Ben Caggia

Buf Head of TA Ben Caggia

Ben CaggiaHead of TA

Joining us today is the Head of Talent Acquisition at Buf, Ben Caggia. Ben started by studying medicine, even going as far as taking the MCAT, before realizing that he is actually more passionate about talent acquisition. We get an understanding of Ben’s love for the trenches, why you should find a job aligned with your passions and interests, how to make the shift from individual contributors to management, and what he believes are the attributes of a great manager. As a bonus, Ben tells us why it’s important to ask the right questions at interviews and how you should trust your gut to guide you towards the right company. This conversation goes against the grain compared to previous episodes, in the best way possible!

Episode Transcript


[00:00:05] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent To Me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontlines of modern recruitment.

[00:00:12] SPEAKER 1: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life. We want to understand how they make decisions. Are they willing to take risks? And what it looks like when they fail.

[00:00:22] RS: No holds barred, completely off-the-cuff interviews, with directors of recruitment, VPS of global talent, CHROs and everyone in between.

[00:00:31] SPEAKER 2: Once I went through the classes and the trainings and got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.

[00:00:39] SPEAKER 3: Talent acquisition, it’s a fantastic career, you are trusted by the organization, you get to work with the C-suite, and the security at the front desk and everybody in between, and everybody knows you.

[00:00:52] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz. Talk Talent To Me.


[00:00:59] RS: Here with me today on Talk Talent To Me is the Head of Talent Acquisition over at Buf, Ben Caggia. Ben, welcome to the podcast. How the heck are you?

[00:01:08] BC: I’m doing really well, Rob. Thank you so much for having me. Really excited to be here.

[00:01:12] RS: Yeah, pleased to have you. How’s your week been? Are you just recruiting, strategizing your heart out? What’s it been like for you over there?

[00:01:18] BC: Definitely recruiting my heart out. It has been, I think for the world at large, a whirlwind of a week. Never a dull moment in the recruiting world, though. So, just trying to keep the dial moving forward, if you will.

[00:01:33] RS: Are you hands-on with roles? Are you hands-on with strategy stuff? How are you filling your time?

[00:01:36] BC: Yeah, hands-on with roles today. Started as one and only member of my team. I now have one of my colleagues who previously worked with me at my last company join. So really excited to have him on board, have some additional support, but I’m a little bit spoiled at Buf. The team is incredibly involved in recruiting. They recognize how valuable it is as a function. Fortunately, also recognize how challenging it can be doing it day to day. I get a ton of help in terms of sourcing, and operations and just kind of thinking through what works strategy-wise for the greater context of the organization. So like I said, a little bit spoiled, or a lot of it, maybe.

[00:02:18] RS: Imagine for a moment you weren’t spoiled. What kind of things would you not be getting, like the stuff that people might, in a very negative tone and in a very pejorative way, be like, “That’s not my job,” but because they care about hiring, they will take on, what stuff is that?

[00:02:33] BC: I would say some of the things—I mean, certainly sourcing is one of the things that has absolutely baffled me in a very good way, how involved the team has been today. It is absolutely tremendous to see, first of all, the amount of traction that the team has had in not just sourcing but thinking really strategically with sourcing, building company list, target companies for specific roles, for specific functions, where they want to see candidates out of. Those types of things really gave me a huge jumping off point to hit the ground running here. For that, I could not be more grateful.

That aside, some of the interview mechanics, I think when any recruiter comes into a company, they are kind of bracing themselves like, “Is this going to be a whole uphill battle with trying to get everyone to understand what a standard consistent interview process is, and why it’s important, and why we fill our scorecards out on time?” All these things, I was just incredibly pleasantly surprised. I don’t know if that made sense.

To see that all those things were really natural to the team, they set the stage incredibly well for candidates, make them feel as much at ease as you possibly can in any interview, and really are incredibly thoughtful about the feedback that they give. They really want to build an incredible team here and I could not be, frankly, happier with the foundational team we have in place.

[00:03:53] RS: Yeah. It sounds like folks are really bought in. That’s a huge advantage, like you say. It’s good to be spoiled. Also, the sourcing piece, when you explain it, it seems so obvious. Like, why don’t more people do that? The alternative I suppose is, you would put up a few profiles in a wreck kickoff meeting, and be like, are these the kind of people that you would want to speak with? Yes. No. Okay. If they are, great. I’ll find more like them.

