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    Max Armbruster
    Max Armbruster
    CEO Talkpush

    Building a TA tech stack one priority block at a time - Ward Christman from HR Tech Advisor

    Episode 32 full coverDigital recruitment veteran Ward Christman, talks about the opening of TA tech. As a creator of the OG job board back in the early 90s (before the Internet was mainstream!) he’s got quite a lot of insights. He expects the trend for point solutions to grow as TA teams have the opportunity to build out their tech stacks depending on their most important pain points at the time. Gone are the days of having to buy a huge system with features you don’t really need, but rather having a roadmap and adding solutions that benefit your budget and solve the problems of today. What this really means for vendors? Time to play nice.

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    Don't feel like listening? You can read the entire transcript right here. 👇


    Max: Hello, welcome back to The Recruitment Hackers Podcast. I'm your host Max Armbruster, and today on the show, joining us from, I believe Philadelphia. Ward, Christman. Hi Ward. 


    Ward: Hello, great to be on. Thanks for having me.


    Max: My pleasure. So, are you in Philadelphia? Did I get that right?


    Ward: That's the, the general area. We're about almost an hour west of the country somewhat, but yeah.


    Max: In the pine trees somewhere?


    Ward: Actually not that many pine trees around here mostly of the big leafy kind that people love raking up and fall.


    Max: Okay. Well I met Ward a few years ago, in Boston, in an event organized by HR tech tank, where we were a strategic advisor. But today Ward is the co-founder and chief advisor for the HR tech alliances, which you can go on and works with as an advisor to HR tech vendors around the world. And so, I hope we'll take this opportunity to talk to, to share some of your insights on the challenges felt by the buyers, which are the TA directors, and the TA departments all over the world. When dealing with vendors, and the fact that the HR stack keeps growing and growing, and it becomes more work to manage the integration, than it is to manage the vendors, actually I imagined at a pretty fast rate for some of them. So that's the direction in which this conversation will go. But before we go that word for audience, I'm sure they'd love to hear a little bit about your background and where, how you ended up being this matchmaker for the HR tech world which is quite a niche role, but I believe you're, you were a long time ago you were an engineer, and then an entrepreneur, an HR tech entrepreneur as well.


    Ward:  That's right. Yeah, engineering was great building plutonium factories and all kinds of weird stuff, but actually it wasn't for me. But somebody introduced me to the internet back in like 1989-99 range. And it was just text based and I thought this might go somewhere so I actually left engineering and started one of the first job boards. Before the web was even commercialized so I told them. But, yeah, it's coming up on 30 years and I ran a job board for, gosh, how many years was it nine years and then crash.


    Max: I am logging into your LinkedIn profile, it says, from 92 to 2001 year you ran, so yeah that's nine years.


    Ward: Yeah, it was a great run and got a couple, you know, master level I think degrees out of it, you know, how to raise money what not to do, especially when crash or 911 type activities. 


    Max: Perfect timing.


    Ward: Yeah, exactly. So it's just like, you know, the COVID pandemic and all that stuff it's like yeah I kind of feel like I've been through the wringer a few times so we actually grew last year and you know it wasn't by accident, because there's just different ways to take on things but from a talent acquisition leader standpoint, obviously, those of you that are lucky to have your job, and are able to keep your technology if your budgets didn't get slashed that's wonderful. If you didn't, you know we're doing now to maybe rebuild it or is it with the coming recovery let's put it that way are you going to rebuild your tech stack and what are the what are good approaches or bad approaches we've seen it all over the years and you know it's it's great to have a chance to kind of have an open dialogue about how.


    Max: I think nothing is completely new,every mistake has already been made. And so you're, you're reminiscing without giving us specifics on some of the mistakes, you did a, a few decades ago. Coming into what was at the time, Armageddon, the end of the world,, boom bust which was just when I was graduating from school, by the way, so I entered a market with high unemployment, no prospect, and everybody in my MBA was talking about the paradigm shift and the internet economy. And then as soon as I graduated, I mean I was talking like one of those startup guys but there was no startup jobs to be had anymore.


