Tony Kochar

Hearst Director of Talent Acquisition Tony Kochhar

Tony KocharDirector of Talent Acquisition

With a background in software engineering, Tony brings his technical expertise to the process of TA. Tune in to hear what motivated this pivot, why he is uniquely positioned to work in this role, and what he loves most about recruitment.

Episode Transcript

Rob Stevenson  0:05  
Welcome to Talk talent to me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the front lines of modern recruitment.

Speaker 2  0:12  
We actually want to understand the themes of someone's life, we want to understand how they make decisions where they're willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail.

Rob Stevenson  0:22  
No holds barred completely off the cuff interviews with directors of recruitment VPs of global talent, CHR rows, and everyone in between.

Speaker 3  0:31  
Once I went through the classes and the trainings and got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.

Speaker 4  0:39  
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.

Rob Stevenson  0:52  
I'm your host, Rob Stevenson, and you're about to hear the best in the biz. talk down to me. Here with me today on the podcast broadcasting in from a garden oasis. Somewhere in New York is the Director of Talent over at Hearst, Tony Kocher. Tony, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?

Tony Kochhar  1:12  
Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, my garden oasis is my backyard. Definitely blessed to do this on such a beautiful day.

Rob Stevenson  1:21  
It's gorgeous there. So I wanted to call that out. Because if someone hears a bird in the background chirping, it's not there. It's not their speakers playing tricks on them. It's not a bird inside their house while they're doing dishes. It's in fact coming from the backyard that Tony is flexing on me with right now. You have some like fairy lights hanging behind you. It's very charming.

Tony Kochhar  1:38  
Thank you. They know I was looking for I'm like, where's the optimal light in this space? And I'm like, Okay, I think it's my backyard.

Rob Stevenson  1:45  
Yeah, light is great. Sound is great. These are the perks of working from home that I assume Hearst has enabled for you.

Tony Kochhar  1:51  
Yes, yes. I think cursed is like many organizations have adopted a strategy to keep the workers happy. Obviously, everything started during COVID. As you may or may not know, you know, Hearst is 135 year old company, a very storied history with the Hearst family. We are the largest private employer. In the media industry, we have about 20,000 employees. And while many people have heard of the Hearst family, they may not know that we publish online and in print a lot of the magazines they read, Cosmo and Karan driver. So a lot of the home magazines, a lot of the lifestyle magazines. And it's nice to work for an employer that understands kind of what has happened, and even during COVID as a Director of Talent. When I talk to candidates about what the value proposition is, for joining Hurst, one of the main selling points is that PERS does a pretty good job of not laying off people. And that was very apparent during COVID. Where, as you know, there were millions of layoffs. But Hearst did a good job of not laying anyone.

Rob Stevenson  3:10  
That is definitely an advantage of working for a private employer. When you work for a public company, you're beholden to shareholders, if that shareholder meeting is, is on your calendar, you start to feel the pressure. I've been watching a lot of succession lately. And they're constantly living in fear of how close they are to the shareholder meetings. So I assume if you look at a company like that, you may not have a choice, they may have to have reductions in force. But at a private company, you can get a little more creative. It sounds like that's the case at her. So being able to not have to resort to layoffs. How have you kind of been creative about keeping your talent team occupied?

Tony Kochhar  3:43  
Well, I think one other thing, aside from being a media company, Hearst does a good job of diversifying its investments into other industries. And I think they make strategic investments, buying profitable companies. We recently bought a health care company, we bought a car auction site called bring a trailer. And it actually proved to be a very wise investment companies doing fantastic. They're growing. And because of that diversification, even if one side isn't performing as well, the other side kind of makes up for it. So it gives us the opportunity to share resources. I run the team that mostly recruits product and engineering hires first. First is now obviously changing its business, right? We're adopting the digital first strategy. So since I've been here, I've been there about a little over two years, I've hired over 165 engineers. So being that a lot of our businesses have a need for software engineers. Our talent teams work together, we help each other route, we share resources, we share candidates, we share strategies. So we keep busy.

