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JobBoardGeek: The Scottish are coming, the Scottish are coming! A chat with Stephen O’ Donnell

stephen o' donnellIn this episode of JobBoardGeek, we talk to Stephen O’ Donnell, founder of the NORAs.  The well-known U.K. awards program for recruiting companies has proved durable – and Stephen lets us in on its origin story.  Jeff Dickey-Chasins of JobBoardDoctor and Steven Rothberg of College Recruiter also learn about the return of TAtech to live events, and what exactly Stephen will be doing in his new role with the industry organization. Jeff also wonders how Workrise manages to spend so much money without succeeding in their pivot; Steven (not Stephen O’ Donnell!) speculates that maybe it has something to do with 25 offices.


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0:00:00.0 Jeff Dickey-Chasins: Hello everyone. And welcome to JobBoardGeek. It’s the podcast about the business of connecting candidates and employers. I’m Jeff Dickey-Chasins, the Job Board Doctor. I am your host. And with me, I have the sometimes sneaky Steven Rothberg of College Recruiter. He’s the co-host Hey, Steven, how you doing?


0:00:19.0 Steven Rothberg: I’m good, Jeff. It is a really wonderful to be with you. And for once, there are two of us with the same name and so we’re outnumbering you today.


0:00:27.5 JD: Yeah. Well, I’ll talk to the one that I think has the better accent and…


0:00:31.1 SR: I’ll see you next episode. See you later.


0:00:33.6 JD: Yeah right. Exactly. Yes. So today, we have a guy with a great accent and wonderful sense of humor and incredible knowledge of the UK job board scene, Stephen O’Donnell of NORAs. And also he’s got a new gig now with TAtech. So he’ll tell us all about that. But first of all, Stephen, I just wanted to talk a little bit about something that popped up in the news in the past couple of days, there’s a company down in Austin called WorkRise. Most people probably would remember it from its original name as RigUp. It just announced that it’s laying off a lot of people, it didn’t say how many, but at the last time they raised money in May. They raised about 300 billion dollars to push themselves to a 2.9 billion dollar valuation. They had 600 employees and 25 offices. According to some of the anonymous information that was being posted, they laid off 450 of those 600 people.


0:01:28.1 JD: So that’s pretty substantial. Now what WorkRise does, it’s started back in 2014, it was basically a workplace, a marketplace for people in the energy industry. And they decided to change their name in 2021 to WorkRise because they decided they wanted to go into other verticals. So in addition to oil and gas, they moved into construction and defense and solar and wind. And apparently from what I can see that pivot didn’t work out. And interestingly enough, this is not the first time that the company has done this, back in 2020, they laid off a quarter of their corporate employees when the COVID pandemic hit. And so, I’m just amused, I guess, amused at one point, in one sense how they portray this as a pivot, when to me, it looks like we stuck our foot out too far. We didn’t know what we were doing. We failed. And now we’re going back and I’m also amused at their ability to continue to get funding despite the fact that they keep falling on their face. And then, I’m not amused about the poor employees that got laid off of this. It really seems to be a shame, but that’s my take on it. What about you? What do you think?


0:02:40.8 SR: Well, yeah. Not amused about the employees who have lost their jobs, but at least if you’re gonna lose your job, to lose your job in this kind of labor market.


0:02:49.3 JD: Yeah.


0:02:50.1 SR: Not such a bad thing, unfortunately we’re all old enough to remember pretty well other recessions. And in other recessions, when you lose your job, you can easily be outta work for six months, 12 months, 24 months, it can be devastating to you and your family. But boy, if you’re a software developer that just got laid off with WorkRise, and maybe you got a severance package, you probably already have eight job offers and you’re going back to work. And so you’re in way doubling up. I’m also really amazed like you are at the amount of money that they were able to raise very recently. And how quickly this has all happened.


