Attracting and hiring Top Talents
Episode 99 - Attracting and hiring top talent - with Nick Birbilis
Hiring top talent during a pandemic is a massive challenge for employers like Nick Birbilis. Nick's ambitious projects require his organization to attract and employ the very best professionals. With all of the challenges we face today, how does Nick attract top international experts to work for him when borders are closed? Can these jobs be done remotely? Below are a few nuggets from the interview.
The pandemic has shown a torch on a few things that needed correction
What I learned from my conversation with Nick is that when we're faced with a big problem, we find solutions:
Finding home-grown talent and investing in them: As Nick said in the interview, "If you're limited in the geography of who you can look for, you open up your mind to different narratives, different backgrounds, different trajectories to broader experiences, which fit the value sets."
Make remote work possible: this advice applies to both employers and employees. Nick says: "if you have challenges with moving and relocating, or want to work remotely, I encourage everyone to put that out there and ask that question because in my experience since the pandemic started, anyone that we've thought of suitable for the role and has wanted to work flexibly we've always made it possible. So it's an option now, and it's one that I encourage everyone to ask the question."
Zoom and Digital Wormholes
Hiring and working remotely requires the adoption of technology and new engagement strategies:
Be ready to pick up on even the minimal cues when working online with others: You need to pick up what others are doing, since what they're thinking, and adapt and adjust along the way. "Like anything, it takes practice; it's like riding a bike," says Nick.
Recognize that a lot about how we will work in the future is still unknown: Not a single individual will decide the future of work. The more voices we have in predicting and creating the end, the better.
Let employers know what you want to do next.
This is the best piece of advice from Nick about how to job interview with purpose: "There's been a long tradition of people at job interviews telling you a lot about what they've done in the past, trying to build confidence in the future based on what they've done in the past. Now, it's worth mentioning what you've done in the past, whether it's specific to the role or not, because it brings trust to the table. But really, if there's one bit of advice that I could give anyone is to be open about what they want to do in the future."
There's so much more exciting chat and advice from Nick Birbilis in this episode. I hope you listen and enjoy the great conversation with a leader who cares deeply about his team and understands the most crucial asset in an organization is its people.
About our guest, Nick Birbilis
Nick Birbilis is an Australian engineer and academic. He is a Professor and Deputy Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University. Nick works in the field of materials science and engineering, having made contributions in the area of materials design, materials durability, and materials characterization. Nick was the inaugural Woodside Innovation Chair at Monash University. He directed the Woodside Innovation Centre in the areas of additive manufacturing (i.e., 3-D printing), rapid prototyping, materials durability, data science, analytics, and machine learning.
Resources mentioned in this episode
Timestamps to guide your listening
13:42 - Nick's career 16:59 - Finding great talent 21:03 - Border closures and opportunities for remote work 31:54 - Virtual job interviews 34:47 - Hiring best practices 38:23 - Border closures and what it means for domestic talent 48:32 - Nick's tip on how to interview well for sector change 53:52 - Sector change: moving from corporate to research institutions or startups 57:58 - Industry 4.0: what the future holds.
Transcript of this episode
Renata: Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the job hunting podcast. Today, we're going to talk to Nick Birbilis, an Australian engineer and academic. He's a professor and deputy Dean of the college of engineering and computer science at the Australian national university. He is originally from Melbourne and works in the field of material science and engineering. Having made many contributions in this area of material design, material durability, and materials characterization. I'll put the link below if you're interested to understand more about this. And as an ignorant person on material science, I see Nick as a 3d printing guru here in Australia. He has his own Wikipedia page and he is a corrosion expert, and that's really his expertise in materials engineering is well known. He was a colleague of mine at Monash university. He's an academic and a professional staff member.
Renata: And we worked together on a few projects where we were connecting with industry to propose and promote partnerships with Monash university. Nick had a great team working with him at the engineering faculty at Monash. And I remember it was the sort of place that we wanted to show everybody that came to Monash because the centre that he ran then was so high tech, so amazing. Everybody loved working there. And one thing that I will never forget was that they had these little robots on wheels with iPads, so that people in an organisation overseas, on the other side of Australia could actually see what was happening there as they were 3d printing pieces of machinery, for example. And they could talk to the team and work together and collaborate even if they were at a distance. So of course I'm always thinking about remote work and people working from home and the sort of challenges that the pandemic has generated and those ideas that I saw working so well in Nick’s work environment even before the pandemic were always in my mind. As you know, I've interviewed Sue Lim before. Now, Sue is somebody who also worked with me at Monash in developing nice workplaces, where people would collaborate better interact better, and you can follow her on Linkedin.
