Today we are joined by VP of People and Talent at Robust Intelligence, Riffat Jaffer. Listening to Riffat tell the story of her career journey and her 15 years of experience in the industry, we begin to understand what has cultivated her immense passion for talent acquisition and employee experience. Along the way, we hear all about her challenges, triumphs, and experiences in companies that shaped the path she is on today. This episode is full of advice, stories, and takeaways that will change your perspective on hypergrowth within a business, the normalization of internal hiring processes, and the importance of growth potential.
[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me. A podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontline’s modern recruitment.
[0:00:12.8] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life, we want to understand how they make decisions. Where are they willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail.
[0:00:22.7] RS: No holds barred, completely off-the-cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs, and everyone in between.
[0:00:31.1] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.
[0:00:39.7] MALE: 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.
[0:00:53.0] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz, Talk Talent to Me.
[0:01:00.1] RS: Here with me today on Talk Talent to Me is the vice president of people and talent over at Robust Intelligence, Riffat Jaffer. Riffat, welcome to the podcast, how are you today?
[0:01:08.7] RJ: Thank you, doing really well. It’s been a busy week but doing really well today.
[0:01:12.7] RS: How chaotic are things for you? Are you managing to stay above water, are there crisis popping up, or how’s your week gone for you?
[0:01:19.2] RJ: You know, there’s always a crisis in HR, right? Recruiting is going well, we’ve just recently hired a whole batch of senior engineers so that’s been really exciting for us and on the HR side, there’s always something with payroll or something else that comes up that you have to jump in and sort out and solve but it’s all fun.
[0:01:41.4] RS: Yeah, do you enjoy that, do you enjoy the – not like every day of crisis but every day something new, nature of your role?
[0:01:46.5] RJ: You know, actually, I love it. I absolutely love it, I think I’d be bored to death if you know, had a job which didn’t have the daily interaction and daily interaction with people and not necessarily problems but just the challenges that come with working in a small company with limited resources and not a big team and having to solve a lot of little things as well as big problems that come up.
[0:02:08.1] RS: Yeah, you have to get a little creative, right? The answer isn’t to hire someone or hire someone to come in, a consultant to fix things, you sort of have to play the hand you’re dealt, right?
[0:02:15.7] RJ: You have to figure it out on your own and I haven’t done HR all my career. I came into HR only about four years ago and now, I’m so glad to say that I know exactly how to do taxes and payroll and deductions, and you know, all of that comes with HR responsibilities. I’m learning and enjoying, so it’s fun.
[0:02:35.5] RS: Got it, yeah.
[0:02:36.2] RJ: But my career has been mainly recruiting of mainly come up the HR people track and having started out as a recruiter. So, talent acquisition has been my thing.
[0:02:46.1] RS: I love it. You took the words out of my mouth there. I was hoping you could kind of walk us through your career a little bit and explain how you wound up at Robust Intelligence?
[0:02:52.7] RJ: Sure. So, I’ve had a long career actually, I would say over 15 years in talent acquisition and then the last four or five years doing the HR side of things too and I’ve worked at bigger companies like Google and Wealthfront. I, at one point, had my own staffing firm and then I worked at several startups now. Pure Storage, Orbital Insight, joint companies really early stage and then helped them grow and get to that next level.
My jobs, I think I’d say, I’ve always enjoyed jobs that have been people-centered and I can’t imagine a role for myself that doesn’t have contact with or impact on people directly. People have always fascinated me and have always been curious about why people decide to join a profession, make the career choices that they do, or make the transitions when they do, and why some people dedicate themselves to their work or some kind of feel trapped with the work that they do.
Looking back, I feel that I stumbled into my first tech recruiting job by total chance and I’m immensely passionate about talent acquisition and employee experience and that was all a coincidence. I came into recruiting just by chance but absolutely love it and then, coming into Robust Intelligence, like I said, I’ve worked with bigger companies, smaller companies and once I discovered startups, I just felt that I enjoyed joining companies very, very early stage and then helping the company grow on the people front but also, being a partner to executives and on the business side of things.
I enjoy working and growing and learning in most environments but have realized that building and growing teams from scratch have really become a passion for me and then, how did I come to Robust? I was referred to my current role by the partner at Sequoia Capital. The partner and you know, it’s my passion for wanting to work with smaller startups, especially smaller startups with kind of a ground-breaking product vision and she referred me to the company and I’m at the leadership team and I really enjoyed chatting with them and decided that I was going to take the plunge and join Robust.
[0:04:55.7] RS: So Riffat, you kind of took the question right out of my mouth there. I would love to hear a little bit more about your journey and your career and how you kind of wound up in your current role at Robust Intelligence?