0:03:28.4 SR: Yeah. When I was reading about it, I don’t understand why they had so many offices and some of the overhead that they had, the fact of going out of one vertical and into multiple verticals. That’s not necessarily a recipes for failure, right? You might have really good software, really good way of creating that secret sauce on the background. And then that can translate really well into other industries. But I don’t understand why a company has 25 offices in this day and age, even if it’s a staffing company, how many people come into your office, if they’re looking for a job, that should just be done online. So it really seems to me like they had a massive amount of overhead going.


0:04:12.2 JD: For me, it was a little bit of back to the future. Because as you know, I got into the job board industry back in ’97 with Dice, and we went through a very, very rapid period of growth over the three years I was with Dice. But one of the things that was happening in the industry at that point is there was a lot of money being thrown around, being thrown at companies like Dice, companies like Monster, etcetera. And then about the time I left, there was a huge crash. And it was the same thing. You sort of look back on it and say, “Where did all the money go?” I definitely remember money being spent on multiple offices for different types of favorite employees. “Oh, I don’t want to have to commute into the city.” “Well, then we’ll set up an office for you in Connecticut,” or, whatever it might be. I don’t, I’m not sure that was the case with WorkRise, but I think their investors are gonna take a bath on this one.


0:05:00.1 SR: Yeah. The offices for favorite employees, it rings a bit of a bell for me because I’ve often been asked to be in another office very, very far away from everybody else. So I’m just gonna take that as being a sign that I’m a favorite employee. And I think we can all agree on that.


0:05:16.4 JD: I think that might have been more about the company surviving.


0:05:19.5 SR: And I Think we should move on, don’t you?


0:05:21.0 JD: Yeah, I guess we should. As I mentioned earlier today, we have a guest from overseas, from the British Isles, I guess I should say, or perhaps I shouldn’t say that Stephen O’Donnell, he founded NORAs and he can tell us all about that. He’s also working at TAtech, which used to be IAEWS and Stephen welcome to JobBoardGeek.


0:05:44.0 Stephen O’Donnell : Afternoon fellas. It’s great to be here, really nice to be here, longtime fan of the show.


0:05:47.8 JD: Oh, thank you. Thank you. You may be the only fan. I’m not sure, but I do appreciate that. So Stephen, why don’t you start out by just sort of giving us some background on how you happen to get into the recruiting industry, and maybe you can also tell us how NORAs came to be.


0:06:04.7 SO: Well, this will be my 35th year in recruitment. So I’ve pretty much always been in recruitment, before that I was a fax machine salesman, so that really dates me at selling in fax machines. And that was before fax machines caught on. So that really dates me even further. But until recently, I would say to people that most of that time I spent owning and running recruitment companies, but I’ve just realized now that most of that time has been on the technology side of online recruitment. There was a bit of overlap, but in 2000 I set up a, I set up a job, well, a job board, I set up a website, which was essentially a signpost to every recruitment agency and employer and job board in the UK. And at the same time was trying to run a recruitment agency and pretty quickly realized that riding two horses with one backside, just wasn’t really doable.


0:06:58.9 SO: So I drifted out of owning a recruitment company and I’ve been in technology ever since. And around that time as a promotion for that website, I set up the NORAs, The National Online Recruitment Awards. And the purpose of that bluntly was, it was a marketing exercise. I thought it would be great to win an award, but the next best thing to winning an award is being the person who’s giving out the awards. If I give an award to Monster, for example, they’ve got a big marketing department and they’ll shout to the world about it. So that’s a cool thing to do and a good marketing exercise. But of course it grew arms and legs, it’s been going ever since. This will be our 22nd year of the NORAs. And the website that I built way back then, is long since gone, it was sold in 2007. But I’ve worked with a number of tech companies in the time in between from aggregators to psychometric evaluation companies, AI, searching and matching video technology, all of those.


0:07:53.1 JD: So that’s really quite a broad background. And I think I first met you, I wanna say, 6-7 years ago at one of the conferences, might have been longer than that.


0:08:03.6 SO: Yeah.