Renata: She just got promoted to a very important role here in Australia, and she's an expert in designing workplaces that work. We discussed in the episode with Sue Lim the idea of working from home and what works well working from home and what works better when you're working together face to face. Now, Nick mentioned to me, we exchanged a few messages recently and he mentioned to me that he was hiring, you know, a great talent. And he, you know, was really keen to share that with me. And I'm like, yeah, let's share that on the podcast. Let's do an episode. I much rather have those conversations so I can share them with you. And that's why he came on board. And we talk about hiring top talent, which for him is really challenging at the moment in Australia because our borders are closed.
Renata: And all around the world, if you're hiring a high tech professionals, people that are at the top of their game, as you will see when I play the episode for you, they're not easy to find. You need to scout the world after them. You need to really look for these top individuals to come and join your team. If you are at the high end of the R and D revolution, especially when it comes from materials engineering, machine learning, AI, automation, it's really hard and rare to find those top professionals and he's in the top university in Australia so he really needed those top professionals. We discuss how you can make that work with remote working and how in Australia, we can develop great talent domestically. This can be applied wherever you are in the world. I know that Nick, during our conversation was mentioning, oh, you know, making sure that this is not just about Australia, but I think you can translate that to wherever you are in the world.
Renata: This will be a challenge everywhere. It's heightened here because we are an island and our government is very strict with the border closure. So it's more acute for universities and R and D organisations to attract professionals when they can't bring people from overseas. What else did we discuss? We discuss best practises for sector transition. So if you are in a corporation and you want to start working for a startup, if you are keen to maybe be the sort of hybrid professional between corporations and R and D and university research, it's not an easy position to have. I have to admit I've done that. It's really tough. Because you're dealing with extremely smart people that know exactly what they want. And in my role, as a business development professional, I had to translate some of the work that they did to language that was more understood in the marketplace.
Renata: And sometimes it was a really difficult sell because you have to also educate the corporate sector to accept some of the technologies that are available to them and the great work, you know, it's challenging, but it's so rewarding as well. So we discuss how that sector transition can be done and how to present yourself as an experienced professional at an interview. I really like Nick's tip which I'm going to leave it at that I don't want to give too much away. I want you to listen to what he has to say. And we also discuss what's happening next in terms of industry and incorporating all these amazing technology that we have coming our way. You will see that I mentioned it in a very sort of selfish individual way, and that make us thinking really broad and macro level. And I'm like, oh, I just want a 3d printing machine to print out my wine glasses, that break.
Renata: And, between the two of us, I hope that you can get a lot out of this episode. I really always want executives to think about their career progression and the years ahead as being different from the years behind us. I think more now than ever, we can see this acute difference between 2019 and 2020 and 21 in terms of the priorities in the corporate sector, the priorities for government, they have changed. So we need to adapt our skills and the tool set that we bring with us to adjust to this new world of work. Another episode that I would recommend that you listen to after this is Catherine Ball’s episode, and Catherine Lopez. So that would be like a series of interesting stem guests that we've had. I've mentioned Sue Lim, and the other two would be Marianne Roux, who is an HR expert in the future of work and how to better prepare your workforce to work with robots, automation, and so forth.
Renata: So, I will put the links to those other episodes below, and you can make that a day of, you know, listening to us talk about how to prepare yourself and your career for the future of work. What I'm going to do after this episode is hop into my Facebook group to answer any questions that you guys may have as I have worked in and out of the research sector and the university sector, and would be very keen to see if in the Facebook group that we have this podcast, anybody's interested to know how to do that, how I would recommend that you go about transitioning sectors like that. So many people have had their sectors completely disrupted by the pandemic, and there are other sectors that are booming. And I would say that there's a lot of government investments in R and D at the moment in boosting every country's ability to be self-sufficient as much as possible in terms of developing their own IP technology, especially in the pharmaceutical and health area as well.
Renata: So, if this is something that you might have an interest in, please join me on the Facebook group. I will put a link below in the show notes to let you know when it's happening. But if you listen to this podcast a few months later, the videos are kept inside the Facebook group. So it's available to members only you have to join, but I hope that you do. That's it for now, enjoy this lovely chat with Nick. He is an amazing human being. Everybody that knows him really enjoys working with him. And I'm very grateful that he came on board to talk to you. Bye for now.
Renata: Cool. So is this your new office? Work from home?
Nick: No, we kept a house in Melbourne. We live in, we are in Melbourne in Northka. And so, I've come back to Melbourne for a few meetings and a wedding. And, because I've come from Canberra, which has engulfed by new south Wales. I have to self isolate at home for two weeks. So I'm five days into a 14 day lockdown. That's why I'm wearing a hat and I'm just working from home. And then once it's done, there's a wedding, and then I’m going back to Canberra.
