Why and How did you make the transition into HR in Tech? What was it like for you?
My first job during NYSC was in HR but I must confess it was a tad boring and I was doing a lot of Admin functions. It was at a time when HR was still called Personnel. I later applied to Accenture, (then Anderson Consulting) and got in. I got my foundation in Consulting and over time Accenture hired this wonderful lady, Titi Akisanya. She was the first person who made me really interested in HR because she did HR differently. She would say things like ‘People matter’ and that struck a chord with me and how I saw HR going forward.
Towards the end of my time in Accenture, I handled more people-related projects. I later joined a company where I was involved in HR and Strategy consulting as well as leading HR for the Company. Fast-forward to a few years, I kept doing HR and Consulting interchangeably and later I led HR at this wonderful NGO responsible for Human Rehabilitation.
At some point, I wanted to get back into the for-profit sector and I stumbled onto a company called Andela on LinkedIn. It wasn’t very popular then. I applied and got invited for an interview. On the way to the interview, I remember looking around and noticing that the rugged surroundings didn’t match the profile of the company online. They had gotten international reviews, CNN included, but not enough local recognition. I was wondering if this might just be a scam and if I would make it out alive. On getting into the building, there was a different feel; graffiti on the wall, people dressed casually; smart, young, ambitious, serious, engaged and passionate people, and I thought maybe I had misjudged the company.
I had two sets of initial interviews and both went well. The final interview was the weirdest; I was invited to a games night where I was to meet the COO and a couple of other Directors. I joined in the games and it was fun. At different points, someone would pull me aside and we would have a chat about my background and experience etc.... And that’s how the final stage of the interview went! I spoke with three people that night. It was fun and I was like okay, maybe I just found my home, maybe this is what I've been missing all my life and the rest is history.
When I joined Andela I was so excited. I had some books and potted plants in anticipation of my proper, nice and cozy office as the Deputy Director of Operations. I got in and was taken to the pool. I thought I was there to mingle with some people before I got into my office. I later asked where I would be working from and they pointed to a corner by the door with a printer beside me. I would have been way more embarrassed if I had brought in all my books. Lol. I told myself, ‘Taiwo you can do this’. I had worked in an office pool environment as a consultant with Accenture.
For me what helped was having a mentality that was open to adapting and being flexible, and that allowed me to experiment in my role. It helped me to bring my full self to my role and for me no idea was stupid; nothing was off the table as long as there was a clear value that was going to come out of it.
Another culture shock was transitioning from my Windows based Apps to the Apple App environment, getting used to Slack over Emails etc. I just put my heart into the role and became hooked on HR in Tech.
Misconception about HR being hiring and firing.
HR is much more than hiring and firing but that’s what people see. On the way in we are your friends, you are happy with us and on the way out (especially if it's a forced exit), we are not your friends at all... but HR is much more than that.
HR is about Strategy; helping to shape the direction of the business. HR has recently gotten to a place where business leaders realize the significance of HR teams. Being an HR professional is an art; you need to know everything about the business; you need to know a bit about Finance, Tech, Operations and that’s why I believe my consulting experience served me because I had exposure to various parts of the business through consulting.
In HR, we build culture, we enable leaders drive performance within their teams, we help shape the environment - its look and feel. We help with external relations and when dealing with investors.
HR is involved in breaking down corporate goals and objectives to team and individual levels.
HR is the glue that holds the entire organization together and we are often not seen or rewarded for it. I would say HR is everything and then some, HR is the spice of your organization, without HR the organization is just bland and dull. Companies that don’t have vibrant HR departments don’t have the vibrant culture that you can see or that is palpable.
Is there a difference between HR in other industries and HR in Tech? What is special about the people in Tech that makes managing them slightly unique?
I think the key difference in my opinion is; often the way HR is done in other industries is process driven but in the Tech space, it is more business and employee driven.
There has to be a fine balance where you are ensuring that the objectives of the business are met, but you are also a true employee champion. You are looking for ways to enhance the experience of your people such that it’s a virtuous cycle. You invest in your people and they are able to thrive and reach their potential and by so doing, they are adding phenomenal value to the business. For me, this is the difference.
A lot of Tech companies have very ambitious and aggressive targets, they may have a timeline from seed funding to series A, B or C. This means that at every stage there are clear company objectives and as the HR person, you think about how to achieve these objectives through people. You look at your current workforce and ask yourself if they can help get the company to where it needs to be, ask what needs to be done, anticipate the learning interventions to be put in place, figure out who needs to be brought on board etc.
It is a nice tension when you think about company objectives and the growth of your people; you want to ensure that people are fulfilled and that they are doing meaningful work across the entire organization.
But one thing to add is that it’s not always about the external things that you see, it’s not about the ping pong tables, all of those things are to add to and support the employee experience and productivity. It is about creating an atmosphere where people can thrive and don’t feel stressed.