    Ward: Yeah. But they're, I mean they're out there now for sure and as you can imagine, in  recruiting tech. I mean how many of those are started by a staffing leader. If not internal and certainly a recruiting company or staffing company right. We're like, oh can do it better than bullhorn or whoever and, and then they build it and guess what the tools are so much easier every year. There's more and more tools that you can build your own thing. And some companies as we know, build their own ATS and stuff like that. Yeah, we have 457 ATSs that we are tracking down in our database, and I'm sure we're probably missing half of them on a global basis. So, why would a company build an ATS cheaper to go buy one especially if you wanted to own it.


    Max: It'd be cheaper to buy an ATS company you mean.


    Ward: Yeah, exactly. Right. It's so true. But, you know, I remember a few years back, Facebook recruiter called me and said hey we're building our own ATSs once you know your background and product and the product projects before IBM took over. Do you want to consider for this job and like you're building your own business to take out the market. I mean if it's take out the market. Yeah, talk about just gonna build it and run it in the house. Why would it. Why would you do that? Of course, you know, Facebook has a few engineers, I get it.


    Max: Yeah, they could build anything they want but...


    Ward: And apparently you know the TA leaders are like, Well, why should we settle for whatever we can build around and they did it. I don't know if they're still good actually but ...


    Max: Google built their own ATS and Microsoft will probably end up buying an ATS so that was, that was the rumor that was being circulated by Chad and Cheese on their podcasts.


    Ward: So these things yeah they continue to happen. And, I mean, I remember six years ago I was running. I was on the blog squad for what was HR tech world now on leaf in Amsterdam and they're like oh hey we want to interview some, we want you to interview some of the folks here at the conference that are speakers and influencers today. Okay, great. And, again, why don't you interview Jason Averbook, and Josh Bersin, like, thanks a lot you know my first time to this event, gives me the two biggest names in the industry to interview on camera. It went great. But I remember talking to Josh Bersin I'm like hey, let's talk about consolidation for a minute right you got big fish even though the small fish. The way I see it, it's gonna keep happening but I see a future where there's more point solutions kind of being assembled in a way that people can use that they don't have to necessarily buy that pre canned giant offering that has everything in it. Right and he totally agreed he said he thinks it's going to get much much worse but more choices more 


    Max: More fragmented.


    Ward: Yeah some of your listeners were like exactly right it's like well, all I need is a chatbot in our current providers is not on the roadmap for another year or two, we need it now. So where do we go look, you know, there's all these choices and there's new ones popping up all the time. That's just one tiny sliver of TA tech stack is helping roleplaying come to market. One of they needed referenceable clients so it helped them get their sales strategy set up and get some of those references with clients. I remember one of them. Because Brad is with Informatica. And like I said he really liked what he has to offer you know how's that gonna fit into your stack and I was expecting you know we've got five or six pieces right he said yeah we got 32 TA tech solutions today in house. This will be 33 a month we'll find a plan like are you kidding me. They were maybe 1000 people or something. How do you have 32? It's unbelievable how many solutions are out there. And that's not even the best.


    Max: But that's a testament to how easy it's become to buy and to start using, I mean, that would be impossible 20 years ago, when everything was on premise to have 2010 solutions.


    Ward: Oh yeah, absolutely. 


    Max: And most of our tracks are not a hard logs right so if they were not useful these 30 Solutions would probably lose the contract within the next year.


    Ward: Well, that's, that's one thing i mean he liked, he liked to play with new tech kind of guy which is great and he commanded the budget to play and that's wonderful. So many early stage companies love to have that. But if you're on the consumer side you're the head of talent acquisition and you're trying to figure out stacks a little wobbly why is that what his issue was in most is how do you get them to talk to each other so you're not doing double entry or triple entry or the data is flowing at the right time or if it's filling in. What we found that one of the reasons we exist, advising the vendor executives is a lot of mark don't even know they're supporting the same client, let alone working together. So our mission in life is to help them discover that. Who else is there supporting that client and get them to play nice in the sandbox, because there's always overlap right. And if there is overlap, how do you keep them from trying to point fingers at each other, and then anybody listening system errors. Like, oh yeah you go call one vendor and complain that hey that data is missing where to go or it didn't get there, while they're gonna say well it's somebody else's fault right and then you ask them and they're like well it was their fault.