Renata: So, you’re gonna make it to the wedding?
Nick: Oh yeah.
Renata: Okay, good. Well, let's see if the wedding will happen. I had a wedding postponed three times last year. I don't want to jinx it, but you know, with Melbourne, you never know. Things can happen.
Nick: There were zero cases today, but I've been looking so forward to this. So I don't know when you want to officially start.
Renata: Oh, we've started already.
Nick: Oh have we?
Renata: Yeah. Well, I'm recording. I just cut things that you don't want in. I just chit chatty very cash.
Nick: So look, Renata. I have listened to a few of these podcasts and I have to admit they're fabulous. They're great. So I'm a little nervous because I've heard a few of them and because they're great, some of the content is just so impactful that I feel afraid that I might repeat some of it. But then again, I think, a good set of information can be repeated for emphasis. So the good concepts are worth repeating.
Renata: That’s absolutely right. People like repetition, people like repetition. And also people might just find this for the first time, because it's with you. It's not always that I have a guest that has a Wikipedia page. Yeah. All right. Have you been interviewed in other podcasts before?
Nick: I’ve done a couple of other podcasts, very technical ones, but the reason why I'm excited about this one actually is it's all about people. And, the impact of this podcast beaming across the world and growing, is really exciting for me because of course, behind what a lot professionals like myself do is, people and what drives them to do things is people at the core. So, thank you for asking me and thank you for having me, Renata.
Renata: My pleasure. I think that the funny thing about us when we worked at Monash is that we didn't have a lot to do. Like, we didn't have that many meetings. Nothing like that. Because you have a very technical role and I was very busy putting out fires. But I had a team as you know, and everybody in my team loved you.
Nick: That's nice to hear.
Renata: And I think, you know that, but it was like they would come back from catch-ups with you, or, you know, getting to know more of the work that you were doing. And they would say, oh, Nick is fabulous. He's so good. And I think you are a great leader of people so I'm interested to hear more about that. But why don't we start about your career? I really want to know what sort of brought you to be an expert in materials.
Nick: Look, it's a really, really good question. And thank you for the compliment before, you know, it's funny to hear you say that because if I could go back knowing what we know now, after a pandemic, I would have been a very different person. Then I feel like a lot of us were just in a corporate groove before the pandemic. And now we've also had a chance to reassess what's valuable, but let's pick up on that a little bit later because that relates to how we map out, you know, a better future for everyone. But yes, I'm an engineer. And the reason why I studied engineering actually, and in fact, I don't want it to sound overly serendipitous, but of course, the correct way to do things in life is really, you know, if you can, and you have that luxury to follow the things that you're passionate about, and if you can do that, then you'll do them well, you'll enjoy yourself.
Nick: And then before you know it, what you're doing then becomes a career. So engineering for me was something exciting about going into the unknown. But after graduating, actually I started my career in a large multinational consulting company. And I have to admit, I got very bored very, very quickly. And so, after that, being sort of passionate about tech and staying at the leading edge of innovations, I decided to go back and do a PhD where I could work on the cutting edge. Then I tried industry again, after the PhD. Got bored very, very quickly, I think, perhaps within about six weeks. And then I jumped into academia just to stay at that leading edge. It wasn't so much a passion for education and research and teaching, but it's being excited about hearing new things every day and of course, being able to help create those.
Nick: And so I started my academic career in the U S and then, I returned to my beloved Australia. And I've been in higher education in Australia for the last 15 years. I guess in the context of this podcast, in those 15 years, I've spent a heck of a lot of time, probably in the last eight or nine of those years, at the forefront of hiring talent leadership and so forth. So I was trying to count before this particular podcast, but I'm pretty sure I've hired about 200 people over that time, which is a really, really, really big number. And it was a great journey to reflect on because a lot of those people have been either administrative staff or professional staff. And I mean, real professionals like marketing, dev ops, finance, you know, business development. So people that are at the top of their game and in their professional activities. And then of course, everything from junior researchers to senior professors to associate deans. So, a lot of what we look for in people is quite general across the sector. So being in higher ed, I hope isn't seen as a downside for this podcast because at the end of the day, you know, people are, people are people.
Renata: 16.59 I have a friend at Melbourne uni and her job is to scout talent overseas. And up until early 2020, she spent 70% of her time away looking for Australians that wanted to come back, and foreigners that wanted to work here. It is very challenging to attract top talent. When I worked with you at Monash, we were hiring for some of the institutes and it's really challenging. So for you, I think it's even a step up because not only it's challenging, but because of the work you do, you're competing with the corporate sector as well. Am I right?
