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Talent – Jeff Daniel

“Lots of people think that they know how to recruit college students, but they don’t have a clue.”

Jeff Daniel has seen the future of the new economy. He’s seen it in coffee shops, student unions, brew pubs, and computer labs. He’s seen it at colleges all over the country — from Stanford to Carnegie Mellon, from Berkeley to Harvard. It’s there that you’ll find tomorrow’s software developers and Web entrepreneurs, so that’s where Daniel, founder and CEO of CollegeHire.com, and his recruiters practically live during the school year.

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Daniel doesn’t believe in the hit-and-run approach to recruiting that most companies practice. In fact, he calls it “hit-and-miss” because companies that use that approach overlook so many good candidates. Recruiters from these companies arrive on campus for a school’s annual career fair, collect stacks and stacks of résumés, then disappear. Since these recruiters don’t spend much time with the students, they leave the career fair with nothing more than a pile of résumés to be filtered down by GPA.

The process isn’t any more enlightening for students. While they’re grinding away at upper-level classes and staying up late working on senior projects, they’re under siege from companies for job interviews. Researching those companies and juggling multiple interviews quickly becomes an exhausting distraction from school.

Daniel is trying to eliminate these flaws by reinventing the way that college recruiting works. “The process is incredibly inefficient, and I realized that mastering it wouldn’t be as powerful as changing it,” he says. “We decided to just rip this thing apart and start over — to change the way that college students look at job opportunities and the way that companies look at job candidates.”

For now, Daniel’s focus is high-tech recruits, and his timing couldn’t be better. Over the next several years, new jobs for computer scientists, computer engineers, and systems analysts are expected to increase by more than 36% annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the talent pool on college campuses has shrunk. The number of high-tech degrees (in engineering, computer science, business-information systems, engineering technology, mathematics, or physics) earned by students in the United States declined by 5% between 1990 and 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Welcome to the battle for talent, undergraduate style. Large and small companies alike are struggling to hire enough young talent to support their fast growth. With hundreds of colleges from which to choose, startups are left wondering where to focus their limited resources, and organizations with vast recruiting departments are wondering how to lower costs while increasing the number of quality hires. Regardless of size, Daniel says, many companies are hampered by the same problem: “Lots of people think that they know how to recruit college students, but they don’t have a clue.”

That’s Daniel: as blunt as he is confident, a high-energy mix of strong opinions, new ideas, and marketing savvy. Fueled by as many as six Dr. Peppers a day, he darts between campus visits, sales calls, phone calls, and emails at the only speed he knows: fast-forward. Daniel’s a true rarity — a Texan who talks faster than a New Yorker.

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His approach to recruiting is based on streamlining the process with a Web site, CollegeHire.com, that lets students and companies access more information about one another. But better technology is only part of the solution. Daniel believes that effective recruiting is about building personal relationships. So he and his team build relationships to understand what motivates students and to learn what they want and need in a job.

Daniel insists that CollegeHire is more than just a recruiting company. It’s in the matchmaking business — placing qualified students with the right company, the right position, the right work environment, and the right salary. To do that successfully, Daniel needs to learn as much as he can about the students, about the colleges they attend, and about the companies looking to hire them.

He developed his strategy at Trilogy Software Inc., a fast-growing software company in Austin, Texas. As head of Trilogy’s aggressive recruiting department, he helped increase the company’s staff from 80 to 800 employees in just three years. Following Daniel’s lead, Trilogy recruiters focused on identifying and befriending the cream of the crop, and that attention paid off. Competing against major players like Microsoft, Trilogy had an impressive 64% acceptance rate for its job offers, which convinced Daniel that other companies would pay for his expertise. Last January, he created CollegeHire.com, a spin-off of Trilogy.

CollegeHire features one-stop shopping for companies and students. Instead of offering job opportunities at just one company, CollegeHire recruiters represent more than two dozen companies — a broad selection of work and of workplaces. By interviewing with CollegeHire, students are, in effect, taking part in interviews at Amazon.com, McKinsey & Co., D.E. Shaw & Co., startups like Motive Communications and Agillion, and the rest of CollegeHire’s partner companies. But they’re doing so without the inconvenience of preparing for individual interviews with all of those companies. “Wouldn’t you rather interview with one company than interview with 30?” Daniel asks students.

