The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0084

Help Wanted

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The pandemic has caused enormous job losses and forced many companies to rethink the nature of work. In this episode, two Stanford students talk about the online resource they built to help fellow students whose summer internships were canceled, and Wildbit CEO Natalie Nagele returns to Rework to discuss the launch of People-First Jobs, a job board that connects seekers with human-centered companies.


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] no Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:02] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all-in-one toolkit for working remotely. Remote work is especially challenging when stuff’s spread out across emails, file services, task managers, spreadsheets, chats and meetings. Things get lost, you don’t know where to look for stuff, and people put the right information in the wrong place. But when it’s all together in Basecamp, you’ll see where everything is, understand what everyone’s working on, and know exactly where to put the next thing everyone needs to know about.

[00:00:29] Learn more at Basecamp.com.

Akshaya: [00:00:35] The moment that I heard classes were going virtual online, I booked a flight that was two days out so I had almost no time to pack up. I didn’t even have a suitcase, so I left with literally a backpack of three outfits. Some people still had hope that we would come back a couple weeks later, and I did, too, to be honest. When I hopped on my flight home, I was very naïve. I thought that, oh, it’s just going to be for spring break and another week maybe, and we’ll be back for the next quarters. And I just went home. So I still don’t have any of my clothes or all of my stuff. It’s all in my dorm room.

Wailin: [00:01:10] Akshaya Dinesh is a sophomore studying computer science at Stanford, although right now she’s back home in New Jersey. When it became apparent that the suspension of in-person classes was going to be longer than a few weeks, she got on a video call with a fellow Stanford student that she had met earlier in the school year.

Andrew: [00:01:27] So my name is Andrew Tan and I’m a first year grad student in CS at Stanford. Always been interested in start-ups, entrepreneurship and AI research.

Akshaya: [00:01:39] We actually met at a entrepreneurship mixer held off campus a couple months ago. We just had a conversation about a bunch of the projects that we were working on and we decided and learned that we had a lot of shared interest. And we decided, why not just start something together.

[00:01:57] After COVID-19 happened, our initial train of thought was just, let’s brainstorm ways to help out our fellow college students. Our very first initial reaction was like, okay, what are students going to be missing now that they’re not on campus. Well, they’re going to be missing socializing and they’re going to be missing dating and on-campus, just meeting people and meeting each other.

[00:02:18] So our very first instinct was, maybe let’s start something to match up people to find friends or do online dating remotely or something like that. And then we realized, maybe that’s useful, maybe not, but I think we can try to come up with something that’s going to be a little bit more impactful than that.

[00:02:35] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:02:36] Hello and welcome to Rework, a podcast about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:02:42] And I’m Shaun Hildner. There is a staggering amount of people out of work right now. Our world here at Basecamp is tech and software, industries that haven’t really been directly ravaged in the same way as, say, restaurants or hospitality. But we’re not totally immune. There have been cuts at tech companies of various sizes.

Wailin: [00:02:59] On today’s show we talk to the people behind two initiatives that are connecting people with job opportunities. One of those projects was started before the pandemic and now launching in completely unexpected circumstances. We’ll hear about that a bit later. First, let’s get back to Akshaya and Andrew.

[00:03:15] As they were brainstorming how they could help their fellow college students who’d been sent home, they started thinking about summer internship plans.

Andrew: [00:03:24] A lot of our friends had, at that point, already decided what they want to do for the summer. I was planning to do an internship at a start-up in San Mateo called Verkada—

Wailin: [00:03:36] Like the cheese?

Andrew: [00:03:37] Verkada with a V.

Wailin: [00:03:39] Oh, sorry. Okay.

Andrew: [00:03:41] They do cloud enterprise security systems and so I was going to be working as a product management intern. So that’s still happening and I’m pretty sure they’re whole internship program is still happening, likely remote, though. I have not heard back yet.

Akshaya: [00:03:57] For the summer, my plan was to intern at Facebook doing a technical product management internship, and I was going to be on their AI infrastructure team. They were pretty late to tell us that it was going to become remote. We just got the email in the past week. And that was also definitely a bummer, Facebook is notorious for their incredible office perks and beautiful campus. So a lot of the interns are upset about that. I think I’m either going to just stay home and do the internship or I might even consider moving it to another summer if that’s a better option. I haven’t decided yet.