Nick: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Look, I think the timing of that concept, or I guess that point you raised is just, it's sizzling across every industry, like you said, so corporate research R and D academia, even startups. So getting talent across borders now is a real challenge. I think challenge is the right word. It's probably the cleanest word we could use for it at the moment. And getting talent onshore, particularly in Australia, it's just not a thing at the moment period. And it probably won't be a thing for about a year. I know in North America, there is a little bit more flow of people across borders, but even so, it's probably nothing like what they would need to feed, you know, the beasts that are things like the Silicon valley and so forth.
Nick: So it's not a thing. And it raises, I guess there's a couple of ways of looking at that open question or not. It raises a couple of questions. One is things like, okay, well, can jobs be done remotely? So that's a simple approach. Another one is if they can be, can our systems actually cope? So things like, can we pay people overseas in a different currency or, you know, what if they don't have a local bank account? So, the series of questions and follow on really expose the lack of innovation in many sectors in not having thought about this before. It shouldn't have taken the pandemic, unfortunately it did. But what I'd like to focus on if it's okay, I guess this is your podcast, so you can cut me off, but what I'd like to focus on is that aspect of a double-edged sword.
Nick: So clearly, I think, it doesn't take much insight to identify all the problems that we now have with the limitation of people flow. But a really interesting thing now that if you think about is, me working in Canberra, which is a city that is very difficult to get people to. It's not as compelling being the only inland city in Australia, not an island of beautiful beaches, right. It's not very compelling. So can we use this as an opportunity, for example, to have expert staff members that are in San Francisco or Milan, or, you know, in the Northern part of Norway, for example. So, what are some of the benefits that we can get? And, it's also another opportunity for us to really focus again on the deeper why of the organisation. So, what is it that's important to us, you know, and what are our core core values?
Nick: And have we been in the past a little bit too narrow in how we've been hiring? So looking for experts in certain areas. And what I mean about that is, if you're limited in the geography of who you can look for, you open up your mind to different narratives, different backgrounds, different trajectories to broader experiences, which actually fit the value sets, moving into the future, perhaps equally good, if not better. So I'll be the first to say that, the pandemic has, and it has shown a torch on a few things that needed correction.
Renata: Yeah. So I want to go back to the home grown talent pool that is within our borders later. But I really want to focus on this idea of remote work and how it can happen in an environment like yours. Whereas it seems like everything is very tactile, you know, like when we think about the 3d printing, yes, you can ideate and you can organise, brainstorming, or scenario planning ideas, but, you would still need boots on the ground, I suppose. And there is maybe, we are not yet completely adaptable to it, but when I was at Monash, in fact, then I went on a trip to Silicon valley for that job. I visited one of our alumni who was working for Ford at the time. And they had this place, which was very, very, there was a dichotomy there that was really interesting.
Renata: They only had whiteboards everywhere. Everything had to be written down if you were there. But they also had this massive screens that linked that Stanford research centre Ford with other Ford premises around the globe, including the one here in Jalong. So they could zoom in and then have catch-ups. It was always, those screens were always on and it would show like the kitchen. It wasn't actually like the boardroom or a meeting room or anything formal, it was like the casual meetup in Jalong with a casual meetup at Ford. And people could then sit there and have a meal together. And the way that these organisations worked, I remember because my dad is an engineer and we worked in the Silicon valley. But even back in Brazil, like you could go to work at IBM at whatever time. IBM did not have a nine to five timetable. And I think that maybe we might have to go back to that, which is scary for some, because, you know, if you have young children that's problematic, but that might facilitate that interaction across borders and the international time zones. Do you see ANU as like a wonderful but smaller university in Australia be more nimble and open for those things?
Nick: Yeah. So look, Renata, you've touched on a couple of really important things, and I'm going to try and keep it at the level for, you know, a broad listenership as opposed to university specific. But we've faced this challenge head on. And in the past year, we've hired two people that are entirely based overseas with the no near term prospect of coming here. And one is a female professor who was the head of design at Bentley motors in the UK. But before that, she worked as the lead for the Ferrari formula one team, the chief aerospace engineer, and she was an Italian lady that has a totally different background to what you would expect an academic to have. And she's now based in the UK and we've managed after about six months started the possibility of being able to actually onboard someone overseas.
Nick: So we had to break systems. The other one is an academic that was the technical head of Jasco, which is Japan's version of NASA. And he's based in Japan, and of course we're doing this whole tele remote working thing at the moment. And I guess, because this is kind of in my wheelhouse, being an engineer, a lot of the leadership decisions I try and make are data-driven. And so I'm trying to work out how many of our roles could potentially be done remotely. And you're right. It's not 100% of them because for certain aspects of deep tech, you do need some boots on the ground. So if someone's task is to put together an instrument, that's going to do something fabulous. You know, whether it's a new printer or some sort of process, then there's some proportion of our workforce that we need boots on the ground.
