Understanding the work of Indeed University

December 9, 2020

Indeed University (IU) is an immersive onboarding program for new college grads from 40+ universities across the world. The goal of IU is to teach our new hires about data-driven decision-making by having them build new startups within Indeed.

In this episode of Here to Help, Indeed’s CEO Chris Hyams interviewed Heather Wood, a Senior Software Engineering Manager. The pair discuss her experience as a Dean of Indeed University this year -- and how IU reflected our core value of ‘Innovation’ in light of the unique challenges that 2020 presented.

- Hello everyone, I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. And welcome to the next installment of "Here to Help". This is our look at how Indeed has been navigating the global impact of COVID-19. Today is December 3rd, we're on day 275 of global work from home. At Indeed our mission is to help people get jobs and this is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us up at night. And we also have five core values that help guide us on that mission. One of those values is Innovation. And as we've talked about on previous episodes of this podcast, Innovation is maybe one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the technology industry. But we'll be talking a little bit about what we mean at Indeed when we talk about Innovation and in particular, we're going to talk about a program that we have that has helped institutionalized Innovation at Indeed. And that's Indeed University. I am delighted to be joined today by Heather Wood, Senior Software Developer. Heather is also one of the three deans for Indeed University 2020. Heather, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Sure, I'm happy to be here, Chris.

- Okay, let's start where we always start these discussions with, how are you doing today?

- I'm doing pretty well. Indeed University ended for the leads and participants on the 20th which is about a week and a half ago. And so I took the whole week of Thanksgiving off to relax and do a few things for myself and also hang out with my family. I have a daughter who's going into middle school next year. So I have to try to figure out what that application process is like for magnet programs. Her birthday's coming up too so, I really didn't want to miss that one. And yeah, and then this week I'm back in the swing of things, wrapping up a bunch of IU stuff which turns out to be more stuff than I even predicted. So yeah, things are going well.

- Great, well, we're going to get into Indeed University or IU in a little bit. Let's just start with your role at Indeed. Tell us a little bit about what it is that you do and how you help people get jobs every day.

- So I started at Indeed in 2013 and that was just after I took four years off to have kids and raise them and keep them alive, hang out with babies, that kind of thing. And then I decided it was time to get back into the software game. And so I joined Indeed. The first team I joined was the SEM team. An SEM is basically the way that we can get people to Indeed's website through search engines like Google and we bid on keywords on the search terms that get them to Indeed and that decides where we end up in the ranking, this happens to also be Indeed's business model. And so that was kind of running on a bunch of different systems, on some desktops, you know not really where we want to be bidding on 8 million keywords that bring people to Indeed. So the goal there was to productionize that system and make sure that it was reliable. And so then after that, I got to work on Palpatine. It was basically Phillip Lye and I who built Palpatine which people inside Indeed know that knows this is a tool that we use for recruiting. It's the tool interviewers use to kind of track the interviews they've done. And then in 2016, I was a lead at Indeed University. And after that, I went into management on the CRM team. And so the goal there was to kind of switch from Ad Central to Salesforce so, that was a very big challenge that I got to be a part of. And after that--

- And for those folks who are outside of Indeed, Ad Central was our own homegrown system for managing our customers and we were moving to Salesforce which is a third-party system that many people use but it was a huge effort, right?

- Yes, thanks Chris. Yeah, Ad Central is loved and hated and it was a very exciting journey to kind of switch over to Salesforce. Then I hopped over to SMB, our small and medium business unit which kind of serves small and medium business employers and helps them hire people. And that's where I've been ever since except for now I took this little Indeed University dean detour. So yeah, I've helped a lot of people get jobs in a lot of very indirect ways.

- So let's take a minute 'cause most of the rest of the time we're going to be talking about Indeed University, let's just start with the foundation. Can you explain what Indeed University is and how you first got involved?