Rob Stevenson  5:06  
Yeah, of course, you mentioned also that HEARST is allowing you to work remote, which I'm pleased to hear. I think that's pretty common. But you are hearing this pressure from large companies or from the brass at large companies about how we need to get people back in the office. I remember there was like a Laszlo Bock shared, you know, a quote from like his talent leader, techno kradic elite WhatsApp, where he was like, Look, everyone in that chat. I was like, we're gonna get people back in the office, eventually. We're just not trying to fight that fight right now. What do you think there is that approach? Why do you think there are some folks who are so intent on getting people getting millions of Americans to pour hours of their life away commuting again?

Tony Kochhar  5:45  
I'll say that there are roles that you should be in an office, right? There might be design jobs, or at Hearst, or a lot of jobs focus on the design editing. And so having a collaborative atmosphere where you're sharing various design getting input, yeah, it's easier. We review a lot of products. So having those products in hand, talking about it in a team environment, that's important. But then when you look at roles that mainly I focus on product, software, engineering, QA data, none of those roles really do have to be in office, you really can work anywhere. So I think for the large part, we've adopted a strategy that most of our product and engineering folks can work remotely.

Rob Stevenson  6:36  
Yeah, certainly there are some roles, particularly in manufacturing or any job you do with your hands. Obviously, you can't do remote. But if your clickety clacking, the Google box says My dad likes to say when he's pejoratively referring to the tech industry, you can't do that remotely. But I am curious why for those jobs that can't be done remotely? Why do you think there is this narrative about how important is to get those people specifically back to work?

Tony Kochhar  6:59  
Yeah, I mean, I think some executives feel that some people may be taking advantage. I know, especially during COVID, there were stories coming out that people were working more than one job, right? They would have multiple laptops. Oh, yeah. A couple of stories post was trending on Tik Tok on how some people were gaming the system by working at home and having three or four different laptops.

Rob Stevenson  7:28  
Yeah, yeah, we had one of them on this podcast, we talked about it. 

Tony Kochhar  7:32  
Really? Oh, yeah. So I think some of that maybe the overall notion that employees take advantage of it, maybe they're lazier. But actually, when you dig into the data, the reverse is actually true. You're actually more productive, because you're not wasting the time commuting for two hours a day, right? You're not sitting by the coffee, having coffee breaks and chatting with people, your whole during work, right. And I don't think productivity ever decreased. In fact, I think it increased.

Rob Stevenson  8:10  
Also, if a co worker needs something from you. It's an asynchronous ask always, as opposed to the person who just performs a drive by on your desk. And it's just like, Hey, Tony, quick question. And now you're like, Alright, let me take my headphones off. Let me swivel my chair and talk to you. And now you want to help people, you want to be gracious, but it's like, then that takes nine to 20 minutes. And then you need that much time again, to get plugged in back to whatever you were doing. So there's a benefit to the collaboration. But that's interruptive. As its base definition,

Speaker 5  8:41  
I think each company had a different story. I know I remember here in Google, who leases a lot of their office space. When their employees started working from home, they did an analysis, I think 12 months out, they saved over a billion dollars in not leasing office space in office. 

Tony Kochhar  8:58  
So yeah, it basically took that approach is like, wow, our employees are just as productive. And we don't have to pay for all this open space. So a lot of companies adopted that strategy and reducing their operating costs.

Rob Stevenson  9:14  
I think that's I think the main reason companies are pushing for back to work for roles that don't necessarily need to is because they have long term leases, whatever an office space are paying all this money for it and they feel like it's a sunken investment if people don't show up and use it, which is like, I can see why that stings, if you're making financial decisions for the company, but it doesn't affect me or my life. It just makes things harder.

Tony Kochhar  9:35  
Yeah. Yeah, like I said, every company has its own kind of narrative behind that. But I think overall COVID has permanently changed the mindset of the employer, employers and their employees on how to work, where to work, and I don't think that will ever change.