Nick: But I think that proportion is probably less than 50%. So if you look at a lot of the emerging areas, things like, you know, artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital transformations and whole digital ecosystems now, we don't need the boots on the ground. I don't know that we have enough experience for me to tell you what's going to work, or what's not going to work in the long term, but you've already mentioned one advantage, which I think works well. So there is this concept of digital wormholes actually, and we set up one back at Monash, actually in Clayton to connect us with a corporate partner with Woodside. And what the wormhole means is you can kind of imagine this virtual tunnel kind of like a real wormhole where you could peek into a screen or something, and you can see the people on the other side in spite of the time difference.
Nick: So wormholes work well, but the one that actually I think, and this is a really good opportunity for software developers at the moment, the thing that doesn't work well is workshopping and virtual whiteboards and design thinking type of activities, which are pivotal to having diverse inputs and team thinking and so forth. So there is, I don't know if I'm allowed to mention software on this, but there is one company that has quite good accessible virtual white boarding software and sticky notes that manages to automate this task pretty well, but reenacting that physical presence that you do in design thinking workshops is a bit of a challenge. And so my hope is that the systems that we're all quite used to now working remotely, the various different bits of software evolve to that.
Renata: Yeah, no, that's very interesting when you mentioned the wormhole with Woodside, is that little robot thingy iPad thingy that you had on wheels? Is that what it was?
Nick: That was one that was one of them. So you could have it through a screen, but you could also have the ability for someone to control, you know, a robot. So what we call a double, to go around different rooms and do sort of a virtual visit for a particular person. And, what's really interesting is I've seen these sort of robotics actually be used for many humanitarian reasons since, because it opened my eyes to this world where you have for example, unwell children that are hospital bound for a long time and miss out on say fourth grade or fifth grade, how do you integrate them into a classroom? So, technology really cuts wide and across sectors and is a real enabler. But what I should say, given this as a hiring podcast, and again, Renata always feel free to cut me off is, one thing that I think holds true is that individuals, when they're looking for work, if they have challenges with moving and relocating and all that stuff now, or flexible timing or want to work remotely, I encourage everyone to just put that out there and ask that question because my experience, since the pandemic started is anyone that we've thought of suitable for all and has wanted to work flexibly we've always made it possible. So it's an option now, and it's one that I encourage everyone to just ask the question.
Renata: How do you then onboard somebody like that? What is the protocol?
Nick: With extreme difficulty, Renata. It's a work in progress. So, we try and document what it is that we're doing, and the very first thing we tell the person we’re onboarding remotely is that they're part of an experiment and we're looking for feedback at every step to make it easier for the next person. It's very far from perfect. But, what it does is it brings everyone to the humane level to begin with, because I don't think anyone, either side, knows what a remote onboarding process looks like at the moment.
Renata: Oh, wow. I'm thinking of somebody, we both know John Whittle, who is now at data 61, and he last year posted on LinkedIn that he had been at data 61, and hadn't met anybody hadn't realised how tall people were and how short he was until he finally made it to the office.
Nick: Oh, that's really funny. That is really, really funny. Yeah.
Renata: I guess, have you also considered, I mean we have our international borders closed until the middle of next year, but are you considering eventually putting together some sort of group experience? Because I know there's a guy on Twitter who is sort of advocating for these remote work opportunities to then be paired up with. Okay. Let's all get together in a wonderful location and have a really interactive week together. And that would sort of suffice for maybe, you know, half a year until you have another one. Is that sort of in your mind as well?
Nick: Absolutely. I don't know whether or not that will be the fix-all because it's all an experiment, but it will be really, really useful. So as soon as borders open, we are hoping to get acquainted in a physical sense with staff that we have onboarded remotely. On the flip side, we're also hoping to engage with our partners as well, overseas. So large organisations like universities have a lot of partners in various countries. We internationalised not just our student base, but of course our research base, our revenue base, our stakeholder base. And, whilst we'd all like to think that, okay, post COVID, we're all gonna evolve into these superior beings that don't necessarily need to travel. I think we have a learning journey in the near term that we all need to work through where we don't just fully replace, you know, personal ways of working, but evolve towards being able to supplement them in the most effective way. So it won't be easy, but it's a really, really interesting time and like I said, I'm trying to be optimistic, and look at what we can learn and what positives we can take from this particular shakeup. Yeah.
Renata: So I have recently delivered an executive presence masterclass for a headhunting firm and for a female sort of community of international business women, it’s quite interesting what they do. Because I was contacted earlier this year from this executive search firm team saying, look, we love our candidates. We've worked really well with them up until now. Now we've noticed that they're not presenting that well on screen. You know, they were very good face to face, their executive presence and the way that they interacted with employers was perfect. They're just not sort of feeling at ease and the sort of two dimensional screens. How do you find that?