- Yeah, I really do want to explain what Indeed University is because I love it and I want people at Indeed and outside of Indeed to just kind of understand it a little better because I think especially people inside Indeed can use it. I think people can leverage it once they understand it. So the first important point is it's a program for people who Indeed has hired full-time who just graduated from college. It's not an internship program. It's not our actual incubator program. This is a program that's three months for people who just graduated from college. And so there are three goals of Indeed University. The first goal is to onboard those people. These people are super smart and super motivated and they're awesome. They do not need to learn things like data structures and algorithms. They don't need to learn computer science concepts, they've got that. But what they don't know yet is, they don't know about Indeed's values, they don't know about Indeed's culture. They don't know about the tools we use to deploy software. You know we have a lot of in-house tools and yeah, so we kind of focus on letting them know that stuff it's important to succeed at Indeed. The second goal is to grow leadership. So we have a lot of really awesome people at Indeed who might be wondering if management is for them. And unfortunately in the real world, that test is like high costs, maybe a little dangerous like, you know I don't want to just become a manager and then now suddenly I am a manager and then I decide, yeah, I don't really like it too much. So this is just like a little three month experiment to see how like management aligns with your own skills and interests. And by the way I didn't say this, but the leads in the whole university construct are like the professors. So they are the ones who are helping the participants kind of ramp up in the ways that I mentioned earlier. The third goal is to build really cool products that serve the users of Indeed. I'm listing these kind of in priority order. And the third goal actually turns out to just kind of be a vehicle for the first two goals. It's a way that we can get people excited to actually learn all these skills that are important to Indeed. So yeah, that's what Indeed University is. I myself considered Indeed University in 2016 like I said. I'd been a dev since 1999 and I pretty consistently rejected management opportunities starting in 1999. I mean, not like I was all that but you know, I got the occasional opportunity here and there to be a manager and I just knew that no, I like to build things, I like to get feedback on whether what I just built worked, I like to write software. But then at some point, well in 2004-ish, I don't know why, but I fell for it and I decided okay, I'll be a manager. This was before Indeed. And it was really not a very good experience. It was not the problems that I really enjoy solving and really, it kind of climaxed in a one-on-one I was having with one of my direct reports and they told me that one of my other direct reports breaths very loud, like super loud breathing and they cannot work in this environment. And that day I just... On my drive home I was like, I cannot, this is not the problem I want to solve. And then I very carefully got myself out of management because I knew I'm not into that. But then yeah, like in 2016, I really liked the concept of Indeed University and I just kind of wanted to see it. I wasn't really thinking that much about management but when I got in there, I don't know maybe it was maturity or I don't know exactly what it was. And I think it's just the magic of Indeed University that made me really have joy in helping my direct reports and helping them build their product and watching them succeed. Nobody breath loudly maybe, that might've been another part of it but I really, it was just magic and I decided that it was time to get into management again.

- So you mentioned that that leadership development part of Indeed University and it's turned out so many people had that experience that you described of being just thrown into a situation, finding out it wasn't great. And as you said, it's dumb and dangerous 'cause it's not great for your experience but it's also not great for the people who you're managing if you're really finding that you're not into it or doing a great job or being able to be useful. So this experience of being able to take people who might be considering it and give them in a controlled experiment, this opportunity and what we've seen is some people have the experience that you did and say, hey, I think this actually might be something I could do well. And other people you know say, well, that's definitely not for me but I have a lot more respect for my manager after that. And very safely after three months, they can go back to doing what they were doing. So I'd love to hear a little bit about how the Indeed University experience as a lead, how it was different to the things that you'd experienced in your career up until that point and how did it sort of change how you looked at your potential, future of work?

