What It Takes to Hire Top Ivy League Talent
Everyone knows the competition for top-tier tech and business talent is intense, with some companies going to extraordinary lengths to bring the brightest minds to their organizations. So if you're not as well known as marquee brands like Facebook and Google, do even have a hope of attracting the best Ivy League-caliber grads to your firm?
Yes, answers one small, relatively unknown firm that's managed this feat. But there's one hitch: you might not like what it takes. Applied Predictive Technologies is an Arlington, Virginia-based company that that sells business analytic software to clients such as Guitar Center and Walgreens. Founded in 1999, with an impressive client list and a handful of offices scattered around the world, it is hardly a stealth start-up. But it's not exactly as sexy as the super-hyped kings of Silicon Valley, either. So how does APT mange to snag talent from MIT, Stanford, Oxford, and other top schools, talent that's also being wooed by bigger name companies?
With a whole lot of effort, says Cathy Baker, APT's senior vice president of marketing and administration. "You can't just show up on campus their senior year and hope that they choose to pay attention to you. They really are—despite the unemployment rate—being wooed by many top companies," she explained. But it can be done. It just demands a long and laborious process.
"We think of it as a marketing campaign that begins as soon as people step foot on the campuses where we recruit," she says, noting the company only targets students with stellar academic credentials who have shown clear evidence of leadership. MBAs are less in favor than exceptional undergrads. "We found that hiring straight out of undergrad we capture the capabilities that these top students have right as they're entering the workplace. It is an opportunity for us to develop them within our own walls and we feel like the payback for an undergrad is there in a way that the MBA has historically not been for us."
APT is also fussy about which campuses are worthy of its attention. "We deliberately keep a smaller focus of target schools, so that we can build relationships with students from when they enter as freshman to the point that they graduate," she says. But looking through resume books, consulting alumni networks and generally poking around to know which students make the most attractive targets for recruitment is only the very beginning of APT's efforts:
We have a series of outreach that occurs in terms of personal phone calls and other kinds of campaigns that are sent to these individuals to build awareness of who APT are since we are a smaller company. Through those points of contact we further winnow down who we think is a good fit for us and identify them to join us for internship programs in their sophomore or junior year with a hope that they then convert to join us full-time. This last internship program had a near 100 percent return rate.
We've done a bunch of things on campuses, participating in hackathons at University of Pennsylvania. We run a StarCraft tournament at MIT and Harvard. StarCraft happens to intersect a lot with top candidates on the engineering side, so that's not an overt recruiting pitch, it's more: 'Come hang out and get to know us in a more low-key way.' We hold workshops on how to conduct case interviews that appeal to business consultants. We have one-on-one coffee chats with top candidates, where our current employees in the roles that these folks would be interested in go on campus and talk about what they do on a day-to-day basis. We have dinners on campus, again for identified candidates even before they receive an offer, that are an opportunity for them to get to know us.
Think that sounds like a lot of effort? We haven't even gotten to the contact prospects get with senior executives like the CEO and CTO, or the competitive salaries and perks. All of this is designed to showcase the firm's competitive advantage to candidates—the fascinating work and the ability to make an impact straight out of school.
"There are different reasons why each of them find a place like APT attractive, but I think not wanting to be employee 10,001 or whatever the numbers are at Google and McKinsey, is clearly part of it," she says. "They have a chance to help drive the success of our company in a way that's just not feasible at a larger organization."
Recently recruited staff members agree. "The prospect of being able to make important product design decisions early on in my career was enough to sell me," says Briana Whelan, a University of Virginia computer science and mathematics major who joined APT as an associate product manager despite being recruited by Google, Microsoft, and KPMG. She also greatly appreciated APT's willingness to move interviews to accommodate deadlines set by other firms. Greg Siegel, another recent grad who was also in the process of being recruited by Google, agrees that the work was more important to him than name recognition.
"The minute you walk in the door, you're encouraged to think about these high-level issues," Siegel says of APT and reports that when it came to recruiting him, "the amount of effort was staggering in comparison to other firms." More well known companies, he was frustrated to find, "assume you’ll join based on name brand alone."
"You should be thinking about this year-round," concludes Baker. "It's not: 'Oh my gosh! People are graduating from school. Let's go up and try to extend some offers and it's going to pay off.' You really have to get to know who those top talent individuals are and invest in a way that involves the entire company, not just a couple of HR or recruiting professionals. My advice is to really put the time in because the pay back is certainly there."