Nick: It’s a real challenge? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, I mean, it's a real art to connect on the two dimensional screen. I can see you now and you do it tremendously well, but basically the lack of context that you see around someone, means that you can have biassed views of how others are presenting without knowing the full picture. So, one thing that always strikes me is people that have two screens will have, this is something quite trivial, but I say, I give it as a powerful example. So someone that has two screens is likely looking at the screen in which they can see the people, which is maybe different to the screen that has the camera on it. And so it's very easy to think what, geez, they're not paying attention or they're reading off a screen, you know, they're reading a script, how could they be doing that?
Nick: So, there's this total lack of context, I guess it needs a balance. I think we need to be kind to those that we're talking to and it's a real skill to be able to read the room when you're presenting in zoom and it's a skill that doesn't come quickly. So I encourage all the listeners to just chip away at it, every now and then, when you're doing something off camera, look at the other people and see what use you can get. In fact, humans are the ultimate machine learning computer, right? So even with minimal cues, you'll be able to pick up what others are doing, but like anything it takes practise, you know, it's like riding a bike. But yeah, it is difficult to present through zoom, I really feel for those that are doing job interviews through zoom. When, I mean I feel for you, I mean that in every context, of course it's a difficult time. And I know that this has impacted a lot on people's career and their work, and mental stress, and doing it by zoom is just an extra layer. So whoever is interviewing through zoom, a special shout out to all of you because you all deserve a pat on the back.
Renata: Now, Nick, you have been hiring since the beginning of the pandemic. What have been the best practises that you have found to find talent? Because in a way, because of remote work and the fact that you can hire somebody based in the UK to work for you now, you kind of opened up the spectrum of people, but well, in academia, you could always hire people from overseas and bring them anyway. But what have you done to attract people to work in Canberra? I love Canberra by the way. My husband and I, we actually go to Canberra for holidays every year. We love Canberra.
Nick: Look, don't tell too many people that it's beauty as it's the best kept secret, but look, it really is on that flip side. So on the international side, we still do international searches. We still use search firms, executive search firms. We still have, you know, the train on the tracks in the conventional way, but it has put us more in tune with what's going on locally, the opportunities locally, because the pandemic has genuinely let us reassess our value. So the industry, whole sector, higher education in Australia, its largest revenue base is student tuition. So I'll rip the band-aid off, which means international student revenue has plummeted. And so the sector has had a little bit of a shakeup and a correction. And that correction, I call it a correction because it means that rather than just looking for revenue, which is, you know, which one could have justified as a sound business decision prior to that pandemic, we're not just looking for revenue or replacing revenue.
Nick: Now it's actually a chance to think about, well, what are we actually contributing in terms of impact to the world, impact tech communities? How are we helping things like accelerating reconciliation? How are we helping disabled Australians, regional Australians and so forth? So from that point of view, we are looking much more broadly. We are deliberately not closing searches unless we have diversity of backgrounds, intersectional diversity. So the sort of pool of people that would look like if you walk down Burke street, Moore is usually very different to the sort of pool of people you'd get if you were just looking for a professor of structural mechanics or something like that. So we are starting to do things differently and I'll be the first to admit that it's important to doing something that is long overdue in this sector and in many sectors, but the good news is, and I can certainly say that on behalf of my institution.
Nick: And I know many others that are coming through the other side is that, you see refreshed strategic intents and strategic goals for universities. And, I wanted ANU was released two days ago by our VC, and you can see it's very much human centred, and that really reflects the sort of core values. Of course I would be lying to you if I didn't say we're all heading into a bit of the unknown as we move forward into, I guess, the new post post pandemic world. And it's important to recognise that we're going into the unknown and, humans are going to be a big part of dealing with that because it's not a single individual that can make a decision. That's a good decision for predicting the future. The more voices we have in predicting and creating the future, the better.
Renata: Nick, I want to go back to that idea of the domestic talent pool, right? So this has been something that has bothered me for a long time since I moved to Australia in fact, and was deciding where the kids would go to school and what sort of subjects that we're doing in high school and the fact that they could opt out of stem subjects completely just scare the bejesus out of me. That didn't happen to my boys, but I was really surprised to see that as an option. Then when I was at the John Monash foundation, I remember back in 2015 Grattan Institute released a report and I love Grattan Institute, often love their reports. I'm fully backing them on the fight that they have at the moment with the migration policies and all of that.
