Another top-notch interview from our time at iCIMS Inspire in the spring. This one features Vanessa Burnaby, VP of Global TA at Avalara, a cloud-based tax compliance solutions to handle every transaction in the world. Previously, Vanessa also served at Workday and SAP as a talent acquisition leader. She has been efficiently scaling and building strong teams, most recently, through recruitment automation, the ability to streamline processes and scale, primarily through focusing on strong analytics strategies. We don’t spend a lot of time interviewing TA pros with such a deep competency of the job and the industry, so this one is a must listen.
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INTRO: 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 and Cheese podcast.
Chad: He's had a bourbon or two, Jesus Christ.
Joel: Yeah. What's up, everybody? We're live from the iCIMS Inspire Conference in beautiful San Diego, California.
Chad: I love it.
Joel: I am your co-host, Joel Cheesman. Joined as always, Chad Sowash is my co-pilot, and we are excited to welcome Vanessa Burnaby, VP of Global TA at Avalara. Vanessa, welcome to the podcast. What the hell is Avalara, first of all?
Vanessa: We are a tax compliance software. So sexy. Yes.
Chad: So sexy?
Chad: Not sexy, but necessary.
Joel: But they need people to do this job.
Vanessa: Two things guaranteed in life, right? Death and taxes.
Joel: Death and taxes, I quote.
Chad: I bet she never uses that.
Joel: I quote Kelly Bundy, "Death in taxes...
Chad: And taxes, yeah.
Joel: "Are the only two things definite in life." So day one of the conference, what stood out to you? What blew your mind? What are the takeaways?
Vanessa: Yeah, great first day. Some really good, inspiring speakers...
Joel: The right answer is, I loved the Chad and Cheese segment.
Vanessa: I mean, of course, you guys finished out the day.
Chad: She wasn't happy she didn't get a beer, but I'm sorry...
Vanessa: I haven't had a beer yet.
Joel: Nobody's happy about that.
Chad: We'll do better next time.
Vanessa: Thank you. I mean, a lot of the data that Rhea Moss went through was great just to see. And really comparing the beginning of COVID with where we are now and the fact that actually the data is the same, I think that is a great conversation with executives.
Chad: Crazy, isn't it?
Chad: I mean we were in a pandemic, now we're not in a pandemic. To see that there's...
Vanessa: It's still the same.
Chad: Yes. So, talk about that.
Vanessa: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think a lot of leaders have this expectation that especially with layoffs, it should be easier to hire, it should be faster to hire. We shouldn't have to pay them as much, right? That employers have the upper hand.
Chad: Are they watching the headlines too much? Is that the problem?
Vanessa: I think they're watching the headlines, I think they're also seeing economic trends. I think the PE firms and the VC firms all have opinions.
Chad: But those economic trends, in many cases, feels like it's bullshit.
Vanessa: Agree. Yes.
Chad: Rhea said, like, were you watching the first of the week or the latter part of the week?
Chad: It's two entirely different narratives.
Vanessa: Well, and you see folks in the industry who are asking the questions of, okay, if they're laying off and not hiring, why are you still hiring? Different business, different market...
Vanessa: Why should we all be doing the same thing?
Chad: Yeah. Everything's being lumped into one big ball. And that's not how the market works. It never has been. But yet, we're getting these point and click... I don't know if it's click bait or what it is, but it's driving me crazy.
Joel: If it bleeds, it leads, Chad.
Chad: Yeah, there's a lot of bleeding going on.
Vanessa: Yeah. But I think data right now is so critical for the business case and to help leaders understand what's really going on in the markets. You know, when I look at our data just from Q1, not much has changed. Our offer acceptance rates, pretty on par, pretty stable. We're still seeing offers declined. We're still seeing candidates with multiple offers. So I'm not seeing major changes in the market based on the talent that we're trying to hire.
Joel: So, it's in our notes here that you chose iCIMS after being with another vendor that you had been with for eight years. Changing ATS is a major decision. A lot of listeners and companies out there are probably in the same shoes you were in changing vendors. What was the catalyst to go a different direction? What was it about iCIMS in this particular case that made you make the jump?
Vanessa: Avalara was going through an immense amount of growth, and so we needed a system to really support that growth and help the company scale, help TA be more efficient and effective. And what we had previously wasn't keeping up with our demands. So we looked at lots of different vendors including my former employer. And iCIMS just proved to be the best option for what we needed.
Joel: Do you wanna name your previous employer?
Vanessa: People can find it.
Chad: It's the internets. So your focus and really passion at this point is on talent networks, which I think is interesting because back in the, I don't know, late odds, for goodness sakes, we really started to talk about Avature was a platform that was literally... The premise of the whole thing was talent networks.
Chad: Are we just finally catching onto this or is it just like, TA just didn't get it right in the first place?
Vanessa: I think many teams have aspirations for this.