- I think the thing about Indeed University as a lead or as a Dean, it's just such an experience and there's so much connection involved. And you know if you get a bunch of people who are like trying to achieve a common goal and you add a really cool experience around it, then the way that they achieve that goal is really going to stick with them. And I think that is what I experienced. Like when I think about 2016, I think about all the leads that I worked with and like, we had such a good time. I'm in touch with many of them. And I think of my direct reports who I still follow and who are all still at Indeed, I'm watching you guys. And yeah, so really I think that the experience part is the important part and I know some people think, oh IU, it's a party, it's just a big party. And this is like a negative statement about IU. And I'm like, yes, IU is a party. IU is a party where we learn like the most important things about Indeed and we like connect with a lot of people and I don't know, it just leaves a big impression. And so this year we did, you know it was more challenging but we did, we made sure to have a bunch of parties. We did a bunch of remote events. We had team lunches. There were a couple of for me, stand out events. One we had an Indeed University women's lunch. And so all the women in the participants, deans and leads met and just talked about Indeed culture as it relates to gender and Rena Sadoon actually one of the leads came and told us about Women at Indeed. The IRG and what they're up to and just what it's like to participate in that IRG. Julie Scully, we had a celebrity appearance. She popped in and talked to us about her experience at Indeed. And yeah, I really enjoyed that meeting. And actually it kind of ended on a note of like, we need to keep trying, we need to keep improving Indeed from a gender perspective as one of the participants pointed out. We looked at our Zoom meeting at all our faces and she said, what do you guys think of the diversity in this group? Do you think this is what the world looks like? Or do you even think this is what college grads look like? And we all knew okay, yes, there is a lot of work to do in this world and there's a lot of work to do at Indeed. So I thought that was a really a good way that we ended that meeting. Actually, I'm going to mention one other really cool experience that I had this year that I think is going to be an example of something that makes Indeed University stay with me which is that, so in the last week of IU, the other leads Niek and Trace called this emergency dean meeting which is not what I want to see in the last week of IU 'cause there's a lot of important things happening there. And so I called in and they had purchased a Goat-2-Meeting. Do you know what a Goat-2-Meeting is Chris?

- [Chris] I don't.

- Oh my gosh, okay this is the best pivot. I challenge you to name a pivot better than this pivot. Okay, there's this place called Sweet Farm, it's a farm. And I think they get most of their revenue from people coming and visiting the farm but then during COVID people are not allowed to visit the farm. So instead they have started offering a service where a goat can call into your meeting. It can just be a participant of your meeting for a fee. And so anyway, we had a Goat-2-Meeting. We had mama goat in our meeting. Yeah, she was hungry. She was eating but yeah so you know, and when you think of like the ROI for Indeed on a Goat-2-Meeting, it might be hard to kind of justify the benefit to us but like seriously when, I believe I'm going to be thinking of mama goat when I'm considering the wonderful time I had at 2020 IU. So yeah, I guess in summary, the experience is what makes a learning opportunity meaningful and makes it stick with you.

- In what ways did the experience change how you think about your career?

- So well in 2016, my career took a 90 degree turn and I went from being a developer to being a manager so, that was a big change. And in 2020, it's kind of hard to say, I think I need a little more time to kind of look back and see well, if my career changes maybe? But I do know that I have solved really complicated problems with my other deans and leads. Just much more complicated than I've solved before. And so I have a little more confidence in that space and I think it's pushed the boundaries on my ability to operate with less control of things that are happening. So you know, I kind of tiptoed into that realm before but kind of I jumped in head first in Indeed University with 36 participants and 11 leads and three deans. You really just have to put a lot of trust in your leads and your deans so, I think those two things might help move my career in some amazing direction.

- So let's talk a little about about 2020. So you were, for clarity for those following along at home, in 2016 you were a lead. You had been a software developer and then you stepped in and you were one of the dozen or so people who each had four or five participants, new college grads that you were responsible for managing and shepherding and helping them with building their new products. And then in 2020 you signed up to be one of the three deans and we had started planning Indeed University back a year ago in December of last year, obviously before anything happened with COVID. And so going from four or five people to now, as you described, like essentially a 50 person team that the three of you are responsible for. Talk a little about the planning for this year as Indeed University and obviously you know, what happened when, actually it was nine months ago today that we decided to send 10,000 people to work from home. What happened with the Indeed University plans and how did you all respond to that?