Renata: But back then, the premise was that we actually didn't need that many stem students and stem graduates because we were not hiring them. The employers didn't have a need for them. And I was flabbergasted with that. And I ghost wrote an article, which was then published under the name of my chairman at the time, because she's a bigger, you know, more well-known person than I was in the guardian. And she went on a seven 30 report and all of that, the seven 30 on ABC to say, we need people with stem skills, even if they're going to be a senior executives and work in the corporate sector, if they're going to work in NGOs. They don't have to be academics. They don't have to be at the top hand of R and D revolution. They just need to exist in the workplace.
Renata: We need to have more of that. I think things have changed, but I think it takes a generation or two for us to get to where we need to be in Australia to have more of our kids and young professionals interested in industry 4.0, interested in materials, interested in either being there doing it with you and your team, or making executive decisions that are important for the future of Australia as it embraces technology. So when I started working as a consultant, I left Monash and I started working as a consultant. I would get calls because people knew I was available and say, oh Renata, you're available. Can you come in? And, you know, we have all this duplication of work in our business, a really large organisation, lots of different departments doing the same thing. And I was like, okay, I'd love to.
Renata: They would say, it's a cultural problem. Can you come in because it's a cultural problem? And I’m like, yes I'll come in. Do you mind if I bring Tiago with me just so that he can have a little look at the technology behind this as well? And they would say, oh, no, no need, it's definitely a cultural problem. When in fact it was not, it was something that, you know, if you had somebody like this consultant that worked with me that worked with, you know, bots and automation and all of that, it would just make the culture of the place better because the systems were in place to support people. Right? It seems like it's complete gibberish for these executives. It was not part of their thinking process and the decision-making to incorporate technology, to make life easiest for their employers. Do you know where I’m going here?
Nick: I know where you're going. You've hit a few key topics, and you've said a lot of really important words. So, you know, STEM you've said systems, you've said culture, you've basically you've touched on a big picture of digital transformation and whether or not executives understand it or are ready for it. I mean, that would be another series of a few podcasts. That would be really, really, really interesting. I'll try and tackle some of the topics in a bit of a narrative, but you raised a few really important topics. Of course, does the world need more folks in stem? And of course I would advocate, yes. But, my definition of stem is less about exactly what you study and more about the sort of domain impact of what you do.
Nick: I'm going to use your word, system, Renata. So when you think of a technological system, even something as profound as a smartphone, it's interacting with elderly citizens that rely on it for things like trust and autonomy for doing banking and medical appointments, right through to someone playing arcade games right through to those that are having input like the app developers. And there's so many digital transactions that happen across this system that don't actually need any physical stores or any physical presence whatsoever. So really, you know, the sort of digital era is here. Even if you think about something like music, you know, you don't actually go in and buy at a record store things anymore, though records are really cool or CDs, but you get your MP3s perhaps either through a streaming service like Spotify or through the, you know, the iTunes store. So things have changed dramatically and nearly everything now is a system.
Nick: And across that system, you need people working in technological systems. They could be anthropologists, historians, geographers, and so forth, but they’re tethered in a stem system. So I think it's important that we continue to train people in aspects of technology that matter much more broadly. Now I do have some good news, although it's going to take a little while to see it, but I can assure you, one of the benefits I have in my job in higher education is I get to interact with the youthful enthusiasm of students. And the generation Z students that are, I guess between six and 24 years old at the moment, what they can do from a technological point of view is amazing. We're yet to see it in the workforce just yet.
Nick: But if I wanted a new app for your business, Renta, I have the choice of going to a firm, we're going to pay a lot of money and you're going to have people that are 30, 40, 50, 60 years old working on that app and so forth. If I wanted to do it right now, I would ask an undergraduate student that's working in computer science or engineering, or IT, or even anthropology, right? To get together and what they would be able to pull off their ability to code, to think about user experience and so forth is remarkable. So we're going to see some beautiful things in this country and in most countries as the youth that's going through the system at the moment starts to really penetrate our workforce. So I'm super optimistic for our future.
Renata: Yeah, no, I think that you touched on a great thing there of the blend between the science and art students and how important it is to bring them together, to discuss ethics, to discuss user experience and all of the important things that make machines much better for us. Do you also think that with the border closures, there will be more of an appetite for employers to develop talent? To hire talent for potential and bring them on board with the purpose of getting them ready as part of the onboarding? Have you seen that happen yet?
Nick: I mean, there is a whole range of activities that are local to Australia. Now, I guess I was hesitant to try and focus so much on Australia, even though we're in Australia, because I know that you have listeners all around the world, but one of the things that's going on in Australia at the moment, and I'm loathe to use this word is investing in talent because of the thing that we're calling Australian sovereignty, right? So, I mean, the world has gone astray. How do we invest in a local future? And now I'm just using other people's words there. The way I would like to think about that investment is enabling Australians to have a broader impact on the whole world, not so much enabling Australians so that we can just double down on what's going on within our borders.
