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.