[0:05:05.0] RJ: Sure. So I’ve been recruiting in HR for almost 15 years now and I’ve worked for bigger companies like Google and Wealthfront and I also had an opportunity to start my own staffing agency, I worked at several startups, Pure Storage and Orbital Insight and now, Robust Intelligence and I came to Robust because I was referred to the company by the talent partner at Sequoia Capital, she kind of knew of my passion for working with smaller startups and especially startups with kind of a groundbreaking product vision.
She introduced me to the leadership team and after meeting with the leadership team, I immediately felt that they had this big ambitious vision for illuminating risk from AI and they had this confidence that they could make this vision a reality and I completely felt I could align with them and help build a product and a company around eliminating AI risk.
I guess the other big thing that I look for and I completely saw when I’m on the leadership team was, that the company was going to be an environment that I could be trusted and respected in and that I’d be able to bring my most authentic self to work. I decided to take the plunge and join the company during COVID in March of 2021 and it’s been actually, honestly, an amazing experience ever since. I’m really enjoying that.
[0:06:23.9] RS: Fantastic, yeah. You kind of worked across the spectrum of like talent-specific roles, right? You have worked at small companies, large companies, you have agency experience running your own agency and you know what’s interesting is that I feel folks experience this pressure as their career goes on to work for bigger companies, with more resources, more of a household name, take on bigger teams, et cetera but that’s not the only way to forge a career in the space. You seem to prefer the smaller companies, is that right?
[0:06:52.4] RJ: Definitely. So having worked at the big and the small, I further had that choice. What I realized is that I could make the most impact with the smaller company. I feel that joining a startup is where I get to establish, meet the people, develop relationships, the learning and growth that comes from working with small groups of highly talented and motivated people and I think it’s just getting together and getting behind that mission and vision of building a product and building a company and working at big companies is great.
I had an amazing time working at Wealthfront and at Google but I just felt that in bigger companies, you tend to go deep, whereas at smaller companies, you have the opportunity to go broad and learn skills and do things that you probably don’t have experience with but you’ve given the opportunity to take on and I have always enjoyed taking on new things, taking on projects that I have never done before and kind of making it happen and learning to make it happen.
[0:07:45.8] RS: Yeah, that makes sense, and we kind of winked at this a little bit at the beginning, this notion of how you can’t hire an external consultant or make a hire to solve your problem, you kind of have to figure it out yourself. So how do you manage just to be a little more specific with less resources and when you have to meet problems with pluck and wit?
[0:08:03.3] RJ: Sure, so, absolutely, right? Prioritizing becomes an essential skill set at startups. You have limited resources you have to prioritize and you have to get creative. We hire people that want to do more than their core job. So, at startups, the mindset is always, we can do anything, and we can do it better. So regardless of whether people have done recruiting or HR and marketing or sales, everyone believes that they can actually contribute and do everything.
So one doesn’t need to have too many resources. In fact, at Robust now, our engineering teams and even our leadership pitch in and help us with interview questions and figuring out how to put together interview panels, help us assimilate some of the talent branding efforts. I think it becomes a team of people with different skill sets that come together and prioritize and make things happen versus having to depend on a specific person, a specific specialist to do a specific task.
I think that’s what’s exciting in a startup, right? You can be creative, you don’t have the resources but you can be creative and you can get to the goal of what you want to do.
[0:09:06.3] RS: Yeah, and also at the early stage, everyone’s a recruiter, you know?
[0:09:12.0] RJ: Yes.
[0:09:12.7] RS: You need everyone to be selling the company and sharing the mission and thinking about references and wanting to help the company grow and so what you end up with is people not maybe on the talent team, working on talent campaigns in a meaningful way. Do you think recruiting suffers when the recruiting function is more centralized like it necessarily is at a larger company?
[0:09:34.6] RJ: So when you’re scaling, you need a different kind of recruiting org, right? You do need processes and systems that can help you scale but I think a good combination of having the engineering team or the sales or marketing team be involved and help with targeting candidates but then also, setting that bar for what kind of candidates they want to see and interview and then hire, right?
Because it is that team, it is that team that’s going to welcome the new employees so making sure that they’re involved that every stage of the process really kind of helps. They also have a lot of ideas and have a network of people in that space, so it makes complete sense to kind of tap into the networks.
[0:10:12.4] RS: Yeah, of course. When you think about the scaling of a recruiting team, how much scaling do you yourself wish to be responsible for? Because if you prefer the small company, you may have a hand in creating a company that you no longer want to work at just because of its size. I’m just curious, how do you approach scaling and at what point does it become, “I don’t want to do this next thing.”