0:08:04.3 JD: And I remember being really struck by the NORAs because first for whatever reason, there really wasn’t any equivalent type of awards and particularly the way you’ve got it set up in the US. And I was jealous to be quite honest.




0:08:20.7 SO: I made the mistake, which turned out to be lucky of not knowing how awards events were supposed to be run when I set it up, because… And I don’t wanna point fingers at any other awards events, but industry awards always seem to be for the participants a bit of a back-slapping exercise. And the way that companies submit themselves, they put in submission evidence and so on, and the judging process that they go through is quite different, was very different to how the NORAs are done, we take nominations from the public in the first place. So we ask job seekers to nominate sites. We don’t restrict it to only sites that submit themselves. So every recruitment website, so anyone who’s advertising vacancies are offering a carrier service to candidates. We’re gonna judge them. And we only judge from a candidate’s perspective. So we only judge what we can see. If we can’t see it, we can’t judge it.


0:09:10.4 SO: So everything is done from the perspective of the job seeker. I sometimes say to people that I’m the hardest working job seeker in the UK because each year I’ll register with maybe 600 separate recruitment websites and apply for jobs and go through the process, just to see how they’re doing it. And it’s strange how in the past 22 years, how much has remained the same where some things have changed dramatically. And I always hoped, in fact, we’re coming around to that now, I always hoped that candidates would get to the position where they could push back, where they could say, “We don’t want to go through these hoops in order to apply for that job.” And candidates are in a much stronger position now to walk away, which of course comes out in the form of what we call ghosting these days. They get pummeled through the process and don’t going any further.


0:10:00.6 SR: That awesome. And it’s interesting Jeff, that the timing when you met Stephen was around the same time when I did, it was a different event. I met Stephen at an event, a true London event that Bill Boorman organized. And I remember walking away from that, thinking that there’s one really, really cheeky sarcastic person in the room and his name is Stephen and that… [laughter] Kinda reminded me of being in… Yeah, of being in seventh grade when they were… Me and one of my friends, which would just be continually kicked out in the hall, I thought that was gonna happen to us. But if anybody hasn’t had the pleasure of sitting next to Stephen at an event, [laughter] definitely that’s what you wanna do.


0:10:46.6 SR: Wicked smart, very knowledgeable and definitely is gonna keep you on your toes. So what I’d like to ask you, Stephen, is about your new gig with TAtech for listeners who have been around for as long as the us three old folks have been. It was born as IAEWS, the International Association of Employment Websites. I think Peter Weddle the CEO changed the name roughly five years ago to TAtech to broaden, to be more inclusive of different kinds of talent acquisition. Some of the people who go to the conferences are job board people. Some of them are gonna be those solution providers that are somewhat related, advertising agencies, job distributors, RPOs, people selling resume parsing software, whatever. But maybe you can tell us a little bit about a couple things. One would be your specific role, what you were brought in to do. And then also, I’m really curious, and I think others are as well about what your vision is for the actual events? Coming out of COVID, we’ve all been able to do a reset. They’re always good and bad things and kind of curious as to what, for those of us who used to go to virtually every TAtech event and plan to go to ones in the future, what’ll be different moving forward?


0:12:06.6 SO: Okay, okay. Well, first of all, to break it down, I can’t even remember those letters myself, but I think that’s my first word in Wordle every night, because it’s got all the vowels, I-A-E-W-S. [laughter] It’s got everything in there. But of course, it’s impossible to remember. So I think we’re all thankful that it was renamed to TAtech. And TAtech is exactly what it is, it’s technology for talent acquisition. I was actually due to join the organization two years ago, just as the pandemic hit. And I’ve been on the advisory board for a few years before that. And in fact, an event that I’d set up in the UK was being used at TAtech events called RECex. So RECex is essentially, it’s kinda rip-off of TEDx, so it’s TED talks for recruitment.


