By Ben Gotkin
20 years. 2 decades. It feels like a long time to be doing anything, and it forces you to reflect on some things. As I enter my 20th year in the recruiting profession, I think back to a few of those who I learned from and influenced me early in my career. It’s been quite a journey, a journey that I wanted to share with you.
I graduated from the University of Maryland in 1994 with a Psychology degree. Coming out of a recession, my employment prospects were a bit bleak, but I was fortunate enough to get a part-time job with a small startup through one of my professors who I was an undergraduate assistant for, the great I/O Psychologist Dr. Ben Schneider. The startup was developing survey software, and my job there was mostly data entry and wasn’t going anywhere, but we shared an office space with a Headhunter. I would have lunch with him, we would talk about what he did, and I started to see the parallels with my educational background. By that summer, I had decided to explore other opportunities and answered an ad in the Washington Post for a Research Recruiter position at Dinte Resources.
Paul Dinte, or ‘Crocodile Dinte’ as he was also known, was a pioneer in the interim executive search business in the DC area, and I started to learn my sourcing craft under his tutelage. Back then, we had an AOL account, but other than an early version of Hoovers, there wasn’t much to be found on the internet back then. So when I got a new assignment, I would start in the resume room, spending hours and hours looking through our resume files of past candidates. I would also go down to the Library of Congress where they had a room half full of corporate directories, spend half a day copying out names, titles and employers, and go back to the office to spend the next few days ‘smiling-and-dialing’. That’s the way it was and we liked it! In addition to learning old school research and sourcing techniques from Paul, I also learned to apply persistence and creativity to my work, there was no room for failure, you had to do what it took to find the right candidates for the client.
The search business ultimately wasn’t for me though, I wanted to be a part of something bigger, so in 1995 I went to work for Branch Electric (now part of Rexel), which at the time was the largest electrical product distributor in the mid-Atlantic. I worked for Susan Levering, as the sole Recruiter for a 600 employee company. I was a bit of a fish out of water, being raised in upper-middle class Fairfax County, and now recruiting and hiring warehouse workers, drivers, and store personnel. But Susan thrust me out to learn the business and learn the people. In my first two weeks I did every job in the company, I worked the night shift in the warehouse, I rode on the trucks, I spent time in the stores. I did first-hand the work that the people I would recruit did, and it was an invaluable learning experience. Susan forced me out of my comfort zone and got me out into the community to establish relationships with schools and community based organizations that would pay off down the line. She also let me develop the company’s first career website.
In 1996, I made the move over to Government Contracting, the dominant industry here in DC, and a move that I felt I needed to make to grow my career. I joined Vitro/Tracor (today a part of BAE Systems) and worked for Ken Aubrey, a retired Army recruiter who was full of energy and years ahead of his time. In 1996, he had started to build a home grown ATS out of a Lotus Notes backend. Combined with a searchable database of scanned resumes, we had technology that gave us a competitive advantage, moving early into a paperless environment. Our entire team built that ATS, and it was at that time that I started to truly understand what technology was capable of enabling in our function. Ken also allowed me to take over the college recruiting function and gave me almost full autonomy to build it out as I saw fit. It was one of my favorite times in my career.
I also had the honor of working at that time with the great Jerry Horna. Jerry was a retired Navy Commander who was a master networker and the greatest job fair recruiter I had ever seen. Whether it was a college job fair or a military hiring event, I marveled at Jerry’s ability to connect with candidates, and instantly become their ‘dad’. I learned from him how to connect with candidates as their career advisor, not just someone who was trying to sell them a job.
And of course, there was Gary Cluff, who hired me in 2003 to work for him at MITRE. I shared a few weeks back my experience with Gary, where he allowed me to be his ‘Chief Tinkerer’, exploring all of the cool new Web 2.0 tools that were emerging at the time, including LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, Jobster, and others. As I shared before, Gary also taught me the value of knowledge sharing, collaboration and community building. For that I am forever in his debt.
I suppose that if there is a lesson to be learned from my experience, it’s to never wait for things to happen for you. Seek out great people in the industry to work for and network with. For those of you still early in your career, find an industry veteran and/or a mentor and be a sponge. Never be afraid to explore new opportunities or new ways of doing things. You own your career, nobody else does, and embrace the opportunities to learn from others in our business whenever those opportunities present themselves.