Welcome to the Jungle

Welcome to the Jungle

1200 900 Paul Breloff
Mridvika and I at our baby booth on the main drag.

A wise man once said that big conferences have a lot in common with zoos — many different species, all out of their natural habitats, perched awkwardly and confronted with a whole lot of sizing up. My colleague Mridvika and I just attended the annual People Matters TechHR Conference in New Delhi, and it was a zoo in the best possible way. Boy was it fun to see all the animals!

We were there as one of about 20 “Spotlight Startup” participants, which entitled us to a 1-meter frontage with logo on the main drag between the entry staircase and main hall. That meant lots of traffic, lots of people wandering by, and lots of people for us to accost with endless variations of our elevator pitch: “Hi, we’re Shortlist, we’re an all-in-one platform to manage top-of-funnel screening…” and “Hi, we’re Shortlist, we build customized digital application flows to assess candidate quality beyond the CV…” and “Hi we’re Shortlist, wanna go get a beer?” (In the unofficial test we conducted, this last pitch was the most popular.)

As I type this, delirious from a couple of intense days, a few salient impressions are crystallizing:

1. Buzzwords in search of a problem: Like my previous field of fintech, there were lots of acronyms on display. ATSes and CRMs and HRISes and HRMSes for sure, but also lots of “modifier” acronyms like ML and AI and a little bit of AR/VR. In fact, there was even an acronym that meant two different things: NLP meant both “natural language processing” and “neuro-linguistic programming” at TechHR! Everything was “integrated,” everything was “real-time” and “omni-channel” and “mobile-social” and the rest.

This gave a heady futuristic feel to everything, but I couldn’t help but feel that the buzzword arms race was sometimes more about showing off shiny new toys than a genuine breakthrough (yet) in how we can get, keep, and develop the best people.

2. Don’t forget the human touch: On a related point, with all the focus on tech, one can get the feel that we’re just around the corner from an all-digital future in which we’ll never have to actually talk to a human being as we hire. At the same time, several insightful panelists and folks we met emphasized their belief that human touch is still central and essential to getting people equations right. Yes, there’s room for automation and tech, but there are still some parts of the recruitment and on-boarding and training and cultivating process that can and should be done live and in person. For businesses like ours, success may depend on getting that critical balance right.

3. Focus on the how, not the what: When looking at the “forest” of HR tech in India, I noticed that a lot of the “trees” appear quite similar on the surface. There were a number of different recruitment tech businesses out there, most with subtle differences in pitch and product, but usually boiling down to some version of automated searching and matching using lots of data. I was reminded of the Thai t-shirt hawker on Khao San Road with the insistent “Same same but different” trill (if you’ve ever back-packed in Thailand, you know what I’m talking about).

But I am ever more confident that what will separate the winners from the non-winners will be the “how” of getting results, not the “what” of the summary pitch; it will be the execution, not the idea. Ultimately, some of these new approaches will work, some won’t, and the difference will likely be found in how each company shows up every day to deliver big value for its users.

Giving a rapid-fire pitch to the mentors/judges. Good questions ensued.

4. The jobs of the future are here: There was a lot of talk of the number of jobs that are in demand today that didn’t exist 10 years ago: Data scientists, UX designers, 3D printing engineers, AI architects, etc. There’s a recognition that hiring this talent is critical to get right as companies grow, as well as a recognition of the often thin talent pools for these positions. Training programs like those offered at Udacity and UpGrad, which teach these new skills, will become ever more important until traditional school curriculums catch up. Employers will also need to find new ways to evaluate these skills in absence of traditional markers like grades in the major.

5. Passion for talent & people ops: Perhaps my biggest and most exciting takeaway was: People love this stuff! In years past I’ve heard HR referred to as a backwater, an administrative more than strategic function within corporate hierarchies. Not at TechHR! I met so many thoughtful, visionary, brilliant folks who are truly engaged and passionate about finding better ways to find, recruit, train, retain, and unlock human capital at their orgs.

It was a terrific event for us to attend, particularly as relative newcomers to the HR tech space. Big thanks to Ester Martinez and the entire People Matters team for putting on a great show!

What are the other must-attend HR and tech conferences that we should make it to — in India and beyond? Let me know in the comments!