But I’ve, in my career, done the sourcing party, where we, a few of us, at like 4:00 pm or something, we get in a conference room, we order food, and we’re like, “All right. We’re not going to leave until we find 20 profiles that we would talk to you about this role.” Like, sure. That’s a start for pipeline, but more importantly, you’re triangulating the type of person. So that now, the recruiting team, and they go out to source, it’s more accurate.

Are you getting both? Is it about building pipeline or are you more trying to deeply understand who the folks you should be looking at are?

[00:04:42] BC: I think it’s kind of a combination of things. I mean, as I’ve gotten more ramped up, the team has, I’m sure, gladly taking more of a backseat in terms of actively sourcing. But as the priorities of business shifts, as they do in any startup, and as I’m getting my arms around all the ins and outs of everything Buf, it’s been really great to have some really strong partners in the organization who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, take some intro calls, and some roles that are definitely incredibly important, and high impact roles with organization but might not be as difficult to source for engineering, for instance, or to carve out exactly the right type of messaging to appeal to the right set of candidates. For that type of support, I’m incredibly grateful.

[00:05:30] RS: Yeah, of course. Before we get too much further, let’s learn a little bit about Buf. Would you mind sharing a bit about what the company does, and then we’ll get into you and your role too?

[00:05:40] BC: Yeah, for sure. I could talk about Buf for a very long time. I guess I’ll preface this with, I’m a bit of a talker in general, maybe I should have warned you about that before you invited me onto the show.

[00:05:49] RS: Thank God this is an audio based medium, it’s the only way.

[00:05:54] BC: But works for both of us. I guess the best way to describe Buf is generally, we are—to put it in a semi-pompous sounding way, we’re really shaping the future of APIs at the company. Historically, the large majority of companies have done that with REST/JSON, which is pretty freeform. We’d like to think of it as the wild west of REST internally at Buf. There’s other ways to build APIs, though, ones that are way more structured in their approach, IDL approach, interface descriptive languages that tend to be closer to ones and zeros of bytes. That ultimately everything compiles down into as far as I understand it. Protocol buffers has been around for a long time, Google Open Source many, many years ago. Some companies have used it with some success, but not without a ton of headaches, building tooling to make it actually work for their company. Because anytime Google open source these things, it’s made specifically for Google by Google. So it works for just Google and nobody else.

That’s really where Buf comes into play. We’re making protocol buffers, usable, digestible for every organization out there, and it’s been really cool to see the response from the development community. In fact, I was actually chatting with our CEO and founder the other day about the responses I get in email. I’m really spoiled here, like I said. It’s incredible to see just how grateful, quite frankly, a lot of engineers are for our product, what we’re doing to the space. It’s an exciting journey. Ultimately, our end goal is to depreciate REST/JSON and replace it with a paradigm of APIs that’s way easier to use with, of course, Buf’s tooling. The upshot is basically saving a tremendous amount of engineering time, and not having engineers dedicated to keeping the lights on with APIs, and actually contributing to your intellectual property of business.

[00:07:45] RS: Seems like a pitch that would resonate, particularly with developers. Like you are assessing a pain point they had. Obviously, engineers like to fix problems and it’s like, “Hey! You can come here and fix this problem that’s been plaguing you your whole career. What do you say?”

[00:07:58] BC: Yeah. That’s actually—it’s a lot of fun. I think there’s a lot of flavors of developers out there for sure. I think that it resonates with those who have bashed their head against the proverbial Protobuf wall, if you will, which I would say is more of like a small select group than it is the large population, GraphQL, and REST/JSON are very popular out there. A lot of times, it’s a question of what’s wrong with GraphQL that seems to be solving these problems. It’s really a lot about education. It’s also about educating myself so that I understand these concepts and I’m able to speak to why it’s imperative that we move to a new API paradigm for the future of technology. But it’s been incredibly exhilarating, really, just to learn and sink my teeth in and work with such a passionate team.

[00:08:46] RS: Got it. I would love to hear a little bit more about your background as well, Ben, because not that there is a normal path to recruiting. But if there were, yours, I think is even a little bit apart from that. Would you mind sharing your journey and how you wound up in talent?

[00:09:01] BC: Yeah, absolutely. I think everyone else out there—I fell backwards in the talent acquisition. I think my journey started, I’ll go actually back to undergrad. Even well before then, I was premed in college. I had laser tunnel vision on becoming a physician, ultimately becoming a surgeon. I think really, at the root of that, I really just wanted to help people. I’d always thrived off of however I could help people and what that meant in physical ways, then great. But ultimately, went as far as taking the MCAT, and then got to a point where I had to take a hard look in the mirror and realize how much sacrifice goes into being in the world of medicine. A ton of respect for all the physicians, nurses especially out there, and really anyone in that field. And a little bit selfishly decided there’s probably some other things that I could be doing that I’d still be happy doing, could be helping people and might have a little bit better of a balance in life.