Joel: What are the aspirations? That's the question. I mean, where are they going?
Vanessa: Okay. Well, I know what my aspirations are, which is, let's work smarter. Let's take advantage of all the candidates that we already know, who we know are interested in us, who have the right skills, whether that's the silver medalist candidate that we just didn't have a second job for, great candidates we've met at events, boomerangs, which we know are increasing, and really nurturing and building those relationships. We know that matters immensely with diverse communities, especially in tech where there's a lot of mistrust around the culture and environment that will support their careers. And so if you can really build those one-on-one relationships with them, invest in that relationship, it will matter when you have the right job at the right time for them, you end up with the right candidate.
Chad: So, focusing on the biggest asset you have, which is the candidate database, because you spent more money on driving candidates, I'm just gonna say in general, most companies do. You spent more money on creating a candidate database than you did on tech.
Chad: Right? And for the most part, most companies, they create this lead database with great leads that are silver medalists, bronze medalists, qualified individuals, it doesn't matter. And then they totally abandon it, and they just continue to spend money, spend money, spend money.
Vanessa: Yes. Yeah.
Chad: So, you guys, what I'm hearing, and correct me if I'm wrong, you're looking more to internalize and look at that asset...
Chad: And start to keep them warm, engage them, and they might already be in a job. Next six months might not be a good option, but in 18 months, might be a hit.
Chad: So, talk about that. Is that one of the reasons why you chose the tech that you went with, number one, and number two, how are you starting to build that?
Vanessa: Yeah, so it is definitely partially why I built the tech, having a fully-integrated platform like iCIMS where you've got CRM in addition to the ATS. And now with their upcoming...
Chad: Matching and...
Vanessa: Yeah, the matching, engagement scoring, candidate experience management and all the automated marketing, that's phenomenal. And there aren't a lot of other systems that are fully integrated. And so when you think about adoption for your talent acquisition team, I think it matters, because I've done it elsewhere where you bolt on a system, adoption is super low, 'cause recruiters are like, "I have another system I have to go in."
Chad: It surfaces candidates, and then they're automatically invited to apply for the job.
Chad: So at this point, why are we trying to use recruiters to get them to adopt a new process? I don't understand it in the first place.
Vanessa: Yeah. Well, I think you have to set up as much automation as possible, but I do believe there still has to be a human on the backend.
Chad: Where in the process?
Vanessa: I think it depends on the company. I would say for Avalara, at the beginning. Because again, nobody knows who we are, and so our employer brand isn't on par with any of the big FAANG companies or whatever. And so, but we know we have great opportunities and a great environment for people to work in. So the moment we can get somebody on the phone, we can get them excited about the opportunity and get them engaged. So I think kind of back to talent networks, I don't think it's about quantity of candidates. I think it is about quality. And so I'm not asking my team to go build a database of thousands and thousands of candidates, I'm asking them to focus on quality around critical talent areas, niche skill sets where we know it takes a long time to hire, it's hard to find the talent, so that we can improve cost, quality, speed in those areas.
Joel: You mentioned boomerangs, which I don't think was even discussed today during the conference.
Joel: Was that an accident, or I guess, a happy accident? Was it something that was part of your strategy, part of your automation stack? Talk about the boomerangs, 'cause I think that's an interesting topic.
Vanessa: Yeah. I think it was mentioned once today. I can't remember who put a stat up there. But we are absolutely seeing it in the last 12 months. But even prior to the change in the markets, going after alumni has always been part of my strategy. Because even at a minimum, if they choose not to come back, we want them to feel great about where they've worked, we want them to speak highly of us, refer. And so, if we continue to stay engaged with the alumni of the company...
Joel: Yeah. So let's dig into that for a second. When you say, part of our strategy when we communicate, let's get tactical on this. Are we talking monthly emails? Are we talking like alumni events? Talk about that.
Vanessa: All of the above.
Joel: All of it.
Chad: What are you doing events-wise? I want to hear the events piece, because...
Joel: And is booze involved?
Vanessa: Yeah. So we haven't started back to in-person events just yet. We've done a couple in our Brighton, UK office, smaller events.
Joel: Well, UK, you know booze is definitely involved.
Vanessa: Definitely involved. Always.
Joel: And football.
Vanessa: Yes. Pre-COVID, we did a lot of events and we really just tried to focus on events that wasn't pitching a job, that was like a value add. And so for alumni, it's, come meet the people you used to work with, come meet teammates you used to work with.
Vanessa: Come have some drinks and some food.
Chad: It's like a family reunion.
Vanessa: A little bit, right? People enjoy that.
Chad: Bring some baked beans and...
Vanessa: You know, and if they're willing to join your alumni network, you know they still feel pretty positive about their experience working there.
Joel: Do you have any numbers around what percentage of former employees come back?
Vanessa: I don't.
Joel: I mean, are we talking 10, 15? Are we talking 40, 50? What are we talking?
