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Max Armbruster
Max Armbruster
CEO Talkpush

Geeking Out with the Competition - Recruiter Chatbots with Dave Mekelburg from Wade and Wendy

Episode 14 full cover (1)In this episode of the Recruitment Hackers Podcast, Max interviews Chief of Staff/Head of People, Dave Mekelburg from Wade and Wendy. In a refreshing conversation these two “competing companies” talk shop about recruiter chatbots, the importance of conversational design, and the innovations in candidate experience that have paved the way for humans to warm up to the bots.

 

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Welcome to the Recruitment Hackers Podcast. A show about innovation, technology and leaders in the recruitment industry brought to you by Talkpush the leading recruitment automation platform.

 

Max: Hello, and welcome back to the recruitment hackers podcast. Today I have a very special guest on the show. I normally talk to people from the practitioner side. But today  I have the pleasure, the awkward pleasure of talking to what may be perceived by others as a peer or competitor as the chief of staff for Wade and Wendy.

 

Wade and Wendy is one of  the early companies that got into the conversational AI for recruitment space and I first heard about this company, I think five years ago at the very beginning. Dave Mekelburg is the chief of staff and joining us today  for a chat, which will be a little different and a little bit more about, I suppose, about chatbots. Right Dave? If that's okay with you. Welcome to the show!

 

Dave: Great to be here. Always excited to talk about chatbots. I don't get to do it enough. Especially in this context. And I will say, you know, I cheat a little bit. So I'm our chief of staff and also our head of people. So I am technically a practitioner.

 

I do oversee our recruiting and hiring. So I can speak a little bit to that. So I won't be a total foreigner, but I'm very excited to talk about chatbots and talk about, you know, what's happening in the recruitment mission: “hacking”. 

 

Max: Awesome. Were you the guy who came up with the job title conversational designer?

 

Dave: Oh, that's a good question! 

 

Max: I picked that out from a blog post. By your CEO. And I saw that conversational designer and I fell in love with it so much that I immediately posted for that job, myself at Talkpush, you know, within a week. And I started collecting applications. We hire a bunch now, and it has taken off, and I always thought maybe you guys came up with the term.

 

Dave: Oh, I would love to take credit for that. Let me think where we first probably encountered it. So there were some early, going way back in time, like PullString, which was like a Pixar backed, conversation design platform. We had met their team and they had somebody, they call it a conversation designer. I think Apple, in Siri, I think a lot of this Siri team was starting to use that phrase. But you know, certainly when we posted that job it got some ice, because people were like, conversation designer? I've never heard of that. 

 

Max: Yeah. We got the same thing. And I also... One of my heads of conversational design, she said that when she changed her job title from product manager to conversational designer, the volume of interest she got on LinkedIn also showed up. Considerably. So it's not a good retention strategy, maybe a good hiring strategy. Conversational designer. Great place. A great way to advertise, but also not a great retention strategy because people will come out and try to hire them away from you.

 

And so maybe if I'm lucky, I'll find out who came up with that term. And I'll be on a goose chase, Dave  I'll start looking at the people at Siri or at Apple to see if I can find the person who coined that. But yeah. Definitely chatbots have been around for longer than we've been around.

 

Dave: That's definitely true, but they've, It's the rate of change... And I think you've probably seen us over the last few years. The rate of change has been astronomical and just in terms of the penetration, the familiarity from the average person that's interacting with the chatbot. When we first started, we were doing user testing and, you know, having people chat with the bot about work. Like talk to me about what it is you want to do and what it is you'd like to do.

 

And it was such a novel experience for people. And now, you know, really up and down the... You know, across the country, in every corner. Everyone has some experience with a chabot, whether it's, you know, through a bank teller or through a customer service bot, the depth of penetration has gotten beyond people that are interested in technology or people that are interacting with the hot new FinTech startup, things like that. 

 

And really gotten into the hands of the average person so that, you know, when we started, we built so much into the experience to make sure that this was intuitive and it didn't scare people that might have some emotional anxiety about talking to a bot or about AI and automation in their lives. And get them to put trust in helping us get them the right opportunity and that we're in between them and the right job.

And that's the responsibility that we take really seriously. And we had to build an experience where people would trust and believe that we would guide them appropriately. Given that it's a technology experience. And I do think over the last few years, that comfort, that familiarity just looking at the feedback that we get and things like, that there's way less “wow I've never  seen this before,” to “what a high quality conversational experience.” We get feedback about the conversation design and that's just something that I think a few years ago, your average, you know, sales person and applying for an entry level job wasn't leaving feedback about our bots conversational design. 