And by contracting with CollegeHire, companies are, in effect, recruiting at 37 of the top schools in the United States and Canada. More important, they’re recruiting without having to do the time-consuming and expensive legwork — branding on campus, networking, and conducting interviews — necessary to identify qualified candidates interested in working for them. “Wouldn’t you rather have someone else filter the talent pool and present you with only the strongest candidates?” Daniel asks companies.

This year, Daniel’s goal is to find jobs for 1,500 of the roughly 20,000 high-tech candidates due to graduate during the 1999-2000 school year from the schools that he currently targets. The service is free to students. It’s the companies that pay CollegeHire — typically an annual retainer and a fee-per-hire that is based on the number of hires a company wants.

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Early on, CollegeHire gathers more information about students than companies usually do. In addition to a résumé, a recruit’s profile includes scores from online tests in various technologies offered through CollegeHire’s site; impressions from two interviews (one general, the other technical); and the results of a survey on working style and preferences. After all, says Daniel, if hiring the right people is so crucial, why not give companies as much information about candidates as possible? “How can you decide to fly someone across the country for an on-site interview based only on a résumé and one short interview?” he asks. “You don’t have enough to go on. It’s pure guesswork.” Daniel wants his customers to be able to make more informed decisions.

At CollegeHire, account developers keep tabs on the latest job openings and the specific job requirements for those positions. They then consult with internal “campus owners” and assemble a group of qualified candidates for their client companies. Through CollegeHire’s Web site, recruiters ask those students if they’re interested in the jobs. Once recruits give the go-ahead, CollegeHire presents its candidates to companies. These clients view the candidate profiles online and select which students they want to interview.

Daniel also puts more information in the hands of the students. On CollegeHire.com, they can research prospective employers. CollegeHire posts profiles of its clients, their job openings, and links to company Web sites. It also publishes Hired magazine, a monthly online job-search resource. In addition to articles on the job market and campus recruiting events, Hired offers advice from columnist “Job Search Jane” — tips for interviewing, negotiating, and more.

If you want to get to know students more than superficially, you have to be willing to spend a lot more time on campuses than an afternoon at a career fair. Daniel calls his recruiters “campus owners,” because they do more than just recruit. They research things like student life, clubs, academic programs and departments, hangouts, and associations at the 37 schools where CollegeHire currently recruits. “Owning a campus is a lot like learning your way around a foreign country,” Daniel says. “The best way to learn is through total immersion.”

In the months leading up to both winter and spring graduation, campus owners spend nearly every day at school. They meet students in cafeterias, they take them out for group dinners, and they conduct info sessions on partner companies. They also email the dozens, and at some schools hundreds, of students they meet — answering questions about the job-hunting process, checking in after a big exam, and sometimes even offering advice on personal problems. “The students get comfortable talking to you,” says Lauren Esposito, 23, who “owned” Harvard and MIT last year. “That’s what makes it so much fun. I took some of my MIT recruits shopping. They were like my best friends.”

As for CollegeHire’s relatively ancient CEO, Daniel is 29 going on 22, considering his rapport with students. He gets dozens of emails after info sessions, and still considers getting to know recruits one of the most enjoyable parts of his job. “They’re not jaded,” he says. “They have great hopes and plans, and I think that’s cool. But I’m not trying to pass as a college student by saying things like ‘Hey dude, did you check out the new Korn CD?’ No way. You have to know where you belong, and where you don’t.”

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Malaise Murphy, 23, is the campus owner at the University of Texas. The fact that she went to school there doesn’t help much, though; she majored in communications, and the computer-science and engineering departments are of a different world. But now she knows that world intimately, thanks to students like Sravish Sridhar, 22, a computer-science major and vice president of the Association for Computing Machinery — one of several student organizations that Murphy regularly contacts. When Murphy wanted to publicize an upcoming info session, Sridhar told her not to bother placing an ad in the Daily Texan, the student-run newspaper. Instead, Sridhar emailed all 350 people on the club’s mailing list. He also suggested which food would go over well (pizza), and referred her to his friends, who are also high-tech majors.