Wailin: [00:04:30] Akshaya and Andrew’s summer internships are still happening but they knew other students whose plans had been thrown into disarray.

Akshaya: [00:04:39] There’s always a bunch of career activities and events that happen on campus everyday so all of those are going to be canceled. I had one friend who was still in the recruiting process for the summer when everyone got sent home. For people like him, it was very much still a frenzy of trying to put in all these applications online. And now with COVID-19, it was even more just a level of uncertainty where they don’t know if the internship’s even going to happen anymore, and they don’t know which ones are open, which ones are closed now. And it was just like trying to apply to as many as possible and continue the process.

[00:05:12] And it became just a lot more hectic. And so our next instinct was let’s build something that helps students continue to job search and find opportunities even though they’re all at home.

Wailin: [00:05:22] Akshaya and Andrew set up a career mentorship program to match college students with working professionals for 30-minute conversations.

Andrew: [00:05:31] We had made a few social media posts and one in particular on LinkedIn that really blew up and got a lot of attention and reach, and so from there we got a good amount of mentors to sign up. A lot of the mentors who would be, maybe, in the middle of their career right now went through the ’08-’09 financial crisis. So they knew what we were about to go through. So they really could empathize, resonate with our mission. And so the word of mouth was really strong.

[00:06:00] We’ve been trying to leverage Python scripts and whatever we can do as best as we can but I think we both agreed that the matching process had to be deliberate and we couldn’t just automate that based on school or matching based on their favorite company. That we had to actually read into their bios, look at their interests and hobbies because we wanted to make sure that the mentors and students had a really, really great experience and made a good connection.

Akshaya: [00:06:26] About 4,000 students, I think, signed up in the first, maybe, three days. And as we talked to students who were going through our mentorship platform, that’s when we started realizing that internship programs were actually getting canceled, and there’s a ton of really big companies, as well as small companies who have had to cancel their internship programs. The mentorship service was not enough, so at that point, we decided to open up the jobs database and that’s where we crowdsourced and manually looked through online. Looked within our network and tried to find a bunch of remote work opportunities that were open to students, put together the job database, made a website for it and then from there we also created a newsletter. And I think the newsletter is what really took off after that and we’ve grown to about 25,000 subscribers. And these 25,000 students, they’re all getting updates on the best job opportunities that they can apply to, as well as resources. Free classes to take, summer projects to get involved in and things like that.

[00:07:26] It’s definitely been a lot of us spinning up whatever it takes to help out the students. In terms of actually finding those opportunities, it’s been a lot of just taking advantage of our personal networks because I think, Andrew and I, we go to Stanford, we have tons of privilege just from being a part of the Stanford community, so we get tons of these job opportunities in our inbox from employers that reach out to Stanford mailing lists. But the 25,000 students in our community, they’re from a ton of different schools all over the country, some of them even around the world. A lot of those students don’t have access to the same things that we do. So we’re very much trying to bring those opportunities that come into our inbox and make that more accessible to everyone.

Wailin: [00:08:08] The website is called Remote Students and the jobs database includes internships, full-time work, and contract positions. A lot of the jobs are in software developments, but there are also opening for students looking for experience in areas like marketing, communications, and product management. And, of course, the positions are remote-friendly.

Akshaya: [00:08:28] So if a company has done remote work even before COVID-19 or if they’ve had a partially remote team for years, that definitely signals to us that they already have a good structure in place for actually running a remote internship program. And then from there, we also just look for companies that seem to care about students’ development and learning, and they put some effort into their internship program that way.

[00:08:53] College students are really, really valuable in the work force. I think a lot of times when companies think about employment, they’re thinking about how can we get the most bang for our buck, right? Like, senior engineers or senior employees that can be super productive and actually help the company move forward. Especially in a time of crisis when a lot of companies have to do layoffs and the budgets are tight. But I guess students can actually be a lot more valuable than a company might think. For one, in terms of recruiting, a lot of students, they do these internships because they’re trying to evaluate the best employer for them after graduation. And so it starts off this really meaningful long-lasting relationship between the student and the employer.

