How Companies Identify Talent with Alex Furman of Invitae & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

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Alex Furman Human Resources Hiring Strategies

We all need training and help to enable us to be honest with ourselves and each other, to be willing to be vulnerable, and to ultimately be able to think less about ourselves and more about the mission and the team.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Alex Furman.

Alex Furman is a co-founder of Invitae. Alex came to the U.S. as a refugee fleeing the former Soviet Union in 1991. For Invitae, Alex initially worked on software development and bioinformatics, and now currently leads Talent Operations. Prior to Invitae, Alex led software engineering at Navigenics, overseeing the design and implementation of the company’s technology platform.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! First, please tell us what brought you to this specific career path?

Had someone told me years ago that I would wind up leading the people to function at a publicly-traded company, I would have laughed. When we founded Invitae to bring genetic testing into mainstream medical practice for billions of people, I was on the software engineering side. I’ve always been passionate about our culture and about the kind of organization we were trying to build in order to foster innovation at scale. That said, I never envisioned making it a career. In 2014, we were about four years in and reeling from our first real inflection point in growth, having just gone from twenty to well over a hundred people. We quickly realized that a Talent Operations function was imperative and I stepped in, in what I thought was a temporary way to manage us out of a crisis. I’ve never looked back.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career and what lesson you learned from that?

Given our exceedingly complex business and rapid growth, I thought it was critical to get as much data as possible about how our organization worked cross-functionally. We started with simple surveys and, ultimately, developed a custom analytics tool for organizational management, called Org1. It uses a sophisticated analytical engine that tracks how employees work together on a daily basis to model the organization as a social network and provide real-time, peer feedback from employee’s closest colleagues without consideration for reporting relationships or seniority.

The first time we had an accurate visualization of how work actually gets done at Invitae, I noticed that a number of our teammates were unexpectedly showing up as critical. At first, I actually thought that there was a bug in the code. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that these relatively quiet people were indeed indispensable. I didn’t know this, but their immediate teammates did. They didn’t seek to get credit for what they did. They were not fighting for visibility. These were people quietly doing excellent work. This was when I knew we had something special on our hands — a system that is able to recognize the kind of contribution that routinely went overlooked in my past experience. Incidentally, many of them happened to be women. If you look at our organization, we have women in about half of the leadership positions, at all levels — something I am proud of. Seeing how we really operated was really eye-opening — so much so that I will also always remember that my first reaction was to look for a bug in the code.

Wonderful. Now let’s jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill?

1. Identify existing teammates that are ready for a stretch or a bigger career change. We pay careful attention to our high performing employees and try to make sure that they have avenues to grow. In a rapidly growing company like Invitae, there’s always a need for people to take on bigger roles and step into leadership positions for new efforts. This translates into a deluge of career opportunities for current employees. We have many such examples of teammates who have grown and stretched with the company, often taking on dramatically different roles in different areas of the business. My own path from software development to Talent Ops is a great example.

2. We optimize for comfort with ambiguity. Invitae is a fast-moving company that’s doing things that haven’t been done before. Over the years we’ve had to grow quickly and reconfigure the organization to the challenges of the day. In our recruiting efforts, we specifically look for people who like ownership, who thrive in change, and who aren’t overly reliant on a rigid structure.

3. Over the years, we’ve become more and more targeted in our search for talent. For example, in New York City where we’re currently expanding our presence, we’re specifically targeting software engineers in other industries who may be looking for more meaning in their work. We’re constantly on the lookout for niches and markets where we can have an immediate impact while remaining competitive in the usual markets.

4. Invitae is a company with a strong and differentiated culture. As such, we look for people who we think will be able to thrive here. While we don’t believe in interviewing for culture fit per se or for those who fit a certain mold, we do look for people with both a shared set of values and who’ve demonstrated adaptability. We’re looking for passion and willingness to work within our environment that offers lots of autonomy and personal responsibility — this freedom with accountability is a key driver of our ongoing innovation.

5. Invitae’s been actively acquiring companies over the years, which is typical for this phase of the business. What sets us apart is our ability to retain key talent beyond the initial integration period. We make it a point to proactively identify key talent and ensure there’s a career path within Invitae going forward.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

1. Our flexibility attracts top talent. We believe in meeting the best talent where they are as we are a distributed organization by nature. With the exception of roles that require being next to our production facilities, every role at Invitae can be performed from any of our growing list of offices or completely remote. We invest heavily in video-conferencing and associated tools that enable a distributed workplace and are highly focused on fostering connections among teammates.

2. We take advantage of having an extremely meaningful mission. The genetics of health and wellness is a very personal thing. Many of our teammates have their own personal whys and friends or loved ones who have faced a health crisis and needed answers. Often, they come to us after witnessing a brush with genetic disease.

3. We work on massively challenging and exciting problems. We’re a company that’s trying to do things that have never been done before. This is true across the board, regardless of function. Our engineers use the very latest technologies to classify and interpret the breathtaking complexity of human genetics. Our product managers are figuring out how to make precision medicine, something we’ve talked about for decades, a reality for our end users. People in our billing function are constantly figuring out how to make all of this work within the context of our highly fragmented healthcare system. We’re all figuring out how to do this in a way that’s transparent, ethical, and empowering for the patient and the clinician. There’s never any shortage of hard problems to solve and we find that this motivates the best talent.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’ve always thought that most of the problems we deal with in our work — performance issues, lack of engagement, office politics, and so on — are symptoms of our own insecurities. For example, we all know that change is hard. We pour an incredible amount of effort into change management. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be hard. When the key players in any organizational transformation are able to get their egos in check, the difference is incredible. All it takes is worrying less about “what’s in it for me” and more about how to come together as a team and solve the problem in front of us. This is simple, but it’s not easy. As the management team of Invitae, we’ve done a lot of work both individually and as a team to get there. Seeing what it feels like on the other side, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We all need training and help to enable us to be honest with ourselves and each other, to be willing to be vulnerable, and to ultimately be able to think less about ourselves and more about the mission and the team. Broad recognition of this would, I feel, be transformative to how we do business and how we live our lives.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how that was relevant to you in your life?

“What is to give light must endure burning.” — Victor Frankl

We are very blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

I’m always interested in meeting with people who are struggling to make a difference, big or small. So if you’re starting a company that’s trying to change the world for the better, hit me up.

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

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