 

Max:  I got completely thrown off. You're putting me back to 2018 or 2017, I was in India meeting with, I think it was Expedia, and I was presenting our technology chatbots for recruitment. And this gentleman, this engineer that I met started showering me with questions about natural language processing and how intensely have we mapped that out? And what is our taxonomy of not being tense? And I thought, where did I step into, I don't know, half the words he's using. But I haven't had that experience too often. Still most people  they're past the point of, I've never worked with a chatbot before. They still feel like it's a bit of a dirty word, and that it may ruin the candidate experience, but obviously if they're working with us they are past that as well. 

 

I guess it's a bit of a marketing job to change the perception and say, well it's not a chat bot, it's a conversational agent or, you know, it's a virtual agent, just different ways  of renaming it.  Our system is very much built on the handover to the human and having a hybrid experience, I think, and this is perception. I haven't really tested your product, but I think Wade and Wendy comes from a deep tech expertise where you have PhDs who work in your company. And so you're building intelligence that works without the human intervention, perhaps. 

 

Dave: Yeah. So, the notion of human intervention is a really interesting one. So let me lay out for you, a little bit of how we approach this problem. Right? And where we started from. We started from a place of recruiting that we saw. Our CEO and founder is pretty adventurous for deep tech and wearables for manufacturing and farming, you know, deep marketing tech in the early days of that industry. His first job out of college was as a recruiter, and he felt that pain of I love the problem. And everyone at our organization to a T, it's something that we screened for in our hiring process, is really excited about solving the hiring problem. Which is getting people the right opportunity as fast as humanly possible.

 

And that experience kind of started it, you know, it is what bubbled this up. And there's so much wasted space when it comes to the recruiting process. So much time spent looking up email addresses and a dozen tools. And you know, spending all your time on LinkedIn, crafting the perfect email, you know, having the same 15 minute conversation over and over again, only to find out that the candidate, actually moved two years ago and they're not really, you know, they're not open to working in your location, all this kind of running in place.

 

And you're never sure when you're a human recruiter connecting with a candidate, if this is the right fit. And as a candidate, you're not sure, like is it worth my time to even connect with this recruiter? And you have this kind of core problem in place, that we wanted to take that deep tech and automation approach to, which was, we want to clear out all of the road recruiting tasks that get in the way of humans coming together. So, when you say human intervention, our goal is to have as little human intervention in the bot, the chat experience itself. So, you know, in terms of what we do, our platform helps automate. And for an enterprise company it helps automate three core functions. Sourcing. So identifying a candidate for a role, engaging them in an informational interview. Getting them excited about the opportunity, a few basic qualifying questions, and if they're a fit, bringing them into the hiring process. Screening, so somebody applies to a job. They go through a first round, deep dive interview with our bot, all kinds of written texts.

 

And the last is coordination. So scheduling, messaging, you know, don't forget your interview is tomorrow at 1:00 PM that kind of work. Our goal is to do all that. So recruiters can come in and see, okay, this candidate is excited, they check off all the boxes. Here's the AI recommendation that is leading to me to believe they're a fit. And I'm sure that this candidate is worth my time. Now let me as the recruiter, build a relationship, guide them to the hiring process and, you know, help get them across the finish line. 

 

We do believe that ultimately recruiting is still always going to boil down to a human decision making process. On the other side of the equation, we have a candidate facing a bot. So Wendy works at the enterprise and Wade, we put out into the world as kind of an AI career guide, and you chat with Wade about what you've done in the past, what you'd like to do there, and personality tests. So you can get a real sense of who you like to work with, how you like to work, why you work?

 

Is it a matter of, I just want to grow my career in whatever way possible. I want to maximize my salary because I want to be able to take... 

 

Max: Wait, wait… Is this Wendy or Wade?

 

Dave: This is Wade. 

Max: I would actually open up more to a Wendy than I would to Wade, but fine. 

 

Dave: So this is one of the things. And, I'm going to ask you a question, which I hope is not too uncouth because, you know, I'm on your show. One of the things that we saw from the beginning, which we were not ready for was: There's something about when you know you're chatting with an AI personality, and I know for you and for us,  that's key to the experience. Is letting people know, hey, this is not an immediate personality.

