Not Good on Paper – How I got my job as the Head of People at a cybersecurity startupFeatured

If you were to look at my LinkedIn profile, you probably wouldn’t hire me. No university degree, lots of job-hopping and a career narrative that’s tenuous at best. What do teaching English, writing holiday brochures, and HR management have in common? Or if we go further back into the archives, dancing cancan in the Bahamas, waiting tables or looking after someone else’s children?The answer is, well, me. At age 30, I’ve worked in four different countries and for 12 different employers.Today, I’m the Head of People at Sqreen, a French-US cybersecurity startup. A lot of my job today is spent deciding who gets hired, promoted, and let go.I grew up in Sydney, Australia where most job ads ask for a relevant degree or equivalent experience, so I never felt bad about choosing to work as soon as humanly possible. My dad never finished high school, but at age 15 swept the bank manager’s carpark so well that he was offered a junior role on the trading floor. He’d retire some 40 years later having held some of the highest positions in the international foreign exchange world. And then there was my mum, who deferred a law degree and her own banking career to throw herself into raising two young girls so that my dad could live out his career success. She channeled her formidable intellect and organisational skills into PTA meetings, school fairs, netball committees. Who taught me that life-changing, important work doesn’t always fit neatly onto a CV. HR was always an area that interested me because I was fascinated by people and I loved to learn how things worked behind the scenes. In restaurants, I’d peer into the kitchen to see what happened once the customers were out of earshot; at the holiday resort I’d strain to overhear the smiling staff trashing their boss - it was like seeing the kid’s party clown light up a cigarette; real, unedited, human. I talked myself into a job as a coordinator in a recruiting team at an Oil & Gas company, doing phone screens for call centre candidates. I had a script to follow and fields to fill out and I loved being asked for my opinion by the senior recruiters. I learnt what a business partner was by watching how my colleagues acted around the hiring managers, impressed by the things they knew about areas foreign to me, like subsea engineering and door-to-door sales. The HR team was 100+ people and I found that with a little flattery, most of them were willing to give me half an hour of their time to explain their jobs to me. Organisational design, high performing teams, onboarding, learning & development, psychometric testing, reward & recognition - all of these vague concepts became tangible over coffees and lunch. I got my first taste of diversity and inclusion here too. I remember the day we cheered because we’d finally hired our first onsite engineer for a digging site in far north Queensland. I also remember her first day, when we got the call asking if we planned to install a women’s restroom onsite at some point. I left HR though, because of a toxic boss who was - somewhat ironically - the diversity and inclusion leader. As a strategy for dealing with my poor work situation I had leaned into my passion for writing and did some unpaid work for a French-Australian online magazine. I parlayed that into a full-time paid writing job and bid my bad boss goodbye. When I left Australia for France, it was to write. And to pay the bills I taught English to adults in business. Once a week I trekked all over Paris and its surrounds to CHANEL, BNP Paribas bank, EDF, the energy authority and others. Teaching English taught me a lot about daily life in French companies, with students confiding in me about their colleagues, their bosses, the pains and the joys of their jobs. When I had the chance to teach the financial controller at one of these companies, I did some sums on the back of my lesson plan: this is what you pay the agency, I said, and this is what I get paid. Why not meet in the middle? Hire me, I said. And so I found myself an internal trainer, teaching English to the sales and marketing teams, along with the software engineers and the executive committee. There’s this strange thing that happens in language training - it requires a huge amount of vulnerability in order to progress. Asking a CEO used to being the smartest person in the room to relax enough to let a small, blonde Australian girl tell you that you’re wrong takes guts. And so I inadvertently gave myself a crash course in their business model, industry, and each of the different departments. My engineering students quickly became my favourite, and asking them to explain their day to day work became a teachable moment for me as much as for them. As an English trainer, I was sitting with the HR team in their meetings, overhearing their daily conversations. I started asking questions: if you’re going to hire 100 people this year, have you thought about getting an ATS? What’s an ATS? they asked. Then, can you find us one? When I saw that the eight-person HR team was struggling to keep up with the workload of a 300-person company, I threw together four slides on the basics of HR Transformation. Three months later I was running the project with the executive team’s blessing. Why? Because I’d seen something broken and offered to fix it. Change and project management was fun but eventually I decided to look for someplace where there was less time spent talking about the thing and