How Going Remote Opened Up Our IT Talent Pool

January 5, 2021

Jeff Richardson who is a Chief Data Science Officer at Bentley Systems shares his experience on how his team has pivoted throughout the pandemic, specifically with hiring top talent. 

The best people we have on our teams are the ones who can live wherever they need and interact globally on a scale that actually works. So that’s going to be one of the skill sets that come out of 2020 as the requirement goes. It is the ability to interact with people virtually like this. These are the new soft skills. And then, handle a team that is not in the same spot and be able to do this over the internet five days a week.

Welcome to The Tech Show. I’m Aziza with Focus GTS. Today, I’m here with Jeff Richardson, who is a Chief Data Officer at Bentley Systems. Welcome Jeff, it’s so good to have you!

Great to be here!

Bently Systems is a CAD company in the software space

Today we’re going to be talking about how COVID-19 has impacted talent acquisition in tech, but before we do, Jeff can you tell us a little bit about what you and the team at Bentley Systems have been up to these days?

Yes, Bentley Systems, for those who don’t know is a CAD company that specializes in the infrastructure software space. So we make software that you use to design roads and bridges, buildings, and all the infrastructure that you use in your life. So if you’ve driven on a road in the United States or Europe anywhere, you’ve almost certainly driven on a road that was designed on our software.

My role inside Bentley is to lead the corporate Data Office. So, we are a very data-driven organization. We collect data on software. We use that to invoice our users. Then, the data is used to design and to build better software. So my organization is responsible for the global architecture, storage, delivery, and insight around that information.

The pandemic forced us to go remote, and it opened up the talent pool

Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that, Jeff. Let’s jump into the COVID-19 and how has it impacted hiring? Can you touch on how the hiring process has changed for you and what had happened? 

In February, March, and April, we also like many companies that had a hiring pause.

Not so much as a reaction to anything, but just trying to get our ground. Everything went virtual. Everything went digital. I mean, everything went globally distributed very quickly. So without the ability to have someone travel to one of our offices or talk to them in person, we had to adapt very quickly.

Luckily, as a company, we had adopted Microsoft Teams and a lot of video conferencing technology, well in advance of the pandemic. So we weren’t one of the companies that had to spin up zoom or teams immediately and deal with that. We had a pretty robust infrastructure. As a global company that does business in 160 countries with offices in 60 other countries, we were pretty broadly set up to be able to take advantage of globally distributed interviewing and that kind of mobility. But obviously, all of our interviewing immediately became digital. All of it became online. So we had to quickly scale up to deal with that big change, which was quite remarkable.

The talent pool was great, but interviewing became impractical

So what were some of the issues you ran into with that change? 

So obviously, getting people together for just interviews became a bigger deal, right? You used to be able to get somebody in-office for a couple of hours, run them through the gamut of a couple of analysts, a couple of managers, maybe a director, and maybe a vice president.

They would have like a three or four-hour interview and then it’d be done. Then you could regroup and discuss that. Now we’re trying to get a bunch of people who are all working at home on the same series of team phone calls, in a row to interview somebody. It’s pretty much impractical.

So interviews now span multi-days, which is interesting. So the cohesiveness of the conversation kind of falls apart a little bit. Gluing that back together became an interesting thing. One thing that we didn’t have a challenge with is, as a software company, we have a lot of technical tests that we run people through.

None of that changed, which we got lucky with. The bigger thing for us was the organization of how interviews work and scheduling. 

But I would have to say again, as a tech company and a company that had embraced technology and global diversity and mobility ahead of COVID, it wasn’t that much of a struggle.

Video interviews lengthened the process to acquire the top talent pool

I would think that the process shortened with the video, right? But you say that it got longer.

For sure. So over the last two years, we would interview people. We’d bring them in for one day and it would be for a few hours where the person ran through a marathon gauntlet. In the end, they were exhausted and sweaty, and very tired. 

The last person that we hired was about three months ago, we interviewed four candidates that made it through the interviewing. So trying to schedule that among the four people I wanted to interview, over four people, over a week of schedules was just very difficult.

So that adds a lot of administrative burden to that. We’re getting better with that. It’s certainly become more flexible, a little more fluid. People I think are a little less overloaded with meetings now that we’ve been in the pandemic for what feels like five years. But it was a bigger challenge. So it was a thing that we had to look out for. 

New soft skills have emerged for candidates

How are you able to assess candidates’ soft skills and personal skills via Zoom? Is there a difference since body language isn’t there?

I know that a lot of candidates struggle with setting their lighting up correctly, it’s not something they’re used to doing all the time?

