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Max Armbruster
Max Armbruster
CEO Talkpush

How Boston became the "Silicon Valley" of TA Tech

Episode 26 full coverIn this episode of the Recruitment Hackers Podcast, George LaRoque, SVP of Insights at UNLEASH, walks us through his 30 years in the industry and how to spot emerging tech and best recruiting practices by paying close attention to the market. Right now, it’s all about consolidation and ramping up internal analytics and data capacity. 


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


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


Max: Hello, welcome back to the Recruitment Hackers Podcast. I'm your host Max Armbruster and today on the show, I'm delighted to welcome. George LaRocque who is SVP of insights for UNLEASH. Welcome to the show, George. 


George: Thanks Max. Thanks for having me.


Max: Pleasure. George and I met in the real world, a real world event with real people you can touch and feel, right? Well you're not supposed to touch him, but that was in 2018, I think. And, back then unleashed was, I think the leading events company in an HR and TA tech, or one of the leading ones. Anyway, I mentioned you've had a pretty, shocking year. 


George: Yeah. That's to say the least, and I'm sure everybody who's receiving this podcast will nod in agreement. When we met, I think I was partnering with unleash, and my involvement has increased over the last couple of years. So I actually jumped on board in the middle of this craziness, as unleashes moved the business to the media, given that we get to your point, we can't get together physically at the moment.


Max: Right, right. And can you tell us, for the audience, a little bit about your bio, how you ended up being a voice of TA tech? For many of us knowing. Are you a practitioner basically? 


George:  Yeah, I've been in this market. It's just over 30 years now, which is crazy. I spent the first 10 as a practitioner, I came out of the staffing world. Like many people make their transition. I moved from the agency side, where I was working in tech just at the end of the eighties, early nineties, and then moved over 10 years, moved on to  what would have been the client side, into the employer side. 


Then started a consulting firm. What would have been now called an RPO in the Boston area, focused on internet startups and our customers were all involved... Customer was called the monster board. We did all their hiring  in the Boston area for sales. ThreeComma, a Datacom company in the US back at the beginning of like, you know, TCP, IP and networking protocols.


And we did engineering for them, but through that, I jumped onto the tech side. So I spent 10 years in HR technology and I was employee number 10 or 11 at a company called Brass Ring and took them through to 50 million. I had a couple of good runs and  another one people might recognize, I ran global sales for Bull Horn, through their first big VC ramp. Yep. And then I was a general manager at telemetry, which actually was Higher Desk and turned into telemetry and now they are part of Jobvite. And, 10 years ago I started in this advisory and analyst world. And that's what brings us here, it's been an evolution, up to date. And so that's where I am. 


Max: It sounds like you've had some pretty stressful jobs. You were well-prepared for 2020, for a stressful year. Because you were there when beating salesmen Bullhorn was going through its rapid growth phase, I guess from 10 to 100 or 10 to 50, maybe. 


George: That's about right. And you know, to go from, you know, zero customers at brass ring to 50 million in a few years. Right? Yeah. And then to watch the bubble burst in 2000 and be right in the, you know, like sitting on the bubble when it burst then the financial crisis of 2008. I would say the thing that prepares you just in a general sense is stress, but also you get instincts for a down market, you know, that's the part that we've seen before. But even that's different here. It's spotty, like your people are either drowning in. You know, overwhelmed with business, or they can't find it. And there's very little in between. So this is unusual, but yeah, I would say, it didn't make me any more confident than the next person, but I felt like I had some instincts to fall back on.


Max: Yeah. Yeah. I guess, in March and April, I was trying to, yeah. Some up those memories from 2008 because I was a business owner back then already. And I remember the bad news just kinda following each other. It was bad news  like for six months straight.


You just never see the end of it. And so 2020. I think most people knew if I head back into March that, okay, this isn't going to be a bad year.  It's going to stay with us for a while. And, you know, it's hard to know exactly if we're out of this yet, but  it teaches you to be more conservative. I'm sure people have had enough of the gloom. I hear about those businesses that can't keep up with demand. You mentioned some companies are doing super well right now. What are they focused on? 


George: I would say, well in the HR tech space, there are two types of companies that have done well. One, would be those tech providers who were really exclusively marketing into a really large enterprise, and had an established brand, established product. The larger employers have while they may have furloughed or had a reduction in force, you know, within recruiting or HR, some percentage of their workforce. They've also invested in some digital transformation. So we're seeing that, and that's just a fancy way of saying they're upgrading their systems, in some cases. 


Max: So the guy from the eighties, it's coming back. 


George: There you go. Yup. They've crossed the chasm. So there was definitely a tapping of the brakes, you know, April, May. Big companies weren't buying software at that time for a moment. And then, I think as we moved into later in the spring, early summer, some of the vendors that are in that segment had some of their best quarters, deals were accelerated or deals came back to life.