Like many people in talent, I started my career on the agency side of the house, in technical recruiting, where I cut my teeth and knew close to nothing. I thought I was pretty technical, I was pretty much the IT helpdesk for my family throughout my entire childhood, but quickly learned just how much I didn’t know, and the wide, wide scope of different roles out there, all across the stack, all these different languages, all these different tools, there’s a lot of them out there. My head was spinning, to say the least. And ultimately found that my natural curiosity or insatiable curiosity, I should say, it was something that helped me to do quite well on the agency side, but I didn’t really feel as excited about the agency side, it’s very transactional, and worked with a lot of startups. Ultimately saw where I think industry was shifting towards internal recruiters being more of that internal latency, and join the startup world at a company called Managed by Q and then worked several different startups, all different phases of company, Shutterstock, Foursquare.

Then, had a really exciting opportunity in 2019, it was a high-risk, high-reward opportunity to join a startup called Unqork. I joined there as employee number 40, one and only member of the talent acquisition team. At that point in time, it was only about 10 months into my tenure at Foursquare. Like I said, it was a pretty high risk for me to take a leap of faith from somewhere where I was really enjoying the work, I really love the team that I was working with and felt like I was continuing to learn. Ended up taking that leap, and as a one-man band for a while, had the opportunity to grow that team out, both the company and the talent acquisition team and function. Around three years later, I think, talent acquisition team around 20 or 22 people that I was managing, and we had grown the company to over 625 employees. It was quite a journey.

I think ultimately, where I had grown to, I started to lose sight in many ways of why I thought I was so effective as a manager throughout those phases of growth at Unqork. That sort of what led me back to early stage at Buf, really getting back to the trenches, understanding what the challenges are, and being able to build, whether it’s a process or the right sort of balancing of roles or recs across the team. That’s what really excited me about getting back to building and doing it all over again.

[00:12:29] RS: Can we go back to the moment where you decided not to pursue medicine? You mentioned that you were kind of appreciating the massive commitment, and I guess, like all of the other sacrifices you have to make. But to go as far as taking the MCAT. I’ve had friends who’ve done that and that is not like a trivial thing. That is a huge amount of preparation.

[00:12:49] BC: Form of torture.

[00:12:51] RS: Yeah, yeah, truly. To go through with that, and then decide, that’s interesting to me. That tells me that you really, really thought you wanted it, right? Then you really, really thought you didn’t, because there’s like a sunk cost investment there. It’s like, “Well, I already took the MCAT. I already do all the studying. I might as well pursue this.” I would love to hear a little bit more about how you came to realize that about yourself that this particular career track wasn’t for you.

[00:13:15] BC: Yeah, I think when it comes to medicine, like I said, it’s truly higher calling and I have a ton of respect for everyone in the field. I wanted to make sure that I was preparing myself for that career as much as possible. So even as early as high school, I was reaching out to doctors and asking them if I can shadow them. I applied and actually got a job at a hospital. I was working in the hospital, which was a great way for me to meet a ton of physicians and get into the OR and shadow some surgeries, which ultimately was where I kind of saw myself in the future, was going towards the neurosurgery route, which probably was, circling back to it’s a huge time commitment. Obviously, you put a ton of time studying for the MCAT, doing all the insanely hard undergrad courses, and prerequisites like orgo and otherwise.

But I think I realized just in the nick of time, there were so many doctors. Almost every single doctor I shadowed told me, if there’s anything else you could be happy doing, then do that. Not this. This isn’t necessarily all it’s cut out to be. I would always kind of brush that off like, “Yeah, sure. You’re just trying to scare me away.” I think it was when I was working a night shift at the hospital overnight, 12-hour shift. I was probably around 3:00 or 4:00 AM, I was at a hospital. That wasn’t a teaching hospital. I looked down the corridor and there was somebody who was a fairly young doctor, probably the youngest doctor he could have been at this hospital. I looked at this guy and I said, “Oh my God! This guy looks absolutely miserable.” He probably was because it was three or four in the morning, in all due respect.

