Astronomer’s Daniel Grayson on Why Academic Recruiting Can Be Tech Talent’s Secret Weapon

Halden Pfearsen
Halden Pfearsen
Managing Editor

15 minute read

When Daniel Grayson sat down with Ashby, he jumped right in, and we couldn’t start recording fast enough.

“When I was trying to break into tech,” he said, “There was this really intense level of skepticism that potential employers had about my background, particularly around whether I was equipped to think through recruiting issues at scale, because there's a perception that the only people who know how to think about problem at scale are tech companies. And my experience so far is that what I've seen done in industry recruiting, both in my current company and at others, is less deliberate, less strategic, more transactionally focused than anything I ever did in higher education.”

From the moment he started speaking, Daniel had a lot to say about recruiting, every bit of it valuable. Daniel started his career in higher education, doing admissions for universities before making the switch over to tech recruiting. Academic admissions and recruiting have their similarities. But they also have areas where they drastically differ.

“How companies decide who's worthy of joining is less strategic, less methodologically sound, less interrogated, and less scrutinized than what we did in education,” he said definitively. “For the most part assessment of candidates and their skills, particularly at the top of the funnel, is an exercise in outsourcing to what everybody else has decided is worthy. So how do you know if someone's strong enough to interview? Where did they go to college? Where did they go to university? Where do they have their graduate degree? What is the assessments that all these other schools make about them, and where else have they worked? They think that if Google has assessed a candidate and deemed them worthy of a job, they must be strong enough to work here, rather than relying on your own internal assessments or figuring out how to make a set of assessments at scale.”

From higher ed to recruiting ops

As we see so often, Daniel’s path to recruiting wasn’t linear. In college, Daniel planned to become a lawyer, but conversations with active attorneys warned him away. “I graduated," he said, "And really didn't have a plan.”

He spent the summer after graduation tutoring students at an SAT prep camp, where the head was a college councilor. She suggested that Daniel might like admissions, so he gave it a shot. “I started applying for college admissions jobs, got one and then discovered not only did I really, really like it, I was also pretty good at it.” He remained at that job for years, eventually working his way up to much greater responsibilities.

“I was acting as the product manager for any digital work that we were doing, virtual tours, our website, all these other things, and then eventually started directing international recruitment. And that exercise was really, how do you build relationships with people who will never set foot in your physical space? If you're talking to kids in Vietnam and Nigeria and France, they're not seeing you in person. How do you create the infrastructure that allows these people to build deep relationships with their own aspirations? Across thousands of people all at once? I found that to be really interesting, fulfilling work. I was able build a lot of things there. ”

It was a puzzle Daniel was interested in solving. But the challenges were about to end. “I got to the end of my eight year run. Year nine was just making the trains run on time, instead of figuring out where the tracks should go. And so I left.”

He ended up falling back on a set of consulting opportunities that eventually grew into a small solo consulting firm for institutions working with human capital, helping them to operationalize relationships, marketing, and recruiting processes. While he enjoyed the work, consulting fell into much more planning than implementation.

“I missed the iterative nature of coming up with a plan and then putting it into practice. I knew I wanted to go in-house. I started two years of really core professional networking and knowledge building.” Daniel notes that his first job in recruiting came because the company needed talent enough to hire an untested newcomer. But they gave him a chance all the same.

Over a year and two roles on the other side of that switch, the things Daniel learned in higher ed come through on the job every day, both in the similarities and the differences.

“Education recruiting is like highly cyclical,” Daniel told us, “There's a period of time where you're building the relationship. This is when you're assessing, and this is when you're closing, and those moments are fixed in time rather than rolling across candidates. Although even then there are universities that do that in rolling sense, but the number of prospects we were cultivating in any given year was in the order of tens of thousands. The number of applications we were receiving and actioning on was in was around 15,000 to 20,000 a year. And we received all those applications in the span of a month and a half or so, and actioned on all those applications in the span of two and a half months.”

It was a pace that required robust internal processes in order to reach their goals, Daniel pointed out. “We needed systems set up so that we could move through 20,000 applications in two and a half months using just 20 professional staff. The scale of what we did in that space was a lot more intricate and a lot more complex than the scale of what I see in the talent industry. We needed to be able to build relationships with and give them reasons to choose us both pre-close and close. And we need to be able to do that at scale because we were going to be making 3,000 offers, essentially simultaneously, and we'd have a month to offer to those 3,000 people and close about 1,500. So we were closing 1,500 people in a month using 20 professional staff.”

