Human Resources and High Tech – What I learned at the GeekWire Summit


Posted by harryeross

Does employee engagement really matter in the world of high tech? I got the chance to attend the GeekWire Summit in Seattle this week with the hopes of finding that out.

When I was offered the chance to attend the Summit, my first thought was “what can I learn from this that will help make me a better Human Resources leader? Won’t it be all Nerd-speak on topics that I won’t understand?”

I am pleased to say that many of the speakers talked about how creating a positive culture, and engaging their employees were the keys to creating and sustaining successful tech-companies.

I knew it was going to be good when the first panel was hosted by David Streitfeld, who co-wrote the New York Times article that described the lack of work-life balance at Amazon. He interviewed three former Amazon employees that are currently running their own start up companies.

Living in Seattle, Amazon is certainly known as a tough employer who asks a lot of their people and none of the three panelists disagreed with that. The insight that they offered that was new to me was that the challenge to work on projects that really do change the world is a big motivator and is extremely rewarding to many Amazon employees. They also felt that the company’s focus on the customer experience was a very clear and focused mission that employees could believe in.

Some of the other speakers included Spencer Rascoff, CEO of Zillow, Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox, and Robert Hohman, CEO of Glassdoor.

Three points that Spencer from Zillow made that stuck with me were about always hiring the best, and “great cultures get great people that get great results”. When asked to describe the culture at Zillow, he used the words ” team-orientated, transparent, nimble and respect”.

Phil from Xbox talked about the lessons he had learned to drive a successful business- “keep the customer at the center of your universe”, and “design products around what the customers want, not what you want.” He also talked about how to keep his focus as the leader of an organization came down to “control what you can control”.

Bob from Glassdoor was asked what were the common threads that makes a CEO successful. He said the leader must provide a clear vision and relentlessly communicate with all levels of the organization. He also said that “people need to feel that they are a part of something bigger”, and that “people want to work for a leader that cares about them”.

Perhaps what brought it all together for me was a talk by the President of Dice, Shravan Goli, a high-tech recruiting firm. He explained that in the competition for talent, you have to do two things- explain why your job would be better than their current job, and you have to effectively sell the company as a great place to work.

My conclusion is that it’s very hard to retain current talent, and recruit new talent if the company is NOT a great place to work. Developing a good culture and engaging employees are critical to every company, even fast growing high-tech companies.

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