0:12:50.0 SO: It’s 15 minutes of a tight, passionate talk on recruitment. And we run RECex events in London and in Portugal and in Austin. So sometimes myself, or sometimes with TAtech. So as I was saying, I was due to join two years ago, but the pandemic hit. And when it came back around with, hopefully, we’re coming out of the pandemic, I jumped at the chance to get on board, given my background in recruitment and technology. And I’m a lover of gadgets and the way that tech works, but more than that the way that tech impacts the people that are affected by how the technology is put into place, how it’s adopted, how it’s used by people in the front line. Then TAtech makes absolute sense for me. Not only that, but in all the years that I’ve been running The NORAs, I’ve always said to people, I’m not an events organizer. I just happen to organize some events inadvertently and the building of a community, the building of a big network, if you like, where I’m speaking with a lot of organizations in the industry from employers, to recruitment firms to technology companies, and so on.


0:13:56.6 SO: It gives me a real insight to what they do and how they do it, and it’s actually, is very similar to when I was working as a recruitment consultant dealing with my clients. So I would have an insight to each of those organizations. It might be big manufacturers like IBM and National Semiconductor, or tiny little companies who are supplying those big manufacturers. But I always found it fascinating to have that helicopter view of what they did. And in the same way with TAtech, I have this and as a born nosy parker, I love to have the peek behind the curtains. In terms of events, obviously, in the past couple of years, events have had a huge shake-up. We’ve all seen the Zoom events and the virtual events and so on. And actually in the pandemic, I got involved with Quick because everyone pivoted to an extent. If you can’t get up to events then do something different.


0:14:44.3 SO: So actually, in some ways, I was helping organizations organize their online events because I’m pretty well-versed with the technology. So some of the organizations I’d helped would be… Well, a lot of them are in the States. But the one that’s a stand out is the Miss America organization. And so, their online events, I’d be helping to organize and it meant that I’m now in first name terms with at least, I think, 13 or 14 Miss Americas, including the Miss America from 1948.


0:15:12.5 SR: If only you could have been surrounded by attractive women like that in high school.




0:15:18.6 SO: Absolutely. But as I say, having a peek into any industry is always really interesting, but the key thing is seeing how people responded to the demand to have events, but the block to having in-person events. In the past few months, I’ve been… Well, a couple towards the end of last year, and luckily, there was a window where in the UK everyone was let out and that window allowed us to have the NORAs, which was great. But then, of course, it locked down again. And the prediction as to how events are going to roll out in the future. It’s not so much as anybody’s guess but we know that it’s a movable phase, we know that everything is in flux. There’s a number of companies I’ve been speaking with about their hybrid events or committing truly to have in-person events. I went to an in-person event in February this year in London, and I got COVID again, the same event that I got COVID two years ago. So this time it not so bad, so it was fine. But everyone is conscious about what are the new protocols going to be and anyone who organizes events has to have that in mind.


0:16:14.8 SO: And also understanding that employers might, they might say, “Well, look, yes, events are open. We can go and see people, but we have new policies on who gets to events.” Whether we do it as a matter of policy, whether we pick and choose events more carefully. Whether we look closely at how the protocols are put in place in those events. But certainly going forward, the in-person events with TAtech are absolutely happening this year. The next one is in Austin on the… Well, it begins on the evening of the 31st of May to June the 2nd. And if people don’t know, there are industry organizations for people who are recruitment consultants and agencies. And of course for HR and for TA, there are lots of organizations where there’s membership groups. TAtech is a membership group for technology companies providing technology to the HR and TA sector and its the only one. So this event will be the biggest of the year. And certainly going back to 2019, the last one that was able to be held, there were over 500 people there, and we expect the same or more for this event at the end of May.


0:17:26.5 SR: If I could just add a couple of quick things, Jeff, to that. So College Recruiter has at least a couple of people going. We have a new COO Brad Boggs, a new Head of Sales and Partnerships, Matt Simpson, who used to be, you probably know him from when he was at JobGate. So they’re gonna be there. They’re very much looking forward to it. And the reason why we always try to have at least one or two people there, there’s just no better event for partnerships.


0:17:49.1 SO: Yeah.