[00:09:34] And then on the other hand, students, especially, during this time of COVID-19 are really just hungry and enthusiastic for these kinds of learning opportunities and to get more work experience on their hands. And they can probably do a lot more than an intern would have done beforehand since we have so much more time. Or a lot of students that I know right now are using that time to start up new side projects or go take another class online or learn a new skill. So a lot of us are just really, really desperate for these learning opportunities.

Wailin: [00:10:04] Akshaya and Andrew want the students in their network to find employers that genuinely care and will invest in employees, even young or unproven ones. This principle also underpins the next project we’re going to talk about.

[00:10:16] People-First Jobs is a job board and collection of resources launched in April by Wildbit, a software company. We’ve had their CEO on Rework before and she’s back to tell us about this new initiative which her team started working on last year.

Natalie: [00:10:30] I am Natalie Nagele, co-founder and CEO of Wildbit, an almost 20-year-old company based in Philadelphia that’s remote first. And we build products for software development teams and other folks to be more productive and be happier doing their work.

[00:10:45] We are a small team, we’re 30 people and we don’t hire very frequently. But when we do hire, we go through these processes, we often hear from job-seekers, maybe they didn’t, they weren’t selected that time around, or they’re reaching out when we’re not hiring, and they always say, I want to work for you or a company like you. How do I find more companies like you?

[00:11:05] And I happen to believe that we are not that unique and that there are other great companies who truly care about people, and so we were thinking a lot about that. Where are the resources around discovering companies? Not jobs, but companies, that really prioritize human beings. And I have this very strong belief that is kind of core to why Wildbit exists, is that business, in general, the concept of business, really exists to support human beings.

[00:11:33] And so, what we really want to promote is these companies that acknowledge that, and that really try to prioritize as much as they can, a business that lives to support human beings. And that doesn’t mean they don’t make money or they’re profitable. In a lot of cases, you need profit to be able to support human beings, but the priorities are shifted, right? They’re not focusing on growth metrics for the sake of growth metrics, or employee growth to go on Twitter and say, look, we grew 200% just for the sake of growing. They have true meaning and purpose behind it.

[00:12:04] We realized what we wanted was kind of two things. One, we wanted you to fall in love with a company, not a job. And a lot of times that’s really hard and what that means is you might like a company and they might not have a job, so you can just follow them or be notified when they have something. And the other part is to really, truly understand not what a company offers in terms of perks, but what a company offers in terms of behaviors and values. Do they encourage outcome-based results, or do they measure you by time you spend in your seat? Things like that. How do we start showcasing behaviors in an organization and not necessarily the ping-pong tables, and the unlimited vacation days, or whatever.

[00:12:47] We did some surveys out there, just to try to understand, as job-seekers, what are you missing from a job board. From a job description? One was salary, that was a big one. But the other one was obviously, what’s it like to work there?

[00:13:02] We’re building this community of job-seekers at the same time, and that’s where a lot of the information and power is coming from. We’re reaching out to them and saying, what else can we tell you? What else do you want to know? I fundamentally believe that we should give job-seekers agency. We should not prescribe a one-size fits all, this is what people-first means. Because people are different and have different priorities and different needs. You want to be able to promote a small company that maybe doesn’t have the funds or the profit margins to do all the things that we would maybe dream of being people-first. But you might want to work in a small company because you have more impact, right? So how do we create the information and the ability to search by information that supports people-first. But give agency to job-seekers.

Wailin: [00:13:49] Much of the discussion among Natalie and her team focused on what the criteria for people-first company should be. Here’s some of the values they landed on. Remote-friendly, flexible schedules, asynchronous communication, 40 hours or less per week, and opportunities for professional development.