 

There is a level of trust, people don't feel judged. And not everyone wants to open up to it necessarily, but we had in our early days, we had candidates sharing stories that recruiters, you know, that have been doing it for 20 years had never heard. People surviving, you know, terrorist attacks, people going into depth about a personal tragedy that they had overcome, and how it related to the job that they were applying for. And these really deeply personal stories. And when we would conduct, you know, surveys and user interviews afterwards, there's this theme of, you know, I wasn't sure about this, but once I started talking, I realized, you know what? I can just tell my story. And I can get it out of the way, and there's no judgment.

 

And, you know, work is such a personal, specific context. Right? And I would love to hear from your side of the table, like what do you see when people are interacting with Talkpush? Like, how do they feel about it? 

 

Max: Well, first, to your points, I think it's a good medium for getting stuff out that would be sensitive. So, an exit interview would be a good medium to use chatbots because, you know, you're talking to an AI. And so you can say things as they are a little bit more, perhaps than if you're talking to HR. Because HR can pull back your salary, but the AI is not gonna hold back, hopefully.

 

And on the matter of people opening up. We do, you know, very large volumes and most of it is organizing, and sourcing, and screening, and coordinating. But really, we try to keep the sourcing bids, which is like asking questions directly to the job as lean as possible.

 

And then screening is also quite lean and this is the bulk of the volume. And we collect answers that are text, but also audio and video. So a video is the chance for people to express their creativity and we see some nice things there, of course. And on text it's usually a little bit faster, because people are on their mobile phones and they're not going to go on forever.

 

So yeah, that's how I would describe it, but there are  different pools of population because we work in eight or ten countries that have different reactions. So in some markets, the people are more warm and they try to convince the bots to, you know, treat them nice and put them at the top of the list. Then there's more flowery language. 

 

Dave: Yeah. I'll never forget. The first time we had, you know, Wendy the chat bot personality that is doing the interviewing basically, “she's the recruiter”. And, we had somebody go through an interview and at the end, you know, we have a little wave emoji and Wendy says, you know like, thank you so much the human hiring team will get back to you. Something like that, something from the early days, whatever it said. And people were responding, Thanks, Wendy. Hope you have a great day! And people know Wendy is a robot. We had like robot jokes in some of the early chats, like people knew. But you know, there's that notion of, well if I'm going to chat with it, I'm going to treat it like a, you know, like it's a thing, like I'm going to call it by its name. It's Wendy!

 

Max: We got the same thing. I mean, it got to the point of like, Oh I really hope that you're going to get back to me sooner because I really need this job because blah, blah, blah my daughter needs a surgery something like this.

 

Dave: Oh my goodness. Yeah...

 

Max: At the end of the application process. Which, you know, I mean it makes my heart bleed, of course, but the bot doesn't have a heart! 

 

Dave: Sorry. There's nothing in our evaluation algorithm about, you know…

 

Max: Additional circumstances. 

 

Dave: Yeah.

 

Max: All right. Well, let's switch gears a little bit, and maybe it sounds like we should have a separate podcast where we put our bot people with your bot people and sharp out stories. That would be fun. It would be for a different kind of audience, my audience are mostly TA professionals, and  they could get a little bit bored. So, one thing that... We kind of started at the same time, right? So when did you launch a Wade and Wendy? 

 

Dave:  Wade and Wendy started in, you know, like on the couch, like a dollar and a dream idea in 2015. And we've been building ever since. 

 

Max: Yeah. So around the same time, I may be a few months older, but we only did our first text bot in 2016. After our initial run was doing IVR voice collection over the phone. 

 

Dave: Awesome. 

 

Max: And sometimes people ask me, are you still a startup? And I don't know what to tell them because, yeah, the company is more mature five years in, but people want to work in a startup because it's cool and exciting. How do we keep it cool and exciting by, you know five years in, when we have not yet totally taken over the world? Certainly our numbers are very high and, you know, we have purpose around that, but yeah, what are your thoughts on how to keep it fresh? And I'm also curious, you know, to extend a little bit the conversation, on the retention number, which is too high. 

 

Dave: Oh, interesting. 

 

Max: Because I think like the company from 5 years ago did not need the same people as it does now.

 

Dave: Yep. So that's... What a question! I'll work backwards. I'll enter that first because I think that will help inform sort of, how do you keep it fresh? You know, I think. I completely agree with your point, which is that, you know, at every stage of a company you need different types of personality.