Advancing the human capital supply chain

Higher ed recruiting involves a level of operationalization that many tech recruiting set ups simply don’t have. This difference in methodology has directly impacted Daniel’s approach now that he’s in recruiting.

“If a company worked in manufacturing,” he explained it, “If you're The Gap or Tesla, you're selling physical things to the world. You'll have gigantic teams who are given strategic remits and capital inside the organization to think about how to improve the quality of outputs and reduce the cost of inputs. These are really, really important teams at these companies.” The classic question, for so many of these product-based businesses, is as simple (and yet as complex) as increasing the value of the product while reducing the cost to create and sell it.

“However,” Daniel went on. “If you work in tech, the only input you have is human. Yet you really can't find a company that thinks about human capital with the level of rigor that Tesla thinks about its supply eye chain.”

The idea was so radical that the Ashby team took a moment to absorb it before pressing Daniel on why that might be. “Some of that is because it's more difficult to do,” he said. But that wasn't the only reason. “The kinds of people who are typically drawn to work in human resources and recruiting are usually the kind of people who don't like thinking about numbers, they like thinking about people. There's a sense of self-selection in terms of who ends up in those spaces. If you're the kind of person who likes operations and data, there are better paying and more prestigious fields to go into than HR or recruiting. So there's this gap between the level of rigor companies should be bringing to the way they think about people, versus the level of rigor that they have or are interested in using. And that relationship is recursive. Companies don't usually think of people ops or recruiting as a center of strategic excellence, they don't invest in the salaries of people in those spaces.”

He has evidence for this impression. “In an economic downturn, the very first businesses to get hit are those who provide HR tools because the first function in a company to get cut is recruiting. And before you cut the people in recruiting, you cut the budget for their tooling. And so there's this pretty big strategic gap.” It's a gap that shouldn't be there, and companies would be much better off if that gap was bridged. “I think there's a recursive relationship between who's drawn to the space, what the space is then allowed to do, and then who gets drawn into the space.”

You really can't find a company that thinks about human capital with the level of rigor that Tesla thinks about its supply eye chain.

Daniel might have a fix for that. But it’s going to take a radical shift in perception across the recruiting industry.

Conventional input, unconventional output

In spite of his wealth of experience, Daniel hasn’t always had an easy time showing others his unique recruiting perspective. The prestige so often associated with academia falls flat in tech - a space where the drive to execute on great ideas is lauded more than time spent in a classroom. Daniel suggests that part of the issue was the perception of academia as a slow-moving, antiquated dinosaur, lightyears away from the “move fast and break things” attitude popular in startups. Over two years, it took Daniel many interviews and more applications before he got his foot in the recruiting door.

“I worked enough in the business of rejecting other people long enough to know it's not personal,” he laughed. “But I also know that there's a lot of incentive to de-risk in who you hire. If you make a wrong choice in hiring, there are really substantial costs involved in both time and money. And the feeling that I had articulated to me over and over and over again was that the recruiting I did in higher education is not deeply relevant to the recruiting that done in industry.”

The problem, however, is clear: how do you manage volume and assess risk while still being open to unconventional talent?

“If you work at a startup, the goal is to achieve an unconventional outcome. And if the only input that you have is human hours you have to manage that through the lens of de-risking. You end up hiring the most conventional people because though the people who de-risk the most.” The paradox stands out. “You're trying to produce this very unconventional outcome by hiring the most conventional people available to you, which doesn't really make a lot of sense to me.”

It isn’t unfair of recruiters to focus on the elements that they already know work. “You need a way to deal with volume,” Daniel admits. “You have to create some dimension early on in the process that allows you to very quickly weed out a large portion of that volume so that you can focus on something smaller. If you're trying to make one hire, and you have 400 inbound applications, you need a way to triage. The fastest way to triage is look if the company they came from does work that looks like the company that I'm at now. Because if their role aligns, then I can be reasonably certain that the structure of their current work looks like the structure of our current work.”

But this method cuts out those trying to enter the tech world, including Daniel himself.

“It's not a criticism of the approach,” he said. “Because it is the easiest way to deal with the volume. But it speaks to my point about the level of sophistication I saw in higher education, and how we evaluate candidates and what I see in industry. This is not a sophisticated approach. It's not an approach that allows you to find really powerful minds, really powerful actors who don't look how you expect them to. It exacerbates the DEI problems that exist in tech.”