The other type, even where you would expect companies that were marketing into the SMB or middle market would have been hit hard. And that's true. If they were focused with customers, if they were lucky enough to have companies in industries that were, let's say a grocery or a healthcare, or logistics or tech, they did better than they should. 


There were some vendors who cut staff and then grew at a rate greater than they expected,. and which is, you know, it's been such a difficult time for everyone but a lot of folks, a lot of vendors we're really at an early stage, they didn't have any momentum, maybe the product wasn't mature, the point solution. There were some really, tough tales to tell that came out of... There's just bad timing, for them, they weren't able to get out into the market and get that momentum, to sustain. 


Max: You kind of have to be past that certain level of maturity to survive a crisis like this. You are a young team perhaps, and I don't mean like literally more than 12 years old. I mean like, you know, to a point where you have a solid base of customers.


George: Yeah, absolutely. 


Max: And we've seen, in the industry, a lot of consolidation, I guess not everybody in my audience is going to geek out on TA tech news and find out who gets bought by who. But that's your world and, maybe you can tell us, what are some of the negative trends we're seeing. On my side, I saw that there was a lot of movement from companies that were doing video. Video  used to be a category. But I think now video is more of a feature that everybody has. That was my main takeaway. 


George: Yep. I'd agree with that. I think the reason I tell practitioners or leaders in talent acquisition, they should watch both, what's happening in investment and with consolidation is to have a sense of what's coming their way. So if you're looking for the emerging technology, I'm not even talking about the specific vendors but, you get a sense over the period of, you know, a few quarters as to where investments are going on emerging tech, emerging solutions. It might not be emerging tech. It might not be that it doesn't have the bells and whistles, like something conversational, but you may see that, for example, right now there's a lot going into analytics and process management around recruiting.


You might see not a lot is going into job boards anymore at the moment, or marketplaces which surprisingly have led the category for years. You'd see a lot going into internal mobility and matching  and those areas. So you get a sense of what's coming at the same time for consolidation if you're using point solutions and platforms, you particularly get a sense of what those capabilities are at a platform level. 


So if you're using an ATS, what moves are these vendors making? And if you're thinking about your tech stack in the next one - three years, I think it's a good Indicator for trends and you need to solve the problems that you have and seize the opportunities that you need to seize and look for the Cape. And it's not one size fits all out there, but these are things that I think are helpful. In that way.


Max: A lot of the practitioners got into recruitment for the same reasons you did probably. To be on the sell side and busy dealing with people. And, you know, buying tech came as an add on,  not the main thing and a bit of a chore. And, I think last year, people were still. They had a little fun budget that they can spend on where they can try a few initiatives every year. And then some of those customers would sign on because they needed to show initiative. They needed to show I'm going to try something different this year and it looks good on my resume. And this year, maybe that's not so important anymore. It's more about doing more with less and asking more from your existing vendors. 


George: Yeah. Oh, a hundred percent. Another good reason to keep your eye on tech and what's happening, in our market and outside of our market, you know, what's happening in the world of technology? And I'm not one to ever recommend that you would modify, let's say a solution from outside of recruiting, into recruiting. That never goes well, it never scaled. But yeah doing more with less  is something that as I mentioned, you know, there have been a lot of layoffs. There are probably fewer recruiters in any given company and those recruiters are asked to do more and, having a sense of what's available to help accomplish that goal is a good thing. And it tends to look like, I think companies are either forced to address the need to automate tasks and what would be administrative to get the recruiters and the leaders in TA focused, you know, where they need to be. On with candidates, candidate engagement, working within the organization, with managers, working the process you know, they're forced to do it because they're doing more with less, or they're taking that step back.


I think a lot of larger organizations that are investing in technology right now, it's, it's a way to justify some of the headcount that they're keeping they're implementing these technologies, evaluating these technologies but at the end of the day it's the same goal, which is, you know, how do we get to where freeing up the recruiters, the operators, to be on  that process and driving that process and not drowning in it. 


Max: Yeah. I can say from my experience, on our side, that the volume of candidates and leads process for the recruiter has tripled over the last six months. And obviously you just can't do this same thing you did before if you have three times the volume you did before. You have to change a little bit, the way you do things, because you adapt to your  environment.


You were saying job boards, the big hits, I think most suppliers there and with the compounding effects of Facebook and Google driving also traffic, at least in the high volume space, the driving traffic, a lot of those traffic is free. I imagined, 2021 is probably not going to be an amazing year for indeed, and zip and those guys. Yes, there'll be some recovery. Right. I saw that Zip had some recovery in Australia in Q4. But I want to go back to, you're telling us about your early story. You're not in Boston anymore. Are you? 