If someone makes a mistake, no matter how little, writing a line of code, it can take hours to debug because you might not see it quickly. These days, there are tools that make it easier, but it used to be so difficult; so you need to ensure that you create an environment where your developers who may be the gems in your company are in a state where they are thinking about how to put their best self in their work. This would follow through to your product and also by extension, the customers you are able to attract into your organization.
It is also not about attendance or clocking in as is the case with other industries. I remember at Andela, we decided that we were not going to put a start and end time in our offer letter, we just stated our core business hours but you could always align with your Line Manager to agree your specific schedule because we want you to be productive. If you live somewhere far, we don’t want you to spend hours in traffic to get to work and then you are not productive, we want you to be productive and well at the same time. As long as you know what you are committing to; i.e. you don’t miss your meetings or join meetings late, you plan your life actively vs just coming to the office and clocking in and then clocking out when it’s 5pm.
It’s also not about just doing work, it’s about results. So, as a Manager, my role is not to stand behind you to tell you what to do. Instead, my role is to enable you, coach you, help you thrive and take decisions because we always said at Andela that we hire the best people and trust them to do the right thing. It is similar to one of the core values at Netflix: Responsibility and Freedom. You hire adults and want them to take responsibility and initiative because you won’t know it all as a Manager and you won't be there all the time, so you need to empower your people to be able to make decisions as you are building leaders at every level in the organization. This is what Tech HR is all about.
With the fast paced nature of the industry, what sort of skills, tools, applications, knowledge should someone who is looking to go into HR-in-Tech have to match the speed of the industry?
First, you need to have a learning mindset. You will need to be committed to lifelong learning because the industry is dynamic and things will always change. You have to keep investing in your growth, be open, join affinity groups and connect with similar people on LinkedIn. There are so many resources available to help with learning on LinkedIn.
Below, I have categorized the skills you need into 3;
1. Technical skills which cover aspects of the HR function; recruitment, policies, employee relations or experience, performance management, etc. Organizations like CIPM, CIPD, SHRM can help with getting the foundation in these areas. There are so many courses available even on LinkedIn. If you are looking for a job and can afford to get LinkedIn Premium, I will encourage you to invest in it.
2. Behavioral skills such as interpersonal, communication, empathy, team working skills are important.
3. Organizational skills: This covers Leadership skills, how you manage performance, how you manage yourself, financial acumen, business knowledge, understanding the products and/or services of the organization etc.
What are the various aspects of the HR value chain that one can specialize in?
HR is so wide, however there are specific specializations that you can become an expert in. There are HR generalists who can do everything, from recruiting, administration, managing exit processes, supporting leadership, and so on.
There is also the Business Partner role, where you are committed to a certain portion of the business, either a business unit or a geographical location, where you have to support leaders in that area to deliver value through their teams. You do this by coaching, and helping them hire the right people. As a Business Partner, whilst you are not directly responsible for recruitment, you are the link, almost like a Customer Relationship Officer for the various business lines. As the Business Partner, working closely with the leader of the business it entails understanding the entire business, their peculiarity, how value is created in that part of the business. And then planning how to build a workforce that will help deliver more value and ensure that the organization is able to achieve its objectives.
There is also the role of Compensation and Benefits Specialist. This is focused on rewarding people in a way that is sustainable for the business, at par or above market, ensuring market relevance in compensation etc. It also entails making compensation dynamic and flexible because increasingly, we are finding that the workforce of today comprises people who want some level of flexibility in how compensation is structured. The Compensation specialist finds the balance between what people want out of their compensation and what the organization seeks to achieve (where they want to position the company in the market e.g. either at par or above the median pay-market percentile).
As a compensation specialist, you will also be running annual surveys and job evaluation exercises to benchmark against other companies and see where your company stands. There is a lot of work attached to this and globally, Compensation Specialists are paid well.
There is also the Learning and Development Specialist who is not just your typical trainer. This person looks at the learning strategy, thinks in futuristic terms about learning needs and ensures that required skills are built internally. The Learning Specialist role is not just about creating curriculums, although that is a part of it, but the role is designing the learning strategy for the organization and running that, while thinking of the most cost effective way of doing it. This could be either investing in learning management systems or building a crop of leaders that would sparehead the learning progress. In Andela we had Masterclasses led by leaders within the company.
There are other areas of Specialisations in HR such as Executive Coaching, HR Analytics, etc.
Which is your favorite area?
I would say Business Partnering, working with leaders to unlock value within their teams. It’s a great combination of strategy and execution, from recruiting to guiding and coaching leaders. It helps you get an in-depth understanding of the business and it helps you to empathize with leaders because you are down in the trenches with them. When they are not able to meet their quarterly objectives, you feel it personally as well because you are vested in their goals. Also, in the right way, they should be able to contribute to your performance ratings and give you feedback. So you need to be sure that you are supporting them to achieve their objectives and if they are happy, you will be happy.