[0:10:34.4] RJ: Sure. So, when I joined Robust, there were 10 people when I joined, seven when I accepted my offer and I knew I was going to be the first person, I was going to have to do it all and then put in place, the systems, the people, the processes, right? That are going to help us scale and grow and especially at the cadence that we want to.
Of course, the first task is bringing in an applicant tracking system, making sure you have a background check company, and getting all of those, getting your sourcing tools in place. I think Jam was one of the first things that we brought on, right?
So, making sure you have all that in place and then following that up with our engineering team and our sales and marketing teams were already trying to use these tools themselves to do their own recruiting, right? But then there comes a time when you feel, “Oh, we need to have uniform processes” the engineering team shouldn’t go off and do their own thing versus the sales and marketing team doing something else.
There comes time when you feel, “You know what? We need the uniform process” and then, you bring in say, a recruiting coordinator or recruiting operations person that can help have a uniform process, schedule interviews, put together interview plans, make sure that everyone attends the interviews when they have to, know what they have to do, know the questions to ask and that doing things in a manner that would ensure that no one’s wasting time.
And candidates have a good candidate experience as well as we’re coming away with exactly what we want after the one-hour interview. Should we hire this person, do we need to test the person more or does this person not fit into the company right now?
So, it’s really critical to bring that fist person in and then of course after that, comes, now, we want to hire 20 engineers in two quarters. So yes, the engineers might have referrals but it’s nice to think about diversity and make sure that your positions are being looked at and applied to by a diverse group of candidates.
What we did is we actually brought in a technical recruiter, a go-to market recruiter and a coordinator all at the same time. So earlier this year, that’s what we did and we knew we were going to scale in the first two quarters of the year and we set ourselves up for success and hiring quickly and making sure that all our candidates have a great experience.
[0:12:43.8] RS: Got it, yeah. You mentioned that there comes a time when you need to normalize processes, right? Like you can have all the teams doing their own thing. Is it ever too soon to do that or is it maybe not a priority before a certain stage?
[0:12:57.4] RJ: I think it’s too late if your teams are already hiring more than like say, five people a month, I would say because then you have to go back and fix things and systems and processes, teams have gotten used to doing things a particular way and they might kind of resent some change and it’s good to have some process, some skinny process to start with and then, communicate that the scale, we’re going to need to put in process, not for the sake of putting in process, but just so that we can ensure efficiency and speed.
[0:13:27.1] RS: Right, right. What is the technical debt of not doing that?
[0:13:30.8] RJ: So, we do end up with say, interview questions, right? Interview questions, nobody’s focusing on what question to ask. Each interviewer goes into an interview and possibly asks the same question, of say, an engineering test for the same skill but if we have a good process in place, good interview questions that are assigned to say by the recruiting coordinator, the interviewer, they know going in that, “Okay, I am going to do the systems design question” or “I am going to do the coding question or the algorithm question,” right?
They don’t have to think but then also there’s an objective feedback loop there, where we’re objectively comparing candidates and what the performance was on a certain set of questions, was this everyone coming out with different viewpoints on how candidate did but not having objective criteria.
[0:14:20.5] RS: Right, it makes sense. I’ve had that experience a couple of times where I was in an interview and everyone on the panel asked me the same question and one, it’s really poor use of their time, right?
[0:14:32.0] RJ: Right, exactly.
[0:14:32.7] RS: Two, by like the third or fourth time I was asked it, I had lost the energy and patience for my response, you know? I’m like, “Well, here’s the thing…” right? I don’t sound great either, you know? I think that is really damaging to an interview process. It’s probably a lot worse than I think anyone realizes, so in general, the more you can weed that out, the better, right?
[0:14:51.8] RJ: Exactly and then you coming to the debrief at the end and questions come up on, “But how is this person in the system’s design?” and then you realize nobody asked that question. So now, you have to go back and add questions or have more interviews in the loop or you’re in the situation where this person has three other offers and you have to make a decision without knowing whether this person has done what the critical part of the job would be.
[0:15:17.8] RS: Yeah, exactly. When you join a small company, there is the expectation that you will undergo hypergrowth, right? Obviously, we’re small now but we’re going to grow like crazy. Every company says that or wants to believe it about themselves. When you evaluate a company, how do you tell if they are set up to succeed through hyper growth because it’s one thing to have the backing, the investment and have the desire and like resources to grow and it is quite another thing to do it well.
When you are evaluating companies, how do you figure out if they are really set up to succeed through hyper growth?