Right, you reminded me that my light looks very bad in this video actually from the window. Yeah, so the soft skills, in a technical data analyst role that we generally hire for, there’s less of a need for a tremendous amount of soft skills. But it’s very important because the people in the Data Office talk to our C-level executives, they talk to the VP, they talk to our customers in many cases.

So, soft skills are incredibly important. What we’re finding is that because everyone is remote, and the interviews are remote, it’s much more important that you have a good presence over video. So I don’t think it transfers as well to in-person soft skills anymore, as it does, to your ability to have nice lighting and have a good background, an organized space.

We’re not going back to the traditional office situation anytime soon

So I don’t think we’re going to go back to a traditional in-office, five days a week situation anytime soon. Certainly not in the next couple of months. Probably not in 2021. So, interviewing people remotely for jobs that are almost certainly going to be remote. I think it gives us a bit of a benefit to see how they’re going to handle working remotely as well.

So it became like an accidental positive there that all the interviews are remote and they’re going to be working remotely from now on. 

Our talent pool got so much broader

And what other positives came out of this pandemic? I know there’s a lot of frustration and negative things happening. What were some of the things that were great?

That’s an excellent, excellent question. Yeah. So, the biggest thing that I’ve noticed as a positive in recruiting and finding talent around the world now, is we have given up on the idea that these people have to be in offices or in locations where we have big offices. So the last job that we hired, which was a Data Engineer, focusing on things like natural language processing, we were able to cast a net across the entire United States.

And we just said, this job is going to be remote. Anybody can apply for this. And normally we get very good applicants from a publicly-traded tech company with a little bit of name brand awareness. But by pushing that to a global remote position, the applicants that we got were so much more diverse as far as their technical skills, and their resumes. Their talent was so much broader. It was things we’ve never seen before. People coming from industries that we wouldn’t have seen. People coming with backgrounds that we had never had the experience of interviewing before and honestly, it let us pick an incredibly talented person who’s coming from somewhere in Florida, where we don’t have a big presence.

We don’t have an office down there, but now we would have never picked up someone with her skills and her pedigree ever in the past. So by embracing true global mobility with hiring now, we’ve opened ourselves up to a tremendous talent pool, that was a little locked down before. 

It’s much harder to onboard somebody when they’re fully remote

That’s a great positive to hear. We, as you know, we’re a staffing recruiting agency and we have worked with a lot of clients across Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 organizations, and they all say the same thing. A lot of them were already adapting to remote work and then also, a lot of them have contractors that were always remote. 

So that’s good to hear. And what were the downsides of hiring remote workers if there were any?

It’s harder to spin somebody else up in a team if they’re fully remote. So as a data-savvy technical organization, it takes a while to learn all of the systems, just the acronyms, and the way that companies speak?

It’s easier to onboard by taking somebody and plop them into meetings all the time, staff meetings, and interactions with people they have around an office. So they can just pick up how the company works. It’s much harder to onboard somebody when they’re fully remote or in a pandemic in general.

So certainly, we’ve had to pay a lot more attention to how to make that person feel included. And then, how to get them up to speed technically in a way that’s organized, and not overly burdensome. Because there’s no casual way to drop somebody into a bunch of zoom and team calls, whereas you use to have them follow them around in a meeting.

So onboarding, technical training, and just getting them acclimated has certainly been a challenge that I don’t even think we have a great solution to right now. We’re still working through that. But again, the people that we’ve picked up this year have been very, very talented and smart, and they’re adapting to this well.

Keeping the team engaged is the key to a successful remote organization

So that leads me to my next question. How do you keep your team engaged, being virtual and remote? 

Excellent question. I’m in a lucky situation where we had a team that was about 50% globally distributed before the pandemic hit. So I have Data Engineers in Islam, Abad. I have people in Western Europe and Ireland and the UK, we have somebody in Canada. I have a lot of employees who are in our Exton office, in Pennsylvania, and others at other big offices around the world. So we had been a very globally distributed team ahead of time. So it wasn’t that much of a switch to be fully virtual. 

We’ve picked up the number of meetings and updates that we have to communicate. 

So I’ve been trying to have at least monthly staff meetings with the entire team. The directors that work for me have been doing office hours and happy hours with their teams, both during work and kind of just at the edge of work.

And we’ve been trying to have more events that are virtually camaraderie based. For instance, for a holiday party this year, tomorrow, we are going to have a cheese sommelier virtually over Zoom. I had all of our teammates, sent a bunch of packages of cheese and jams and crackers. And for 30 minutes at, I think 11 o’clock tomorrow, we’re going to have a cheese sommelier walk us through all the cheeses that were sent out.

