Today’s use of artificial intelligence and machine learning ranges from fighting bias to organizing your Netflix watchlist. Just about every industry is using these technologies, and companies are exploring how to apply them to their business processes.
Even a 168-year-old insurance company is taking action. In July 2020, Travelers announced it wanted to fill 500 technology jobs — many of them AI-related — by the end of the year.
“We know that we’re not the only ones,” said Mojgan Lefebvre, executive vice president and chief technology and operations officer at Travelers Insurance. “These are the areas that everybody is really clambering toward recruiting for.”
Lefebvre shared the insurance company’s hiring strategy at the virtual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, where she was joined by Claus Jensen, then chief digital officer and chief technology officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Jensen is now chief innovation officer at health care company Teladoc.
Here’s a closer look at how both tech executives are modernizing their hiring processes to reflect a reprioritization of skills and the evolving competitive marketplace for engineers.
A focus on soft skills and asking the right questions
Traditionally, when a company is hiring engineering talent it might ask about a candidate’s technical skills, but Jensen said that’s not the right question.
“I think the more interesting question is: What’s your mindset?” he said. “How do you think about a problem?”
In the past, soft skills were a secondary thing when it came to hiring, an “also want,” he said.
But now he tries to determine whether an engineering or tech candidate has an affinity for learning, if they’ll work well with others, and whether they’ll make innovation a part of their day job.
“Health care is complex, and innovation in health care is not something you can do on the side, it has to be integral to all discussions and work efforts,” Jensen said in a follow-up interview.
The last thing Jensen suggests bringing up with a potential hire is something along the lines of: What question haven’t I asked that you wish I would ask?
The candidate’s answer is telling, he said, especially if they say there’s nothing left to question.
“That basically tells you that they’re checking the boxes but are not necessarily the kind of person who will look for an iterative approach to a problem, because they would have picked up the gauntlet and given me a different answer than ‘You’ve asked all the questions,’” Jensen said during the symposium.
Updated interviews, and engineers on the hiring team
Data has been the core of Travelers’ success as an insurance company since its founding in 1853.
“We don’t manufacture anything. Every decision as it relates to risk is based on data,” Lefebvre said. “What has changed now is that it’s not just risk expertise that we’re focused on any more — segmentation, pricing, things like that — the digital natives have set expectations for everyone.”
Customers and insurance agents expect Travelers to use data and technology in every facet of business. For example, the company developed an early severity predictive model to identify injured workers who may be susceptible to opioid addiction. That allows Travelers and employers to intervene with a treatment plan that gets the worker safely back to work, while saving health care costs and reducing workers' compensation loss.
That’s why the company is focused on bringing in data engineers, Lefebvre said, whether that’s building a solution or integrating it. But tech workers with deep skill sets are in demand.
To help bring in that skilled engineering talent, Travelers has a standardized interview process that has a behavioral and technical side. Similar to Jensen’s goal of finding out who a candidate is beyond their technical skills, Travelers will ask a candidate about a situation or problem, and then have that person explain to the hiring manager how they would address it.
“The more specific they are the more you can learn from that,” Lefebvre said.
Some of the company’s engineers have also been recruited to serve on the interviewing teams, Lefebvre said. That allows prospective employees, for example, to get to know a potential team manager. Lefebvre said in the past there were situations where the first time a manager would meet a candidate would be after the candidate joined the manager’s team.
A refocused hiring process and new growth opportunities
Jensen said the cancer center cut the number of interviews it conducts with candidates to speed up hiring. And they keep a close eye on the hiring market.
“Good engineers have choice on where to work, and if your ‘talent competition’ does things in a leaner and more effective fashion, that right out of the gate makes it harder for you to hire the right people,” Jensen said in a follow-up interview. “Not to mention it often leads to a lot of wasted effort.”
The center also expanded career opportunities for engineers who might not want to manage others. The expanded promotion is called “distinguished technologist.” It shows tech candidates who might not want to be people managers that there is still room for growth and opportunity on an individual career level.
“What we are looking for is sustained technical leadership that amplifies impact through a commitment to growing technical talent and sharing technical lessons learned,” Jensen said.