It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks, sort of like an epiphany moment where there’s not just all butterflies and rainbows of meeting with patients, and healing them and feeling good about that, obviously, there’s a lot of challenges in between there. But there’s a huge investment you’re making in your life to just go through, not just from a monetary standpoint, but your time through medical school and then residency. Then if you want to go into a field like surgery, through additional years of residency, that I thought to myself, I just finally realized, I think it might not be the worth investment that I was prepared to make. I started to evaluate other options, and I realized, I thought I was incredibly employable at that time. It was around the time of the Great Recession. There was effectively zero entry level roles out there. But as I started to look around, I realized that there was sort of this renaissance in recruiting that really excited me.

I think Google really paved the way in a lot of ways there with sort of redesigning, interviewing and the talent acquisition function as a whole. That really excited me in a lot of ways, that I felt that fire and passion and sold the opportunity to help people through a top five stressor in life, a job change. It seemed like something that I could have my cake and eat it too, in a way.

[00:16:10] RS: Yeah. That realization, by the way, when you were looking at the individual at three or four in the morning there who looked miserable, that is industry agnostic, I think. I’ve had that experience, I know friends had the experience where it’s like, look at the person who has the job you tell yourself you want, and then ask if they’re happy. I’m sure there’s tons of fulfilled, happy surgeons and doctors out there, of course. But not all of them, not 100%.

You have to remember that this title or this job is not going to be the key to your happiness, right? It comes from somewhere else, clearly. I think that is a question people ought to be asking themselves about the individuals and the jobs that they tell themselves they want.

[00:16:49] BC: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you boil it down, every job to a degree, there’s elements of it that just aren’t fun. That’s why you get paid to do the job, but it’s about finding the job that you’re most excited in that aligns with a lot of your passions and interests, where it doesn’t actually feel like work. Even the bad parts are bearable, because all the really fun parts are really fun.

[00:17:14] RS: Yeah, yeah. There’s a bit of that for every job. I think you’re right. There’s like a happy medium, but I don’t think you can totally escape it. In the immortal words of Blink 182, late night, come home, work sucks, I know. On that seamless pop punk reference out of the way, I would love to know a little bit more, continuing on with your journey, the shift from individual contributor shift to management, where you are now. It’s a question that everyone is going to be posed, provided you do a good enough job as an IC, but it’s not for everyone. I’m just curious how you approach that decision.

[00:17:48] BC: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, management isn’t for everyone and it’s lonely sitting at the top, if you will. There’s a lot of considerations that anyone should take on and every company should take on. You shouldn’t just promote the people who are the best ICs in management. You’re looking at a completely different skill set, as I’m sure most of the listeners out there today know. I think for me, I knew pretty early on that I had my sights set on management. I think it’s the hardest leap to take in your career, taking that IC role, joining the right kind of company that fosters that sort of growth, to promote people from within or taking that leap elsewhere, where they’re willing to take a chance on somebody. That was one of the reasons that I took that, that high risk opportunity at Unqork was, one person team to start and I saw that there wouldn’t be a pretty clear opportunity for me if I came in and prove myself and executed to continue to grow and build a team and, and build up the function if I played my cards right, so to speak.

I think ultimately, it kind of boils down to who you are, and what sort of motivates you. For me, obviously, helping people has been central to a lot of my decisions in life. I’ve always found that that’s what motivates me the most, and what excites me the most in anything I do, whether it’s helping a friend, or a cousin with a resume, or with interview practice, or lending an ear to a colleague, or talking to leadership about, or design or what have you. I think that if you’re at that point in your career, where you’re eyeing a management role, number one, evaluate whether it’s what you actually want to do, or if you’re just looking at the bright, shiny pieces of management. It’s not all fun and games. I think a good manager is ultimately one that’s a servant to their reports, and somebody that’s a shield, and is constantly looking at ways to improve their workflows and make their lives a little bit easier.

That all said, I think, for anyone that’s looking for that jump, it’s hard to come by. For every one manager, there’s a team underneath them. It’s kind of about evaluating the right opportunity, looking for those types of, whether it’s internally at your company. I think it starts with making it known that you’re interested in management. If it’s externally, then evaluating that company for those different components of what I sold in Unqork. Is it a company that is going to have a need for a talent acquisition team that’s more than one? Is it a company that you’re, number one, excited about, that you see a future for and feel passionate about that you could actually sell? Then, I think it’s not just about coming in and executing as an IC, but it’s about how do you think about processes, and systems and the bigger picture, not just trees in the forest, but are able to kind of look at the entire forest as it stands and make judgments that way. Hopefully, that helps a little bit.

