Ex-Microsoft HR boss on re-wiring hiring

Elizabeth Brown, HR lead at Unity is taking a very different approach to hiring in the tech industry.

Lack of diversity has always been an issue in the tech industry. Last year Microsoft’s report showed that 73.1% of its overall workforce is male with only 26.8% female. Bloomberg reported that African Americans “made up no more than one percent” at high profile tech companies like Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies.

Elizabeth Brown, Chief People Officer at game engine company Unity Technologies has worked at many of these tech companies. She was HR director at Microsoft for six years before moving on to LinkedIn right after its IPO in 2011. For Brown the timing was really exciting and she says it was “liberating” to go from Microsoft’s “corporate and polished” environment to the more fast-paced one at LinkedIn.

“I came from an environment at Microsoft where you had to be completely buttoned up and know your business and have everything well-thought out before you launched it. Whereas at LinkedIn you had to make a bet and have the confidence to know that if it was the wrong bet, your reputation would withstand it and move on. You didn’t spend any time reporting on what you were going to do, you just did it. It was a big change but I loved it,” Brown tells me at the Unite Europe event in Amsterdam.

Now she heads up HR at Unity and says Unity takes a very different approach to hiring.  

“A lot of the high profile tech companies I have worked at really put the blinders on and focus on only hiring at Silicon Valley. We sort of liberated ourselves from that kind of thinking and try to find good talent regardless of the location.”

Unite Europe, an event hosted by Unity, brings together developers for a series of talks and demonstrations to help developers get the most out of Unity’s game engine. With Virtual Reality taking off, Unity’s platform has taken on a more pivotal role with Unity’s CEO, John Riccitiello saying “at least 90, if not 95% of all content built so far for VR has been built on Unity”.

With Unity growing rapidly, Brown’s role is pivotal in hiring talented engineers and to her, Unity is not trying to compete with the likes of Google or Facebook.

“There is definitely a war for talent but we are very confident in what we offer which is company of really brilliant engineers. It's a very humble culture. The whole business model is to help the developers be successful. So if you have a big ego and want to be in the limelight you probably wouldn't want to work for Unity.”

The transition from working in very corporate roles to the gaming industry is a big jump. Brown herself is not a gamer although says she is inspired by the “creativity and art” created. She loves watching her two kids play games though and thinks of the gaming industry as an “evolution of entertainment”.

Brown is unique as she is one of very few women holding a senior position. Just recently a report, “Diversity in High Tech”, examined data from high profile tech companies and found that “whites are represented at a higher rate” in the more senior positions, with “71% of Executive positions” filled by men and only “29% women”. An episode of TV series Silicon Valley addressed this issue in a humorous exchange when data management company Pied Piper attempts to hire its first female employee. The characters go back and forth over hiring only “the best person for the job” even though it would be better “if that someone was a woman”.

“I do believe that in interviewing, when people feel a bit of chemistry and connection, they tend to give soft-ball questions and give an easier interview because they feel this instant trust which is a problem in the area of diversity. Because if the hiring managers are all white then it will be natural for them to have more chemistry or rapport with other white and male candidates,” Brown explains.

Brown indicates that a lack of sensitivity with women juggling careers and kids at the same time is something that she noticed with her time at Microsoft and knows women that ended up stopping work completely because it was too hard to juggle.

“It's interesting because I would be in meetings that would go late and there wasn't any sensitivity around the fact that maybe the women had to pick up their kids from day care. I would say the majority of the senior women had husbands that were stay at home dads. My husband is also a stay at home dad. Or they were married with no children or their children were at college age.”

For her part at Unity, Brown is helping to develop women through “learning sessions” – although she emphasises that these sessions are not to gripe about how “few women there are in the tech industry”.

“They are skill-building sessions like navigating your career, finding a mentor and then building your network. Then we are internally developing the women we have and making sure they have the exposure they need. We are trying to bring in more female candidates and making sure we are attracting more candidates. Lastly, we are investing in girls that code at elementary school level and looking at partnering with some existing organisations that are sponsoring and supporting that.”

Is a lack of assertiveness from women perhaps a reason for women not rising to more senior positions in male-dominated environments?

“I wouldn't necessarily label that to females. I was at one company where it was a really aggressive, assertive environment and I saw men who were introverts struggle in that environment just as much as women. But I do think men are more natural networkers and better at leveraging friends than women from what I have seen. A lot of my female colleagues don't go out and feel like they need to have a good reason or rationale to ask someone for help rather than just asking for help.”

And finally, as Brown works in HR it’s only apt I ask her opinion on AI taking all our jobs?

“The only constant is change and if people are adding value or getting paid for working one way and there is a change in technology, there will be another way to add value. Or there will be another problem or consequence to solve. I think the work will just shift to something else.”


Also read:

Unity: The game engine powering the key VR players