For someone who is already in a different field but is looking at moving into HR, what transferable skills can they apply?
The beauty of HR is that regardless of your background you can plug into HR because, ultimately, businesses deliver value through people. Ram Charan said businesses don’t compete, leaders compete. So, if you are experienced in any area there is always something valuable that you can bring to table.
That said, I’ll say start with why you want to join HR. What are you passionate about? What skills do you have? I’ll recommend that you check out the IKIGAI framework which links your purpose and values with your competence. Try to use the framework to understand what is important to you, such that what is at the intersection of your purpose, skills, values and competence will guide you in the area of HR that you will focus in. For example, if you have Communications experience, you are able to plug in to any culture building and employee relations role. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to start from scratch, but it may mean that you may not be placed at the equivalent of the years of experience you have had or the grade that you had in your previous organization or role. This should only be for a short period while you demonstrate your value and get comfortable in the HR space. In some cases, you may be lucky enough to not have a dip in your salary as you transition to HR.
Having previous experience may actually work to your advantage. There is some value in someone who is able to leverage an in-depth knowledge of a business and who is able to quickly ramp up on HR skills. For example, someone going from Operations into HR. The person may be able to run HR a different way because they know the objectives of the business, know the key metrics, and know the drivers of value in the business.
What I would say is, think about the area of HR that aligns with the skills you have gathered. If you are coming from Finance for instance, you might want to think about a career in Compensation and Benefits. If you are coming from a technical or IT background, you might want to focus on HRTech. There is a whole world of possibilities for people transitioning into HR from various parts of the business.
If you have experience in marketing and law, what area may be more suited, in your opinion?
I would say you can help with onboarding as a culture specialist, you can also be the face of the HR department externally; Such that, you are representing the company in career fairs or conferences. Internally, you can help with internal communications, building HR culture events within the organization, making policies relatable etc. A lot of policies are boring to read but as someone coming from marketing you can think of turning the policy handbook to videos; into a play or a cartoon, to make it easy for people to understand so that they are able to comply easily.
Transitioning from law to HR would be easy especially in the areas of policy, compliance, administration, employee relations etc. The knowledge of labor laws is valuable.
If you understand where you want to go in HR, the next step is referrals; the biggest thing about finding a job is referrals and I know some of you might be thinking it is about connections. Not really. I would emphasise the need to invest in your relationships. Look up Carla Harris and what said about ‘Relationship Currency’. It is so important because organizations these days are inundated with CVs and sometimes you filter off the wrong person maybe because the person used the wrong key word in their CVs…. And that is another thing; make sure your CVs are Application Tracking System (ATS) tested so that the key words requested in the job description for the role are in your CV and so that you don’t get screened out because it is done automatically.
But if you have a good network, someone might know someone that works in the organization and can say, ‘this person has applied for this particular role’. I would always say, apply first and then look for someone that works in the organization so that your CV will get the attention it deserves. If your CV gets the attention and if you are shortlisted, good. With your network, you are sure that someone besides the computer has taken a second look at your CV.
When I think about the majority of the opportunities I've had, they are from people who are my advocates. So, value your referrals and invest in them. It is about relationships and connecting people to opportunities. You can also apply directly without any referrals. I got my role in Andela by applying on LinkedIn.
In terms of effectiveness, you need to ensure that your CV is targeted at the right opportunity and you might need to tweak it to ensure that you have the experience or transferable skills. Make sure that you join all the job boards like Jobberman, Movemeback, Careers in Africa etc. and be active in them. Also, think outside the box when you are looking for a job, e.g, internships whether paid or unpaid, and job shadowing too.
And for those without the experience or skill?
If you don’t have experience and skills, your greatest asset is your ability to learn. Enroll in some courses to get foundational knowledge because the job market is very competitive right now. Beyond that, you have to improve your communication skills as a lot of the business of HR is about people. If you have great communication skills, you need to showcase that to whoever you are trying to convince to hire you.
So, hone your communication skills and functional skills, understand what the company is struggling with, find how you can contribute to that in some shape or form. You may also need to find a coach within the HR space that can guide you, be your advocate and sell you to others. Don’t be intimidated by your lack of experience or knowledge but try and connect to HR networks and build authentic relationships within them.
Any Parting Words?
Read lots of books. A few of my favorite books include:
The Art of People by Dave Kerpen,
Laws of human nature by Robert Greene (this will help you understand people)
Negotiation Genius by Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman (this will help with negotiating for a role).
Powerful by Patty McCord
The Now Habit by Neil Fiore
Joy Inc. by Richard Sheridan
Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss