Jason Shen – Co-founder & CEO of Headlight
You know who I’m envious of? People who work in a job that has to do with their college major. Journalists who studied journalism, engineers who studied engineering. The truth is, these folks are no longer the rule, but the exception. A 2010 study found that only a quarter of college graduates work in a field that relates to their degree.
I graduated with not one but two degrees in biology. To my parents’ dismay, I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. Years of studying DNA replication and photosynthesis did little to prepare me for a career in technology. I had to teach myself everything from sales, marketing, strategy, even a little programming, on my own. I had never held the title of Product Manager before I sent my resume in to Etsy. I had already been turned down by Google and several other firms and was getting frustrated. The company had recently gone public, so as part of my job application, I read the IPO filings from cover to cover and built a website from scratch which included my analysis of the business and four ideas for new features. It turned out the team was actively working on two of those ideas and had seriously considered a third. I got the job.
We all know people who were ignored or overlooked at first but went on to prove their critics wrong. My favorite story? Brian Acton, an engineering manager who was rejected by both Twitter and Facebook before cofounding WhatsApp, the mobile messaging platform that would sell for 19 billion dollars.
The hiring systems we built in the 20th century are failing us and causing us to miss out on people with incredible potential. The advances in robotics and machine learning and transforming the way we work, automating routine tasks in many occupations while augmenting and amplifying human labor in others. At this rate, we should all be expecting to do jobs we’ve never done before for the rest of our careers. So what are the tools and strategies we need to identify tomorrow’s high performers? In search for answers, I’ve consulted with leaders across many sectors, read dozens of reports and research papers and conducted some of my own talent experiments. My quest is far from over, but here are three ideas to take forward.
One: expand your search. If we only look for talent in the same places we always do — gifted child programs, Ivy League schools, prestigious organizations — we’re going to get the same results we always have. Baseball was transformed when the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics started recruiting players who didn’t score highly on traditionally valued metrics, like runs batted in, but who had the ability to help the team score points and win games. This idea is taking hold outside of sports. The Head of Design and Research at Pinterest told me that they’ve built one of the most diverse and high-performing teams in Silicon Valley because they believe that no one type of person holds a monopoly on talent. They’ve worked hard to look beyond major tech hubs and focus on designers’ portfolios, not their pedigrees.
Two: hire for performance. Inspired by my own job experience, I cofounded a hiring platform called Headlight, which gives candidates an opportunity to shine. Just as teams have tryouts and plays have auditions, candidates should be asked to demonstrate their skills before they’re hired. Our clients are benefiting from 85 years of employment research, which shows that work samples are one of the best predictors of success on the job. If you’re hiring a data analyst, give them a spreadsheet of historical data and ask them for their key insights. If you’re hiring a marketing manager, have them plan a launch campaign for a new product. And if you’re a candidate, don’t wait for an employer to ask. Seek out ways to showcase your unique skills and abilities outside of just the standard resume and cover letter.