Interview: @TheWarForTalent aka TalentCast aka James Ellis

On a slow week that saw us celebrating America's birthday, the boys are taking a break from the weekly rundown and chatting with The War for Talent's James Ellis.

Chad cornered the poor guy at a recent conference and dug into a wide variety of topics.

Enjoy, and be sure to visit our sponsors, JobAdX, Sovren and America's Job Exchange.


Announcer: Hide your kids. Lock the doors. You're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts. Complete with breaking news, brash opinion, and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls. It's time for the Chad & Cheese podcast.

Chad: All right. Hey kids. It's Chad from the Chad & Cheese podcast. We are here today with ...

James: James Ellis.

Chad: ... James Ellis.

James: That's right. The most boring name in all of creation. I think there are about 1,000 of us.

Chad: But you've got a podcast.

James: It's true I do.

Chad: Yeah.

James: That doesn't make me any easier to find online. My name is completely SEO adverse. There is in fact a stupidly annoying fit dude who makes his money pushing pictures of his six pack abs names James Ellis. Not me. My ab is more of a keg shape. Yeah, that's not me.

James: But I am James Ellis. I have a podcast The Talent Cast.

Chad: The Talent Cast.

James: Yep. And I'm on Twitter @thewarfortalent. That's kind of the best way to find me, or discover me, or annoy me, or poke at me, or tell me I'm wrong.

Chad: The War for Talent. Kind of cliché.

James: The War for Talent. Yes. But the feeling I had four years ago when I realized it was available. I was like, "Are you kidding me? No one's grabbed this already? Mine."

Chad: Yeah. Oh, hell yeah.

James: To be fair, Tom Peters, who is a personal hero of mine ... he's on my Mount Rushmore ... he has yelled at me on Twitter about my account being too much. "We don't like the war vernacular anymore." I'm like, "I get it. You're my hero. This is complicated emotionally but here we are."

Chad: "But here we are, and I really like it, and it's mine."

James: Exactly. "Suggest something better, how about that. Until you can suggest something better, easy to remember that connects to this idea, thanks for your complaints."

Chad: "Not to mention, I think you're trying to push me off of it so that you can have it. That's what I think you're doing."

James: You think that was a big strategy.

Chad: That's what it was.

James: "I'm in the middle of writing my last book ever and I'm going to complain to this guy ..."

Chad: Yes.

James: "... about his Twitter handle because I want it."

Chad: That's exactly right.

James: Who's to say?

Chad: I don't know. So what do you want to talk about today? We talk about how tech stacks are stupid or what?

James: Yes. That they're stupid, yes, absolutely.

Chad: Okay. So, what is the tech stack? This is a new term, literally, right?

James: Oh, yeah.

Chad: So, over maybe, what, the last 18, 24 months or so it's like everybody has to focus on a "tech stack."

James: Yeah. So for years, and years, and years, everything was about what's your ATS. And the ATS was the Christmas tree and companies would come along and hang their particular ornaments on that particular Christmas tree. You had iCIMS, or Taleo, or Workday, or whatever you had. "Blah-blah-blah is a great tool. Does it work in my ATS? No. Well, then it's not useful to me."

James: So as the ATS's started to become less of the core of everything we do when you get CRM tools and you get communication tools, you don't have a single Christmas tree, you have a stack of technologies, hopefully, fingers crossed, pray to God that they work together in any way, shape or form. And that is not an obvious thing to say. You hope that they work together and that is what's called the tech stack. Used to be a marketing stack depending on what technologies you used to promote your product and push your message out there. But that idea of a technical stack comes from the developer side.

James: It's like LAMP. So it's Linux, Apache Service System and two others I can't remember. [crosstalk 00:03:30] I think was one of them. It was just this idea of what's your ecosystem? Where do you live? And once you define that, okay.

James: The reason we all have to define it is so other vendors can go, "Ah, you're a target. You have a tech stack I can sell to and you just put a target on yourself. And guess what, you're going to get nothing but emails, and phone calls, and pitches on LinkedIn." Cold pitches on LinkedIn. What are people doing? What are you doing? I don't know you. Yeah, I want to talk to you.

Chad: Stay away from me. Stay the hell away from me.

James: So, talking about the tech stack is like saying, "What's the weather like? Is it rainy or is it sunny?" It's like, look, you need to do a job. The tech stack is a resource but you can't run and funnel everything through your tech stake. There's so many ways to get something done. And I think we forget that. We focus so much on the tech stack usually because it takes up like 98% of our budgets ...

Chad: Yes.

James: ... and consequently we think about it. But the focus needs to be on what's the message? Who are you speaking to? How do you speak to them? What are the recruiters doing? How are they connecting people? If they're your people ninjas ... I hate when people use the word ninjas. Please find me another word that. I will refrain from rock stars.

