2015/03/31

Brooke Allen: Repairing A Broken Job Market

Brooke Allen has been working on Wall Street as a programmer, analyst, trader, and hedge fund manager since the 1980's and in 2004 he changed how he recruited so as to care about all his candidates, not just the ones he hired. After retiring from Wall Street he has dedicated himself to changing what he considers to be a broken job market. Below is a 31 Mar 2015 email interview with Brooke about this topic.

Bob Waldron, Question: Brooke, who are you?

Brooke Allen, Answer: I am a retired Wall Street executive. I have a BA in Mathematics, much of a MS in computer science, and an MBA in finance. My career arc took me from programming at a university to operations research at an airline to systems design at a small startup to computer consulting to the likes of Mobil Oil, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch. In 1988 I built a quantitative trading desk at Merrill and in 1995 I built one for a Canadian firm called Maple Financial and in 2004 we created a hedge fund firm called MANE Fund Management. It seems most of my career has been spent working for firms that begin with the letter M. In February 2014 I retired but I’m continuing the tradition because now I work for Me.

I am also a husband, father, ham radio operator, and Burner. At heart I am a maker, a programmer, and writer. A neighbor once told my wife, “Brooke is an Ideas Man” and I think that is just about right.

Q: What ideas are you working on these days?

A: One idea is that there is no shortage of work and when the money dries up the work piles up. I first heard this idea at a conference on the morning of May 6, 1982 and it changed my life. The economy was in recession, I’d been unemployed for quite a while and was slipping into depression. The idea is that rather than look for a job look for work that needs to be done even if there is no budget to pay you.

So I wrote to the 200 people I knew and said that because I was unemployed I had free time to help people, even if they don’t have a budget to pay me. Plenty of friends offered to let me pick up their laundry or babysit their children but Morgan Stanley hired me for a few weeks to read some code and write a user’s manual. That got me started on Wall Street and within a month I had three job offers. Looking back, all the big pivots in my career have come during downturns in the market because people would let me work for free or cheap when during better times they could have hired someone competent.

Another idea is that the job market is broken. It rewards people for being good at getting a job rather than good at doing it. And yet, as an employer, the very last thing I need you to be good at is getting your next job.

Q: So, what are doing about helping people find work?
A: In 2009 when I was speaking at a conference of my peers in quantitative finance I said that the bad news is that the market sucks but the good news is there is no shortage of work. Twenty-eight people unemployed audience members were so intrigued they organized a networking dinner where the rules included: 1) All conversations must begin with “How may I help you?” 2) You must be prepared with an answer to that question if you’re asked.

This “be helpful” orientation proved vastly superior to the blah-blah-blah approach to networking and for about a year I organized these events periodically but eventually it proved too much. The problem was very few people came to more than a few meetings because once they began working for each other they started landing jobs and they didn’t have time.

I created the website NoShortageOfWork.com to promote some of these ideas.

Q: What are you doing about the broken job market?

A: After retiring I created BetterWorkWorld.com to promote better ways of hiring. Now, rather than helping the  unemployed directly, I’m concentrating on getting employers to help the unemployed as part of an innovative hiring process that also flushes out the hidden talent who represent better value for money.

Q: Why are you going after employers rather than job seekers?

A: Because employers have money in the budget and job seekers do not.

For example, imagine an employer is willing to pay 20% of a $100,000 salary to a headhunter in order to pry a talented employee out a competitor.

For half that I can show them how to find someone for $80,000 who is just as good but currently unemployed (or underemployed) merely because they are bad at getting a job but perfectly fine at doing it. What’s more, my approach involves not judging people too early and teaching everyone how to find work even if not with the employer and therefore even the candidates who land work learn something.
landing jobs and they didn’t have time.


Q: How do you do that specifically?

A: It depends on the situation but I describe my approach in an article in Quartz: How to hire good people instead of nice people. I also recommend my piece in Science: Hiring in a Dysfunctional Job Market. This describes how I have been hiring since 2004 not only technical people but also executive assistants, compliance people, traders, and for many other positions. Employers should feel free to try any of these ideas on their own although I’d be happy to provide consulting if they want.