    Max: Yes those meetings are happening all the time. And what's the overall trends that you're seeing the sort of five year tenure threads, is it that the vendors are becoming more often are more closed? Are they are they trying because, in 2020, there was consultation people wanted to, to become more essential for their customer, because as budgets were being slashed. They tried to hold on to, as much business as possible and so, in that, in that environment I guess it does not favor a very collaborative mindset because if the pie is shrinking, then everybody wants a bigger slice of it.


    Ward: Right.


    Max: But maybe that's maybe that's a bump on the road. Generally a more a more collaborative mindset and trend or am I being, or is that wishful thinking.


    Ward: Well, yeah, you're right, there's some people panic in the wrong place and I think, you know, last year taught many of us anyway. He had a strong partner network and if you're a consumer buyer these systems. If your vendors aren't playing nicely together in the sandbox. It's only going to get worse when stress levels go up, or if you do have to cut, you know, how do you how do you know what the cut, if anything, You know what's gonna. If it's like Jenga or something and you pull out the wrong piece, the whole thing could come collapsing right and so it's not easy but reality is yeah there's definitely some consolidation, driven by the buyers and I don't see that changing necessarily but what I also do see on the flip side is with more options for better point solutions, more mature point solutions ones that can evolve more quickly. I mean that's the main reason that big fish, eating small fish because they can't, the big ones can't innovate, they're like, Titanic they're, they're great at cruising across the ocean, but they can't maneuver like a smaller boat, that's where the point solutions can really showcase innovation adapt to the environment more quickly. And the only way the big ones are going to get that typically is through acquisition, consolidation. That just leaves a vacuum frankly for innovation to bubble up and take shape.


    Max: Yeah, it seems to me as technologists, that when I, when I hear about this consolidation that happens, and these mega mergers, from a couple of years ago from K1 and Jobvite. And I think you were saying you were involved with withdrawal points. Be familiar this one. That's the the size and ambition of this is that this is a sales driven consolidation like I don't think any engineer came up with the idea. Let's bring all these things together, and it'll be a beautiful product at the end. The engineers will probably still, still wondering, what the hell happen to them, you know, right.


    Ward: Well, actually, we've been talking to a number of different investment groups lately. We're seeing the same thing they're where they're looking at that solution stack and think how do we stuck together solutions that can be an offering in the marketplace right and that's certainly what the job I roll up meant at least to me is how do you fill the gaps without building sides by your partner like some buying going on. Their partner strategies have always been kind of rollercoaster rides from what we've seen. Lot of opportunities I mean Alison, a lot of opportunity for them to really revamp their partner network and make a difference for the customers. Instead of trying to build everything and take tends to take longer than finding a partner. And your question earlier about openness versus closed, definitely seeing a trend more towards the open API's and different ways for the vendors to collaborate share the data, and sometimes invisibly to the customer which is maybe a perfect scenario right where hey if I hire somebody I just want that data to flow through our various system. I don't need to know exactly how it happens or what happens, it's gonna happen reliably save us time and effort, get people on board you know into the company.


    Max: And have you seen some of the employers talent acquisition, folks, start to build in-house system integration teams to serve as the glue between all of these systems is. Does, does a TA director and 2021 need to have an engineering team.