Rob Stevenson  9:58  
Yeah, that makes sense. Anyway, Tony, we met a couple of weeks ago at the top talent me live New York event which we spoke all about how recruiters can use AI in their daily role. I think that is part of why you came out is because you were thinking a lot about AI and the talent department. And you shared with me when we were chatting after the show that you actually looped in some Hurst executives and gave them a demonstration on on what AI can do for the Talent Team. Would you mind sharing a little bit about that presentation, I guess? And what was the reaction? 

Tony Kochhar  10:31  
Yeah, so just to second. So my background is actually an engineer, I was an engineer for about 10 years, software engineering, hardware engineering. So I worked with a lot of investment banks and insurance companies. And then my career kind of pivoted, about a decade ago, into talent acquisition, but I've never left the technology space, I blogged about it, I talked about it, I write articles. And when AI suddenly emerged, almost like a bomb several months ago, I subscribed to all these various blogs and magazines. And immediately I knew I said, this is a very big deal. This is gonna hit everyone. And they won't know what hit them. And immediately, I said, I wonder what this can do with recruiting, because I think it could do a lot. And I was one of the original, I signed up to be original beta tester and being one of the first people to get into chat GPT. I started playing around with it. And it was kind of a mind blown moment where I said, this can really help recruiting, but it can really help anyone in their jobs. So I started playing around. And then I talked to my boss and told her what I was doing. And she said, You know what, I think you need to make a presentation of this to some of the top brass. Some of the HR leaders. And so we held this meeting, and I prepared a couple of demos. One thing was, if you want to hire a software engineer, for JavaScript, give me the 10 best questions, and then reply with the answers. And people were like, okay, and they're like jaw dropped, when not only did it bring out the answers, but the speed and accuracy of what I put out. And then I took those questions, and I actually better than with the hiring managers, and they said, these are amazing to get these roles, and then things like, write a touching or emphatic email to a candidate when they're being rejected for a job and make it sound like it's coming from a recruiter. So what you could do with chat GPT is you could give it a role. So you can basically say, act as a professional recruiter, write me an email, as a rejection letter, but give it a lot of heart. And it will spit out exactly what you want. And it sounds great, too. So there, were seeing all these things that were happening. And I think a lot of their mouths were open. And they were like, we've never seen anything like this before. So needless to say, it was an eye opening moment for a lot of the executives, and a lot of the recruiters.

Rob Stevenson  13:41  
So was it just like a eyes wide mouth a gave a moment or was there like Oh, Tony, now we need to do X, Y and Z like their their mind sort of spinning with possibilities? Or what was kind of the takeaway from that meeting?

Tony Kochhar  13:52  
So both eyes wide mouths gaping, all of that, then on conversely, let's talk about the legal ramifications behind all of this. Are we actually allowed to do this? Do we have to put out some sort of disclaimer at the end of all of our correspondents that we're using a chat GPT or some sort of conversational AI to generate these. So a lot of those talks opened up to and then conversely, I have a meeting with legal.

Rob Stevenson  14:29  
Yeah. How much can you share about that meeting with legal? I want to talk about the do your own research, how much can you trust this thing? What is the humans role in babysitting it part of the equation?

Tony Kochhar  14:39  
Yeah. So I think a lot I mean, they were very open to what's happening. They themselves understood that this was out there. And I think a lot of questions would still need to be answered because AI is, I think, just in the beginning, it's content And then to evolve. And just a lot of questions around bias. And where's this information actually coming from? Are we infringing on any copyrights? Is it considered more plagiarism? So all those questions were coming up. And it was impossible for me to answer all of those questions, because we actually don't know yet. Right how we're going to treat this. So it was kind of an open ended meeting. This is how we want to use it. We want to use it in constructive ways to enhance the recruiters ability to attract candidates. So that's the approach I took. But yeah, there's a lot of conversation happening at Hearst, and basically every company on how to use this and what ways to use