[0:15:51.3] RJ: Sure, so I think during the hyper-growth stage, the company is typically scaling in revenue, and people and the leadership team is important. The experience of the leadership team and if they have done it before, they have figured out what the challenges are going to be and are prepared to make decisions around the challenges that could come up, so that’s really critical, right?
If you have an experienced leadership team it definitely helps and then I think it’s really important early on for everyone in the company to know what the operating principles and values are, right? If everyone knows how decisions get made and should be made, then it becomes easier. As you scale and grow, everyone can be in every meeting, right? The rest need to trust that the person in the right meeting made the right decision and that’s where the whole trusting comes in.
If there’s a set of operating principles or operating values that the company has embraced early on, it can really be that guiding light to help when decisions become challenging and the employees then know what to do when they are faced with a particular decision. Does that make sense?
[0:16:56.2] RS: Yeah, of course it does. We keep throwing this term hypergrowth around as if it’s an assumed quantity but we have kind of pointed out hyper-growth as something that you personally enjoy, the hustle and bustle over thought but there is also the economic reality of hypergrowth that I think is important, meaning a company going through hypergrowth needs recruiters, right?
In a way that a company whose growth is going to be stunted does not. Is that part of your calculus? Is that part of why hypergrowth is exciting to you beyond just the day-to-day?
[0:17:29.9] RJ: So your question is more around scaling the recruiting team or not?
[0:17:33.8] RS: More like is a company’s ability to grow crucial to your decision to join them.
[0:17:38.6] RJ: Absolutely. Absolutely right, if I join a company that’s really small and they don’t want to grow, they don’t need to grow for whatever reason, then they don’t need me, right? They bring me in because they want to grow and scale and especially the people side of the business. If they have a business that doesn’t need employees at scale then I think they don’t need me and they don’t need me to come in and put systems and processes in place and hire recruiters to make that happen.
[0:18:03.4] RS: Yeah, I point that out just because I think recruiting candidates ought to involve that in their interview process when they are evaluating a company to figure out what are the specifics about your growth goals because if you only have 10, 20 open roles, great I am going to fill those and I am going to hire myself out of a job, right?
So how can you assess for a company’s like I said, “Here is an ability to scale” but the fact that they’re going to, do you need to know about their sales process, about their investment, about their actual headcount goals? Do you want to talk to leaders and those in the business? How do you figure out that a company’s hiring needs really necessitate you?
[0:18:42.6] RJ: So it’s a potential, right? If you feel and you do your research and you feel there is potential for the product that this company is building, they’re backed by investors that are going to invest and make the future investments in the company that are going to help propel that grow in the product, the revenue and so the people, then it makes sense. I’ve tried to think about joining companies just right after they’ve got their round of funding because that’s when they typically have their plans.
Their plans for scaling, their plans for the people org and there’s more of a definition of, “Okay, we got X number of dollars in funding and then this is what we’re going to do with it” and of course, plans change and things change and they might decide to go in a different direction but at least once they have gotten their round of funding, it’s easier to commit to at least an 18-month recruiting plan.
[0:19:31.8] RS: Yeah, exactly. I speak on the show a decent amount to talent partners for venture capital firms and they got to chime in at the early stage for a lot of different companies, really all of the portfolio companies for that firm. Have you ever considered that kind of role?
[0:19:48.5] RJ: So, you know I’ve thought about it honestly. I like building, I see myself as a builder, right? I enjoy the end-to-end people cycle and being able to create a trait, refine the recruiting as well as employee experience cycle and as you know, both are integrating both employee experience as well as the recruiting cycle is really critical and essential. I enjoy the hands on recruiting, creating the strategy, executing on it.
Even to this day, I really love talking to candidates and new hires, keeping myself in the loop with market trends and I’ve often thought about the talent role and wondered whether I would get the same hands-on interaction with candidates. I feel I am seeing the talent acquisition role as a more of an advisory role and someday, I might want to do it and take it on and check it out but at this point, I am seeing myself more as an operator, as a doer, as a builder. So I don’t know, maybe in the future I will give it a shot sometime.
[0:20:43.4] RS: Yeah, never say never but it sounds like you preferred to kind of roll up your sleeves a little bit and also, you mentioned before that what kind of kept you in the career was that you just kind of love understanding what makes people tick a little bit, right?
[0:20:55.0] RJ: Yes.
[0:20:55.7] RS: You mentioned why you do, some people thrive in their work and other people feel trapped by their work.
[0:21:01.7] RJ: Exactly. I’ve always enjoyed jobs that have been people-centered, right? I really can’t imagine myself in a role that doesn’t have contact or impact on people directly. I’ve had this fascination for people and I am really curious about why people decide to join a profession or make the career choices and transitions that they do and how some people get motivated by certain jobs and different people will find the same job completely and utterly boring, right?