    Ward: They could, and the vendors don't get their stuff together. They might be the only way to fix it. Especially the bigger companies because they've got long term contracts they can't just rip and replace things so easily right, even with open API's and all that. There's a lot of investment, which is why legacy systems need to be named they're still chugging along. You look at the benefits, space, my goodness, they're still sending data back and forth, flat file CSV files. So recruiting, kind of, often the leader of the pack when it comes to using leveraging technology and open API's, but


    Max: It's a little bit more playful, and then perhaps because you're dealing with candidates instead of staff, so you have a little bit more freedom, but also perhaps because you're dealing with the markets, which is every town for every geography has its own dynamic and for the buyer, an opportunity to play and say, Well, I respect our global tech stack but here in dot dot dot, we do things differently, and I have to go. Because they have the budget to spend on advertising and if you can buy an ad in a local newspaper then you can also buy a support service, the same budget. So, That's something that we've been leveraging at Talkpush.


    Ward: Yeah, no, it's, it is charted. Now, more so than anything with work from home policies right we are becoming more global organizations across the board. And not at all HR tech are built to work in all these different local geographies and so forth, local laws all this stuff that varies from state to state sometimes let alone country to country so. And that's what's interesting too, you know, when, I used to do more consulting directly with the employers. If they were on a global footprint my recommendation is that if you need a system that's global, you might want to start looking at solutions built in Europe or something that are kind of more of multi-country enabled out of the box. 


    Max: Yes, yes.


    Ward: Because that's how you operate, whereas in the US, it's like, oh yeah, you know, we got a 100 clients and it's English only, it's only domestic and going to other countries, it becomes a much bigger task than let's say European company I think often coming here to the states to support that.


    Max: Yeah that is actually a lot of European software company in our space which ended up going to the US, right, I mean a lot of the TA tech and HR tech spaces with entrepreneurs from America who are now Americans, but we're not always American, the CEO of Smart recruiters mountain, the founder of Phenom, you know a lot of companies. I'm sure more than half of the CEOs come from abroad, but they end up building American companies. And what I mean by that companies is that have the regulatory framework of US in mind, specifically on the candidate side. A lot of this is around the law employment opportunity, and diversity hiring, which does not work the same way outside of the US. You know, it's very strange for me too, I just took a survey. And  I was asked about my diversity metrics and I'm like I don't know who is the minority in my company, I don't even know I think I'm the minority I don't know. It's also it's just a different narrative outside the US. 


    Ward: Yeah, remember we were trying to figure out who was the client. They had trouble getting all their resumes parsed properly and we had a good parsing partner it was nothing wrong there but all their resumes had pictures on them and the birth date. This was the golden role in that country you know that's just how it was done.


    Max: For sure.


    Ward: The parser wasn't expecting these kind of things yeah so yeah that's it is the global world. You have to really accommodate into one size fits all good luck.


    Max: I can't keep track anymore, which countries are we putting the pictures in and then which countries are we not putting the pictures in, and it's hard to keep track sometimes. 


    Ward: Right. Yeah, yeah, no, it's it's different. So from a consolidation standpoint, certainly we're seeing a lot more we're even, whether it's consolidating or growing, you know the acquisitions sometimes it's the market share. Right, so, others have been buying companies abroad. And I think it's hard actually compared to investing a lot of money in developing new teams to try to make those relationships regarding to sell especially at the enterprise level and in any enterprise level type TA leaders listening is probably the same thing like hey if our abroad type operations want to make their own decisions about their solution if  it works for them, and we still get the global like metrics or whatever we need. Why not have a different ATS in every region or something if that's what it takes to get the right results and maybe aspire to consolidation but. And there's some interesting new groups coming out right now that are continuing to push the envelope of vendor collaboration and data analytics is a great example of one we just had a collaboration done in December on that, and some great innovative solutions presented to influencers in the industry and there's some interesting results from the scores and all that but the feedback that came in was was amazing from a competition standpoint, they realize hey, we've got, whether it be geography or industry or business units. You look at the bigger the company is the more likely they're going to have different systems running in house. How do you get that data across actually need to actually prove results, especially in talent acquisition.


    Max: Yeah.


    Ward: Third Party perhaps even just to help figure out what's there, what do we need to measure, what can you measure, what can you ask to be anonymous. So many rules. But if you don't measure it you can't improve it. Somebody's got to be paying attention.