Q: You are also doing something you’re calling Staffup Weekend. What is that all about?

A: I’ve attended seven Startup Weekends, and at one of them in January, 2014, I came up with the idea of a Staffup Weekend, which you can read about at StaffupWeekend.org.

The idea is that most people are not entrepreneurial in spirit; what they really want is a good job. A Staffup Weekend is like a Startup Weekend, except with jobs instead of untested business ideas. One or more employers present jobs they are trying to fill and over the weekend attendees do work typical of what is expected on the job.

Anyone can attend a Staffup Weekend and students, job browsers, parents returning to the workforce, and anyone else can get a taste of what the work is like before investing the time to develop the requisite skills. The idea is that anyone can help even if your role is to keep everyone else caffeinated.

Q: Have you ever done one of these events?

A: We’re just getting started and right now we’ve only done one in San Francisco. You can see a photo of the attendees and read about their projects here, you can read an article written by a journalist who attended here, and you can read the discussion on Hacker News here.

We’d love to do more events for other employers, and we’re happy to customize them as needed. There is no requirement these be done on the weekend although running a Staffup Midweek makes it less likely you’ll attract candidates with day jobs.

Q: How does the Staffup Weekend differ from a Reverse Pitch?
A: I have never attended a reverse pitch event but my understanding is that at them corporations describe problems and entrepreneurs suggest solutions and perhaps even begin working on solving them. These sound like a fine way for employers to check out vendors and for vendors to show their stuff.

But it doesn’t sound like a good way for someone to investigate a job if that is what they want or for finding employees.

For example, let’s imagine you are a liberal arts graduate and you’ve been answering ads for an executive assistant and your first round of filtering is based on school reputation and GPA.

You’re not getting called for interviews and you suspect the reason is that you’re losing out to Ivy League grads with better GPA’s and internships at fancy firms. Even if it turns out you are right, you’d never know.

So you attend a Staffup Weekend where a marketing executive describes the work he expects of an actual assistant that involves prospecting and handling customer complaints. After spending the morning describing the product that afternoon you look for prospects on the internet and rank them by how qualified they might be. Then you write responses to letters of complaint from actual customers.

Although you studied Political Science at a state school you do a superb job because ever since you were in middle school you’ve been helping your parents with their restaurant supply business. The Ivy League business school grad who joined your team might have appeared to be a better candidate on paper but after experiencing the work she decides she would absolutely hate the job and she dropped out.

Q: How are things different today than they were in the 1980’s?

A: Back then you had to type cover letters by hand, employers were more interested in developing their workforce rather than out-sourcing, hiring managers were willing to give bad references, and that meant your reputation was more a function of what your references were willing to say in confidence than your social media prowess. People wrote letters and if they were in a hurry they called you on the phone. Your network consisted of people who knew you personally because, unless you were famous, there was no other way for someone to know you.

Today a single ad can attract hundreds of applicants who have done little more than click a mouse. I get 100-300 emails a day and nearly all of them are unsolicited demands on my time by strangers. It feels that unless I’m very careful there are many more ways of working hard all day and feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing.

When I getting my MBA in the early 1980’s I took the only class they offered on entrepreneurship and, frankly, I loved it. But I’d already started my own consulting business after working for other people for 10 years.

Today, being an “entrepreneur” is all the rage, but I think it is a bit overdone. Being an entrepreneur is not something you choose to be so much as it is a personality disorder – what happens when you becomes obsessed with an idea that will have people labeling you as crazy unless you prove to the world that you’re right. I’ve written about it in: Want to be an entrepreneur? First, ask yourself these five questions.

Very few people have the constitutional makeup to be entrepreneurs; there are even genetic markers for “ambiguity tolerance” and “openness to new experience” that can are hard to fake if you don’t have them. Successful entrepreneurs seem to think that “becoming more entrepreneurial” is the prescription for all that ails you. I disagree.

But maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety.

Q: Where will things go in the next five years?

A: I have no friggin’ idea. There are some things I hope will happen:

I hope character becomes more important than reputation.

I hope that skill and craftsmanship come back into style.

I hope that managers realize that their job involves motivating, training, and orchestrating the efforts of others and that not everyone is good at managing themselves, nor should they be.

Q: From the viewpoint of a company that needs professional work done, what is the biggest challenge in connecting with professionals to accomplish that work?

A: I’ve never had a problem hiring people because I never hired someone to do something I could not do myself. I hired people with the right attitude and aptitude and trained them in what I needed done. I think the biggest challenge is that many employers hire people for jobs they can’t do themselves and often they cannot even tell the difference between a good employee and a bad one much less identify latent talent.

From the viewpoint of a professional, what’s the biggest challenge in connecting with work where they can make good use of their time, knowledge and energy?

I talk to many job seekers and they ask questions like this and I have a lot to say but I’m not sure they want to hear it. Anyway, here goes…

First of all, what do you mean by “professional?” For a lot of people they really mean “white collar worker” but my dad taught me that a professional puts the interests of his clients ahead of his own. By this standard, my plumber is more professional than many of the people I’ve met on Wall Street.

It comes down to what the term “good use” means. The professional knows that one’s time, knowledge, and energy needs to be of “good use” to others.

Q: Do you think Staffup Weekend and Better Work World can scale in the way that LinkedIn, Indeed, SimplyHired, Career Builder, LinkUp, Facebook, Twitter, craigslist, Dice and Stack Exchange have scaled?

A: Absolutely not. My mantra is “care and people will care back; be honest and people will be honest back.” Those things are platforms but they don’t facilitate caring or honesty.

My hope is that Staffup Weekend will scale like Startup Weekend did, that is to say, in a very labor intensive way that involves a lot of people doing a lot of work because they find meaning in it.

Better ways of hiring can scale, but it is not going to take a cute website or an app. It will take a movement; hopefully it will scale the way Christianity or Buddhism has scaled, not the way Monster and iPhone apps have scaled.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to hire the way you do but cannot afford to hire you as a consultant?

A: There is a lot you can do; after all, I’ve been hiring in new and more humane ways for more than 10 years and I didn’t hire anyone to teach me.

I tell everyone that the most important thing is to care. If you care then you can figure out the rest and if you don’t care then it doesn’t matter. When people tell me all the reasons they can’t do make a change they usually have spent more time thinking up reasons they cannot accomplish something then they have spent trying anything new. All that tells me is that they don’t care enough to do anything. Remember, care is a verb and you don’t do something then you might be wishing things were different, but you don’t really get to say you care.

I won’t hire anyone until I care about them and they care about me. And I won’t hire anyone until I have at least three people I’d consider hiring. This means that for every person I hire there are at least two other people I cannot hire who I’ve come to care about. So, develop a habit of caring about people you won’t hire.

Don’t get me wrong; you don’t have to care about everyone. Just the ones you would hire but can’t. See if you can help them get a job elsewhere.

Commerce is at its core an unselfish activity. I think people naturally want to care about others and be of help. For some reason they have become afraid to do that and I think it is a shame. I learned a very valuable lesson about this back in college when I was hitch-hiking across the country and I wrote about it in: You do not need permission to do the right thing. No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.

In short, have the courage to care.

Q: If LaunchWisconsin Reverse Pitch organizers are interested in doing one or several StaffupWeekend events in northeast Wisconsin, will you consider running the event(s)?

A: There is a lot to running an event and I cannot do it alone. I would be more than happy to help provide design support and marketing materials but I have no idea how I could attract sponsors or manage logistics from here on the East Coast. I’ll be coming through Wisconsin in early September on the way back from Burning Man and I’d be happy to meet with people if they are interested.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how to repair the broken job market, Brooke!

*****

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