0:17:49.9 SR: Whether the bourbon that’s served after hours is of interest or not. Whether the content is of interest or not. Everybody that’s there is very oriented to partnerships.


0:18:01.1 SO: Absolutely.


0:18:01.5 JD: Yeah.


0:18:02.0 SO: Absolutely. Yeah. So for people who maybe don’t know so much intimately, about TAtech, there are about 350 members globally, obviously, the bulk of the members are North America and of those maybe 40% are job boards, or tied in with job boards and technologies to do with job boards. But that’s moving, the job boards are not growing in volume in terms of our membership, but the other technologies are. So those, whether it’ll be ATS’s or all the secondary techs that hook into the ATS’s are in need of that catalyst to collaborate, and that’s exactly what TAtech is. So putting together organizations, were there are working with each other, where they’re deep linking with each other. Where they’re creating a new channel for sales, if for example, and I’m not picking a company that’s a member or not a member.


0:18:53.1 SO: But if Smart Recruiters, for example, we’re hooking in with a number of technologies that added additional services to their clients, then that channel where a customer can switch on a video interviewing service within Smart Recruiters platform or Avature or any other. Then what we’re seeing now, is that’s a greater channel for sales than their direct sale. So companies, especially those ATSs are focused on that much more so, and of course, the secondary tech suppliers are seeing that as a great route to sales where they don’t have the same cost of sale. And they have a much easier route to being switched on and probably in most cases if it’s rolled out correctly, much better adoption rates, which is vital for tech.


0:19:34.8 JD: Well Stephen, this has been really interesting, we’re out of time. But I did want to ask you, if people wanna get a hold of you, talk TAtech, talk NORAs, talk recruiting in general, how do they do that?


0:19:46.3 SO: Easy to find me on LinkedIn or any of the other channels, on Twitter, on every account I am in social media, it’s Stephen O’Donnell, with two Ns on the end. But easily find me on LinkedIn and send me a connection. I’m very much a proponent of giving favors in order to build relationships. So if anyone needs anything from me, I’m more than happy to help, and I love getting involved.


0:20:09.2 JD: Great. And I will say, once you’ve talked with Steven, it’s impossible to read anything on his Twitter feed without hearing his accent. [laughter] You have an amazing power there, Stephen. Use it wisely.


0:20:21.8 SO: Thank you.


0:20:24.9 JD: And Steven Rothberg.


0:20:24.9 SR: Yeah.


0:20:25.1 JD: If people wanna get a hold of you, how do they do that?


0:20:27.5 SR: The easiest way is to invite me for authentic fish and chips lunch, at a nice little Scottish shop.


0:20:35.8 SO: Perfect.


0:20:36.4 SR: Maybe afterwards, we can go for something that Stephen O’Donnell doesn’t like, which is a nice little dram of scotch. Which is really, really horrible that a guy from Scotland doesn’t like scotch.


0:20:48.9 SO: I cannot abide whisky. Can I just say this year, in the past couple of weeks, at least four Americans have contacted me, friends of mine to say that they’re coming to Scotland, and can I help them organize their itinerary. So it seems that everyone’s coming this direction, and if anyone is, I’ll be more than happy to. And if anyone wants to catch me at all next week. I’m starting a new webcast show on Wednesday, the 13th called Stepping Up, with TAtech and my first guest is Josh Zywien of Paradox.


0:21:18.3 JD: That’s great. Well, listen folks, this is about it for today’s episode of JobBoardGeek. I’m glad that you took some time to listen to us. I hope that you’ll consider subscribing to us on Apple, Spotify or any of the other many channels that were out there on. And always, always, if you’re giving a review, remember the thumbs up part of the review is for me, and the thumbs down part of the review is for the, Steven from College Recruiters. [laughter] So, anyway, this is Jeff Dickey-Chasins, the job board doctor, and you’ve been listening to the only podcast that focuses on the business of connecting candidates and employers. That’s all for now, and we’ll see you again next time.

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