- So first of all, I do want to mention that my other two deans are Niek Smith and Trace Wilcox and they have just been the best partners in this journey. And so, everything that we did, we did together. And I'm just super thankful for their just commitment and their skills and their talents. So thank you Niek and Trace, you guys are awesome. So what we did planning 2020 Indeed University. So actually in the beginning, it started out like you said, it started out totally normal. I remember a meeting that we had with Jess Rodgers, where we were talking about the gateway office and how the Indeed University would be held in a gateway office which is a newer office of Indeed but it doesn't quite have all the bells and whistles that let's say the domain office had. And so we were like oh, no, they're not going to get the best barista experience. And they're not going to get a rooftop deck to go to when they're feeling a little stressed and these were the concerns we had. And when I think back on us, I just laugh at those innocent little deans, just worried about the barista. But then yeah, so then the first big change actually came when... Well, the first change was the, should we do IU at all phase? 'Cause I don't believe we have that phase in previous years of Indeed University. So in April timeframe, we postponed the start dates for the new hires. And so, of course a University without students is not really a University so we postponed the start date for Indeed University. And during that time we were just racking our brains like, what are our options? So we have one option which is, we just have in Austin because COVID is just going to wrap itself up and poof! Go away and we're just going to live our lives. We had another option which was a remote Indeed University. But that is very complicated because there are participants in Dublin, in Hyderabad, in Tokyo and in all the U.S. time zones so, that really is a complicated problem. Plus we're not even in each other's business which like I said you know, experience is important and that's a big part of what Indeed University is. So of course there was this other option of no Indeed University. And so it was kind of a chaotic time while we were considering all that and then Chris, you had a good idea. It is a good idea but at the time it was just like, let's reduce variables and I guess it kind of did but the suggestion was let's focus on the virtual interview platform for Indeed University. So this means we have a very narrow focus on theme which is different from previous years. Previous years, they had themes but the themes were like mobile. So quite a broad theme. And so, that was one additional change that kind of made us tear out a few more pages from the Indeed University playbook. And then also in that chaos we kind of... I don't know why it was just a discovery 'cause it was there all along but we have GM organizations which is like business units, I think is what they call it and outside of Indeed. And I think they came about in 2018, is that right?

- We started in 2019.

- Okay 2019. And so, I don't know somehow IU skirted that. The 2019 IU skirted the GM aspect but in 2020, all big business decisions are kind of, well from my vantage, it looks like a collaboration between you and the general managers of each of the business units. And so it just became like really confusing, what is IU through the lens of GMs? What's in it for the GMs? How can we make it appealing to them? And so basically we you know, I don't know, we racked our brains and came up with a few proposals. And then I think I begged for us to go to the GM meeting. There's this weekly GM meeting where it's just Chris and the five GMs and I was like yeah, let me go because like, let the deans go and we're going to tell them why IU is awesome and why they should do it. And you kindly invited us in and I pitched my great idea and bomb, bomb. The GMs did not buy what I was selling. And so, anyway, but then I think we kind of regrouped. Chris, you helped us rethink what the proposition was for GMs. And we ended up kind of proposing that we would have teams dedicated to GMs in proportion with like the head count of the GM. And then we actually, and that was still even hard to kind of digest but then we actually built the teams with the actual people, in the locations, made sure the functions were represented properly, we made sure that each team had a product lead and engineering lead. And I don't know, so many constraints on this. I think it's like an NP hard problem that we managed to find a solution for that kind of solved it. And I think at that point we had, I think GMs were bought in and we were able to proceed but yeah, it was a chaotic time that we had to kind of sort through all of what remote work looks like for IU.

- And so I just want to add for clarity, what you're describing is like the inside the sausage factory view. From my perch it looked like you guys knew exactly what you're doing, you had a plan. And the only reason this happened was the sheer force of will of you and Niek and Trace. And you were obviously very adaptable because the world had changed pretty dramatically but you all did amazing job of convincing everyone that this absolutely had to happen and it almost didn't happen and it was really through all of your work that it did. So we came up with these adaptations, you got the approval, you got the budget and we decided to do this thing that used to be throwing 50 people together in the same room and now people are in their parents' basements or their empty apartments or wherever they are all over the world in multiple time zones. How did you approach making that a collective shared memorable experience? You mentioned, I guess the Goat-2-Meeting was one but what did you do to sort of adapt some of the spirit of these special experiences and bring it to a remote environment?