Geroge: No I'm in New Jersey. Like most people in New Jersey, I'm, you know, 40 minutes out of New York city. Yeah. 


Max: Boston, for those who don't come from Boston, it's not necessarily seen as a tech hub, but I found out over the years that there was kind of the TA tech hub of the world 20 years ago. And I guess still today. Can you tell us about how'd that happen and give us a little bit of the history?


George: Sure. So it really, back in those days, you know, Silicon Valley's was always the hub, right? It was always where it all sort of exploded, but there used to be maps that had, it was a map of the US and it had Boston and they shrunk the rest of the country. And then it had Silicon Valley. And you had  your tech belt. It was the highways that went around, the two highways, one 28 and four 95 that went around Boston and all the different tech shops that were either in... Cambridge was a hub for a lot of startups. MIT is in Cambridge, Harvard's in Cambridge.


And then out toward the suburbs, you had a lot of larger campuses for tech shops and a couple of the larger, employment advertising shops were out. Emerging shops, innovative shops were out of Boston. And I would say that the first one to really explode and drive traction around HR tech was Adyen, the founder of Adyen was Jeff Taylor who started Monster. And so, I was at that point running a consulting shop. We had about 60 people all around Boston. And, we were dealing with some really some of the first e-commerce shops. And, I mentioned three common others, and Jeff Taylor would show up with a salesperson. Carol McCarthy was her name and they would offer us, you know, we partnered with them and we would bring free postings to our customers. And we would argue with them at the time about you've gotta be on the internet. You've gotta be on the web. And they wouldn't. It was a really fun time because we took employers to the web.


We created their career sites and we. Hook them up with, places like what was called the monster board back then. and at that time, the ATS market was run by a couple of shops called Resumex and Rex Track. They own the large enterprise and larger middle market on-premise software and you had a brass ring, which came out of the Boston area. It grew out of a resume processing company. So all the job fairs, all the resumes that came into employers were on paper. And you had these systems like Resumex and Rex Track and others. You would literally go through a factory process that gets scanned optical character recognition turned into data, uploaded in a total QC process.


And then, as the web was emerging or able to take applications to the web. That's where the Brass Ring emerged. And there were some other shops on the West coast  that emerged, but didn't, you know, Taleo, which was recruitment software, came out of Canada and then came down. I want to say through Chicago to, ultimately to Silicon Valley, but it was, yeah, the Boston area was teaming with, you know, early job boards early recruitment technology, this was 97, 98 to 2000.


Max: It sounds like Monster had a key role to play in that. 


George: They really did you know, like any success story. It was a combination of vision. so they could see where the market was going and how this was going to evolve before really anybody was seeing it. And timing, they were there, and hard work. Right. And they had some good ideas. Where do they end up going? And that's a brand people love to hate on and that's fine. But they were a major player and they really helped  create the space.


Max: They got big and then other problems appeared. But I mean, at the time in the late nineties, They picked that weird grand, they called themselves Monster. Everybody had a much more corporate sounding name back then. The internet was just getting started, all those dotcoms  and, I think they did it a little bit on purpose  to say, you know either you're with us, the incident folks or you're against us, you're part of the old guard. And we don't need you as a customer. It was a bit of a, you know, the boldness, the choice of brand. 


George: Yeah, we would do all their sales hiring.  They were on the, their first office was, the second floor over a Chinese takeout restaurant. And you know, we'd go on site, spend an hour. A couple of hours with them, with the consultants we had there, you'd leave. And you'd just smell like Chinese food from being in the office. And then as he started to grow, I remember, telling people that they would have to, you know, don't worry they're expanding. They're going to have a facility, but there are two trailers in the parking lot for now. And then just those, you know, these sorts of things that, I'm sure there are people out there somewhere that worked in those trailers. Well we put them there. 


Max: Yeah. And so with the universities and then maybe circumstance having this gentleman's at Taylor and starting this company in Boston for no other reason than he was there. And then, many of the alumni that moved on to start their own companies. And today I think there are a number of companies that are there, including your old employer of Bullhorn. I think phenom people are quoted there. And then a number of other companies. Was SmashFly as well in Boston?


George: Yep. They were founded there. In fact the original founder of SmashFly, Mike Hennessy, was probably employee number three or four at Brass Ring. And so we worked closely together for several years and, you know, like any of those shops. And there are still people that when I've...


Back in those days when we could go to events, Brass Ring is now part of IBM. And, if I go by the IBM booth, I see old friends and they've really never left. They've just gone from Brass Ring that connects to IBM. But we used to joke and say there are probably, you know, 300 people that are like the core of the industry. And they just move around and a lot of other people sort of come and go, but there are a lot more than that now, I think.