Daniel likened the reliance on referrals and tendency to replicate in tech hiring to survivorship bias - an error in which one considers the qualities only of things that made it through a challenge, rather than considering the qualities of things that did not. A compelling comparison for anyone interested in making their recruiting strategy stronger. And it’s linked to the biggest issues that Daniel has observed in recruiting.

What are you looking for, really?

“The biggest obstacle I see in recruiting,” Daniel told us, “Is that it's very hard to know what you're evaluating for. Do you actually need a candidate to be good at what can you train quickly? What can you train quickly? That's a hard question to answer. And then let's assume that you can answer that question accurately. And here are the skills we need to evaluate, because these are the things that are important to the job, and that we can't train quickly. Now, what's the assessment for that?”

The problem is already daunting, and it only grows bigger. “Even if you can build that assessment and you build it well, let's make that assumption need hiring managers and people in the company who are skilled at assessing the responses to the assessment. And that's really hard to teach, too!”

He seemed to realize what a major conundrum he’d presented, and paused for a moment. “This is one of the things that I think makes human capital really interesting as a problem space and, frankly, it's why I'm interested in it. The problem itself is really hard and not easily quantifiable. Data and operations are hugely important, but data and operations are tools. They are arrows in your quiver that allow you to solve a problem. They are not the solution to the problem. I use Ashby's stuff all the time and there are very few reports, if any, that I can build an Ashby that tell me what the actual answer to a problem is. More often what recruiting data points you towards is what the question you need to be asking is, and then you have to use your own quality understanding of what's happening in the space and your own sense of empathy to find the solution to that problem.”

That telescoping back and forth between qualitative and quantitative is what makes the recruiting space so challenging, but it’s also why Daniel thrives here. “What do you actually need to be measuring? Can you measure it? How can you measure it? What are you using to measure it? How do we understand the results of the tool we're using to measure it? Each of those things is really difficult to do, and you have to do all of them well in order to construct an interview process that actually gets you what you want.”

Learning from higher ed

Recruiting operations has learned so much from sales and revenue, Daniel said. These are industries that have undergone huge changes in the last two decades. “Sales used to be about finding the right most charismatic sales people that you can and allowing them to use brute force charisma to achieve deals. And so many early stage companies, that's the way they approach recruiting. They find a high charisma, brute-force recruiter who goes in and uses that charisma to close candidates.” But it doesn't need to be a brute-force activity when data and analysis could take the field so much further.

“It’s understanding cohort analysis,” Daniel suggests, “Understanding customer life cycles, customer journeys. Marketing can calculate a customer’s lifetime value. And if you understand customer lifetime value and the factors that go to it, then you can find segments of the market that are cost efficient to go after and acquire. Because if you know what the cost of acquisition is, and it's low enough, and you know what their value's going to be over time, you know, exactly which deals are worth pursuing and which are not. The same thing could be done in recruiting on the op side. Can we assess an employee's lifetime value to the company? Do we achieve a higher employee lifetime value by going after someone who is well-seasoned, who will pop into the role and get bored after a year and a half and go elsewhere, or do we find a higher lifetime value by finding somebody who's junior, bringing them in, having a longer ramp period, training them up, and then retaining them for longer?”

Though he’s asking big questions, Daniel doesn’t claim to have all the answers. “I actually don't know which of those outcomes is better or worse for which roles at which companies. But neither do the companies in question! But an organization of any real size or scope has a marketing or sales team that understands exactly what those metrics are for the people they target.” So why not recruiting, too?

“Programs like recruiting acquire debt, the same way that your technology acquires debt, and there are trade offs that you make between long-term vision and short-term gains. And if you optimize for short-term gains over long-term vision, you accumulate more debt. And that's not to say it's a bad outcome, but companies need to be mindful of the system they use and which debts they acquire.” But, Daniel says, companies are making a mistake by thinking they can wait.

“Lots of companies wait until they get to 150 or 250 people before where they start thinking about what the structure needs to look like in HR and in recruiting,” he said. “If you wait until you get to that size point, you've accumulated a lot more debt than if you start thinking about what that work looks like early. Earlier stage companies, if you believe in your own success and you have enough faith in your own success, then you have to be thinking about your systems. What kind of systems allow for us to have a recruiting engine that supplies itself efficiently, effectively? Well, with high quality, high caliber talent, where our success and failure in this function does not rely on a single person, their historical knowledge, and their individual charisma based ability to close candidates.”

You can find Daniel on LinkedIn.

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