The HR Transformation with Bob St-Jacques of Big Viking Games
Play • 27 min

Max: Hello and welcome back to the Recruitment Hackers Podcast. I'm your host, Max Armbruster, and today on the show I've got a world traveler, a man who I first interacted with in Malaysia a few years ago and who has since moved industries and has worked in entertainment, in games today, and a few other, and oiling gas before, and is today the Director of People and Legal for Big Viking Games. Welcome to the show, Bob. Mr. Bob St-Jacques, I hope I'm pronouncing it right. Welcome to the show, Bob.


Bob:
All right, well thank you, Max, happy to be here.


Max:
Pleasure to have you. And of course, we interacted with Bob when he was leading the people function at a company called 7Geese which got acquired by Paycor which is a leader in OKR methodologies. So, for the HR performance enthusiasts that are listening, they'll be familiar with OKR methodology and it's a great foundation for start-ups. So, anyway, that's a little bit about your background but perhaps, Bob, I'd like to ask you to walk us back to the early days of how you ended up working in talent acquisition and dealing with people. Was it by design or by accident?


Bob:
It was by design because I had a very good mentor and it was, going back a few years, 1992 and I was going to get a master’s in industrial relations with Cornell and my mentor suggested, he said, what do you want to do? I said, I wanna do HR. He said, no no no that's not gonna work.  He said what you need to do is pick a problem. Pick something that you wanna pour your heart and soul into and I said, well HR is basically broken, right? 91, 92, there was a recession going on in North America. I was working in Parliament at the time, so we were holding hearings, and nobody was happy. Employees, employers, communities would lay off. Nobody was happy. So, I said, hey look this is one of those problems that, like climate change, it's big and I can't fix all of it, but maybe I can fix something. So, he said, look if you wanna do that, go to law school and practice employment law then go into HR because you will spend the first five years learning from other people's mistakes. So that's exactly what I did. I went to law school, practiced employment law for five years and then got hired by my client. And basically, what I've done since 2000 is work on transformation efforts. So, in the beginning, they were turned around. So, I worked for a client who's called the Lens Crafters and they were in pretty rough shape, but if anybody wonders why I'm an optimist two and a half years later they're number 58 on the Fortune 100 best companies to work for list. Then I worked at Delta Airlines after 9/11, so I turned them around, right. So, this is why my optimism comes in. Moved to Dubai, things got a little bit more difficult because I had to help transform companies that were in scale-up and that were already growing about a hundred percent every year and how do you tell those folks, you're leaving money on the table you need to do more. So that was a further challenge and so I helped a lot of high growth organizations in Dubai, all over the Middle East, South Asia and Africa as well, worked in oil and gas in Nigeria for example. And then I went to the Far East and started focusing on tech, tech high-growth companies, tech scale-ups in that area and I've done the same thing here in Vancouver. So, the central theme is I've kept to my mission which is I want to help HR. And that's what I've done throughout my whole career. Sometimes, as you mentioned, being an OKR expert, spreading the love and the gospel of it, of OKRs, and sometimes there's goals more specific toward the company.


Max:
I think it's good advice for the young people to walk towards the problem, not away from the problem. You see an industry that's broken and a company that has issues and, you know, don't run away from it. That's an opportunity to make an impact and to work on a whole career duration on fixing something. I can empathize with that on my end. I saw a lot of broken things that I'm still trying to fix on high volume recruitment. So, maybe a word about Big Viking Games, your current company, which I understand has gone through some transformation over the last few months since you've been there for six months now. And we're gonna talk about how the talent acquisition strategy has been transformed to expand the talent pool. But can you set the scene for us, what does this company do?


