to get shot down completely, because it will probably happen. But, eventually someone will like something in your CV and invite you in. And then once you’re in front of them it’s up to you to sell yourself to them. And as long as they see something in you that is an asset to them, then you’ve got that going for you, and that can be at any time.
One thing everyone I have spoken to mentions when it comes to starting a new role, is feeling like a fraud.
But yeah, I had serious imposter syndrome coming into a tech company, into a team that does organizational development stuff, and all of them, apart from me, came from a technology background.
At some point it is probably worth a whole episode on the topic of imposter syndrome, as it seems to be a common phenomenon, especially amongst technologists. ‘Am I good enough for the job, someone will have a better idea than me so I wont voice my opinion, everyone seems to know what’s going on’ – the feeling of being a fraud and the fear of being discovered. An important point to bare in mind is that you’re new, and being out of your depth is the first phase of starting your new role. Perhaps the feeling is particularly prevalent in technology because it can feel like learning a new language in your first week, with the mix of tech and business jargon, it can take a while to keep up in meetings, but asking is allowed, anything necessary you will pick up quickly, and like any job there will be those that occasionally overdo it and make things inaccessible, but just try not to end up like them…
When it comes to applying for a new job, how you can ensure you’ve done all you can to make it to the next stage? Zara explained to me what she looks out for when sifting through multiple applicants.
Passion is really important for candidates to get that across, and that can be done on their CV either as a hobby, and I would say highlight hobbies, highlight things that you do on your GitHub, write down projects, really kind of home in on your projects. Because people are really interested in that. They don’t want to know, you know there’s a skeleton CV you can do with like what degree you did, what achievements you did, but people really want to know about the person. What else is there about that person that’s gonna make us think – you stand out from the crowd?
So if you pass the initial application phase and make it to interview, what’s the most important thing to remember?
it’s literally just be themselves, because there’s no right answer. We’re not looking for a certain person basically. When we say a cultural fit, what we mean basically is someone who shares our values, but not necessarily someone who fits into one way of working.
Most importantly, walking around a technology company you find people from all different walks of life, because there are endless opportunities…
Within technology there are various roles for people with all types of experience and skills, so we have purchasing people that work for technology, we have desktop support technicians that have a basic understanding of how a computer works from an endpoint point of view, we have network engineers. There’s people with every kind of skill and ability and background that work for the business, so there’s pretty much a role for everyone, I would argue.
And Ant’s examples don’t cover a fraction of the roles available.
In the end I’d recorded too many top tips to fit into an episode, so most importantly, if tech interests you, give it a go.
I hope this episode has demystified technology for those of you have not yet worked in the industry, and made those of you who do, think about it from a different perspective.
Oh and one last thing…
What happened with Paris?
So the lesson I learned is that nothing is certain until you sign the paper. If someone tells you they got you a job, but it’s not real yet, don’t break up with your girlfriend, tell everyone you’re moving to France and pack your suitcase
Thanks for tuning into this week’s Pi & Mash.You’ve been listening to me, Holly Godwin, and the team here at the buzzing hub of Ocado Technology. Produced and edited by Green Barge Audio with original music by Nic Sims. Subscribe to hear the rest of our series wherever you tend to find your podcasts.