AI Talent Shortage? More like Pokemon for Phd’s

What I love about selling toilet paper for a living is you’re free to call people out.

There is no AI talent shortage. If you’re the head of HR for a tech company and the only way you can “acquire” talent is buying smaller companies, you need to be fired.

The problem isn’t the lack of AI talent, it is your inability to recognize human potential.

You and your peers are the main reason why most technology job searches suck.

This is business, not Pokemon. We’re not trying to “catch them all”. Just find people who can get the job done. These startups were more flexible than your recruiters. They had to be. Apparently it worked – there’s a huge lesson here.

The Real Villain: Credentialism

I’m not just some random toilet paper seller. Ok – well, I am, but that’s beside the point.

A few years ago I was “annointed” to be the Head of Data Science for a Fortune 500 (distributor of janitorial supplies and packaging). Which was ironic, since I had asked to run a product P&L. I’d spent the last decade in analytics and was ready for a change. In any event, I was told to go hire a few people.

I should share that this role wasn’t our first data scientist. I’d recruited a top graduate of a local master’s program who quickly showed us he had the chops for doing data science. My assessment of his performance: “absolutely killing it”. I could point to half a dozen applications which he developed that were making us millions of dollars. My vision was simple: I wanted another half dozen people like him and I knew just where to find them.

The executive suite shot me down. “We need a Phd!” And thus the quest began, as we attempted to recruit a senior level technical expert who was willing to try an old school industry. In the middle of the data science hiring boom.

Should I mention that at least five other people in the company, who already knew our business well, approached me with news they were working on a data science degree? Management shot me down again. “We want a Phd! They can become junior analysts!”

Incidentally, it became apparent to me during this process that I was technically completely unqualified for my job. While I have a math degree, i never went back for grad school. A decade of real world experience running analytics didn’t cut it. I couldn’t have hired myself.

In any event, leadership forced us to walk past a sea of well qualified (yet not credentialed) candidates in the pursuit of their shiny object. And while we hired a excellent technologist, I regret the number of highly motivated candidates who were locked out of this opportunity.

Take the HR Talent Identification Challenge

Did your company just make an acqui-hire in the AI space?

I challenge your HR department to see if their hiring process is capable of identifying the talent who built these companies. These are the people we want, right? I mean we just paid millions of dollars for them…. Could we have hired them earlier for less?

It’s easy. Ask the every senior leadership team member and key technical architect for the startup to submit a copy of their resume at time of founding. Name blind them. Slip them into the candidate pile. Watch what happens. Most will be ignored or rejected. Most HR leaders don’t have the courage to test this.

And that’s a big problem. Hiring in the AI / Analytics space is overrun with rampant credentialism. Hiring managers would rather take the safe route and hire “brand name” credentials instead of digging into a candidate’s capabilities and ability to learn.

Well, that’s wrong. For every person with the latest shiny button of a credential, there are a dozen who can learn these roles. Speaking from experience, I learned most of what i know in this space from mentors, projects, and self study. A kind lady at General Electric taught me logistics regression modeling. My side projects taught me a lot about optimization and recommendation engines. Several colleagues taught me how to apply network analysis in corporate projects. Every coding language I regularly use was learned after college.

Should I mention that many of these people also have customer perspective, commercial experience, and domain expertise that will accelerate your launch and increase sales? In other words, they know how to apply the rocket science to create real world value!

Making expensive acquisitions to “hire talent” is a complete waste of shareholder capital. If this is your talent strategy, your head of HR should be replaced. There are cheaper sources of highly qualified or teachable candidates which are more diverse and sustainable.

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