Bob:
Yeah, so, Big Viking Games was started at, well I could tell you, it was 10 years ago in about a month. We just celebrated our 10th anniversary which is a pretty big deal. Only 4% of companies make it to 10 years so we had a fun event for everybody, and we managed to bring a bunch of people together. Now the challenge was six months ago is that the company had been making games but had been kinda flat-lined and just kinda been bumbling along for the past three four years. And so, they were looking to revive and expand. And the interesting piece is that in the gaming industry it's usually boom and bust all the time, right. Hire a bunch of people to make a new game, I'll make some money, oh you sold it off and then you drop the right number of employees and the revenue goes like this, it's big yoyo. So, what they decided was that's not sustainable and that's not great for employees. Employees in the gaming industry will tell you, yeah, I've been laid off and hired, right. You look at gaming LinkedIn profiles and they've all had 14 jobs in 10 years and it's not because they're job-hoppers, it's been most of the time because they've been laid off. So, the company decided to move towards a live operations model. What does that mean? It means they don't create their own games, they either expand things that they have, and they typically buy intellectual property and then expand it and run it. So that's a big switch from making games boom-and-bust to just kind of like very linear growth. And so, it's a challenge because you need different types of people, different types of mindset in that area.


Max:
Basically, in the oil and gas, it's like moving from being a builder to an operator.


Bob:
Correct. And so, there was the challenge. We need different types of individuals, different types of talents. and we needed to grow, and we were looking at acquisitions and so on. So fast forward, six months, what we have found ourselves is before we were in one vertical where we had a Facebook/Web games there which you know was alot so we had really high MPS scores. 70% of our players play our game 27 out of 28 days which is pretty impressive for games right. So, we got this loyal fan base. But now, we've attached, we've done an acquisition, we've expanded on a couple areas and so as folks will see throughout December, we will be putting out press releases in these areas. So, where we were in one verticals, we will not be in four verticals starting in January as we close these deals. So that's created some challenges and opportunity areas as well because we got new places we're expanding into and we're also expanding our current offerings. So, another piece of good news and we just got it less than 24 hours ago, again talk about the power transformation. When I joined, the Glassdoor score for the company was 2.2, when I said things are bumbling along, it was a bit in rough shape. Yesterday we were just notified by the Great Place To Work Institute that we are certified by them as a great place to work. So, when people talk about transformation is too hard, and I love the phrase that you used, running towards the problem. So, if you look at things as an opportunity in terms of aligning people behind the business strategy, OKRs and things like that, once you get alignment and you clarified the strategy for everybody, employees tend to follow along, right, to support you in that area, and that's what we found.


Max:
Congrats on the Great Place To Work and the transformation, I mean it's not a turn-around, but it's kind of a pivot for Big Viking Games and of course it does sound like a nicer environment for people who want a bit of stability after they changed 14 different jobs in 10 years. That could work your nerves out a little bit. Let's turn to the topic of talent acquisition and you changed the process there as well which you were telling me before we started recording. The testing has started to effect, the use of automated assessments, has changed the composition of your talent people and allowed you to expand to new talent pools. 


Bob:
Correct. So, what we did was, again, because of the challenges that we face in terms of going into new areas we needed new and different talent, is that we decided to turn the whole selection testing paradigm on its head. Usually, people use these tools as deselection tools. So how do we get folks to get them out of the process. We test them and then that's it, they're out and so on. We turned that around. What we wanted to do was opt people in. Let me give you an example. Here's like, we were down to the basics. If we look at a situation where we're looking for a developer, an artist, and so on. Nowhere in the job description does it require these individuals to be excellent at creating resumes. And not to pick on developers, they're not, they're really really bad at writing resumes, right, and showing their skills set and so on and so forth. So, what we said was, you know, we get hundreds of applications, some case thousands of applications per position, you try to read through them the best you can, right. Most people they do a good job of communicating their skills, they tend to get interviews and so on. But what we did was like we're missing people; we're missing some diamonds in the rough. So, what we did was when we saw, we went beyond, right, when somebody was working at a grocery store, but like went down the resume and saw that they had worked as a developer before, right, and for whatever reason they're working at a grocery store now. But like fine. So, what we do is we tested these people in the beginning. And the quid pro quo is we said, look we'll test your own skills, resilience, and general ability, and you know what, we will give you the test, we will give you the feedback, we will give you your scores, the test, the report, everything, just work with us on this. Now here's what happened, if we would have taken one of those CVs which is in pretty rough shape and give it to the VP of Engineering, you would have said, are you kidding me, I can't. Now what happens is if this person's score is very high, intelligence, problem solving, resilience, and skills set, we can say, look this is a CV it's not so great, but look here we have documented proof that this person should be interviewed and move on to the next level.


