Balancing Technology and People in a Tech-Enabled Service
Can you turn a services business into a digital product company without losing the human element?
Sally Reasoner had this same question when Ascend decided to build a product with the goal of serving their customers better. Ascend’s mission is to connect college students to the right job opportunities.
Join Christian and Anna on this week’s show as they discuss how companies can use products to scale without sacrificing personalization. From Sally’s viewpoint, the product enabled their growing organization to provide better service without losing the personal touch, which drives partnerships and relationships.
In this episode, you’ll hear Ascend’s approach to taking customer feedback and how they use it to fuel improvements on all levels of the business. We go beyond the product to uncover how technology and people can truly work together to deliver on the company’s value proposition.Listen Now
Christian Beck: Welcome to today's show. From want to be matchmaker to now actual matchmaker of students to higher ed. Sally Reasoner, VP of Talent at Ascend, got started in her role literally at a water cooler, through a conversation with CEO Jason Kloth, she learned of the vision, the vision to solve the workforce challenges in Indiana.
Anna Eaglin: Ascend bridges the talent gap by connecting college students to the right opportunities. I do think Sally's title can be a bit misleading to our listeners. Sally is overseeing the product, yet early on she wasn't quite sure the product idea was the right one to pursue.
Sally Reasoner: We weren't a Match.com for jobs, I remember thinking being in that space very closely working with students and employers, I was like, "That's never going to work." But the data you would get would be incredible.
Anna Eaglin: And when she started with Ascend, she didn't live in any product role and they didn't have much of a roadmap. Just some thoughts on data mapping. She admittedly shared, she knew nothing about the product and wasn't sure how to figure out who should develop it, or how it should be designed.
Sally Reasoner: I would say the larger team was very confident that something needed to be built. I was always skeptical at the start.
Christian Beck: Yes, but Jason had the vision to see that in order to scale the company, they needed the right technology running behind the scenes. While it took Sally some time to get on board, she got there, she was just hung up thinking no one would use the product.
Sally Reasoner: And you're like, let go and let the network. And it was at that point that I began to realize employers don't have to use it in this specific way that I envisioned they would.
Anna Eaglin: The only thing anything about Sally is that she takes a human centered approach. The product is in a place to scale the company, while the human element drives the partnerships and the relationships they develop with the students.
Sally Reasoner: So every single candidate that is invited into the network has met with a member of our team. Part of that is we want to make sure that they're going to be competitive amongst all of the other students in the network, and qualified for the opportunities that we have available. But the other part of it too is we need to build their trust, and so that human element builds the trust.
Christian Beck: In our conversation, she talks a lot about the feedback she gets from students, which allows Ascend to truly understand what's best for them. Whether it's from the product development side, or how she and her colleagues work with them as individuals, as people.
Anna Eaglin: Yes, I think companies sometimes get it switched. They think of customer feedback as the opportunity to better the product. And while that's true, feedback can improve how you work with your clients on all levels.
Christian Beck: So the question is, how do you scale the human element right alongside the product?
Anna Eaglin: Let's begin there.
Sally Reasoner: The answer is we don't know yet. We're in the process of figuring that out now. As far as every candidate meeting one on one with a human, right now, that is an incredible value prop to our employers. Because again, we exist in this space where we're not quite a job board. We're not quite a staffing firm. We really exist in between the two. So for now it's something that's an important part of our value proposition, is we build trust with employers, that it is a closed network. They're not going to find a scammer off the street that's going to come in and destroy the company, that these folks have been vetted by a human, and essentially done that first round screening.
Sally Reasoner: So right now we want to keep it, but what's interesting and I'm so grateful for Jason, our CEO, was really adamant in the beginning that we track everything. So we are a startup, we're very much in startup mode, but we have what I think of as enterprise level systems and tracking in the background. And part of that is we look at our recruitment funnel as a sales team would look at a sales funnel.
Christian Beck: I'd really like to understand more about, when you're overseeing the product, how do you actually decide what is a thing that is ... you mentioned automated, what should we automate versus, nope, that's a high trust issue. We need to keep that as a person. How do you make those decisions?
Sally Reasoner: What's great about my role in product is as the leader of the Ascend network product, I also lead a team of folks that are out doing this work. So it's really helpful because one ... and I'm in some of the employer sales meetings, I still engage with university partners, which to the importance of user testing has been critical because I can see how they're using it. I can ask questions about what it is that they're looking for, and I see my team using it. So a lot of the automation component comes with the work that our humans do, knowing that we are so human intensive. So now the decisions are made where we're looking at our allocation of time, and one to get very specific on something we ... something that is so important as a candidate elevation. That's another key differentiator where these other sites are similar to an Indeed where they're aggregating jobs, and driving applicants.