more time spent doing the thing - enter startup land. Thanks to my time teaching engineers to speak English, I found myself already familiar with a lot of the vocabulary and concepts, so walking into a People role in a tech startup was made that much easier. These days, a typical day for me includes deciding which of the CVs in my inbox gets to interview, which of my colleagues has the potential to step into this role or that one, and who might be better off elsewhere. Work is such an important part of our daily lives and so the choices I make have real world impacts on individuals and their families. It’s not a responsibility I take lightly. I’m not good on paper, is what I’d tell people when applying for jobs, but if you just met me, I think you might get it, I’d implore, in somewhat unconventional cover letters to recruiters. Some rough stats, in the past I’ve been rejected without interview for 90% of the jobs I’ve applied for, but received offers for 90% of the ones where I’ve made it into the room. So I’m doubly aware of this when I sit in the decision-makers seat - a little too much sometimes. I have a clear bias for self-taught candidates and for the ones who worked minimum wage jobs in little known schools. I’m a particularly tough interviewer on those with linear CVs and famous schools. I have to ask others to look out for these tendencies and to temper them. I’m working on it.It’s always easy to make a coherent narrative when looking back on a non-linear career but truth be told I was only ever making a decision about the next immediate step. I think that my non-conventional journey into HR has made me better at my job, better able to empathise, to see potential, to see links where others see boxes. -- Australian-born but Parisian at heart, Alison joined Sqreen to help scale the team across Paris and San Francisco. Previously Alison helped establish high-performing People practices in some of France's most promising tech startups. She also has a soft spot for all things DDoS… and the dark net. Alison is also the author of the Botbot stories, helping to educate children about the tech, cybersec and startup world.
Thank you Alison for sharing your story with us! If you have a good story to share, or know someone who does, let us know via DM.
Yours and your family stories are so interesting! I notice that I hear less and less about people "who made it" without a uni degree. Some people will say "nah, it's a boomer thing", others will say "thanks to student loans everyone can have some sort of a degree".May I say that you found yourself in a situation where you always have to prove yourself? I feel the same. I attended a top university in Russia, but people in the West don't bother researching good schools in other countries. So you end up, well, always proving you are not a giraffe. (That said, things are changing, and a lot of big companies hold recruitment events in local universities.) And at 30, it still matters.But I view this positively. This constant "proving yourself" always pushes you forward. I will never forget how I once interviewed a guy to be an intern. He happened to attend Cambridge. And you could see it in his behaviour. He leaned back, relaxing, in the chair so far, it almost fell. All this during a technical interview! #privilege he was just waiting for the job to be handed to him. (Just to make it clear: not everyone is like that!)I have heard of a person who dropped out of high school. He ended up leading a technical team in a prestigious firm. But at 40 he quit to pursue a degree, because he always had this chip on his shoulder, I guess.
Thank you so much for reading and sharing Olia! Absolutely, I've met some of those candidates in my time too :)
My sister-in-law is back after 10 year break taking care of her kids and working in tech, everything is possible.
Absolutely! And the transferrable skills from child rearing to the workplace are infinite! Sarah Lacy does a good job of explaining this in her book:
@alisoneastaway Félicitations et bien jouée! Et quelle tenace! Bien evident, vous méritez votre succès. C'est toujours difficile de réussir, mais dix mille fois plus dure à Paris.
Merci beaucoup! Ca commence a changer toute doucement à Paris mais ça reste l'exception de ne pas avoir un Bac+5 et je le sens tous les jours :)
Loved reading your story, Alison!"Work is such an important part of our daily lives and so the choices I make have real world impacts on individuals and their families." This is something that so many quickly forget so it's nice to see your sense of humanity injected into everything you do. Has your experience resonated with others in your current workplace? Or has it changed their perspective in how they approach their job/ interactions with other colleagues? Thanks for taking the time to share!
Thanks so much for reading and for your note! Absolutely, we're very transparent at Sqreen about who we are 'as whole people' vs. just the jobs we do and most of the team have either sat with me in candidates interviews or had a 'career conversation' with me so I've been lucky enough to share my approach with them.
Alison! How are you? Thank you for sharing your story with everyone. I would hire you anytime. :) Let's catch up soon! I still have "Botbot at the Career Fair" here on my desk, figuring out who I'm going to give it to. I hope you're doing great! Carolyn Peer
Thank you so much for your note Carolyn! I may just hold you to that one day :) I'll be on the west coast again soon, will definitely let you know.