It’s always fascinating to me and I like the part of understanding that and hiring the right people for the right jobs and, besides just a technical skillset or the actual skill set required to do the job, everything that surrounds job satisfaction enjoyment for a person.
[0:21:45.2] RS: So when you dig into motivations and how people characterize their relationship to their work, what are you learning about folks?
[0:21:54.0] RJ: So I think people are different, right? That’s what’s fascinating, different people, the environments that they come from, where they come from, what stage in life and career they were in, they enjoy different things and so their jobs, right? I can see myself early on in my career, I use to enjoy different kinds of job and now I think after 15 years of experience, I know exactly what I like and don’t like.
When I go on an interview, I’m the one that’s going, “Uh-uh, I honestly don’t think I can do this” right? But it’s also something that comes with experience and knowing what makes you tick and knowing what you enjoy doing and what you’re good at, right? So with early-career employees, you see them wanting to experiment with many different things, which is absolutely great but then later on folks that have more experience, you see them knowing exactly what they want to do.
So kind of figuring out where each candidate is in that journey I think really helps make them successful once they’re in the job.
[0:22:49.9] RS: Interesting but don’t you think that curiosity and that desire to learn that we should cultivate that? Even as we get a little more established in our career?
[0:22:58.1] RJ: Yes, definitely but it depends in what areas, right? For me, it’s always fascinating to go work with a company that’s working on a different and cool product. Do I want to change the way I say interview people? Yes, of course, you know I’m always learning and growing but there are some things that I feel I figured out and I know I am not going to enjoy. These days, you hear a lot of candidates tell you that they’ve embraced remote work and that they feel that that work is best for them.
Then there are other employees who feel that no, they miss that interaction. They miss the social connection of working with people or sitting next to someone and solving a problem, but it doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong. It is just how people work best, right? It’s great that people have learned that and maybe they change and evolve but when you are talking to them, you have to respect what they want, if that makes sense.
[0:23:49.9] RS: Yeah, that makes total sense. This is such an interesting I think important thing when assessing talent that it really needs to be more about can they do this job immediately in front of them because that’s not the whole story of a person.
[0:24:02.9] RJ: Right, exactly.
[0:24:04.1] RS: Their ability to execute on these task that you have for them over the next six months’ that can be it, right? Because six months is not a long time and they also, I don’t know if anyone has really figured out how to hire for potential yet. I am sure, you know, some people are better than others but this notion that look, if someone is going to hire me to do a job that I had done one-to-one exactly before, then that doesn’t represent an opportunity to me.
I am not doing anything new or different. I am not growing, I am just doing something I did already but I feel like that’s the way that we select a lot of talent is like, “Oh they have done this before.”
[0:24:36.5] RJ: Absolutely, you’re so right and I always try to remind myself of that, right? Because there’s so many jobs that everyone can do but what are they going to grow into six months or three years from now and how they’re going to add value to your company in the future. So I always try to remind myself to look of that. I am sure, I have biases because sometimes hiring managers just want to know that they’ll hire somebody and the job is going to get done, right?
But then I think as a people leader, I am always reminding hiring managers that let’s look at the potential, let’s look at what they can do for us, and maybe they’re not where we want them to be today but that’s where our onboarding and our training can come in and have them get where they want to go and typically, you end up hiring the best candidates when you take that leap of faith, right?
Because they come in and maybe they’ve not done the job exactly like you want them to do but they know you trusted them and hired them to do it. They’re willing to give it their all and more than somebody who has done it three times over now, think of it as, “Oh, I’m going to come here and do this same thing again” right?
[0:25:37.7] RS: Yeah.
[0:25:38.3] RJ: So, hiring for potential is really, really being able to partner with the hiring managers and make sure that they see that potential in a candidate. It also depends a lot on the product maturity, and can we afford to give this person six months to become what we want them to become, right? I think having a good headcount plan where you can bring in some early-career employees that are getting into jobs early and then bring in some experts and especially helping combine that group of employees might make sense, where some people get the opportunity to mentor and then some people get the opportunity to get mentored.
[0:26:14.4] RS: Right, yeah. That’s so important to keep in mind, especially with do we have the resources to make sure we can grow this person to who we need them to be. I absolutely agree with that and Riffat, we are creeping up on optimal podcast length here. At this point, I just want to say, thank you so much for being with me here on the podcast. I have loved learning from you. You are on fire today, this was a really great episode so thank you so much for being on the show.
[0:26:36.9] RJ: Thank you, it was great being here. Thank you so much Rob.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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