That last gesture means a lot to Daniel, because it reflects the level of trust and acceptance between the students and recruiters. It also makes for particularly effective networking. More than anyone else, the students themselves know the real stars on campus — the individuals who don’t bother attending career fairs or putting together a résumé because they know that they’ll be able to choose from a dozen job offers. The only way to get these leads, says Daniel, is to live in the trenches. But few companies live there. Another mistake that companies make is not responding quickly to students; they recruit according to their schedule, not students’ schedules. And if you drop the ball and wait three weeks to call back after an interview, you lose recruits. “Students are being courted by your competitors, and the window of opportunity is small,” says Daniel. “You’ve got to make a good impression.”

CollegeHire’s approach to recruiting helps solve an ongoing and expensive problem in the high-tech industry: retention. One way to avoid losing valuable employees, says Daniel, is by recruiting the right people in the first place. At Trilogy, he was a big believer in making sure that recruits were strong culture fits. As demanding as the long hours and workload were, few employees jumped ship because they thrived in that sort of environment.

Daniel says that he recruits for passion, not GPA or technical prowess. If people are bright and highly motivated, he believes you can teach them the necessary skills. “There are stars out there with a 2.0 GPA, the type of people who say, ‘I’m not going to do another problem set out of this stupid book. I’d rather spend my time building a robot or something,’ ” says Daniel. “A lot of companies miss those people because they don’t look deep enough. But if you find out what gets someone jazzed and channel that energy into something that a company is doing, then that person would be awesome.”

In a sense, that’s Daniel’s own personal story. At Trilogy, he was one of the few nontechnical hires in his recruiting class in 1995. He’d studied journalism at Baylor University, earning both an undergraduate and a graduate degree, but he had earned only average grades. Daniel has always been the type of person who applies himself selectively, pouring his considerable energy only into certain classes or areas that interest him — like recruiting. He flew all over the country for Trilogy, meeting and networking with students nonstop to get the most talented candidates. He still prides himself on being able to spot potential in students and then find the job and the workplace that they’re best suited to — where they’ll thrive and stick around. If CollegeHire can work for the high-tech industry, Daniel figures, why not other markets? That’s the next step: expanding the operation to include more majors, more companies, more matches. Daniel is a matchmaker who thinks like a gardener. “Plant them in a fertile environment,” he says of recruits, “and they’re going to frickin’ blow away your expectations.”

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in Baltimore. For his first job out of college, he worked as a weekend clerk at the New York Times’s London bureau. Contact Jeff Daniel by email (jeff@collegehire.com), or visit CollegeHire.com on the Web (www.collegehire.com).

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Sidebar: What’s Fast

Jeff Daniel, founder and CEO of CollegeHire.com, believes that recruiting college students is a job for marketing, not HR. It’s about being able to tell a company’s story, and being able to get students excited about working there. It involves what Daniel calls “the glitz and the grab.” And what works at one school won’t necessarily work at another. You have to be attuned to the cultural differences between campuses.

Take Harvard University and the University of Michigan. One is a private Ivy League school, the other a huge state university. At Harvard, CollegeHire might host a low-key wine-and-cheese gathering at a pleasant, quietly elegant restaurant in Harvard Square, whereas at the University of Michigan, the event might be margaritas at a lively bar in Ann Arbor. Harvard recruits are, generally speaking, risk-averse and meticulous job hunters, Daniel says. “They’re very analytical. They want a proven track record, they want name-brand recognition, and they want to know what other Harvard grads work there.”

Michigan grads, on the other hand, “are more go-with-the-flow types. They’re not as concerned about where they’re going to be in three years or the specifics of a 401(k) plan. The bottom line is, they want to be challenged, and they want to have a good time doing it. So you give them a feel for a company’s culture.”

Despite those differences, Daniel believes that students everywhere share one overriding interest: the desire to have an impact early. He advises clients to avoid the phrase “entry-level” when describing job openings, because that’s not what students are looking for. “They don’t want to be ’employee number 23,400,’ ” says Daniel. “So even if they’re going to be on a product team at a large company, tell them how that team impacts the department, and how that department impacts the company.”

About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.

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