Perfect! Hope to see you soon. A bientot!
Alison, This is a great post and super inspiring and relevant to me as I have just moved from SF to France. I agree that most people are so much more than what they write on their resume's and that we need to value people's experiences as much as we value our technical skills and diplomas. Good for you for taking the path less traveled! 🙌🏼
Thank you so much for the note Kelly! If I can be of any help settling in, just let me know :)
This is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing your story. I totally relate to this: "Some rough stats, in the past I’ve been rejected without interview for 90% of the jobs I’ve applied for, but received offers for 90% of the ones where I’ve made it into the room. So I’m doubly aware of this when I sit in the decision-makers seat - a little too much sometimes. I have a clear bias for self-taught candidates and for the ones who worked minimum wage jobs in little known schools."I think I've received offers for every job I've physically interviewed for, tbh, but it is really tough to get there sometimes. Especially in tech. It was nice to read about your experience and be able to relate to it.
Thanks for reading Jessica! Absolutely, getting into that interview room can make all the difference!
Thank you so much for sharing, Alison! Your story resonates with my own (no university degree, 'unconventional' story and professional experiences, also working in cybersecurity), albeit at 21 I'm definitely earlier in my career, and I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for what you've achieved. If you're open to it, I'd love to connect offline and discuss further. Take care and I hope you have a wonderful weekend!
Hi Rachel, thanks so much for reading! Absolutely, you can reach me at [email protected] I'd be happy to chat further :)
Hey Alison, thank you for this! Will be in touch v soon. :)
I love this so, so much -- thank you for sharing! Reading about nontraditional journeys is one of my favorite things.It's interesting how our resumes shape internal and external perceptions of a person. I actually spend a lot of time trying to communicate that I'm much more dynamic and creative than my relatively linear CV implies. :D
I love this! I think we're all SO much more than our CVs and finding that narrative (and getting recruiters and hiring managers in a position to listen) is that first step to building better teams. Thanks for reading :)
Thank you for writing this! Gave me such a boost of inspiration and confidence to know that there are other women out there without degrees doing something they are passionate about and getting paid for it!I'm moving to LA soon for a short contract (and for love), and I've been feeling so nervous about taking on this journey and leaving a full time job. But I know there are a lot of companies I'd love to work with, just have to get through the 90% rejections without an interview like you mentioned.
Thank you so much for reading Ayisha! Excited to see what you do next in LA :)
Alison, your story hits home! All my work to date has been referral based and it seems no one is interested in my resume / portfolio when I apply online. Yet I get offers to join companies when I meet someone in person and connect! I'd love to get your feedback on how I present myself. I just moved back to North America after 3 years in the UK and feel unattractive to employers that I'd like to work for!
Hi Michelle, absolutely, thanks for reading! Feel free to ping me at [email protected] I'd be happy to chat :)
Thank you for sharing this Alison it is beautifully written and captures the essence of what brilliant HR leaders today should be bearing in mind when it comes to unearthing talent in unexpected places. I have a similar role & responsibility to your own and would love to chat further if you're keen to connect!
Thank you very much for reading and for your kind words Ellen! I'd love to chat further, feel free to ping me on: [email protected] !
Wow Alison, really impressed by your story and so inspired as my unconventional choices have always made me feel insecure when applying for jobs. Thank you for the confidence boost 🤗
Thank you for your kind comment!!
Thank you Alison! ATS do not always see beyond the "key terms" to identify gumption. We are missing some great applicants.
Thank you so much for sharing your story! As someone who recently transitioned into a leadership role in people operations at a startup from a non traditional background I can identify so much with your story. It can be so difficult to get in the door, but once there I’ve always been able to build connections and solve pain points. I think I needed to read this today. Sometimes it’s easy to be frustrated that I don’t always look good on paper, but this is a good reminder that that those same quirks can be a super power. Thank you @alisoneastaway
This was so heartening to read. I am also "not good on paper", despite stellar brand names on my CV. I have a series of short tenure jobs, none in official people operations roles... but the reason for those short tenures fuels my passion for making work work better for the people who are doing it. I have zero tolerance for workplace abuse or micromanagement. I'm driven to support the development of healthy workplaces through research, communication, training, and coaching. I've been actively looking for my next professional step since 2019, this time with intentionality and clarity about the kind of value I bring to a company and the kind of culture and leadership I want to join. Thank you, Alison. HR needs more people like you. And me.