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. The fact we have to buy a company to get them is an issue – 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 “anointed” to be the Head of Data Science for a Fortune 500 (distributor of janitorial supplies and packaging). 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 to deliver highly impactful data science projects. 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 pursuing data science degrees? Management shot me down again. “We want a Phd! They can become junior analysts!”

By the way, all of this inspiring guidance was a slap in the face. You see, while I’ve got a math degree, I never went back to graduate school. My accomplishments were sufficient to kick me onto the fast track, placing me in jobs above what new PHD’s were hired into. Despite having generated millions of dollars per year of incremental profit, I was technically unqualified to hold my current role. Good to know…

While we eventually hired an excellent technologist, they were recruited from outside the industry and new to a leadership role. This entire process sent a message to our team: your industry experience, loyalty, and accomplishments don’t matter, we hire and promote based on shiny credentials.

Is it any wonder that most of our experienced data science talent, starting with myself, have left?

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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