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Office Hours: I'm Sarah Koo, head of product at Gem. AMA!Featured

Hi! I'm Sarah Koo, head of product at Gem, where we're on a mission to help recruiting teams engage and hire top talent.

I’ve been at Gem for 4 years now, and have loved every day of it. Before joining Gem, I wasn’t looking for a new job – I had been the first employee at a tiny startup that was acquired by Workday, and while I knew I wasn’t going to stay at Workday forever, I got to keep working with some of my favorite people on new and exciting products. My time at Workday also gave me a unique perspective on what I believed then and still believe is Gem’s huge opportunity, which is ultimately what convinced me to join as its first PM:

  1. Investing in human capital is one of the single highest ROI things you can do as a business, and
  2. The future of enterprise software is efficient and intuitive.

Since joining Gem, I’ve found that we live out both of those things everyday.

The former is something we help our 1000+ customers do at scale by enabling them to hire the best people for the business. But it’s also something we exhibit in our company continuously: our founders invested early in our culture by organizing a series of unconscious bias trainings when we were only a 30 person company; we offer coaching for all managers; and we foster an incredibly inclusive place to work through our benefits & perks, thoughtful policies, and celebrated diversity.

The latter is not a radical statement – I’m not the first or last to talk about the consumerization of enterprise software, but I think those who can execute on that well are few and far between. Enterprise software exists to make businesses more efficient, and yet the number of workers who enjoy using their software or think that it makes them individually more efficient is minuscule. Humans are capable of so much more than they actually do day-to-day, but we’re bogged down by administrative chores and clunky software, leaving us with little time to do the things that we’re uniquely well-suited to do for the business. What was the last piece of software you used that made you think “that was awesome – that saved me so much time and effort”?

The future of work is probably an overused term, but I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what it means to truly revolutionize work. I was drawn to Gem because of how we prioritize the end-user experience in service of upleveling the entire business – I get to find new ways to make recruiters more productive and happier, which in turn makes their businesses run more efficiently and produces higher quality companies across the world. The number of recruiters who’ve told me that they’d pay for Gem out of their own pocket if they had to gives me confidence that we’re changing the way recruiters work for the better, leading to better outcomes for all.

When I’m not thinking about the next problem I get to solve for recruiting teams, I’m often spending time outside, trying a new recipe, attempting to garden, or ogling other people’s dogs. I also like to get away from the San Francisco “summers” by escaping to my home turf of Seattle when I can.

Ask me anything about product, recruiting (especially DEI, the candidate experience, and hiring managers 👀), or throw out a wildcard question if you like.