Rob Stevenson  15:50  
Yeah, that kind of came up in the San Francisco live event to where Justin Ghio from Activision was basically saying, like, look, this is meant to kickstart your work. This is not meant to replace it. Like if you just take the output from chat GPT, and copy and paste it into an email to a candidate, we're gonna have a conversation about that, you know, treat it like, oh, you asked like a recruiting coordinator to help draft an email, and they sent to you and you go, Okay, this is a good start. Here's what we will do to make it more personal and to make it more meaningful. And to make it accurate. You get to sprinkle in your little fairy dust as an experienced recruiter to make something meaningful. That seems to be the best use of chat GPT. It's not meant to replace your work. It's meant to take away the boring part, and then give you something that you can run with.

Tony Kochhar  16:34  
Yeah, exactly. Right. Yeah, I'd say treat it like a really smart assistant. Yeah. So you always wanted and now you have access to?

Rob Stevenson  16:44  
Yes, exactly. Congratulations. You made a hire

Tony Kochhar  16:49  
has a gift for you.

Rob Stevenson  16:50  
Yeah, exactly. Well, Tony, I would love to know about your move into recruitment, because you started out in engineering. And now you're running talent. So what was that? Like? inflection point? What? When did you move from one to the other? And why did you do it? 

Tony Kochhar  17:04  
Yeah. So I've been in technology recruitment for over 20 years now. And I think when I started working in the banking and insurance industry, Tech was booming, there was a lot of money to be made. And I said, this is what I want to be involved with, I want to be involved with technology. And I actually graduated with a business degree. And then I self taught myself programming, and took a couple of hardware courses. And I convinced somebody to hire me. And they hired me with a business degree. And my career basically evolved, I worked for 10 years for JP Morgan, Chase, Manhattan, AIG, and very rewarding career. And it was kind of at the 10 year mark, where, while working for investment banks is very lucrative, it is very time demanding, right. And me and my wife, we want to start a family. And my wife has a pretty hardcore career as a federal agent. And she doesn't get as much flexibility. And at that point, I thought, you know, starting a family requires a lot of time investment, when you want to have kids. And that was the real inflection point for me. I said, I want to make a change. I didn't exactly know how I wanted to do it. So when I left JP Morgan, I started my own software development company. And I was running that for a few years. And then the whole globalization aspect happened, it was harder to develop software in the United States, when a lot of companies were going overseas, and hiring developers for pennies on the dollar. And one of my friends, he was starting a fin tech startup in New York City. And he's he asked me, he's like, You have such a big network on LinkedIn, maybe you could help me build my team. And I said, Sure. I've hired so many developers in the past. I said, Sure, I can take a stab at it. And it turned out, I did have a pretty good network. And I was pretty good at it. And I was able to build the team rather quickly. And he said, Wow, you're really good at this. Maybe you should just get into talent acquisition. And I said, You know what, that's not a bad idea. So I updated my LinkedIn profile. And companies started reaching out to me. It's that simple. It was pretty much that I started, I guess, trending on LinkedIn, and maybe some of their algorithms. And a lot of companies were looking for technically sound talent acquisition recruiters.

Rob Stevenson  19:56  
So you think you'll stick around in it because that startup was not Hearst. Obviously, this has been around for over 100 years. So you've decided not to make this your full time. What made you decide? You said like, obviously, you had the network, and you were good at it. But what made you think that this was the career move for you? Why do you want to stick with it?

Tony Kochhar  20:14  
Yeah, like I said, This happened about 10 years ago. This happened about a decade ago, where my friends started the fintech startup. And since then, I've had the opportunity to work with startups, small, medium, enterprise scale companies. And it's basically taken me all over the world. I've worked in South Asia, worked in Europe, I wouldn't say it's necessarily an easy career. Tech recruitment is definitely challenging. But I think the amount of people I meet the relationships I make, being in talent acquisition, and the lives that I change, right, it's very rewarding. And I would say it was definitely more rewarding than sitting behind a desk coding, right. There's a very human aspect to talent acquisition. And I think that that's what's kept me here.