[00:20:40] RS: Yeah, definitely. Say you decide management isn’t the route for you, you just love filling roles, you love being the IC? Is there a ceiling on that? Do you have to go into management to break through like the career ceiling or to really—I mean, frankly, it’s compensation, right? I assume is like a driving thing? Do you cap yourself if you don’t go into management?

[00:21:02] BC: In my eyes and on my teams, absolutely not. I’ve worked with some incredibly impactful, and very senior ICs throughout my career and folks that really do incredibly well with sourcing or recruiting. That’s where they want to stay. They don’t want to deal with the other aspects of management that are less fun, and they know that about themselves, and I think I respect that even more when somebody has that level of self-awareness. I think, unfortunately, it is the case with a fair amount of companies out there where you’re kind of capped with your level of opportunity. But at the right organization, I don’t see any reason why. Similar to an engineering ladder, there’s opportunities to grow and in parallel track as an IC, and be a leader in sort of a technical capacity for members on the team, showing them best practices, new innovative ways to approach a role.

[00:21:56] RS: At the right organization, not necessarily a ceiling on being an individual contributor, how do you make sure you are speaking to the organization where that is the case?

[00:22:07] BC: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think, in some ways, it’s really kind of a leap of faith you have to take and you have to trust your gut. Probably one of the hardest things to do is be able to listen to and then learn to trust what your gut is actually telling you. I think that a lot of that is with who you’d be reporting to, who’d be your manager, who’d be the leader that you’re looking up to, looking at their history of hiring and who they’ve brought up in their career. That was certainly one of the things that attracted me to Unqork. I reported to an incredible COO and Dave Sullivan, who is still an active mentor to me in my career. I think that ultimately, it’s something where, if you go too far into asking those questions, it’s kind of this delicate dance of interviewing. If you go too far and ask too many questions about it, you can give the wrong impression that you’re not willing to come in and execute as an IC. It’s sort of laying that framework that I totally understand that expectation, and I’m not looking to make a jump immediately in the management. I want to come in and be productive immediately. So roles, build out the infrastructure here, but I want to make sure that if I do everything as expected, that I’m going to have that opportunity to hire underneath, instead of getting a higher thrown above me.

That’s probably the exact wrong way to ask that question, but maybe not. But I think dancing around it is not really going to get you anywhere. I think you ultimately want to find a company, and a team and manager where you’re able to have somewhat of a candid conversation, and you’re able to communicate and be heard. You want to have communication. Really is ineffective otherwise, if you’re making your point and they’re not understanding that you’re willing to come in and be productive, then obviously it’s not going to be the right fit. Getting too laser focused on one thing or another is ultimately not going to necessarily put you in a good spot.

[00:24:02] RS: Yeah, I also encourage people to flip the script a little bit in the interview. Particularly recruiters because they know how it’s supposed to go. Use this knowledge for your own benefit too. Like ask companies, tell me about a time when, make them be specific about—because you’re right, no interviewer if they want you to work there, no one’s going to be like, “Oh, yeah. It’s not really important for us to have an IC track.” They’re not going to admit to that. They’re going to give you what they think is a satisfying answer to convince you that that’s the case. Because in asking the question, you tell them that you care about it. So you have to––this is the same as interviewing candidates. When you interview the company, you need to really hold them to an answer, I think.

[00:24:40] BC: Yeah, that’s it. Absolutely true. I mean, it’s an incredibly good point. I think anytime I had gotten into an interview in the past, I didn’t just waltz on in there and hope for the best. I had done a tremendous amount of research on the company. I looked at virtually every single LinkedIn profile I could look at in the company to understand what the type of people are like, who’s amongst the leadership, where are their backgrounds coming from, are these are the type of people that I’d be excited to work with. And really start to formulate some deeper questions than your surface interview questions on Google, type five questions to demonstrate that you’re able to think through a few layers of complexity, and you’re actually seriously considering this opportunity. You’re not just waltzing in on the conversation and hoping you’re just going to ace it and they’re just going to hand you whatever it is you want. So yeah, absolutely important to do that research and use those recruiting superpowers for your own good.

[00:25:37] RS: Yeah, exactly. Well, Ben, this has been a great chat. It’s been sort of a different type of episode than the typical Talk Talent To Me affair, but I mean that in the best way. I do so enjoy it. So at this point, I’ll just say thank you for being here, and thanks for your candor, and for sharing your experience with me and all the folks out there in podcast land. This has been a really good one.

[00:25:55] BC: Thanks, Rob. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and I’m looking forward to the next time we connect whenever that is.


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