Max: That's true. You do see that. And we hear that in your story is that these companies don't just die, they just merge and they move from one animal to the next. And this is sort of a Darwinian experience. Right. So it's see how it evolves. And they changed names. Like Hot Jobs do you remember that one? 


George: Yeah. HotJobs got acquired by Yahoo. 


Max: Oh, yes. 


George:  And, you know, it was Yahoo hot jobs and Dan Finnegan, who was the founder of Jobvite, I know, was involved with Yahoo hot jobs  and I believe the founder of, Avature came out of one of those groups. You know, early on, when you look at Brass Ring, it had, newspapers behind it.


So the newspapers were, they had Excel partners out of Silicon Valley, very small stake, but over a hundred million came in from the Washington post, the Tribune companies can net newspapers, which is USA today. So newspapers were hedging, their bets against, you know, the classified business was starting to dwindle.


They were looking at how that was going to go online. They also created an advertising network, which Knight Ridder became a part of. Which is where career builder grew out of, which is also where, Dan Finnegan came out of that Knight, Ridder group. So you've got different camps from the late nineties like the Post's Tribune camp and then the night Ritter camp, and then a few big brands that came out of that, that were all different. In some cases, the same newspapers in different investing groups that were putting their chips on the table, sort of hedging their bets based on what they were expecting to see with changes, and impact on their classified ad revenue. They didn't do any of it fast enough or go hard enough as we've all seen. But  that's an interesting subplot to the whole, the whole thing as well.


Max: With your unique perspective of seeing people moving from place to place and companies evolving, it makes sense that you would be working in automation now. Which is, you know, a great networker and a place where the industry meets.


And I think your story is one that can serve as inspiration for people who end up in recruitments and say that I don't want to be interviewing people for the rest of my life, or I don't want to be doing the same thing over and over again. Yeah you can move into technology. You can move into sales, you can move into media, and touch a lot of things and it prepares you for a rich career. And, and if you stick around long enough, then you can see the same faces over and over again. 


George: Good, good point. You know what? I used to think that, but it was just my great timing. You know and of course there was some of that, I entered the space and the internet was emerging and the web emerged and on demand, you know, cloud-based technologies emerged and I'm passionate about technology. So I was in the right place at the right time


And the other thing that's true is that I think the profession has evolved and emerged. What technology has done and what, you know, changes that all businesses have experienced is it really demonstrates how I think recruiting can really have a massive impact.


And I think if you look beyond the matches that you're making and the interviews that you're scheduling and if you sort of step back and think about the impact you can have on the business. And if you pursue that internally in your current role or in your career, moving to the next role, there are a lot of places to go with that.


If you can see the impact that recruiting and recruitment technology and talent acquisition can have on the market and on any given employer. I think  that's another thing that I was, there to see was sort of how this all, you know, has unfolded and I've been lucky to watch.


Max: It's so important to go back to that feeling of I'm helping people get a job and, you know, a good year, a bad year, and you know, God knows 2020 wasn't a great year, but it's still up to this, you know the industry and our people to think: I'm going to help somebody get their next game.


George: Yeah.


Max:  I guess that's why when you go network with people who've been in the industry for 20 years they're nice folks to be around because they have that purpose in their career. And I hope for the listeners who are in the early stages of their career they can see that, it's not that easy to find purpose that once you have it and you sort of hold onto it, 


George: Yeah good point.


Max: To wrap it up, I'd like to give you a chance to maybe promote some of your upcoming events perhaps with Unleash or tell people how to get a hold of you. 


George: Well, you can find unleash at, and you'll find me there. And the HR winds was my previous brand. It's still there. There's still content there, reports there, unleash is really, for the foreseeable future. It's all about media and content. So everything's there. So the. content about recruiting, about recruiting technology and the rest of the employee experience and HR spectrum, is there as well.  So I would encourage people to go take a look and I'm sure they'll find something interesting if they're listening to this podcast.


Max: Absolutely. I go there myself. George interviews some of the industry leaders and has unique data on how the market is changing. So if you want to be ahead of the curve and know what's going to hit you a year or so now that's the place to go and check it out. Thanks so much, George, for joining us and for reminiscing on the old days. I am actually quite happy to know that there's now a record of those souvenirs about the Boston era that has, you know, foundational importance to the world of TA tech saved on our blog.


George: Excellent. Thanks for having me. I had a lot of fun.


I hope you enjoyed my interview with George as much as I did. George is a real historian of the talent acquisition tech space and from the evolution and meanderings of the industry, we can all get inspiration to constantly reinvent ourselves and renew our industry. If you enjoyed it and you're up for more subscribe to our podcast and please share with friends.


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