    Max: Yeah, I really liked the analytics as perhaps the central function that needs to work with every country every geography and bring it all together. You of course also need to have a central employer branding function, low, you would also want to have a local element to that and of course you would want IT to have a central policy around data privacy and personal data for the company. But beyond that, I think, I think a decentralized model probably works best in talent acquisition. That, that's my opinion, and I will keep sharing it with everybody who's willing to listen.


    Ward: Yeah. It's hard to get it right everywhere so stick with best things you have and try to make them work together and you're listening and go for our vendors don't, they don't work together with each other. I mean that's the problem that we try to solve platform level for alliances and partnerships, but also on the advisory side because if you want to keep your customers you got to know what their situation is and the situation is they've got other systems in house, doesn't matter workday Oracle or any of the big shops it's even more so than because there's a lot of holes they know it and even if they don't have the holes that they think they have or don't you know they do they have more than they think they have and their partner networks, need to be strong and plug and play and as I said they can't deliver that companies are going to start, either hiring their own integration experts in house which is sad to see but if that's the only way to solve it so be it.


    Max: And to ask for help or advice on these tricky topics which no, no recruiter, got into recruitment, to do system integration and talk about alliances, like it just happened. So, a lot of them are probably asking for help but how do they get in touch with you.


    Ward: Yeah. So, I guess. Probably the best start would be LinkedIn but not the only word Christman I don't think on LinkedIn but pretty easy to find. Yeah, it's, again, our job is to help vendors better collaborate with common customers and get a better result. So if you have vendors that are collaborating well and you want some help there let us know and make an introduction, we'll see what we can do.


    Max: I've a list. I've a list. I'll send it to you after we're offline. And before we part ways, I wanted to ask you one of my favorite questions is for you is to not think about your current job but think as a practitioner of somebody who's hired people, and as a manager and go back to the days when you made a terrible hiring mistake. I don't want names. I don't want to instant fix, I just want to know what was the terrible hiring mistake that you made and what can we learn from it.


    Ward: Wow, okay. 


    Max: You got a few names I see your eyes are glazing.


    Ward: Yeah so yeah everybody has their own strengths or weaknesses. Right. But I guess one of my bigger mistakes was just believing that somebody had the technical skills that they said they did and just didn't totally fabricated and took a while to uncover that, delayed this was years ago but


    Max: Still remember it. 


    Ward: Yeah, yeah, it's kind of like, I mean that's always the challenge how do you know until they get in front of you but thankfully these days there's so many wonderful tools that can either help assess their technical prowess, at least from a capability standpoint. What do they actually know and there's almost too much information out there now right so good tech partners that can help kind of cut through the details.


    Max: There are some engineers out there who are way better on paper, than in person, or in fact in reality so a good reminder for more to don't skip the technical assessments. It's absolutely time well spent. Even if it's, you know, if it's gonna avoid you one mistake out of 20. That's still a good investment. That's a good investment so add that to your workflow for every position where it's applicable. Right, thanks, thanks Warren. Great to have you. And, well, I'll send you that list of all my naughty partners very shortly.


    Ward: Sounds good, enjoy it. Thanks so much Max. 


    Max: Thanks.


    Max: That was Ward Christman from HR Tech Advisor and HR Tech Alliances. You can connect with him on LinkedIn if you have one of those tech stack headaches they’re trying to solve. And of course as you’ve heard from Ward, there are many companies that are dealing with dozens of different vendors. He was quoting one that had more than 30 different existing software providers on talent acquisition. 


    And so I like to think of it as a trend which will continue to evolve and to enable our audience with more ideas and encourage them to try new tools. But when you do so, to always favor those providers that have open API, good documentation; otherwise you might be accumulating what could be called interoperability debt. That’s the word I’m looking for?


    And just like you can have a technical debt, you can have interoperability debt, which is the concept that if you work with vendors who don’t play well with other vendors it will end up costing you a lot of money. So I hope you enjoyed that.


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