Sally Reasoner: That's not our value proposition to an employer. We're not there, if they want 600 applications, we're not the right partner. Our goal is to drive the right 10 to them. And so when we [inaudible] with them, for them in the process, because we're typically not the only place that they're posting these jobs. So I was looking at our managers of employer engagement, and they were spending so much time drafting emails to employers, going to every candidates profile who had applied to a job, downloading the resume. So looking at where our team spends the time, and knowing now we still want it to come from Shelby or Ellen, but having the product do some work for us is ... I feel like it took us a while to get there, because we had to really build out the employer infrastructure, the talent infrastructure. Now that we're in a pretty good spot there were focusing on internal, and to your point about trust, it is where can the network do stuff for us to a certain point, and then the human carries it over the finish line.
Anna Eaglin: So it sounds like what you're saying, if I were to repeat you, correct me if I'm wrong, but you're trying to amplify basically the people, but not necessarily replace them or have it, like you said, come from a system.
Sally Reasoner: You got it, because the email is a totally ... and I know there's a way to have it send from Shelby, and have it be a plain text email where it looks like it came from her. We have not gotten there yet. She is still clicking send via Outlook, but the email is built for her in the system, and she's selecting which applicants she wants to elevate. For which role she wants to elevate, and then it's taking that from the network into Outlook and actually manually clicking send. But for us carrying it that last step rather than having it all automated, we know what's going on. So when we go into a touch point with employers, we know exactly what candidates that you've sent. There's nothing happening behind the scenes that we're not aware of. It's just making Shelby or Ellen's time more productive.
Anna Eaglin: So in order to scale Shelby or Ellen, are you going to hire more or Shelby or Ellen's? Or are you going to make sure that Shelby and Ellen can kind of do more and kind of have more clients?
Sally Reasoner: I think the answer is both, and beautiful part being a startup, you got to staff as resilience, and Shelby and Ellen will test what is possible, and then we will push product to increase their capability and efficiency.
Christian Beck: So you have a product that is used internally? Is that right? Then there's the network that's outward facing. How do you manage the backlogs for a product that has internal ... the technology is just internal, internal base versus external?
Sally Reasoner: It took us a while to get in the right rhythm of balancing the three priorities, to be honest about that, because we, and I, as the product owner, always prioritized external parties until the team was drowning.
Christian Beck: How did you know the team was drowning? I mean you can usually see when someone is drowning, but I just want to know like do you have metrics or things like that? How do you handle that validation?
Sally Reasoner: One, I managed them. So where this came most clear quickly was on the talent side, where they were managing hundreds of student relationships. They couldn't send roles to students in the network, so we were tracking how many roles they were sending, and we mathematically we weren't ... we were just not sending enough roles to hit our goals. This was back almost a year ago, right now, we weren't sending enough roles to hit our goals. We didn't have enough roles to hit our goals. So watching the manual nature of everything and feeling ... because we set goals that are at the intersection of ambitious and feasible, and we set them down the funnel. Both on the employer's side and the talent side. When we saw the role suggestions goal, our recruiters were working tons of hours to get those out the door, because they were manually copying and pasting links from the network into Outlook to send to students.
Sally Reasoner: We just, we knew something had to change. Best part about working on an academic schedules, we do have a little bit of time to make significant changes. So we spent time over the summer working on the matching algorithm, and then very quickly after that we knew the talent side was in a pretty good spot. We're still making incremental changes there, but the overhaul and the matching algorithm, to better connect the two parties, students and employers was done. It was time to give some love to the internal staff.
Christian Beck: So going back to last time where you were finishing the matching algorithm you said, "We needed to make some changes on the internal tools." Walk us through how that happens? Is it a different backlog? Are you communicating with your dev team? Is it a different dev team? Or is things happening in parallel? When that moment happens, how do you shift the priorities in your internal and your dev teams to move to almost a different product temporarily?
Sally Reasoner: So the same development team, but I think this is where my novice in product has actually been kind of helpful because I'm not ... I don't know, to set up a different instance of Jira.
Anna Eaglin: Hold up, Jira. So this is the first time you've heard that word, Jira. What is Jira? So glad you asked, it's a tool that product managers and developers use to track their work. Okay, let's get back to it.