Max:
So, the first time the candidate is speaking to somebody, a recruiter or somebody from your team, they've already done the assessments, how long does that assessment typically take. Half an hour, an hour?


Bob:
Yeah, no more than an hour, right, cause there's four components to it and then they're about 10-15 minutes each. 


Max:
So, then the big question for a lot of employers is, you know this is a very high demand market. I'm sure for hiring artists and developers is very hard as well. How is that not shrinking your talent pool to a very miniscule amount. Sounds great, you know, of course, you get an assessment done before an interview, but that's not how recruitment used to be done. You used to, like, hit the phone and hunt these people. So how you filling the top of the funnel.


Bob:
In terms of the top of the funnel, those are coming through via ads and so on. So top of the funnel is fine for us. The important piece here is that when we were talking to the folks at various testing regimes, a lot of them said, when we said, hey we wanna offer the test back to the candidate, and they're like why? And I said, well that's the quid pro quo, that's the magic there. Because people will do things if there's something in it for them. Now there are, we use, for example, I don't know if I can say it maybe you could cut it out later if I'm not allowed to, but we use Test Gorilla. Test Gorilla has a certain amount of cache and individuals who take their test are allowed to use their results and give it to other employers. 


Max:
I tried them out. I think they're great. Test Gorilla very easy to use and they have a very wide selection. They're a Netherlands-based company, all self-service, easy to use with APIs to integrate. So, love it.


Bob:
So that's what we do, right. So, we give people something and that's how we keep the testing level quite high. Now here's the interesting piece because we look at data, so I'm also a fellow in the Center for Evidence-based Management so I am really big on data, right. I wear a watch, I keep track, I can tell you what my macros were last Tuesday at 3pm. I am a fanatic about measuring everything. So, what we did was we said, okay what happened to people who went through the process. So applied or head-hunted, interview, tech test, our very difficult tech test versus applied, Test Gorilla, interview, tech test. What we found was that the uptake on our tech test during our traditional process was 50% five zero. When they took the quick test, got something for it, did the interview and had to do a very in-depth tech test, we're looking at about 85-90%. So, we nearly doubled the people. So even though we've added an extra level, again it's the counter-intuitive piece and this is why you need to look at data. Because if you were to ask me, I would have said, yeah, I don't think this will work. But it's important to measure what you do and put your scientist hat on and say, this is an experiment, it can blow up in my face or it can produce the most wonderful thing every. What we found is because we start by giving something, yes, they're investing their time but they're getting something back for it. People feel like, okay, you know, they continue with the process


Max:
How do you communicate to them that they're getting something? How do you let them know that they're gonna get something back?


Bob:
So, when we let them know that they've been selected for the initial test, we tell them, hey look, here's the advantages, you get to keep your test, here's the feedback, here's sample reports, and with some of the skills in tech testing, they're transferable and other employers accept. 


Max:
Yeah, they can get like an act of accreditation that they can put on their profile or something. 


Bob:
Correct, yeah, and it'll be verified by Test Gorilla.


Max:
Cool. Well, I certainly think you're not alone in making this happen right now. There's a change in candidate behaviors worldwide where they're getting used to it basically. There was an intuition from the TA community that this is too much, but that intuition is being tested and minds are changing on this topic, including mine. I can't believe the completion rates that I hear about for test that take 45 minutes to an hour and I'm shocked myself. Because I always assume that with the shrinking attention span of the young generations that we know about that this is something that they would not do. But well, that's why you gotta test your assumption.


