I never imagined that I would become the founder of a recruiting startup in Silicon Valley.
4 years ago, when my social network startup almost went into bankruptcy, one of my friends suggested I do some recruiting for them to make our company survive. I was known to be one of the best in sales for my previous company, selling large quantities of software. My gut feeling was that sales guys can sell anything, even people.
So, I tried. And it turned out that they gave me one of the most difficult positions: Artificial Intelligence related positions. Back to 2016, AI was just getting hot, but talent was greatly limited.
I barely had any recruiting experience; however, I had both engineering and sales background, which proved to be a great help.
On the other hand, my wife, a senior machine learning engineer, complains about her overloaded inbox at the dinner table; those pitch messages she receives from recruiters were repetitive and redundant. At this stage in her life, she focuses on how to pivot her career path instead of the mere cash and bonuses. However, many of the recruiters are lacking these industry insights.
So, I began to spend most of my time on learning everything I could about the AI industry, particularly how to commercialize AI technologies in each vertical, such as autonomous driving, robotics, healthcare, enterprise etc. I had solid conversations with more than 500 engineers for about one hour each. I built my own insights through independent research and direct conversations with experts, getting more feedback and honing on my thoughts every day.
After a long time thinking and practicing my skills, I now propose a new way to handle recruiting. I believe this to be the best way of defining the recruitment process:
1) Information based recruiting: most recruiters are familiar with information-based recruiting, which depends on how much you know about the employer and their position. When you engage with candidates, simply tell them who is hiring and what will be the position. In many cases, especially with passive job seeking candidates, this direct way of selling has the least impact on their interests; leading to the conversion rates to a candidate being even lower than 1% on LinkedIn.
2) Insight based recruiting: you will not only talk about the employer and their positions, but also the whole ecosystem such as competitors, vendors, and the company’s customers. You will learn how to position the employer when competing with other companies for the same candidates. These insights can take the form of: knowledge of the industry, technology, business or career path. There are many decisions for a candidate to make if they wish to join a company, and any insight can benefit them in the critical hiring process.
3) Influence based recruiting: once you are able to deliver insights to your candidates, you will gain influence and make an impact on them. One-on-one conversations can be impressive, but they are very inefficient. If recruiters can speak out or even post on social media, candidates will eventually reach out to them for advice or job opportunities. In the past 3 years, I have written tons of articles about AI, startups and leadership, I became a thought leader in these topics; this is the reason I am regularly reached out to for career advice.
The transition from information-based recruiting to insight-based recruiting needs a strong learning pattern and a daily habit. To make this work, you have to learn the basics of hardcore technologies such as software engineering or machine learning, as well as track the industry updates. Great speech, writing, and personal branding skills are also a necessity for embarking on the transition.
Normally, we can gain insights through self-study and regular communication with others. Self-study is easy to understand, but what’s the most efficient way to learn from others?
In my experience, and through my own observations, the following must be adhered to:
Active networking with people from different domains or functions, especially with people who are much higher skilled or higher level. The bigger the gap, the more there is to learn. One idea is to have great mentors. If you are new to the domain, be humble and prioritize learning. When I first became an entrepreneur in 2015, I intentionally chose a highly successful tech executive as well as a venture capitalist to be my mentor, which dramatically accelerated my learning process of building a startup and being a good investor.
MIT Better World Event 2019 (photo by Alex Ren)
Be well prepared for each conversation: Perform due diligence for each meeting. Research who you are talking to, their strengths, and have your top three questions polished and ready to ask. Avoid jumping into a call without a purpose.
Copy, share and get feedback frequently: Directly after talking to an expert in a domain , write down your top 3 takeaways. When you talk to another person in a similar domain, try to quote what you learned immediately and see what response you get. When you do this for 10 times, you will learn all the aspects in the market and become an expert too. This technique is so powerful that I’m able to talk like an expert on numerous topics.
Alex Ren discussed US-China AI ecosystem and entrepreneurship
with Kai-fu Lee. December 2018
These three points are not only useful to recruiters, but also to anyone who is trying to learn something efficiently and effectively.
David Rubenstein, the co-founder of the Carlyle Group, explained that through action, oral communication, and the written word, people can speedily and efficiently gain influence. When it comes to action, most people trust doers! Getting results is the most powerful tool at your disposal for magnifying your voice.
Oral and written communication are additionally necessary too. Focusing on presentation skills, oration, and conveying your needs through text will let you reach a huge audience. When speaking, remember to assess how you sound tonally, as this is key to keeping people compelled. When writing, articulation is paramount. it doesn’t matter if you can write beautiful literature or not; the most important thing is that you can get your point across in an impressive way. Don’t discount the use of small posts on social media either, as in many cases less is more. Writing gives you the best chance of connecting to the largest possible crowd.
Alex Ren hosted “Software Engineering in AI Era” talk featuring Yangqing Jia (Creator of Caffe), Santa Clara, CA, October 2018
In the past two years, I have been actively training our recruiters via this new method. This training includes regular insights sharing about domain knowledge such as AI, electric vehicles, internet, startup, investment, and anything else related to career development. Our recruiters are able to speak like an expert when facing candidates, which dramatically improved our conversion rates from prospects to candidates, and eventually to offers. In 2018 alone, we were able to close more than 100 hard-to-fill positions such as computer vision engineers and natural language processing researchers, among others.
At the end of the day, recruiting is a job about learning other’s qualification, motivation and expectation, which has to be conveyed through deep conversation. Those with great insights, and an impressive ability to talk, will become great match-makers and life-enablers!
For more details, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for detailed information about this recruiting mindset.
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