BOSTON – As was the case last year, the lunch time keynote had an Amazon feel to it. The company continues to establish quite a presence in the Boston area, with Amazon Alexa, Amazon Robotics and now Amazon Devices all in the area, and not long ago Amazon snapped up Andover-based Blink as well (they are part of the Devices part of the company). In that respect, that they would be a fixture at a conference like this makes a lot of sense, but that isn’t all.
Last year’s speakers were both present for this one, as Jim Cuff was there although not part of the panel. Teodora Stoian joined him last year and was one of three who shared observations about building a team, a panel moderated by Alexa recruiter Michelle Ducharme. Joining Stoian, a business technology leader, were software development manager Denise Ichinco and Evelyn Liang, who heads up a science team within the company after being a software engineer.
The crowd consisted of a number of attendees who hire people, and a good number of them currently have openings. Ducharme asked about this to help set the stage for the conversation.
She started by asking the panelists what they do to attract talent. The first answer given is having a great story of what you’re building, because that can hook someone’s interest in being part of it. Interestingly, candidates are often taught that a good story can hook an interviewer as an answer to a question or as part of the larger interview, and this notion can work both ways.
More interestingly, the managers elaborated on some of how they look for candidates. Naturally, the subject of referrals came up since that is used, and one panelist noted that this can work in the sense that a current employee can better sell a candidate on the experience of working there. Stoian, who had a lot of great insights, had a cautionary note about using referrals in that one can end up with many of the same kinds of people – birds of a feather. (In light of that, it is worth noting that the panel consisted entirely of women at a time when many big tech companies have been under fire on the subject of how much of their workforce is female.)
LinkedIn is another area that is used for this, which is only natural. Numerous recruiters use LinkedIn for reasons that are surely obvious to most, and there are a few ways to utilize it. One recommendation about it is to not be afraid to take risks with someone who has a non-traditional background for the department and/or role you are seeking to fill.
During the interview process, candidates are often stressed for a variety of reasons, and it’s easy for one detail or another to slip along the way. However, that can happen to an interviewer as well; they can wonder if they heard or saw what they thought they did. The panelists noted that they use a laptop at interviews to help assess a candidate in just this regard, allowing them to easily see what they noted at one time or another.
Not long after that, the subject of onboarding came up. This is something a lot of companies could do better, which Harvard Business Review touched on a while back (albeit focused more on executives). The panelists noted that new hires should get help knowing who to talk to, some challenges, and they should try not to overload them as can easily happen in the first few days. They also like to use a buddy for a new hire who specifically helps them out aside from the person’s manager. Here, Stoian had a couple of good insights, noting that onboarding is an employee’s first impression of the company and thus an area for continuous improvement. Also, once a team grows significantly – 25 was the number she mentioned, but another manager might have a different number – this process must be written instead of ad hoc.
In talking about when processes are needed, Stoian noted an interesting evolution with her team. At first, they used Excel for their backlog, an idea that experienced agile teams of some size might find a head-scratcher. They moved to Kanban and now use stand-up meetings, demonstrations, retrospectives and many more parts of agile.
Finally, there was some discussion about engagement, a major subject given how many people do not like their jobs. To this end, Stoian noted that she likes to ask employees in 1-on-1 meetings how their work is contributing to the company. If they don’t know, there is more introspection needed, and not necessarily just on the employee, to understand that. She also had one more very good note, which is that as a company scales, jobs tend to become more specialized, which can affect engagement. A person who was doing a lot and touching a lot of areas of interest might later find him/herself with a role where they touch less, and the areas they touch may not be of great interest.
The panel was very well-attended and well-received, and its conclusion of it set us up well for the afternoon sessions.