We know that the cybersecurity industry has a skills gap and talent shortage. We also know that hiring from a larger, more diverse talent pool may be a good place to start. But how does diversity, equity and inclusion feed into tech recruitment? James Stanbridge, Head of Product at Omnilndex, sat down with Business Development Manager at OmniIndex Lucy McKechnie to discuss the subject. The pair sat down in advance of IFA Berlin 2023, which is currently taking place.
James Stanbridge has over 3 decades of experience leading teams and overseeing recruitment at some of the biggest companies in tech. Including AltaVista, Microsoft, and Oracle. He is now working with Web3 Data Platform OmniIndex as their Head of Product and is orchestrating a large-scale hiring process for OmniIndex and their international partners. Throughout this time and his over 300 hires, James has championed diversity and inclusion. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes business sense too.
What made you first take notice of diversity in the hiring process?
Quite transparently, it was to gain a competitive advantage.
I was in charge of hiring at a large company and we needed to make sure we got the best possible candidates to give us the edge over our competitors. Rather than going after the same pool of people as our rivals and the same sorts of people the company had traditionally employed, I instead widened it out. And you know what? As well as having more choice in who to hire, we also found people who could not just do the job as well if not better than the traditional candidates, but who could also bring something new to the team and improve us as a collective with new ideas and perspectives.
At the end of the day this is what your job is all about as an employer! Hiring the best possible team.
Interesting! But forgive me for saying this, is that not quite a clinical reason? As opposed to focussing on diversity and inclusion for the sake of betterment?
Maybe, yes. But in my experience the strongest and easiest way to bring about any sort of long lasting change is to produce results and to improve the bottom line. Otherwise an initiative may well run for a month or so as a PR stunt, but it’ll be dropped at the next round of cuts.
As such, it’s really important to make the case that hiring a more diverse workforce is simply good maths. And in complete honesty and transparency, it actually is.
Okay, that makes sense. So where do we start?
People have to start by getting out of their own way. By this, I mean that people have to consider their built in biases and actively work against them.
For example, if I asked you now to imagine a tuba player – the big brass instrument – and then describe them to me, what would you say?
I don’t know? I would probably say a man, just due to the size of the instrument, maybe glasses as he will be reading sheet music (which can be small). Wearing jeans and a shirt?
Right! I’ve asked this question at a lot at different talks on diversity over the years, and I can only remember one person ever saying a woman. Quite often people say an overweight man too, probably based on the instrument size, and then they add in some other aspects too along the lines of being a retired military figure. Though I think you’re the first person to ever include glasses.
But that’s not really the point here. The point is that I asked you to picture someone doing a particular job, and you imagined who you think would do that role. So if you were then going to hire a tuba player, the chances are you would seek a candidate who matched that image because that’s who you pictured all along.
I see! So how does someone go about making sure this doesn’t actually influence them?
You first have to acknowledge that it does. We all have these biases – either due to our own personal experiences, or from cultural expectations and biases ingrained in our communities, or from a hundred different reasons. We all have them. So it’s crucial we first discover what they are so we can then make sure they don’t control us.
And then it’s based on actually considering each candidate for a role based on how well they could actually do it. As at the end of the day, that’s what actually matters! Not if someone matches your previous expectations of who a candidate should be, but if that candidate can actually do a good job or not.
And this is where inclusion comes into play? Not just considering a wider pool of candidates, but actually then hiring them?
Exactly. Have you heard about the unhappily bald man with the hairy chest?
Well, they’ve solved ½ of their problems. They’ve really perfected the method of production, but they’ve not worked out the distribution yet.
This topic is similar. Once we’ve all figured out diversity, we still then need to focus as much effort on inclusion and equity too. And this means not just widening our pools of potential candidates and hiring those who are good for the roles, but then making sure they’re given the platforms to succeed. It doesn’t matter what the job is – from a new blockchain engineer intern through to a head of business development – you have to make sure the person hired has the opportunity to succeed by giving them the needed opportunities and platform.
This can sometimes be very uncomfortable for the person, and it can take a lot of work because of both deliberate and passive obstructions, but it has to be done. Because as soon as someone is in those positions and is doing their job, and doing it well, people will see how stupid it was to keep them out.
But this doesn’t mean doing what I’ve seen at so many companies! Which is putting their one diverse hire forward for all PR and inclusivity opportunities. Because however good your new UI designer is, they may be rubbish at chairing discussions and putting forward ideas. No. Instead, it comes back to what I’ve said, which is hiring someone who is right for the role and then putting them forward for opportunities that let them shine.
But this is one of the problems! Quite often we see that because certain types of candidates are always getting the jobs, those who fall outside of those categories don’t have the experience needed for these roles and so we can’t know as employers if they will indeed shine. How do people address that?
Now that’s the real question. Thank you. I think this comes down to really knowing what you want from the hire – in terms of both the job at hand, and in terms of improving the team as a collective.
Take you for example, I was involved in bringing you into your role at OmniIndex and I think it’s fair to say that you didn’t have the most experience in business development on your CV. However, you had exactly the qualities that we were looking for and needed. And the proof is in the results as a year later you’ve risen to management and have brought in a number of really great customers off the back of your work and the connections you’ve made.
Thank you once again for the job! But I guess that knowledge can only come with experience though? Knowing what sort of characteristics are needed for a role beyond the obvious relevant work experience and traditional education?
That’s very true, yes, and it’s hard to say this without coming across as showing off, but having been responsible for recruitment over a number of decades in a number of countries and for some of the biggest companies in the world, I can say I have developed those skills.
But this also raises a second issue, which is that because of traditional hiring habits and the lack of diversity and inclusion often found there, certain types of people have actually been sadly put off from applying to these roles.
I’ll give you an example. I worked for Microsoft in Shanghai for a few years and was put in charge of recruiting my own team from scratch. After the first few rounds of applicants and interviews, I still hadn’t hired anyone and the recruiters came to me to ask for clarification on what I was looking for. When I outlined my requirements around being curious and always challenging and questioning technical expectations and ‘norms’, I was told that these kinds of people tend not to get accepted onto the relevant courses and so weren’t being targeted. After a few more conversations, we worked out where we would find people with these characteristics instead and ended up placing mouse mats in internet cafes around the city saying that Microsoft were hiring and giving details on how to apply.
A few months later, I hired my team off the back of these new applicants and we thankfully met our targets and brought the new product to market.
Omnilndex are currently exhibiting at IFA Berlin.