Bob:
Yeah, and part, this came from one of my recruiters who tends to skew towards the younger generation, and he said, look people are taking these Buzzfeed and other quizzes all the time. There are millions of people, right. And they get a report back. You're a part of this house in Harry Potter and you're this type of potato, and you're this type of vegetable. You know, these people take those quizzes all the time. He said, look it's a higher level and it's something that's verified from a real company, like Test Gorilla. They got something that can help the in their job search and/or career and/or professional life. One other thing that I wish I could say, oh yeah yeah you know we totally planned this, again, because I look at the numbers and what we found by focusing on skills rather than ability to write a resume or CV is that for the past six months, 43% of our new hires are women and 52% are what we call here in Canada BIPOCs, so black, indigenous or people of color. So, again compared that to the rest of the gaming and tech industry, especially here in North America, we're doing quite well, we're on the right track. And I wish I could have said, oh we planned this, you know we did reach to certain group, you know, in those areas, but what we found again by focusing more on skills and abilities and less on the resume, we ended up with a much more diverse workforce. 


Max:
Congratulations. That's the right way to go about it. Focus on competency, give everybody a chance. Glad to see it's paying off and helping you increase your DI metrics. There's maybe another element which is the fact that you're breaking down some of the borders and some of the geographical boundaries of your search and you were telling me how you're leveraging Canada as part of your employer brand. Can you share that story?


Bob:
Yeah, when the pandemic hit, the decision was made early on, and we basically cancelled our leases with our offices. We had two studios, one in London, Ontario which is about two hours west of Toronto and one is downtown Toronto, and so gone, studios gone.  So, they went all in on transitioning to 100% remote. Again, sounds very good in theory but everybody was learning on the go, so to speak, and you know you've seen all the stories from everywhere from LinkedIn to all kinds of magazines.


Max:
I've seen my own rental bills go down and I'm very happy about it.


Bob:
Yeah. So, the thing is then it's taking a lot of that and investing in different pieces. So, in terms of talent acquisition, what is 100% in what we call Remote Awesome. It's a campaign that we started where you're free to move about the world. So, it's telling our Canadian employees, look you're not stuck in Canada. If you wanna go work in Barbados or Mexico for the winter, you could do that too. In terms of recruitment, though, what's happened is we've done two fronts. We said, look, you can come work for us, we work on a concept of core hours, and we do asynchronous work, and you can stay where you are. You could then stay where you are for six months and come to Canada if you want. Or if you want to come to Canada, we will help facilitate your move to Canada. So we tend to take a wide open approach and say, it's up to you. People are at different points of their lives, so some folks come to work for us and boom, either we start the process fairly quickly and other folks will say, yeah next summer, you know, basically July 2022 is when I'd like to apply, it'll take x amount of time, that'll be perfect. So, we, by focusing on, hey either we’re able to work based on your interest. Staying where you are, including asynchronous work so you're not working from 11PM to 7AM, some sort of horrible shift. You know maybe like for example, I start work at 5AM because east coast time and we have exec meetings in the morning. Why do we have that? Because some of our executive team is in India and they've been working the large part of the day, right. So, it's that kind of flexibility that we can offer people and say, no everybody in the world has to work eastern standard time hours. That's not the case. And so, we offer flexibility, stay where you are, move later or move now. And so, with that approach, we've managed to get some amazing talents. So, we've grown from employees in two countries when I've joined, we're now up to 14 countries.


Max:
And their contracts are, some of them are local contracts and some of them are Canadian contracts and some of them are consultant contracts?


Bob:
Exactly. So, it depends on how long they're gonna spend. So, if you're on your way here, it's a consultant contract, right. So, it helps with integration so we could show immigration, we know who they are, they've worked with us for a little while, bring them in. If they wanna stay there permanently, then we use a local vendor that we pay people through and so that makes sure that all the right deductions are made, and they get access to all the social benefits. For example, France, Netherlands, and the UK. I think in France I think there was like 27 deductions from an individual's salary. So that was interesting to see. But again ---


Max:
Now you know why I left the country. 