Sally Reasoner: Or something to manage that. It's all blended. So I organized Jira the way I think about it. So I have many sprints built out that our employer updates, student updates, internal updates, and then I'm looking at those, adding to those constantly, and then pulling up into the current sprint, the ones that are of highest priority.
Sally Reasoner: Internally with the team, how I've looked at it, again, being a novice, I don't know if I'm working harder, not smarter, or what, but it's worked for our team, is I'll sit with different roles. So just recently I sat with our business development coordinator role. They produce all of the employer content, because that was a decision that initially we had actually invested the dev time to build out a way for employers to build their own profiles, build their own role descriptions, etc. We learned that it just wasn't going to get done in the timeframe that we wanted to get done. So that was something our team was going to have to do. I sat with them and we mapped out, okay, what are all of the core activities that you do? How much time are you spending on each one?
Sally Reasoner: So we found out that they were spending 20% of their time scheduling meetings, and that was a flag for me. There's got to be something tech related here to help with that because we need that time shifted to posting roles, if we're going to hit our goals. So now we're testing Calendly, a scheduling tool, and it's looking at where they're spending their time and what tech can supplement.
Anna Eaglin: So you're not building in a feature on the internal product to help them schedule their time. You're using an outside partner. Why did you decide to do that as opposed to kind of building that internal tool?
Sally Reasoner: Dev time. Working with two developers, their time is precious. So when we first started, a lot of folks told us, buy don't build, and there just wasn't, from what we could see in the market, there wasn't a tool or a system that we could buy the bones of to then build on. So we did build ... it's a custom app. The network is custom web app, but honestly, Leaf has been a really good partner in this, in advising us. It's not worth our time to build a password management system, let's use [inaudible 00:12:42] zero. So now I've seen them work through it with a few of those tools, and so now I know not worth their time to build this in any ... literally, sometimes I do the math of how many hours it's going to take them, what the cost is per hour, and then decide to buy.
Christian Beck: I'm curious, how would you decide whether to buy or build given all things equal?
Sally Reasoner: I would say if it's remotely close, we will build just because the external costs never ends. So over time you can assume that it will cost us more to go outside. A great example of this is resume parsing. That would've taken easily two sprints and maybe even more. We don't ... when Sovren and tool in the market is so sophisticated and they can parse every single bit of information from a resume, and even take it step further and assume skills out of a resume, things like that. So we could have invested the dev time to resume parse, but we had too many other competing priorities when a tool like Sovren existed. So we made the choice to go with Sovren.
Sally Reasoner: Now will we eventually pull something like that in house? Yes, but we're tracking value to see, now that we have resume parsing in place, are more students completing the signup form because it takes them less time? And are more students publishing a profile because that information will be pre-populated? If it turns out the conversion rate is the same, we might flip back to the manual and save some dollars.
Sally Reasoner: In every part of Ascend we track goals with a certain amount of rigidity around it. Like we track methodically, number of meetings, number of published profiles. I mean we are tracking that funnel and product is something where it's been a tremendous learning experience for us, because you can't quite measure product like that. But in terms of goals and solving for revenue, yes, that's not a lens that I have at all, because we really are ... and one of our product principles is always solve for impact, not profit. Because we are ... we have the luxury of being a nonprofit where we ... everything that we do is how are we going to get more students connected to more jobs? And that drives our enhancements and features. Everything is driven through what will connect more students to more jobs.
Christian Beck: One thing that's interesting that we haven't talked about, is how Ascend isn't like a typical tech product and that you're not driven by revenue. You're driven by impact and sort of making changes. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you sort of track two goals that aren't necessarily revenue related? Could you talk a little bit about that?
Anna Eaglin: Hey, me again. So Sally, Christian, and I kind of went on a bit of a tangent there. So instead of making you listen to that, I'll catch you up. A lot of product companies are focused on growing 10 X and that's usually due to them being investor backed, and while they got to make that money for Sally and the Ascend team though, that's not their focus. Keep listening.
Anna Eaglin: When you say impact, break that down for me. What does that mean?
Sally Reasoner: Our view of impact on the network side are those actual points of connection. So how many students are accepting internships and full time jobs in Indiana? So what's interesting about that, and we sit in an interesting spot because we don't actually have a locus of control on that. The actual hiring decision and accepting of the opportunities are up to the student and the employer. But yet we have goals around that, because we look at the work that we do as a starting point to all of these other kinds of opportunities for systemic change. Where we know if we can get a talented Ivy tech student, or an Ivy tech student connected to a career path that will then lead them to, maybe it's not their first job, that's the ideal job, with maybe the next job is where they're managing a team in a call center, for example.