Chad: Is it on your LinkedIn profile? That's my criteria.

James: Yeah, it's there. But if you've got recruiters who are all about being people people, the tech stack should enable, support and engender them. Or are you using it to limit them, keeping them from doing certain things?

James: So, I'm going to say let's make up an ATS names Work night. And it's a really good tool for a lot of things ...

Chad: But not everything.

James: ... but not everything because no such thing is perfect for everything. The world's greatest knife is not a very good fork. But you are trying to sell me video. You're telling the power of video is you can show stories, and you can tell the stories, and they're amazing. So my tech stack says I can't embed video in my job post. So I guess I can't.

James: So it's a way of telling vendors know. And I get that it's a defensive mechanism, but stop saying no to things. Start thinking about, "Okay, how do we do that? How do we get a video out to somebody? How do we focus on telling a message out there?"

James: I'm a firm believer that your employer brand, your message, is just as powerful with $10 worth of sidewalk chalk and a well thought out quote as it is on your let's call it $300,000 tech stack.

Chad: So, you talk about how some tech stack pieces just don't work well together. How and the hell does that even happen in the day and the age of API?

James: Well, because most of this stuff so predates the cloud thinking and API thinking. So, for those of you who are younger than 30, there was a dead phase of time in which entire rooms of your office were very, very, very cold for a very reason. To keep the heater that you called your server rack from melting. Simply put.

James: So 15 years ago, 10 years ago the cloud happened.

Chad: Before the cloud.

James: Amazon web services said, "Oh yeah, we'll just sell you bandwidth. We'll sell you cycles on our code so you can just shut all those server rooms down." So before then you've got to think of everything was in that room and HR being HR says, "Lock the door. Nothing goes in or out. We have a guard, we have a key, we have a passcode. You've got to do a retinal scan just to get in or out. So any information you can't get in or out." That's why.

James: So they didn't want any interaction, they didn't that information getting out. They knew how to get in and out. That all that mattered. HR is not about marketing. And as HR has matured, recruiting has matured to be more marketing focused, it's realizing, it's butting up against the limitations of what the ATS could do and with how the ATS thought, and really how HR thinks.

James: Now you are starting to see ATS's that have a lot of API's, and have a lot of hooks, and they can do a lot more. But they aren't open sourced, they're not connected very well, they are limited in what they can do. So you take that example of Work Night, and you say, "Why can't I drop HTML into my job description?" And you are allowed to drop HTML but very limited.

James: Bold, a link, a header, bulleted list. And that is the end of that list. And I always go, "The amount of code that went into the backend that said I'm going to let certain things in but not all this other stuff like images." Images. What hurt could be caused by an image on a job description except, "Hey look, it's attractive. Hey look, it's an interesting building. Hey look, it's a cool office. Hey look, people doing interesting things." They've made choices from a technical standpoint to limit your ability to communicate.

Chad: Which is one of the reasons why we have so many different needs for these layers of the tech stack.

James: Yeah. So if you want to put a video an ATS like that and you can't, okay, how do you shoehorn that process in? You make a separate site and embed the video there.

Chad: Right.

James: And that's going to cost you something fierce. And that just became part of your tech stack too.

Chad: It could screw your entire process. I mean, all the different hoops that you have to jump through, all the different pages that you have to visit just to be able to get to the start of the application process.

James: Flip it around. How many steps does a recruiter have to go through to post a job? Literally, it is the one task every recruiter does. It is the most basic task in the world and every ATS goes, "You think that'd be simple but here you go. It's really like this." And you have to publish, and turn on, and turn off, and open up, and open up this field way over here, and a page way over here just to change the setting to go back and republish, rewait and see if it ... It's insane.

James: If you look at any recontent management system ... WordPress or anything like that ... like the ability to edit, and change, and publish code is seconds.

Chad: Boom, boom, yeah. It's quick.

James: To just say, "Oh, I need a new image, I need to change that word, oh, there's a typo, fix it, boom you're done." Do that in any ATS and I'll see you at the bar in an hour.

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Chad: It's show time.

Chad: So why do we have recruiters doing those types of tasks in the first place? There should be an, "I need button." You push that button. You have standardized job descriptions who were written by people who know how to write, right?

James: Yep. Beyond that. Macros that say, "Look, of the 27 steps ... the HR step, the comp step, the writing step, the approval step ... macro that bad boy out."

Chad: Yes.

James: I mean, we've all seen if this, then, that. If this happens, then that happens. Embed that sort of thinking into a one button. Write the job description, publish, gone, next. You should measure that in minutes not hours for a new job description.

James: You should get an alert saying, "Hey, I need you to approve stuff." You should be able to approve it without having to go to four different steps, four different pages, four different buttons. It's so convoluted.

Chad: Yeah. So, the tech stack sucks.