Bob:
Yeah. But that's managed for us. So, we just pay one entity an amount for an employee, and they handle all the deductions and payments. 


Max:
There are a lot of vendors helping with this domain now and I suppose people can reach out to you if they need some recommendations on how to source the right vendor here. Have you had a discussion internally about having local payrates? I mean, you said people can work from anywhere. So, I guess everybody is paid, there's no differences based on where you live and their cost of living. Usually, people have different pay scales for different, let's say, geographies.


Bob:
No, we run on CTC, which is concept called cost-to-company. So, we look at it, right, so some have higher social legislation requirements, we'll call it that, some have lesser, right. But at the end of the day, what we look at is what the company pays out overall. So that people are paid about the same no matter where they are in the world. Again, we focus on skills, competencies, and so where you are doesn't matter because we do have a fairly tough and rigorous hiring system. So, if you do get through it, we know you're qualified, we know you're able to produce a certain amount of work which has a certain amount of value and we will pay you, just like we pay everybody else that's in a similar position to you no matter where you are. 


Max:
Great, that's great. We in my company also universal pay scales and I'm trying to ring them up to San Francisco standards, but some people on LinkedIn were saying we're not as generous as we should be, but we're working up to it. If the whole world could be paid like San Francisco that'd be awesome. We're working towards that. We're reaching the end of our conversation and there's one question I'd like to ask everybody that comes on the show which is to go back to a hiring mistake that you've made in the past that has stayed with you a little bit and that you had time to reflect on so that you can share with the listeners the lesson that they can take from bad hiring mistake. Of course, I'm not asking for individual name but rather how you took a misstep that one time.


Bob:
Yes, and so I'm gonna go a little bit against the grain, because I know I've highlighted that I tend to focus on data and information. So, one time I went through a process I was hiring a fairly senior member of my team, Global Recruitment Director, and you know we're getting close, and it was very exciting. When I was doing that, I was asking for references, and when I talked to these references, it was very, something was off. And I'm a lawyer and I could just ask people all kinds of questions, usually you could get them to admit the most horrific thing they did when they were thirteen years old. And I thought I was very good, but something was eating at me, like, I'm missing something, like something's wrong here in this area. And it turned out that I was not as prepared as I could be for those reference checks. Three months later, that individual turned into a nightmare on many fronts, internal, external. It did a lot of reputational damage to the company from that individual. And it's one of those pieces where I've learned where I was a little bit cocky, and I didn't listen to my gut. So rather than be the experimenter, you know what I mean, something came up, I should've asked more questions and I didn't because I was in a hurry and i wanted to find this person, and this individual seemed great, right. And I cut corners, didn't listen to my gut and ended up coming back to be quite embarrassing for me. 


Max:
That's a tough one right because you said you're the data guy and the guts got nothing to do with it, we're trying to silence that thing. But in this case, something was wrong with the reference check. Can you expand on that a bit? What were maybe some signals?


Bob:
It was the guarded nature, right. I talked at high levels, we tend to be quite positive, right. So, when you talk to people and say, okay you know hey I'm going to be managing this individual what kind of development do you think that they need? And it was two references where there was a pause and I thought that was fascinating. On that pause, I should've jumped on that more. But it was ---


Max:
This person needs therapy. Okay. All right. So, listen to the pause when you're doing your reference checks because obviously nobody likes to say bad things about their former employees. It can be a treacherous territory so you gotta be very attentive. Good lesson for everyone to remember. Thanks, Bob, for coming on the show and sharing your experience in expanding your talent pool and transforming the recruitment process of Viking Games. It's been a pleasure. 


Bob:
All right. Well, thank you for having me on.


Max:
Pleasure.


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