That’s engaging and that’s different. That’s something I haven’t heard before. We thought about doing something similar with our clients as well. Sending them cheese and wine, maybe talking over zoom, and having a conversation.

We have exceeded things that we’ve done in the past, by being remote.

I was told it was inappropriate to send all of my employees a bottle of wine during the workday for a work event, so we’re just doing cheese. It’s going to be fun. 

Cheese is good. Everybody loves cheese, but that leads me to my next question. Do you see it ever coming back to how it was previously?

Will it ever be normal again for your team? 

There’s absolutely going to be “a normal” after all of this is done.

I don’t know what that’s going to look like and I don’t know when that’s going to be. Certainly, for my team, we are no longer going to have the requirement that you work in a single headquartered office. We have proven over 2020 that we can be resilient. We can be effective. In fact, we could exceed things that we’ve done in the past, by being remote. 

So there’s no point in putting that burden back on people that they have to be somewhere that said, I do think that a good portion of the people certainly on my team have expressed the need to just have those interactions with people. 

Maybe for personal fulfillment, but also just be more effective.

So I think, whenever things get back to a new normal we’ll probably be several days in the office as a team. People who live around the office can get here. No more five days, maybe like two days in the office. I don’t even know if we’re going to have the same size of the office in the future. I fully expect that many companies, many corporations are going to reduce their physical footprint in one location, more of like a hoteling situation going forward.

Many times the issue with acquiring top talent is their location, that’s no longer the case

And then, personally, for me, the way we’ve hired this year has been amazing and incredibly positive. So I don’t want to go back to a situation where we have to get people to say they want to move to Philadelphia to work for a company anymore. If you want to live in Akron or if you want to live in Cincinnati, or if you want to live on an island in the Caribbean, as long as you have a good internet connection and you can get your job done, like fantastic. Please do that. 

That’s great to hear because that’s something that I think a lot of people are evolving into. A lot of times you can’t get talent because people are not willing to relocate. They have a family. They have obligations or whatever else it may be.

Maybe they love where they live and now you have access to talent across the whole world. You could hire anyone you wanted and have them be on your team.

The best people we have on our teams are the ones who can live wherever they need and interact globally on a scale that actually works. I think that will be one of the skill sets that come out of 2020 as a requirement, which is the ability to interact with people virtually like this, right? These new soft zoom skills, and then handle a team that is not in the same spot. Be able to do this over the internet five days a week.

You must maintain a careful balance of people while they’re at home

Yeah, and as we know the IT hiring process and technology overall, it can be pretty complex from what I hear and our team deals with. Right? 

There’s a lot of back and forth. There’s a lot of tests and communication and things like that. I know that people, especially people in technology, enjoy working remotely. They tend to be focused on the work and they just have their computer and wherever they are they’re happy. And the happier your team is the better the work, right! 

Yeah, that’s one of the other things that we didn’t touch on is maintaining a careful balance of people while they’re at home. A lot of people don’t know how to disconnect once they start working at home. So that is something that we did have to work on.

Keeping people productive. I’ve got employees who are massively productive this year, but also getting them to just pause at the end of a workday and stop. I wouldn’t say has been a challenge, but it’s been something that we’ve tried to focus on to make sure that there’s a clear cut between a workday and a home day.

You have to get out of your work casual sports clothes, and put on your home casual, athletic wear. 

Going remote did not affect our ways of measuring productivity

Yeah, that helps. And how do you measure productivity being remote nowadays? 

Yep. We are a project-based group, with deliverables that we have to drop off and do and with all kinds of different project management things.

So we’re measuring productivity across the same things that we did in the past, which is the ability to get projects done on time, and the ability to execute successfully. So nothing’s changed there as far as how we measure individual people. We have the same metrics now, the same staff meetings, the same stage gate meetings, and PMO meetings, but

they’re just all virtual instead of sometimes virtual. 

Well, thank you, Jeff, for coming to our tech show and answering some of the questions we have. We’re excited to have you, and we’re looking to have you again in the future. 

Yeah, thank you for the opportunity. It’s a great conversation and I hope people can get something out of it. So thank you again. 

What is the best way to refer them to contact you?

Yes. So find me on LinkedIn. It’s just Jeff Richardson. Love connecting with people. Love networking, love talking about data, technology, leadership strategy. That’s basically everything. I just love talking. So please reach out. 

We all love talking. That’s good. We love talking to people.