Sally Reasoner: Then they're growing a family here in Indiana, they're paying taxes in Indiana, and it just creates this virtuous cycle where the impact is so much more than just a job. Although that's what we focus on, the component of the job. It's how the holistic impact that one person finding a promising job in career pathway can have on the city and state. So we measure our impact on how many ... we refer to them as placements, connections.
Anna Eaglin: A lot of people think startups building product is very cool, you know, very silicon valley. But what are some misconceptions that you had or people around you have about building products?
Sally Reasoner: I think when I started on this journey, I thought product folks knew at all. I'd have this grand vision and that would be what the network is, and that it's your vision as a product owner or manager, and what I learned very quickly is that that's not the role at all. The role is to be responsive to the users, and learned the value of user testing, I mean how many [flicky 00:17:47] Jira's we built in the beginning that users never clicked on, and that was again, I had this great idea of how employers would use it, and we invested so much time and building that, when we probably could have built something much lighter actually on the employer side and we didn't know. Employers didn't really know, and I don't know that user testing would have told us everything about that, but product is more than your creative vision and your pathway. It's responding to the market and how users use it. I don't know if that makes sense?
Anna Eaglin: It makes a lot of sense.
Christian Beck: A lot of sense.
Anna Eaglin: That's really well said. What does better product mean to you?
Sally Reasoner: What is interesting to me about this question is that I think is different than someone working in a more traditional product role. But I think of better product in terms of, how do we enhance, and grow, and evolve our product to work more seamlessly with the humans using it? I don't think of it just as product because the humans are so tied to it. That for me, I mean, in a big, big picture sense of better product, it's how do we more seamlessly create products? The network being part of it but also in general that fit more seamlessly with with our lives?
Christian Beck: That was Sally Reasoner, VP of Talent turn product person. You can connect with Sally at ascendindiana.com. All right Anna, are you ready to break down what we just heard from Sally?
Anna Eaglin: Let's do it.
Anna Eaglin: Joining us today is Lacey Lavies, product manager here at Innovatemap, second appearance on the podcast. So Ascend Indiana has such a human element to it. We heard Lacey ... we heard Sally mention that multiple times. How do you grow a product but still rely on that kind of human connection via the services side of it?
Lacey Lavies: Yes, given the industry that they're in, recruiting and placing ... helping to place people in roles that they're going to love. There is still a giant human element to that. So Ascend specifically has done a really good job of leaning into that still, because they're people really are a big part of where the magic happens. The tech helps facilitate that at scale and they understand that. So they're not trying to replicate the recruiting process and selling people on their service through the technology. They're still relying on kind of boots on the ground to do that. But they can do it for many, many, many more people given the tech that's behind it to support their human advice, if you will.
Lacey Lavies: So the recruiters that they employ, I mean they're still going to recommend jobs to people, but the software kind of takes that to another level and let's them get a lot more granular about what types of jobs they're getting matched to. So I think, in one way, it's like getting people in the door. The humans, the people at Ascend are really important.
Christian Beck: [crosstalk 00:20:58] humans.
Anna Eaglin: [crosstalk 00:20:59] love humans.
Lacey Lavies: Yes, I love humans also. So the recruiters at Ascend really help to get people through the funnel, and then once they're in the product, the product can take a greater role in helping them to find a job that they love.
Christian Beck: It's a unique situation with Ascend because I know she mentioned their funding is slightly different. They don't have the typical funding requirements that you might get from a VC firm where they say, "Oh, you got to 10 X and scale, scale, scale." They're funded by nonprofits, so they don't have those same metrics. But even with that said, I think that there's something valuable to take from that because there's still a lot of room to make tech companies that are not meant to dominate the world and become the next Uber's, and Slacks of the world, but just do something really well connected with people. And I don't have a question.
Lacey Lavies: I don't know that I fully answered your question around how do you grow a product?
Anna Eaglin: I mean I think you did, because you talked a lot about the idea that it's about helping grow the people. It's like amplifying the people at the same time the product grows. But I think that still ... I think I agree with that, but at the same time I think one thing that Sally mentioned that she struggles with is how do you balance internal and external features? Because there is a part of the Ascend network that lives on its own, right? You can create a profile, you know, employers create profiles, but then there's the back end that supports the recruiters, amplifies the recruiters, and she told us specifically that, she was only prioritizing external features until she saw that her team was underwater. So in your experience, what's the balance there? How do you know it's time to amplify your people versus have your product work a little more on its own? Like how do you balance those things?