- Yeah, so we knew this was going to be a big challenge. We created an events working group. The leads kind of own these different working groups that focused on things that we knew needed attention. So the events working group organized three parties, like three pretty big parties where we had trivia games and we explored really cool apps. There's an app called Gather.town, people should check that out, it's really cool. You kind of walk around a space. I mean, actually I think it's pretty close to what online games are but anyway, it's kind of Zoom meets a normal online remote game. And then we had breakout discussions. I don't know, the parties were really fun. So actually thanks to Jess and Meagan, Jess Rodgers and Meagan McKinney and the rest of the EE folks because those parties we couldn't have done them without you. And oh Chris, I want to congratulate you on your win at the graduation party. You really trounced the new hires in the Indeed history quiz game.

- It's a little bit of an unfair match up.

- Anyway, then we also had a logistics working group and they came up with just some remote working tips and they just really wanted to make sure to make it as smooth as possible for the participants who were working from home. Each team had a lunch budget, so on special occasions, they could order out and hang out and eat lunch together. They had events budgets, so there were some cooking events where I think the leads hosted some cooking classes that the IUs attended. There was a Bob Ross painting event which is pretty cool. Apparently you can... I think yeah, it has to be hosted but you get your paints and everyone paints along from home. There's an escape room, not sure how that worked but that's possible apparently. And then of course, lots of gaming. Among Us is apparently a game that lots of folks have been playing which I'm gutted I never joined in. I need to get in on Among Us, you guys invite me. You know, the deans don't get invited to a lot of things Chris. So somebody please invite me to Among Us, okay. You know, all the things I've mentioned well, the big parties, there's kind of an opportunity for a lot of networking but most of these things are really just the product teams getting to know each other. So we attempted to do some cross team activities as well. So I know Fonda Wong in Tokyo, she worked in the APAC EMEA space to try to organize some of those. And Bradley Ush is a lead in the U.S. and he organized some of those cross team events. So this was some of the ways that we tried to create the IU experience even when we're all sitting in our house looking at a computer.

- That's really great. So I could talk about this stuff all day but we're running a little short on time. So I kind of want to get to a couple of important things. The first is just talk a little bit about what struck you about these new college grads that went through this program under pretty extraordinary circumstances and what did you take away from your experience with them?

- So before IU, I was worried about a lot of things. Now, that's what I do. But one thing I was really worried about is how are these participants going to start this new job which is already a hard thing and how are they going to start it remotely? And I don't know really like I spent, when I was thinking of the participants this is what I worried about. And as the program kind of geared up and as the participants you know, week one, week two, it became very clear to me that the participants are not worried about this, they're just fine. You know, they had loose expectations of what IU, Indeed University was going to be. They had loose expectations on what it was going to be like to work remotely. And they're flexible, they're awesome. It wasn't very hard for them to be like, oh, I thought it was going to be like that and instead it's like this. And they were off you know, they really did a great job. This was pretty clear during the original pitches or during yeah, the initial pitches, which is when teams, they came up with their MVP idea and they wanted to tell SVPs and GM leadership why their idea was a great one that was going to help Indeed. And they got on the Zoom calls and they just commanded the Zoom floor. And they told those GMs, they told them why this idea was incredible and it was like they were born to make demands of GMs through Zoom calls. Yeah, my initial worry was not a problem at all. I'm also struck by how technically skilled the new hires are. There were not challenges that they were daunted by. And you know, in the brainstorming process, we come up with problems and then we come up with solutions but not technical solutions, just like general here's how we might solve that problem. And then we come up with the technical solution and there was nothing that they, you know they just went for the best technical solution regardless of the degree of difficulty. And when I think of their solutions, I think of the range of technologies that they had to use. And I think like what CS program prepared them for this? And the truth is you know, their programs taught them how to think and how to be curious and how to just... I don't know, just to go for it. So you know, they built Chrome extensions despite the Google bug that was entirely blocking a Chrome extension. They built in the dataset plugin infrastructure, oh man, I'm going kind of keyword heavy here but in our small and medium business unit, we have a really awesome infrastructure, feature rich, really cool but it has a lot of nuances and intricacies that can stump even seasoned developers. So they just jumped in there, they added something to our job posting funnel, quite an important part of our offering. And then you know, they understood the Hire Signal. The Hire Signal is complicated. The Hire Signal has so many inputs to it and anyway, I'm just impressed, they're awesome. And actually, I'm going to just say, you're welcome to any of the product teams that got to nab one of these participants.