Thanks so much for joining us @skoo!Elphas – please ask @skoo your questions before Friday, May 19th. @skoo may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
With the current environment and lots of people losing their jobs (case in point with Elpha members), and perhaps more demand than supply, what keeps you and your customers up at night?
I can't deny that the tech environment is a bit disheartening on the hiring front. One thing that bothers me a lot right now is how jagged the demand for recruiting is as the economy changes. When companies are hiring, they can't hire recruiters fast enough. As soon as they stop or slow hiring, all the recruiters disappear. In reality, recruiting shouldn't be a motion-sensored spigot; it should be an always-on motion that ebbs and flows a bit, but is never truly off. We saw at the beginning of the pandemic that hiring froze at first very quickly and recruiting teams were laid off in droves, and then as hiring started to ramp up again, companies had to start again from nothing. Companies big and small were all acting like startups, spinning up recruiting teams from scratch, and many of them struggled. If you keep your talent machine going, though -- staying in touch with candidates even if you don't have open roles yet (you never know when they'll reopen), having your recruiting team focus on strategy and foundations, etc. -- you'll be much more prepared to pluck hires from your engaged talent pools as soon as those roles reopen. Your time to fill will be super short, minimizing the overall impact to the business of not having that position filled sooner (an opportunity cost we don't often talk about or measure). The last thing I'll add, though, is that outside of tech, hiring is still strong in many industries! Gem has many customers in manufacturing, healthcare, retail, and other verticals that can't hire fast enough, and who are still spending millions of dollars on agencies because their in-house recruiting teams can't keep up with the demand. I've learned more about the kinds of roles semiconductor manufacturing companies hire for than I ever thought I would, and I've heard about incredibly novel hiring strategies related to opening distribution centers in various cities and helping the local towns create new bus routes to service those centers. Talent acquisition can be quite different from what many of us are used to thinking of in the valley, with recruiters scrolling through LinkedIn all day searching for words like "python" and "java" in contexts where they don't have anything to do with snakes or coffee.
This is so well said and also therapeutic to hear!
WOW thank you so much for this thorough answer! I really appreciate it - so many good points especially with regards to how recruiting should never be truly off (from the recruiter's pov)
Sarah! So nice to have you here and thanks so much for your time! Love to read your intro and how passionate you are about helping customers hire and scale team. As a Head of Product, how do you think about when you build your product team? What are traits that are green or red flags? And how do you and Gem ensure removing any bias when helping customers?
Thanks for taking the time to do this, Sarah! On the topic of recruitment and the future of work, how do you think AI and tools like chat GPT will help the recruitment process be more efficient? (from the candidate as well as the hiring manager standpoint)
I think I may have mostly answered this in Erminia137's question above, but let me know if you have any follow up questions or thoughts!
Hi Sarah! Great to connect again on another female-led platform :) Do you have any advice on adapting from being at a small startup to being acquired by a large company??
Hi Sarah! Thanks for joining and sharing your time! I'm super curious about your startup experience. How big was the small startup you joined? Had you found product-market fit yet or were you a part of that discovery process?
Excited to see you are here, Sarah! I am personally a HUGE fan of Gem. As a recruiter myself, I'm curious, where do you see the future of recruiting/internal talent acquisition in 5 and 10 years?
oooh, how can I get you to chat more about this with me? I'm so curious to hear your thoughts on this as well! Sounds like a great opportunity generate some ideas for new features in Gem 😊I'll start by acknowledging that the single biggest thing that is influencing my answer here is the advent of GPT (perhaps no surprise to many).GPT is already proving to be able to take away tons of manual work in jobs across the board, and in the talent world, among many things, that could mean that recruiters don't have to waste so much time on email triage, scheduling, writing boolean searches repeatedly, thinking of creative subject lines to increase opens and replies, etc. Instead, they'll be able to spend much more time on the really meaningful stuff, like talking to candidates, ensuring the interview loop is high-signal and well-executed (including interviewer training!), and on diversity and inclusion throughout the recruiting process, like ensuring that hiring panels are representative.So in 5-10 years, if GPT uplevels the recruiting game the way I think it will, I hope that the future of recruiting is far less transactional and more about candidates building long-term relationships with companies. It won't be about applying to a job and then being hurried through the interview process the following week with an exploding offer at the end; it'll be about getting to know several companies really well over time, so that by the time you're interested in making a career move, you already know about the company culture, what the job will entail, who else is on the team, etc. How many people here have joined a company without seeing what the product does or hearing the vision/mission statement? How many people are hired without having seen the full list of benefits and perks, and understanding what the company culture is truly like? How many candidates feel like they can ask these questions while they're being interviewed and scrutinized? And when a new hire joins with a different impression of what the job or company is like, how often do they stay long enough to become a truly productive and valuable member of the team? Nurturing candidates and reducing information asymmetry between candidates and employers in favor of identifying the best-suited individuals should be easily doable at scale in the next 5 years (likely less) without significant manual work, which will benefit both sides equally. (I realize that most of my examples speak to the future of knowledge worker hiring, but I think much, if not all, also applies to hiring wage workers. I've talked to countless recruiting teams at companies you all would recognize who hire for workers in warehouses, distribution centers, call centers, retail stores, service centers, etc, and nearly all would say that educating candidates about their company culture and constantly following up with candidates even if they seem to drop off the face of the earth are 2 of their biggest ways to win over new employees. There are many applications of ChatGPT that can automate several of the core workflows required to do both pretty successfully.)
This is great, thanks so much @skoo! My email is [email protected] if you'd like to hear more about my experience as a recruiter who LOVES Gem :)
What would you say are the top 3 skills in your toolbox for being a great leader as head of product? Bonus question: what's been your favorite and least favorite recipe you've tried lately?