 

The reality on the ground was really different. When we were tackling an incredibly difficult idea in an immature tech space and market, you know, in 2015, 2016, really up until probably like early 2019. It was when we would talk to prospective clients, we had to explain what a chatbot was, what AI was, why HR was going to benefit from AI and what that even meant. When it came to the problems that we were solving and  just the ability to manage a chat conversation and what that took. And understanding from a design and conversation perspective, through the hard tech of, you know, how do you build for the future with this? 

 

It was so much open field, just an empty meadow with grass in every direction. And we had to walk forward. Right? And that is not for everybody, that level of uncertainty of rapid rate of change, of you know, chaos to a degree because I'll never forget when we went live with the first customer, because you know I'd been on a zero to one startup journey before, so I had a distinct memory then of what happened and how disruptive and special having a client like was to, you know, an organization that was, you know, under the hood, trying to solve these deep tech problems.

 

Certainly we had user testing all the time, but it's so different when you're actually live. So you know, the person that is engaged and excited, with that chaos, and certainly we do have a chunk of our core team that has been with us from those early days, you know, when you get to a level of, okay this is a thing, and there's still so much green grass and there's still so much to do, but there is a clear pathway and the people that we have now, you know, there are people that I think if they had joined the organization four or five years ago, it would have been miserable. You know, being the fifth person on a team, trying to solve this as a really different lived experience than, you know, being an employee 12 or 15 or 20 or whatever it is. And that changes as you go.

 

Max: Some people would be addicted to startup after startup after startup. And you see those resumes where people spend 6 to 12 months and, you know, you're thinking, okay either this person has serious ADD and is not reliable or perhaps, that's just the way gear. They just have to go at the earliest stage and just keep doing that over and over again. 

 

Dave: I call it. I have this notion, that we talk about a lot, which is startup time. And the earlier you are at a startup, both in terms of company size and like development life cycle, if it's a tech startup. Those early days, every month, you should count as six months!

 

So, you know, six months at an early stage startup, when it's five people, feels like three years of sort of life experience. And as the company grows, as things become more predictable, that starts to flatten out. We're like, okay, five years at, you know, a late stage tech company is five years. But if you're part of that first year, there's so much emotion and complexity and raw hours that go into those early days that it's almost as if you're operating on a different calendar.

 

And certainly there are people, you know, that were on our journey for six months, you know, we have a couple of those, especially some junior folks that were interns and things like that. And you know, to this day we have relationships as if we've worked together for a decade, just because those six months really forged that time. And it was a really wonderful kind of moment for all of us. 

 

Max: So, your alumni, your best alumni, they stay in the startup world for the most part? They moved on to their own thing? 



Dave: It depends. And we've watched people go to a giant company and then realize like, you've been at it for long enough where a couple of people now in the second thing afterwards, worked for, you know, a fortune 50 company for a couple of years, and we're like, no I missed that! So most went on to start ups, in some capacity, but a handful went to the big places where everybody else is.

 

Max: Yeah it paid the bill!

 

Dave: Yeah, what motivates you is different for everybody. And if it's an awesome paycheck, which you can really get at a giant company, then, you know, by all means go after it. 

 

Max: I think so, right? I was saying conversational designers will find jobs and you can go work for Microsoft anytime, and probably get something there. 

 

Well, other tips, that I can appropriate, on how to keep the excitement strong? Especially in these troubled times where we cannot see each other in person? 

 

Dave: So this is the advice that I got.  Hopefully you can use it. Both you Max and you felt listener at home, or wherever you're listening to this. You know, when one of the things that... The entire employee life cycle is tied together. Right? So from the first time you hear about a company that you might work for in the recruiting process to, you know, 20 years down the line, when you're an AVP and just continuing to kind of move up the ranks, whatever it might be.

 

But the best organizations that I've seen, really do illuminate their entire process with that organization's mission. Right? And, you know, I think about, you know, companies where I've gotten to see this up close are organizations like, you know... And I'm not... Some of these are clients, some of these are just companies where I've gotten the chance to talk to leaders and hear what they have to say. But I think about companies like PepsiCo or Comcast that have a real kind of message infused in what being an employee there means. And what the goals of that organization mean to kind of the broader world. 

 

Max:  wait a minute! PepsiCo, is the mission to sell more sugar? 

 

Dave: So it's, it's fascinating. PepsiCo has a wide range, and I have no affiliation with PepsiCo. So, I've just heard people at PepsiCo speak about their culture. So PepsiCo's internal mission is really oriented around diversity and personal development. So yes, they are selling corn chips and sugary drinks, and, a whole bunch of other things, which is, you know these are the complexities in the modern world, but internally in terms of their company’s culture and what they do. They are deeply engaged with bringing their workforce into the community with service projects. They are one of the most diverse, leadership organizations. The fact that I even know this stuff just tells you see how, and again, I have no connection to PepsiCo whatsoever.