James: Yeah. And unfortunately, as long as we keep talking about the tech stack as the core of everything we're supposed to do, we're not going to change. If we think about recruiting as, "How do I use my tech stack to do X," instead of, "How do I do X? Oh, I get to use my tech stack to help support that," we're all screwed.

Chad: So, in many cases when I talk to employers companies and employers about their system, they really don't understand the range of even their applicant tracking system, which they've probably had for years. So, therefore, they have an ATS. They don't realize ...

James: They've had it for seven to 10 years.

Chad: Yeah, and they don't realize how it can source. They don't understand many just different aspects. And we're talking about admins who are focused and it's their job to be experts on this platform.

James: And in fact, they almost always are because you have to be just to survive in that [crosstalk 00:11:56] system.

Chad: But the thing is they don't get it. They don't. So how do you survive and then start to just pull redundant pieces of tech into the scenario? That's the thing that pisses me off the most. How much money are companies spending today that are just redundant systems because what they have would work?

Chad: I was actually talking to a company. We were at a conference in Minnesota and they said, "My current applicant tracking system won't allow me to actually apply a source to candidates coming in from all these different areas." And I know because I worked with that applicant tracking system before that it does. And it's probably one of the best sourcing applicant tracking systems.

Chad: So I hook her up with one of my contacts and they're off and away. They've had this platform for five years. How does this happen?

James: A couple pieces to that. So first off, look around. You're room's surrounded by technical HR leadership asks them, "Who's happy with their ATS?" And no one will raise their hand except for the person who got a new ATS in the last six months. Because they're in that service model. There's a lot of white glove helping out.

James: The second that six month window closes ...

Chad: And that honeymoon.

James: ... "You're off on your own. Got to go. Bye."

James: And have you looked at the documentation for any of this stuff. It's atrocious. It's a train wreck. Half the time they want to charge you for support. I'm like, "Wait a second. If I get an iPhone or I get an Android, and it breaks, and I have a question about it, there's a place I can go where they fix it because I just dropped $600, $700, $800 on this thing and it should come with some help." But ATS, you drop about six figures on it, and after six months, you're out of luck.

James: The other part of it is how most large businesses work. If you are big enough to justify the cost expenditure of a good size ATS you have a procurement team.

Chad: Yes.

James: They will never, ever touch that ATS. So it may be literally electrocuting you as you touch the keyboard and they don't care. It's not a pain point for them quite literally.

James: You talk to your HRIS team, they have to live with it but recruiting is a small piece of what they do. So if recruiters hate their ATS and it's embedded with a larger system, they're not going to listen. They've got much bigger stakeholders, I guess you'd say, who are focused on whether it's financed, whether it's organizational structures. There's all sorts of things a good ATS can do but if you say their all 80% good except for the 20% that are really bad, those components that really suck, you better not be in the recruiting space when that happens because that's the thing that feeds the rest of the company.

James: If you don't have good talent, if you're making it harder to find good talent in this day and age and three percent unemployment in North America, you are asking for pain. But the person who makes those decisions doesn't know about it, doesn't care about it.

James: On top of which, and having worked in the agency side that would sell software that would glue on top of ATS's ... who will remain nameless ... for six figures on top of whatever your ATS costs.

Chad: You talking about TalentBrew?

James: I didn't hear anything. I didn't say a word. I'm trying to be nice. Yes, this is nice as I get kids.

James: It takes two years for a company of any size to switch ATS's. They're so matted.

Chad: Oh yeah.

James: The tendrils of an ATS are in so many different places and so many different processes are baked around them so if you have a work around that you developed as a recruiting leader just to kind of survive and live in this harsh environment that is your ATS, your ATS they all go out the window. So consequently it's easier to never update. Consequently it's better to use seven year old software than to use the best new software because you have to do change management.

Chad: So, in many cases, not all, you see that there is just bad process methodology on the front end that companies insist upon for a new technology to be able to incorporate their process methodology, which is probably horrible. If they would take a look at the technology to be able to obviously start to use it more efficiently, they could probably chop their process in half, become much more efficient.

Chad: So again ...

James: But that's always been the fight with technology.

Chad: ... it's kind of like the give and take, right?

James: Yes. It's always been that fight of technology. How modular do you make it? How easy is it to take the recruiting part of the ATS HR system and focus on it and make it work, and still have enough API hooks back into the bigger mothership that you're still getting the data?

James: Unfortunately, if an ATS and a recruiting module of the ATS sucks and is painful but it turns out you having to live with pain means that there's better data on the backend in terms of things like who gets promoted, what is the sort of those promotions, who is moving forward, and all new organizational structures, and how do you do change management, you are feeding into the river. You're not the river. You just have to find ways of monitoring a bit better.

Chad: Which is why CIO's and CTO's are making the decisions and many of these ...

James: Yeah, because they have to see the big picture.