Natalie: [00:14:05] They all go through a very manual process and there’s a committee right now that reviews each individual applicant. We all review, and there has to be a unanimous agreement that this company feels like they’re exhibiting people-first behaviors. Then there’s a big questionnaire. We’re getting on the phone with a lot of these companies, too. So it’s a very slow-moving, learning process for us because what we’re trying to understand is how deep can we get into these organizations without really… We’re not going to get a waranty, right? I’m not going to physically go to these offices and say, are you doing this thing today? To that argument, you could be a remote position and then turns out you’re not really remote first. There’s some trust and some risk involved in all of this no matter what. But I do want it to be a place where people trust the companies that we’ve listed there are not evil.

Wailin: [00:14:54] The Wildbit team was working on the People-First Jobs board with other products, and then, well, you know.

Natalie: [00:15:00] We took a pause and as a team we agreed that, especially in those first three or four weeks, we really agreed that internally we needed space to just process what was going on in the world as humans, as parents, as children of older folks, all that stuff. Just everybody just needed to take a break. And there is not going to be the mental space, to, hey, let’s go launch a thing that we’ve been working on forever.

[00:15:28] And also, on the flip side is, I just couldn’t imagine contributing more to people’s inboxes. The level of sales and marketing. I’m sorry, I mean, I respect a lot of these companies so much, but their teams just went wild. And we kind of looked at it, and said, guys. I’m not contributing more to that. That’s just not okay.

[00:15:52] Then as a couple weeks went in, my message to the team was, we’re very lucky that we are a company that is profitable, a real business, so we don’t have the pressures externally to do things, and we can afford some level of downturn. We know that we don’t need to launch a thing to keep growing. So we kind of looked at it and said, what are the internal projects that we want to spend time on. People-First Jobs is one of those things that was very meaningful to our team, and once it was ready to go and I felt an important obligation to my team, as well, to give them the opportunity to shine a light on something that they cared about. But, it’s a place to find jobs and a bunch of companies aren’t hiring.

[00:16:39] So, we spent a couple weeks looking internally and saying, all right, so we have this job board, but what do we actually care about? Why did we build it? And we built it to connect people with companies that care about them. And in a world where some of the best companies are on hold hiring, but some are still hiring, and on the other side is these massive layoffs that we’re seeing of incredibly qualified, wonderful people, who are now looking for a job. Could we launch People-First Jobs as also a resource to connect the two?

[00:17:11] And so we went to the companies that we had already been ready to launch with and said, who’s hiring, who isn’t? We quickly handled that. We put some banners up on each of the company pages, the profile pages where it said what their status is. And then we put together, we spent a week and a half putting together COVID-19 resources for job-seekers and for companies.

[00:17:29] And so we made sure that when we launched, not only was it to shine a light on some of these companies that we’ve already vetted, but also to introduce companies, we may not have vetted them yet, but here’s companies who are hiring, and here’s folks who are looking for a job right now, and can we bring those things together? So we’ve been spending a lot of our time, these last couple weeks just being present on the internet.

[00:17:50] There’s been sites that publish just lists of companies that either are hiring freeze, hiring… stopped hiring. There’s on the flip side of that, these Google, I don’t know if you’ve seen these, Google Sheets full of this company just laid off people and it’s everybody’s name and contact info and LinkedIn profiles. And so, it’s everywhere and we’re just trying to collect it all into one spot. So we’ve created this COVID-19 resource section and we’re just… that’s really what my team is doing. They’re just in there trying to say, can we help?

Wailin: [00:18:18] Right now, there’s no cost for companies to list positions on People-First Jobs. The plan is to eventually charge employers while keeping the site free job-seekers. But Natalie and her team are taking things slow and evaluating day-by-day what’s most needed. There are definitely companies behaving very poorly right now, whether it’s forcing workers to come into the office, handling layoffs in a callous way, or surveilling remote employees.

[00:18:43] There’s a time and place for naming and shaming, that place mostly being the Twitter feed of Basecamp’s CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson. If you haven’t already, you should check out the episode we did last week about banning employee surveillance technology companies from integrating from Basecamp.

[00:18:58] Anyway, Natalie’s taking a different tack. She wants to highlight companies that are setting good examples.