Great question! I don't claim to be a great leader, but I will pick 3 skills that I think have served me pretty well. 1. Confidence in my customer engagements -- strangely, I grew up as the shiest kid on the planet, but put me in front of a HR or talent executive and I could demo Gem or run a discovery call with them all day. Calls with customers and sales prospects alike are how I continue to build my mental model for where Gem fits in the market today and where we need to take it next, so this skill is what keeps me relevant. 2. Perhaps somewhat related to above, but I'll combine inquisitiveness and assuming nothing, if you can call the latter a skill. Assuming nothing means that I like to start understanding scenarios from the beginning, and when it comes to identifying customer problems, that's helpful because it ensures we get to the core problem, and that we're not landing on the wrong hypothesis that's actually standing on an assumption that we didn't validate. The inquisitiveness is somewhat related because it means that I religiously practice asking the 5 whys (or 7? however many it takes) to get to the bottom of the core problem statement. Many times, users will say something like they prefer their old tool (let's say a spreadsheet). If you ask why, they might say it's because they've used it for 7 years and old habits die hard. But if you keep asking why, aside from making the user think you have the memory of a goldfish, you may learn that their preference is actually because the spreadsheet is sortable, and filterable, and sharable, and has comments, and because it has an edit history so they can see which numbers they changed last time in case they need to further revise them now. Now you've turned what might've seemed like an unbreakable old habit into half a dozen feature requests, which is way easier to build. IMO, these skills are highly effective outside of product development as well; in leadership, I've found that getting to core business problems illuminates the highest leverage ways to fix them, instead of jumping to strapping on duct tape without strong conviction that it'll work.3. I'm a little hard pressed to think of a third, but after walking away and coming back to this, I think the last one I'll add is around retaining the startup mentality over the last 4 years of growth, and not taking my job description as gospel. In all fairness, Gem still is a startup (200 people), and there isn't really a job description for my role (at least, not one that's relevant anymore), but what I mean by that is doing everything it takes to win and not relegating anything to chance or arbitrary lines that divide roles and responsibilities. On paper (at most orgs, with notable exceptions in a few), PMs are mostly responsible for shipping great products to solve core pain points. Should I be holding product demos and trainings for the sales team (but what if the person who normally does that is OOO for several weeks)? Should PMs be writing help center articles (but what if they have a huge backlog and they can't get to this one for a long time)? Should I turn on that feature flag for the customer or should I ask them to get eng to do it (but it'll take me just as much effort either way)? There's always a delicate balance between focusing on what you're uniquely suited to do for the company that no one else can and doing whatever it takes to make your product/company/customers successful. I've found that prioritizing the overall business' needs in hasn't led me astray, regardless of job descriptions and alleged responsibilities, and that the concept of stepping on toes shouldn't be a thing if everyone in the company is aligned toward the same outcome (and certainly not at a fast-paced startup).
What was your journey to the Head of product?
Hey @Stephiney (and fellow Dartmouth alum!), apologies for leaving that out of my intro above! I could just rattle off my LinkedIn profile but since you all can read that for yourself (and it isn't very interesting anyway), I'll address what I think the question behind your question is. The most relevant part of my journey is probably my experience as the first hire at a tiny startup called Pattern, where getting in at the ground level taught me everything about building products from scratch, constantly questioning whether we have product-market fit (and never finding a satisfying answer to it), and learning how to do intense amounts of customer/user research. That experience prepared me best to join as Gem's first PM and head of product since I had the skills to take what the founders had built -- a great core product that was gaining traction but still very early -- and keep that trajectory going by doing everything I loved to do at Pattern: talk to customers as much as possible and build something they'll become rabid fans of. I'll add that my journey into this role had everything to do with what Gem's founders were looking for, which is unique to every founder/company -- it was a unique match between my skillset and their needs, plus a dose of fortunate connections that surfaced this opportunity to me and great timing.
Hi Sarah! Thank you for doing this AMA!I would like to know how your role as head of product has differed from your roles as a PM in the past? What skills has head of product required that might be different from that required of a PM?
Thanks for your question, @ElenaC! I can empathize where this question is coming from given your current role as sole PM, given that I started as Gem's first PM as well. Titles aside, the biggest differences in my responsibilities between then (4 years ago) and now are around process and product strategy. As the first PM, I was heads down building product alongside a handful of engineers and being in as many sales and customer calls as I could; there wasn't a lot of process at the company yet given how small we were, and product-market fit was so new to us that our product roadmap was still very reactive to what we were hearing week over week from our customer base. But as Gem grew (including the PM team) and our product matured, I started to spend less time owning development of individual features and instead making sure that the product function was being a good partner to the rest of the business, as well as getting clarity on what we want Gem to look like a year from now, not just a week from now. In practice, on the process side of things, this looks like being a connector for the product team (or eng/product/design in general) to the rest of the company and ensuring that we stay close to our GTM counterparts: educating them on our product's evolution and in turn continuously listening to their feedback from customers and prospects. On the product strategy side of things, this has meant staying close to our customers' talent executives to understand their longterm talent strategies and align our roadmap to it, while also getting perspective from outside the echo chamber of our existing customer base to learn from what the rest of the industry is looking for and hypothesize what we can build next that will make Gem more valuable to talent teams.
Hi Sarah –It's great to see you here – what are some best practices for incorporating DEI in the recruitment process?
I love this question! One of the best ways is to source for candidates -- that is, to reach out proactively to candidates you want to engage, instead of the traditional "post and pray" model. Modern recruiting teams are standing up dedicated sourcing teams for a variety of reasons: it reduces time-to-hire (if you have warm, engaged candidates ready to go, you don't need to wait for candidates to find your job posting, which also may never happen), it increases diversity since you can choose who you reach out to (we've heard of some customers making select job searches kick off with outbounding to 100% URG candidates, for however URG is defined for that role), and it also increases the quality of your candidate pool. Another best practice that I personally haven't seen enough energy around is ensuring that your interviewers and hiring panels are diverse. It's not a great experience for a woman candidate to interview with only men or vice versa -- not only are the men likely to have at least some unconscious biases about women, but the woman is statistically less likely to ask questions that have a material impact on their likelihood of joining. The candidate is probably not going to ask a man what they think of the company's women's ERG, or what the mothers' rooms are like on each floor, and yet answering those questions thoughtfully could positively influence the candidate's decision to join. Creating representative interview loops reduces biases in the assessment of the candidate, and it also creates more opportunities to sell the candidate on joining.