Rob Stevenson  21:14  
It is life changing. It's not too grandiose to say that changing jobs changes your life, it changes who you speak to every day, it changes your career trajectory. If you're in a situation where you have to go into work, it changes your commute and your path of destiny is altered, like, Oh, now you have a different coffee shop. Now you meet different people at that coffee shop. People meet their best friends at work, people meet their future co founders, their spouses, I've said it before on this podcast, but it is life changing. And crucially, it's life changing for the better if you believe in the company you work for and if you're hiring for a hiring manager, who you trust and respect, right, that's an important caveat. 

Tony Kochhar  21:49  
You have to believe in the companies and more. So you have to believe in the people you're representing and recruiting your candidates, I actually have a really good story around that I was working for this education technology company a couple of years back, and they were building a whole curriculum around cybersecurity. And they needed cybersecurity engineers, subject matter experts to build this robust curriculum was then sold to major universities. So it was a big deal. So the head of learning said, these are my ideas of the type of candidates I want. And he had an image in his head of what he wanted, where they should be coming from. And I found an amazing, older woman, she was in her 60s. And she was in Atlanta, and she was African American. And she was the most brilliant cybersecurity person I had ever spoken with. And that's not the image they had in their head what a cyber security engineers should be. So shame on them, right frame of them. But I fought for her. And I said, you're going to interview this person, and I guarantee you're going to end up hiring her. And they put the meeting on their calendar, they were like, okay, sure, we'll do it. That was the best I've ever made. And then conversely, I had an opportunity to meet her. And that was the first time it kind of like, hit me in the chest, about what I'm doing. She said, you know, what, I've interviewed for maybe 100 jobs. And I've been rejected for a lot of them. And she's like, I know why, you know, because ageism, it's a very real thing. And she said, You believed in me, and he fought for me. And you changed my life. And it really hit me like a ton of like, well, wow, like to give him a big hug. And she's like, thank you. So that's what I do what I do. So yeah, so a lot of those reasons. And it's just fun talking to different people. You end up as a recruiter, kind of being the confidant, maybe their psychologist or therapist a little bit, maybe you have to understand their family dynamics, their financial dynamics, there's so much to it. Right? So you just watch 

Rob Stevenson  24:16  
the chat GPT cannot do that

Tony Kochhar  24:20  
so yeah, I was talking to it. Without that. I said, You know what, you'll be fine. There is a fairly human aspect to recruiting that I don't think will be replaced anytime soon. So I think you'll be fine.

Rob Stevenson  24:32  
Yeah, yeah. I tend to agree with that. So Tony, you were very gracious squeezing this interview in before you head out on this exciting tech project in Bangalore. I would love for you to share with our audience a little bit more about this project and what is taking you to the rural areas of India.

Tony Kochhar  24:48  
No, yeah, I kind of feel it as a blessing. It's a project that kind of fell in my lap. And it's something that I've been thinking about, for, I would say almost a decade. It now like, how do I give back, being blessed being in a beautiful home, living in an amazing country with all the opportunities and freedoms that we've been given? Let's say, I want to find a way to give back. Right? How do I give back in a meaningful way? Something that would be also good at. So a friend of mine, she was part of this nonprofit organization. And she said, Oh, would you consider helping some schools in some of the really poorest poorest regions of India? They need a lot of help a lot of these children, basically, they don't even have desks, right? They sit on the floor, essentially. And this is, you know, we're looking for pencils and books and all that. I said, What about computers? Do they have access to computers? Have they even touched a computer? She said, good question. I don't think so. I said, having access to a computer could basically change their lives. So I asked them what their needs were. And they said, Yeah, if you could bring computers into the schools, that would be the biggest impact they've probably ever seen. So I started researching. And I found out that there was Wi Fi in those regions, and partnering up with local vendors to supply Chromebooks, which are relatively affordable, I could go to eat school, and basically set up a technology lab, and give each school about 10 computers, where the kids could come into one area. And we'd also develop a website for these kids to tap into free learning resources, which there are hundreds and 1000s. Khan Academy, being one of them, has immense resources, free educational tools, right. So it kind of started from there. And we've isolated three schools, they're in this area called Tamil Nadu, it's about three, four hours drive from Bangalore. So the my son, my son is 17. He's majoring in computer science. I told him about it. And he's like, Well, I'd love to develop the website, I'll do that. I'll handle that aspect. And I said, Okay, let's do it. So he's developing the website, I'm talking to the vendors, we're going to go together to India, we're going to make it a nice father son trip, and we're going to buy the computers, we're going to transport the computers, we're going to meet the teachers, we're going to meet the students. And I think it'll be kind of a life changing, endeavor for me and my son.