Natalie: [00:19:03] I’ve been thinking a lot about this crisis, and I’ve been telling the team and companies that I mentor, these types of situations bring out the best and the worst in people. But what we will remember, the actions and behaviors of those that were good and cared and did meaningful things.

[00:19:21] You kind of really reflect on that and make sure that you’re really empathetic and really caring. If I told you that I got an email from a salesperson from a large company that we all know that was basically threatening me. Pay me for a year or things are going to be bad! And that’s the kind of stuff… this is about helping people who are looking for a job. If they’ve got to pick a new place. Especially in a time of crisis, can we help them discover a place where empathy is natural?

[00:19:54] Maybe… especially… at least when the world is crumbling, at least you don’t have to teach them, then.

Wailin: [00:19:58] Meanwhile, Andrew and Akshaya are juggling remote students alongside their other obligations. Andrew is a teaching assistant in Stanford’s Computer Science Department, and figuring out how to virtually connect with his undergraduate students. Akshaya is pushing forward with the plans she already had for the spring.

Akshaya: [00:20:15] I was planning on taking the spring quarter off and doing an internship with an electric flying car start-up in the Bay Area. What ended up happening was that internship just had to turn into a remote internship, which was definitely a bummer because the coolest part about working for an electric flying car company is getting to see and experience the electric flying car, which I will never get to do, but it’s still really awesome that they were able to accommodate and have me work remotely.

Andrew: [00:20:44] So I TA a class at Stanford called CS221, it’s an artificial intelligence class. I’d say, remote school has been a lot more work than I anticipated. Computer Science majors were super lucky because a lot of our classes, even when we were on campus, they were recorded, available online. And so the transition hasn’t been as difficult for Computer Science students. And so the biggest transition for us is that now all of our office hours, which used to be in person and an opportunity to engage and interact with students have been moved online. So in addition to all the technical challenges, how do you run an office hours over Zoom? We definitely miss out on the human aspect of being able to sit down with a student and walk through their code, their problem-solving, and their thinking. And so that’s been a transition, as well.

Wailin: [00:21:41] What are some tips that you’ve picked up in just a few short weeks of doing a remote internship that you think would be helpful to share with other students who are looking at remote work, or maybe embarking on their first time doing remote work?

Akshaya: [00:22:00] One thing that I learned is just to check in really often with whoever your mentor is, or your manager, because I would say in the first few days, I thought remote work meant that I just work at home by myself and I would just get work done on my own time and then when I’m done, I would go and show results to my mentor. But I realized very quickly that that wouldn’t be a very productive way for me to interact with my team and my coworkers. So what ended up happening is over the next couple of weeks, I started giving more updates to my mentor and if I had any questions, or if I was struggling with something, I would just message him on Slack and say, hey, do you have some time to jump on a Google Hangouts. That ended up becoming a lot more fluid, so I would just say, to not be afraid to ask for help, and to not be afraid to send constant updates and check in all the time.

[00:22:49] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:22:56] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:23:00] If you’re a college student looking for a job, or you’re a working professional who wants to mentor a college student, you can visit RemoteStudents.co to get involved with that community. People-First Jobs is at PeopleFirstJobs.com and on Twitter at @peoplefirstjobs.

[00:23:16] You can check out the 19 companies they’ve vetted so far and see which ones are hiring at the moment. There’s also a big list of COVID-19 resources and a form to fill out if you want to get listed as a People-First Company.

[00:23:28] Natalie Nagele says she wants to hear your feedback and she’s on Twitter at @natalienagele.

Shaun: [00:23:35] We’ll put links to all these resources in our show notes which you can always find at Rework.fm. We’re on Twitter at @reworkpodcast, and you can also leave us a voice mail at (708) 628-7850.

[00:23:49] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all-in-one toolkit for working remotely. You’re wondering how you’ll quickly transition your team to remote work. People are stressed, work feels scattered, projects are slipping, and it’s tough to see and manage everything. With Basecamp, everything will be organized in one place, your team will be working together even though they’re apart, you’ll be on top of things and a sense of calm will set in.

[00:24:11] Check it out for yourself at Basecamp.com.

[00:24:17] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.