 

The way they communicate that brand, the way it filters out throughout the organization keeps people, you know, not just engaged and motivated in a kind of transactional way, but in a deep way, people are committed to the development of the organization. Now selling sugary drinks isn't necessarily what drives me every day, you know, but for us, we're lucky and I'm sure you feel the same way. We're oriented towards this really powerful problem. Right? Every day I get to come to work and I get to work on. Chipping away at the massive unemployment crisis that is affecting, you know, hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

 

I get to work on issues of representation and diversity by trying to remove bias in the hiring process. I mean, if your work, if you're a recruiter, if you're a TA person and you're thinking about your team. Your team is on the front lines of some of the most important decision making that human beings make. where do they choose to work. Where they choose to spend their time. 

 

Max: It affects society.

 

Dave: It's such an important thing. And, you know we do a lot to remember that. And to talk about that, we have an internal mantra, that we call 60 to 6, which is, today the average job search in America, and it's different the world over, but the majority of our team is based in the US. So this is the number we use.

 

The average job search takes 60 days. So when you're looking for work, whether you're unemployed or you've decided it's time for a change, the average job search takes 60 days. We want to create a world where it takes 6. We want to make hiring 10 times faster, where you're not spending all your time searching and trying to eliminate the right and wrong job. We want the right job to come to you, and you are able to just opt in. 

 

For the recruiter, they don't have to spend all this time searching for candidates and putting people to the process. You just get the right candidate, you know they're the right candidate because you have all this data to suggest that it's the right candidate, and how it maps on to their future work at your organization. 

 

This notion of 60 to 6 and removing, you know, 54 days of not knowing how you're going to pay your bills, not knowing what you're going to be doing with yourself, just going crazy, sitting by yourself, like that is so powerful and illuminating. And, you know, I think that really helps keep things fresh. And for a startup, this is a little more specific to startup context, you keep hitting milestones along the way, right? You're never done. It's never like, okay, this is over. It's like we got this contract, or we're able to release this functionality, or this thing that we've been talking about for five years, since this was an idea on the couch, is now about to go live because of the work of dozens of people across the globe.

 

That is so cool. and when you get to celebrate those kinds of victories, you know, it's just a reminder of why you get up and do all the unglamorous things that being at a startup requires. Cause it's not, I'm probably making it sound all, you know, sunshine and lollipops, but you know, it's a lot. And there's a lot of work that a big team in money can solve that you have to be scrappy and you have to find your clever way around it. And just one at a time. 

 

Max: Yeah. I think we're lucky or maybe not lucky. We picked the industry we chose to go after. And that was one of the reasons I would personally not be motivated to sell sugary drinks. But, you know, I'm gonna use what you said about PepsiCo and go chase some sponsorship money from Mountain Dew for this podcast. 

 

Dave: Yeah. A really extreme podcast!

 

Max: Yeah. Great. Well, we could go on all day on these topics, and maybe we'll talk again, and maybe we'll have our bot people have a separate chat, but it was a real pleasure, a real treat having you on the show. Dave, thank you so much for sharing and, all the best  to you and your 60 to 6 mission! I'll see if I can tweak it and personalize it for my team.

 

Dave: I would love that. Look, this is a, you know, one of the things that we talk a lot about, is that this is a community, right? And, you know, if you're solving these problems, these problems are bigger than any group, any company, things like that. And it's always exciting to talk to other people who care about these issues.

 

So thank you so much for having me. I am excited to get to talk with you about this in this setting. And yeah, hopefully people are ready to chat with a bot about work now.

 

Max:  All right. Awesome. Thanks Dave. 

 

Dave: Thanks Max. 

 

Max: I had such a great time interviewing Dave Mekelburg Chief of staff, Head of People at Wade and Wendy. It's often an experience running a startup, which is very competitive, where  you're trying to grab the headlines and grab market share from your competition. And it's so refreshing and so nice to meet the competition. And remember that you are working on problems that are much bigger than your own. And much bigger than your own company. And then we had so much to learn from each other. So thanks Dave for participating. I hope you enjoyed our conversation, and I hope it didn't get too geeky for you, that you'll sign up for more on the recruitment hackers podcast.

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