Rob Stevenson  27:41  
And certainly these students. This is exciting, because it's really, I think, tied to the DNI mission that most of us speak about, which is that the one step further than making sure you hire people from underrepresented groups and that they can succeed at your company, is that we're cultivating more folks like this. And if everyone's fishing from the same pool of underrepresented talent, then it's going to be really challenging, and you're probably not going to increase representation that much. But what are you doing to bring more of these people to the table? Right? What are you doing to create a world where there are more people from underrepresented groups to be hired? Right. And that starts as far back as you can into childhood and a Google Chromebook. And a Wi Fi connection is a magic wand in the hands of someone who has the ambition and who has a desire. And it sounds like you're going to be handing those magic wands out in rural India, which I adore to hear, where's the financing coming from?

Tony Kochhar  28:39  
personal fundraising for the most part, but I have to call out that first is an amazing company. They are 100% matching, whatever I contribute, and Hearst has a really great program called hertz gives back. And I was able to get the schools and this nonprofit into that program. And whatever funding I raise, whether it's 5000, or $10,000, they can 100% match it. And all that enabled us to do is buy more computers, go to more school. So yeah, this time, it's three schools. And if everything goes well, maybe next time it'll be six schools, then 12, then 24 follows.

Rob Stevenson  29:22  
Amazing. Is it possible for others to contribute?

Tony Kochhar  29:26  
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I can definitely give you a link. Yeah, any contributions would be amazing. And we're going to track everything. We're going to be very transparent. Basically 100% of the funding is going to go towards the purchase of computers. And we're going to be on all the socials, Instagram and Facebook and Tik Tok and charting our progress, uploading the videos of the kids, the teachers and our own journey, right in acquiring the computers and to just kind of make it all the more real.

Rob Stevenson  30:02  
I'm just Googling right now how much is one Chromebook? It's like 100 bucks, 150 bucks. Is that right?

Tony Kochhar  30:09  
Yeah, like in India is probably a little more because we're gonna have to get it from vendors over there. And they tend to tax that pretty heavily. So we probably closer to $200.

Rob Stevenson  30:18  
Got it, we'll definitely get the link to the donation page in the show notes. And for all of you listening out there, please consider contributing. If you've ever gotten value out of this podcast, this 100% free podcast that we deliver to you. Please consider it if all of you gave like a cup of coffee is worth two this that would be a lot of kids that would end up having access to technical literacy. And remember that Hearst is matching it so we can double all of the donations that we are able to make here. No pressure, but the link is in there. Please consider every single bit helps. Anything you can give will help those kids in Berlin, Bangalore to uplevel their access to our economy and our tech. So consider that Tony, it's amazing work you're doing not just out there in Bangalore but at Hearst as well. I've loved chatting with you today. Thank you for being here and sharing your background your experience with me.

Tony Kochhar  31:08  
Thank you for having me. I had a wonderful time and thank you for posting that link to all your listeners. That's very generous. Thank you.

Rob Stevenson  31:18  
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