I recently attended a ‘Recruitment and Retention’ event hosted by Sophie Bailey of the Edtech Podcast.
Three speakers gave their take on the issues:
- Jamie Brooker, co-founder of Kahoot @jamiebrooker on how to build a successful edtech startup;
- Dr Kristen Weatherby from UCL/IOE’s educate programme @KWresearch on the challenges of recruiting teachers for edtech projects;
- Will Bentinck of Makers Academy @isoworg on how to avoid the 12 (or more) most common recruitment mistakes.
As usual it was an interesting event, ably hosted by Sophie and attended not just by edtech’s ‘usual suspects’ but by a wide cross-section of people interested in the sector including a student with an idea for an edtech product.
What I particularly liked was Jamie’s focus on culture, something that matched exactly what Ewen McKenzie once said to me about edtech (then coach of the Wallabies, Australia’s rugby union team); “edtech it sounds just like the challenge faced by elite sports teams, with talented young people and money, yet it goes wrong 90% of the time. The difference between success and failure I think is down to a lack of focus on culture and too much attention on grand strategies. You’ve spoken about edtech a lot but never once mentioned culture”
So it was a good event but being an old curmudgeon I piped up about a couple of things that weren’t said, namely:
- For attendees at events like this edtech is or should be a business (don’t get me started about social enterprises) so it’s not all sunshine and ginger beer. I don’t think you can call yourself an entrepreneur unless you’ve sacked someone. It’s unpleasant, legally complicated and mostly awful for everyone involved (except bottom feeders like lawyers and HR professionals) but if you can’t do it your business is more likely to fail.Startups by their very nature have few people early on, and if someone’s wrong (it could be a hire or even one of the founding team) then you have to get rid of them ASAP. I have done it, I have seen it in companies I’ve invested in and most edtech founders are crap at doing it because they wait too long.
In one case it took almost 3 years to get rid of someone from a company by which time they had been steered down some expensive and incorrect paths that would have killed off anything less than an amazing business. I argued with the co-founders from the founding of the business that they needed to get rid of this person. While they could see the problem they thought it could be fixed when the person gained more experience. It wasn’t and it changed how I work with startups; first I prefer older more experienced founding teams and second if they won’t take sensible advice then I won’t invest and if I have will never follow up or recommend it to another investor.
- CV’s and education. Will in his talk made the mistake of assuming everyone in edtech and tech generally had a university degree. He said it was wrong to focus on things like whether an applicant had a 2:1 as this was probably irrelevant and possibly discriminatory. Not everyone went to or graduated from university and it’s a false assumption to screen using this as a criteria. I know, because I made exactly this mistake early probably because as an unwilling entrepreneur, I was terribly insecure over my lack of qualifications (and lied about having them for years until I eventually had enough self confidence to tell the truth).
Everyone lies or over-embellishes their CV; it’s a bad starting point. A better one might be to ask any applicant to write one brief and honest paragraph about why they want to work with you. I’d much rather know, I’m desperate for a job to support myself, than read any about how many feet you bathed to get your Gold Duke of Edinburgh medal.
Most important in any startup is enthusiasm and flexibility. If someone won’t do the washing up as enthusiastically as helping with an investor pitch then they probably won’t succeed in any startup.
- I doubt whether an expensive psychometric test, probably not really suitable to a startup, is any better than any of the following:
On the tube, does the candidate stand on the right or walk up on the left? If they stand they may be a terrific person, but they probably lack the restless inner drive that startup employees need. How do you follow someone on the tube and is it even ethical? Maybe not, but I want to see whether people unconsciously have the same drive that will see me walk up every escalator until I physically can’t. So it could be a tube walk, asking if they have a blog, getting them to build a simple model with a key part missing, etc.
- The boozy lunch/dinner. Today with 26% of Londoners being teetotal this is probably as redundant as I am, but the best boss I ever worked for used this technique to build a very successful education business where he found and hired a very disparate group of people who all went on to be very successful (or at least far more successful in a career sense). Mr L was an alcoholic, serial liar and someone to whom soap and deodorant were unfamiliar, yet he was the most charming, smart, sincere and stimulating person I ever worked for. Today you’d never find anyone like him in a mainstream business, but his unconventional spirit and fundamental decency are the sorts of characteristics you will find in the founders and early employees of successful startups.
- Recruit widely and don’t just think you have to be in London. A friend who runs a big company was recently complaining how all the contractors and staff he needs to hire for his London HQ are too expensive. Of course they are, he moved them from 3 regional offices to one in central London and wonders why everyone wants 50% more (hint London’s more expensive and there’s far more competition for ‘talent’).
- Now the biggie, discrimination. Discrimination in tech and edtech is a reality. There are not enough women or people from BAME background nor are there enough from diverse education, socioeconomic or almost any other metric you care to add to this mix. In the US there’s even a new organization Founders for Change who are making a big noise in this area. On their website you can find hundreds of tips for Diversity & Inclusion, yet even this group of tech founders are almost blind to a major form of discrimination in tech (and edtech), age.
Only 2 of the 117 tips (1.7%) even mention age, yet there are loads of references to gender, race, profession, geography, education, culture and even intersectionality! What this says to me is just how diversity blind, in one important area, these founders are. In the US, IBM were long considered the best company by all diversity metrics until in their chase for some unicorn gold, they decided to ditch pretty much everyone over 50, as this long but fascinating Propublica/Mother Jones, story shows.
- So how do you recruit well in edtech? For most positions my recipe is:
a bit of experience
- a bucket load of enthusiasm
- someone who is always actively learning in their field
- able to fail, once but not twice (at the same thing) and so long as their mistake doesn’t come close to sinking the company
For those who think I’m a dinosaur when it comes to diversity, the disruptive idea we pitched at a 2017 Science Museum hackathon was a service to help get more BAME candidates the experience necessary to get on the Boards of large public institutions.
Lastly, the best diversity advice I ever had was as a callow 18 year-old jackaroo in the outback meeting my new boss for the first time. He said, “Have you had much to do with aborigines before (he and all the 10 stockmen were aboriginal)? “ “No, I’ve never even met one before,” I said. “Well kid, we’re just like anyone else, there’s the good, the bad and the indifferent. Try to judge men by the quality of what they do, not by the colour of their skin”.