HR Technology Column'The New York Times' Catches Up on Recruiting Innovations

No one reading this needs to be told recruiting has been the greatest source of innovation in HR technology for almost two decades. Now "the newspaper of record," which still means something to me, at least, has published two long articles on successive Sundays catching the world up on the new technologies being applied to that wildly inefficient process.

Monday, April 29, 2013
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Just about everyone reading this knows that recruiting has fundamentally changed in the last five years, though hardly every company has been nimble enough or smart enough to react to it.

For those hard-to-fill roles -- and I won't pretend to know them anymore (except software engineers) after someone wiser told me the nursing shortage is actually over! -- the advertising model embodied in job boards and corporate career sites (and formerly in newspaper classifieds) is slowly dying.

I will never forget the conversation I had 20 years ago -- 1993, when I'm sure I didn't even know there was an Internet -- with Lars Perkins, who more or less invented the functionality of the applicant tracking systems everyone struggles with today.

Lars was the visionary founder of the company called Restrac -- later renamed Webhire -- and was PeopleSoft's original recruiting partner. His company was later sold to Kenexa, which closed it down after several years.

To validate his visionary status, during that same time Lars was creating Picassa and working as a product executive at Google for years after it acquired his photo application. Yes, one of the pioneers of HR technology!

When we spoke, Lars enthusiastically angled his arms above his head, and said, "Bill, imagine a day when everybody's resume is just out there! I don't know how. Just somehow out there to be found.  Think how that will change the nature of recruiting: from sitting in a boat with a baited hook to scuba-diving with a spear gun. It will move it from attraction/selection/hiring to search/selling/hiring."

In short, corporate recruiters would act like headhunters: not waiting for the candidates to come to them but finding the most qualified people, working or not. Recruiters call that "sourcing."

Well, 20 years later, Lars now looks magnificently prescient and right. Just about everybody's resume is indeed out there, sometimes in sealed pens that cost money to get into - at LinkedIn, Monster and lately, at Indeed - but often accessible elsewhere for nothing.

But because of the Internet, there's a lot more out there now about everybody than their resumes: what they've blogged, what they've commented in social networks, chat rooms, whatever. And everybody's online content (or shadows of them) taken together certainly qualifies as Big Data, which is what the two articles from "The New York Times" are about.

The first one happens to be by someone I know, Steve Lohr, one of the paper's senior technology writers. Since he failed to call me during his research, I spare him no quarter in commenting on his piece called "Big Data, Trying to Build Better Workers."

He writes about a field called "work-force science" adding a large dose of Big Data to HR, specifically recruiting, which has "traditionally relied heavily on gut feel and established practice to guide hiring, promotion and career planning."

No argument there, except for the name, which is new to me.

He points out many companies are pursuing this new business opportunity. My favorite, which I didn't know, is eHarmony, the long-time runner-up to in online dating. Truth is my wife Nancy and I found each other on Match, so I'm a fan of the process and have long said it's very much like recruiting.

Steve reports that in January, eHarmony (which presented as a user of Jobvite at last October's HR Technology ® Conference) would retool its matching algorithm to be used for employee-employer relationships and compete with Jobvite by entering the talent search business later this year. Makes complete sense, but the devil is in the details. TBD.

Steve also nods toward, the start-up that presented in the "Awesome New Technologies" session at the same conference. It doesn't gather available data but creates new data by analyzing your play of online games and compares it to the Big Data of all current employees' play.

It offers up amazing revelations about how you compare along a variety of vectors including cognitive skills, emotional intelligence and risk-taking. The update on Knack since the conference (full disclosure again, I am an angel investor) is that pilot programs have been completed at Shell, Bain and NYU's Langone Medical Center.

My biggest beef with the story is its emphasis on vendor Evolv, which has always focused on hourly workers at call centers, which already capture data on every call and online exchange. Certainly a smart business decision for Evolv to aim its employee data analysis at call centers, which have the highest attrition rates in the world and are constantly hiring.

Have I mentioned lately that most inbound call centers are the worst jobs in America since picking cotton in the South in 1850? Only differences are they can't beat you, and you can quit.

But the important point is call-center reps are an easy target for analysis. It's like doing a performance review on a salesperson. Both the goals and performance are numbers and crystal clear; how did the person match up to them? And unless I'm behind the times, Evolv has not gone beyond those call-center workers.

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The second story, by Matt Richtel, was headlined "I Was Discovered by an Algorithm" in the print newspaper, and where else would I read it? Online it is called: "How Big Data Is Playing Recruiter for Specialized Workers."

Its focus, again part of "Awesome New Technologies" last year, is a vendor reading a person's online "social exhaust" to discover what they're really good at. At the session, the topic was covered by vendor TalentBin.

The newspaper story focuses on rival vendor Gild, which has a spectacular example of its own technology working, has raised a lot more venture money (around $10 million) and has an interesting chief scientist. It also evaluates any code a candidate has posted to Open Source sites.

Since it's Silicon Valley and all about finding software engineers, there are naturally at least two other companies working on very similar ideas (both mentioned): Entelo and RemarkableHire.

The article is very thoughtful about how good and useful this trend actually is, even when 300 variables go into the algorithm. The problem with Big Data is what can't get measured gets ignored. And HR's traditional placeholders for what someone is actually good at -- like a computer science degree from Stanford -- really do mean something.

Gild and TalentBin were neck and neck for "Awesome New," when TalentBin won out by expanding its search to categories beyond software engineers, which Gild says it plans to do.

My attitude all along had been that software engineers, like salespeople and call-center workers, were easy (for this technique) because they post to so many specialized social networks and spend so much time online.

More importantly, only three industry verticals really care about getting A+ software engineers: high-tech companies (such as Gild's impressive current clients Facebook, Amazon, Google and Twitter), financial services, and the intelligence community (NSA, CIA et al).

Now they'll all know. I'm sure Wall Street was calling Gild on Sunday, if not Saturday.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is founding co-chairman of the 16th Annual HR Technology ® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 7-9, 2013. Prior conference attendees are receiving private e-mail invitations to register. The program should be on the website before Memorial Day. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which doesn't require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show ®. He can be reached at

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