- When you sort of look at it with I don't know, just a couple of weeks of distance now 'cause we're barely out of it. How has being involved in IU changed you as a person?

- Myself, I'm a problem solver. It's what I like to do. And like I said, I think the other deans and I have solved some of the most complex problems, problems that involve people which automatically turn them into complex problems. And so yeah, I have a higher degree of confidence in my problem solving. Oh yeah, also I convinced the CEO of my company that we should proceed with IU hence the GMs. Sorry I say I, really I is now me, Trace and Niek. I hope you guys are cool with that, Trace and Niek. But we convinced the CEO of this idea so that's a pretty big ego boost there. And also something really cool about IU this year was that I got to meet so many people. I got to meet our partners, Indeed University does not exist in a vacuum. And just so many people are so talented at this company and kind. People who are just willing to help maybe 'cause they believe in the program, maybe 'cause they are kind but I can't believe the amount of talent we have here and talent that was willing to step up and help Indeed University. And also other changes, one thing is that I believe I'm a bit grayer. I don't know if we can see if we look in this vicinity. Some aging has gone on. I think and maybe it's related to IU. It's definitely related to COVID but that's another big change during this IU period.

- And just to wrap things up. Again, I could talk about this all day long but you know, one thing we'd like to do at the end of these conversations is just looking back over the last nine months, obviously there's been a lot of upheaval, global health crisis, global economic crisis, social upheaval, all of these things that seem bad. We don't like when these things happen but it's also given us an opportunity to look at things through a new lens, with a new light. What over the past nine months has given you some optimism for the future.

- One thing I really like to think about is that the 36 participants, they are so motivated, so smart and they're indoctrinated into data-driven iterative software development. They care about the user and they are, I don't know. I want to think that they have just energy to push Indeed's values forward and just be user focused and actually just be rabble-rousers of like, hey, I'm an engineer so, I'm kind of speaking as an engineer but hey product manager, do you really think this is the best solution for the user? And how are we going to measure whether it's the best solution? What data are we going to use? And you know, this is Indeed's, this is a value of Indeed's but you know, it's pretty easy to not do that. And it's pretty easy and the more people who are caring about this, the higher quality of the solutions we're going to build. So I'm excited to watch them like seep into our culture and just from the bottom up, make sure that we're actually embodying our values. And also I'm excited to watch the leads. I haven't talked about them too much during this talk but it was really heartening to see their dedication to their participants. And they were just so careful that when a learning opportunity presented itself, they would make sure that the learning happened and that it wasn't just like, here's the answer, do this, you know? They left the problems open and just made room for learning. And yeah, I'm excited to watch their leadership influence Indeed over the next few years. I also feel optimistic that sometime in the near future, I get to get the hell out of my house. This isn't because of IU but I'm just refreshing on vaccine news all the time. Some good news came out yesterday. England gets to get their shots pretty soon, maybe next week. Anyway so, I do feel optimistic in general right now.

- Well, Heather thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. Always a pleasure but this was really great just to, it's been a lot of work over really over the last year. And it's nice to be able to look back on it now with a little bit of pride, hopefully and not just a little bit of relief that we pulled it off in really I think extraordinary fashion. So thank you for that conversation and thank you for everything that you do for Indeed every day and help people get jobs all over the world.

- Thank you, Chris.