Chad: And they're forcing these organizations to actually go with whatever ATS is attached to that ecosystem.

James: Well, that's unfortunately just as much a cost function. And I don't have to name any names because it's true in a lot of cases. You buy one part of it, they throw the recruiting system in for free. And if the recruiting leader, head TA goes, "Yeah, but I want this other ATS." They go, "How much is it?" He goes, "It's six figures or five figures." They go, "That's throwing money away." So you're out of luck.

James: Yeah, the tech stack sucks. I just wish people would say, "Look, it's a thing ..." And I'm not going to tell you that you have no future of getting better any time soon. It's not going to change. This isn't a hope and change message. This is about, "Okay, if this is true," ... and by the way, spoiler. Totally is true. "... how do you live better in it?"

James: You can't change this boulder in the road, so to speak, so how do you get at manipulating it, moving around it. Not just work arounds in terms of the code, or work arounds inside of processes. But how you think about the ATS is just, "Look, it's a tool I have to use. What else do I put around it? What is the messaging?"

James: So, for example, if you think about ... and I'm a big marketing messaging person myself. I'm a big content marketing fan. If I had a message about why your company turned people into experts or made them feel secure in their futures and focused on their ability to grow themselves and I put it in the worst ATS in the world, I'm going to get clicks. I'm going to get some hits.

James: The problem is that we used the bad tech stack to justify bad thinking and messaging on top of it. It's the same email you send out to every LinkedIn spam customer you have. It's what you're doing. It's the same headline, it's the same pitch. It's always about, "Do you want a job?" No.

James: I was talking to a computer friend of mine and I said, "Look, you're out of Chicago and they're hiring for a VP level job." And then I'm like, "Where are you looking?" He goes, "Oh, the best people are in New York." I said, "Why isn't your subject line, "Want a free trip to Chicago?"" I'm clicking on that.

Chad: Oh, hell yeah.

James: You have my attention, mon frere. What are we talking about here? Oh, this is an interesting company that does this and this and it wants someone like me? I am in.

Chad: It's marketing, it's advertising. It's the target market, right?

James: Yes.

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Chad: It's show time.

Chad: And one the things that I don't think that we do enough in talent acquisition is understand what we are actually doing. It is advertising.

James: Yes. Sales. Not it's sales. That's like sales and marketing are brother and sister.

Chad: And that's what advertising is, right?

James: Yes.

Chad: You're trying to get your hooks into them to get through, get that that lead form, which is the application.

James: And unfortunately, when you think of it like that the trick to succeed ... and I'm using bunny ears in the air here ... is to say, "Well, if I want more applicants, I'm going to leverage more ad units. I'm going to put my ad units here instead of there. I'm going to twiddle the dials of the magic thinking where that ad shows up is what the magic is.

James: I'm going to introduce you to anybody who makes a Made for TV product and does an infomercial. Those things are 3:00 in the damn morning and they sell like hotcakes. It ain't placement folks. It's the message. It's the message every single time and then you augment it with the delivery. Not the other way around.

Chad: I would definitely say, yeah, the delivery. Just from my radio background, message is everything and then being able to target the right demos. And being able to do it with the right channels.

James: And that's transactional. I will introduce you to 1,000 people who are good at that and are paid to do exactly that. And can do it for you for very little cost.

Chad: That's not happening though.

James: But the person who can treat your company, and talk about your company, and talk about your roles as if this is the opportunity of a lifetime to help someone see a future in which they are the hero of that damn story, they are few and far between. And if they exist, they're sitting in your marketing team but you never talk to them and they never talk to you.

Chad: Oh, yeah. So why is an employer branding and marketing?

James: Okay. Now you've hit upon my favorite subject of all. Now, I'm going to put my teacher hat on.

James: If you're a marketer and you are tasked with selling ice cream cones, tacos, call it ... I don't care ... anybody who's got $1 is an addressable market. Anybody. You don't care if they're tall or short. You don't care if they went to high school or if they have a master's degree. You don't care if they have felonies or if they're Hitler. You do not care. A $1 is a $1, a $1 is a taco. End of conversation.

Chad: If it's a taco. But there are products that are demographically focused ...

James: Yes, but you can still figure out anybody whose got the $20,000, or the $5,000, or the $20 in that demographic area, anybody in that space is addressable and useful. There's no qualifications beyond do you have the money.

James: If you are selling tacos and you sell a million tacos you're getting a raise, you're getting a bonus. They're putting a picture of you over somebody's office going, "This is the guy. He did the amazing thing with the tacos."

James: You bring 1,000 people to a job post, you're screwing up. You bring a million you're getting fired. Why? Because it's a quality, not quantity.

Chad: Targeting, yes.

James: You talk about it ... and I don't mean you, sir, but I mean in general ...

Chad: It might be me.