Lacey Lavies: I think once the product got to a point where they had iterated on some features a few times, so like that the student experience was really easy for them to onboard themselves and get set up correctly, and effectively, and that the software was easy for people who worked at these employers to use to find talent that matched with what they were looking for. Like the self service aspect of it, once they kind of mastered that, that's I think when they turned more to the internal efficiencies. Because their team was getting by with sort of non-tech tools to help them in their roles. But again, once the external users were kind of taking care of them, they could help make their internal people more efficient. So they definitely made sure that it was a good user experience before they really leaned in and tried to take the manual nature out of some of their recruiters job.
Christian Beck: Right, here you write was, when users are getting onboarded well, it sounded like a first one. Do you think that that's kind of a universal truth for tech enabled? Is is making sure the user onboarding is leveraged by technology?
Lacey Lavies: Yes. I mean if you're going to really get as many people on the platform as possible, it can't be a clunky experience.
Anna Eaglin: Sally talked a lot about the trust, like their goal was to build trust with the employers and trust with the students. So it sounds like any of the functionality that doesn't have to do with trust, because once ... you know, they've already reached out to those students, they this end is legit, they know their partnering with employers, so student signs up. So it's more of those features that are scale oriented. It sounds like if you can isolate the things that are the big value props, keep the humans ... keep the humans involved in those and maybe technologically enhance the other, the scale oriented features?
Lacey Lavies: Yes, so keeping the personal relationship aspect of it, that's huge for their business and that's part of the reason why people trust them as well, because it's not just another job matching service of that technology. It's just an algorithm with the sense someone is actually getting to know you, and then it's supplemented by an algorithm that they've spent a lot of time perfecting. So I think that's one thing that they've done really well too is really iterating on features. They don't just implement it and then abandon it. They take time to learn what's working and what isn't, and continue to make it better.
Christian Beck: Do you think that learning and getting feedback is different when your tech enabled, than it is for just a purely tech company where you're just worried about end users? Is it different when you have internal users as well? And in their case they have two sides there, the companies and the students. Is it any different in those types of companies?
Lacey Lavies: I think you're lucky that you're getting feedback from an internal user base really. So they're recruiters who are spending a lot of time making the system work how they needed it to, and that's a great form of feedback. You understand the pain that they're having and can address it with technology to make their life a little bit easier. So I think that helps with the scale issue as well. So maybe a personalized email with job recommendations may have taken them, you know, 20 minutes in the past. But if they can really make parts of that more efficient for the recruiters, they could still have that personal touch point, but it can be much quicker for them. Kind of like Stitch Fix. So Stich Fix uses-
Christian Beck: [crosstalk 00:26:17].
Lacey Lavies: Oh no, we love Stitch Fix. So Stitch Fix uses an algorithm to make recommendations, but there's also a human involved to take that to another level and make it feel more personal. That's what I think Ascend those that as well.
Anna Eaglin: That's a good point. Even as Stitch Fix has grown their data science, it's like you still get that person who's like, "Hey girl, Spring's coming in. I see you [inaudible 00:26:45] a new rain jacket."
Christian Beck: Least you think it's a person. Maybe other days science is really good.
Anna Eaglin: It's a robot, "Hey girl, Spring is coming."
Lacey Lavies: I mean Ascend their recruiters do stay in touch with the students, so they will know about their changing interest per se and can help them make the most of that with the software.
Christian Beck: That's really great to remember in the tech space that you can start a business that's tech oriented but can still have people involved. So I hope people listen to this and think that, "Oh that doesn't always have to be 10 X, 100 X, going crazy, taking over, becoming a platform." It can also carve out good value and be tech focused, but also have people involved as well.
Anna Eaglin: I think Airbnb might be another really good example of that. I mean like the dream was to scale like more people on Airbnb, but ideally keep the quality good. It was never to replace the people, it was just to have more people have that access.
Lacey Lavies: Yes, let the people do their jobs better with technology.
Anna Eaglin: Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate and review this podcast. Until then visit innovatemap.com/podcast and subscribe to learn how you can take your product to the next level. As always, we're curious, what does better product mean to you? Hit us up on Twitter at Innovatemap or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christian Beck: I'm Christian.
Anna Eaglin: And I'm Anna, and you've been listening to Better Products.
Christian Beck: Better Products.
Anna Eaglin: Drop mic.