Vanessa: I don't think it's...
Chad: How big is the alumni network? That's...
Vanessa: 50%... Well, I think it depends on the size of your company.
Joel: What's yours?
Vanessa: For ours, less than 500 at this point, but it's been interesting.
Joel: That's still great. If you can pull 10% of that, that's huge.
Vanessa: But it's been really interesting in the last 12 months, the number of employees who've called us and are like, "I would really like to come back, actually."
Chad: How long are they usually away? So, six months, a year?
Vanessa: It's like three to nine months.
Chad: Okay, okay.
Chad: Well, so you know it's not like a retraining that really needs to happen. You can just go ahead and plug them in pretty quick.
Vanessa: Right. And for the most part, we've been able to find opportunities for them, because these have been high-performing employees that we're happy to have come back.
Joel: Yeah. I feel like this is a quiet success. I feel more companies should be doing stuff like this. We're not talking enough about alumni networks and how companies are getting people to come back. It's a topic that deserves more attention.
Vanessa: The one company that I know of that I think has been doing this for a while and doing it well is Deloitte.
Chad: Yeah. Deloitte's done just about everything forever.
Joel: That is millions.
Chad: Yeah. Everything forever, and not... I mean, they've spent a lot of money on a lot of different things. Yeah. So it's...
Vanessa: Right. Yep.
Joel: Talk about upskilling. I assume there are a lot of employees you get that are sort of newly outta school or not super veteran, but that seems like an opportunity to train these folks to take those positions that are upper level.
Vanessa: Yeah, so that's a great question. For Avalara, we're actually just starting our journey around that. We were in a place of like, grow at all costs, for many, many years. And we tend to hire very senior levels. And we're now at a place...
Vanessa: We're now at a place where we're really focused on our entry level talent.
Chad: Well, that's not easy to grow at all costs. And then, just senior level, that's rough.
Vanessa: Yes. Yes. And it has put us in a position where we're really having to step back and re-evaluate our workforce and our teams and how we're structured and org design, and as well as making sure that we're gonna have the long-term career opportunities to retain these employees.
Chad: Well, just the long-term... Again, the long-term base of employees that you can bring up through the ranks, it's almost like a grassroots type of scenario. So yeah, it's gotta be easier going after the entry level, but again... So, what was the conversation, the discussion around that? Why was the company looking at senior, mid-level versus trying to build your own? Was it necessary because there was a huge gap there within the ranks?
Vanessa: I don't know that there was a gap. I think there was a mindset that the best, the most experienced, because they'll help us get the most done. And we have big aspirations and a lot that we are trying to build and put into the market.
Chad: So, how did that affect your diversity goals?
Vanessa: We haven't really gone after specific diversity goals until just recently.
Vanessa: And so, that is a newer focus for us. And now, we're focused on more of this entry level talent. New out of school, and/or people potentially changing careers. And so, ages are relevant in all of this.
Vanessa: How do we build really solid onboarding programs and boot camps? How do we improve our hiring process? We just implemented assessments that assesses potential in candidates, and so we've got this good objective input to say, "Okay, yes. They meet this bar." We get them through our interview process faster and then we make sure we've got really solid onboarding and kind of checkpoints through onboarding to say, "Okay, they're meeting the bar here, they're gonna keep going." And since we're early in our career or in our journey, we don't necessarily have the data yet to see the success around this. But there's a lot of excitement in the business, and leaders are really embracing the model.
Chad: So, assessments. Who do you use for assessments?
Vanessa: Criteria Core.
Chad: Okay, yeah.
Chad: Yep. So that's helped actually quicken the pace?
Vanessa: It has. And for our entry level, especially, we've seen good improvement in time to hire. The hiring manager sentiment is very strong on it. They're feeling like... 'cause they're only seeing candidates that meet that bar, and they feel like the caliber of candidates that they interview has increased.
Joel: "Grow at all costs," something my waistband says every time [laughter] I go to Chipotle. That is Vanessa Burnaby, everybody. VP of Global TA at Avalara. Vanessa, for those that wanna connect with you, where would you send them?
Vanessa: Go to LinkedIn, please. Yeah.
Joel: Chad, another one is in the can. It must be dinner time, because I'm bringing up Chipotle. We out.
Chad: We out.
Joel: Wow. Look at you. You made it through an entire episode of the Chad and Cheese podcast. Or, maybe you cheated and fast forwarded to the end. Either way, there's no doubt you wish you had that time back, valuable time you could have used to buy a nutritious meal at Taco Bell, enjoy a pour of your favorite whiskey, or just watch big booty Latinas and bug fights on TikTok. No, you hung out with these two chuckleheads instead. Now, go take a shower and wash off all the guilt, but save some soap, because you'll be back. Like an awful train wreck, you can't look away. And like Chad's favorite Western, you can't quit them either. We out.