Nick: So syntax aside, I do see a lot of that at the moment where there is investment in specific people, on the job training. Who knows, I think maybe the future of some of the professions that we've normally seen through university training and then joining a company might actually start to flip on their head where someone out of high school, or from any background joins a company. And then the company plays a proactive role in their training and their qualification in role. The universities have been really slowing being able to do that. And so of course, universities also need to involve like the rest of the world and have innovative education products that can be potentially even non-degree bearing programmes that are job ready type training as well. So, yeah, there's a lot that can happen there. And I guess that's a watch this space, and of course we see competitors in higher education all the time. So things like Coursera or ethics, or even a whole range of North American and European universities doing things online at the moment, and it's great to see. It's great. Yeah.
Renata: One of the things that I help clients with is with a sector transition, right? So people that have spent a lot of time in large organisations, large corporations now applying for jobs in startups. And the startup seed, there are two ways that they're perceived, either a startup thinks, well, you don't have the skills. There's just no way or the startup thinks, wow, I really want to bring you on board. I need that intelligence and that experience that you will bring so that we can do IPOs that we can, you know, sort of scale and grow, and you have that marketing or international experience that we need. I see you as a hybrid professional, you call yourself an academic, but you're always working with large corporations, right? So you’re in this set of hybrid between taking whatever university does outside to the outside world for implementation, and you said it yourself, that you also hire people that are not just academics, they're professionals working for the implementation of R and D. What are some of the qualities that you're looking for professionals that want to work in the environment such as yours?
Nick: Yeah. Gee, what a great question Renata. That's a really important question. And I guess the way I want to interpret that question, given that this is, you know, a podcast on hiring and so forth is really to give you an honest answer of something that I think can potentially maybe even help some of the listeners. But, there has been a long tradition, I guess, and I've seen it. This is my data, right? There’s been a long tradition of people entering either job interviews or entering the room and telling you a lot about what they've done in the past and focusing on what they've done, and trying to build confidence in the future, based on what they've done in the past. Now, what someone has done in the past, certainly it's worth mentioning what you've done in the past, whether it's specific to the role or not, it's still worth mentioning, I guess, because it brings trust to the table.
Nick: But really, if there's one bit of advice that I could give anyone is to be open about what they actually want to do in the future. Right? So when, when I'm hiring people or when our organisation is hiring people, and I have some devil's in startups. Let's leave that for another time, but I'm currently a CTO in a startup here in Melbourne, which is fabulous. But basically the key is, what is someone going to do in the future? What do they want to do? So the narrative should be about future tense because that’s what's going to happen day one of work or week one, or year one and so forth. So, what I would like to convey is to encourage everyone, to be very confident in their abilities and actually be open about what it is that you want to do in the job, because if you're open about it and you get the job, then it's, win-win for everyone.
Nick: If you're not open about what you want to do, but you get the job, but you find it, it's not really what you want. And then I guess it's kind of a lose lose for everyone. So be confident in your abilities and talk about what it is that you want to do in the future. And of course I say that, knowing that I'm going to sound like a bit of a, because I shouldn't swear on this, but I know that it's a difficult time on the job market at the moment. So basically what I'm saying is, talk about what you want to do. And if no one's aligned to your dream, then don't take that job. Now. That's not what I mean. I know it's challenging at the moment. So I encourage everyone of course, to be very, very kind to yourself.
Nick: But if you are able to be in the position where you can be open about what it is that you want to do, and that aligns with the company, then that's really, really good. And of course the other thing that you raised, and I'm going back to the beginning of your topic there, where you were talking about startups and startup mentality and challenges is that I think here in Australia, perhaps much more so than any other Western or perhaps even non Western nation as well. There is a little bit of a stigma attached to senior executives stepping into a startup as well, where you wouldn't bat an eyelid if a senior executive in the U S from a fortune 500 company, went to Silicon valley and was the CEO of a startup that only had four people because you know, that, that has the opportunity to become a unicorn. Of course, that stigma in Australia about status and size of startup and so forth. There's one that we can hopefully shake really, really quickly, because the way out of, not just the pandemic, but the way out of many quality of life issues that we all face at the moment is by empowering, and investing in startups and letting them get on with the good work that they need to do. Yes.
Renata: I'd like to say something here that I said to a client earlier this week, because it was exactly exactly what you're saying. The stigma was in his mind, you know, he was saying, oh, that's it then. If I take up the startup job, then I'll never be able to go back into the big sort of organisations that I had before. And I'm like, you're going to meet the board next week. Right? You have to ask the board what their plans are for this startup. They might want to sell, they might want to merge. They might want to list. They, you know, you need to find out in which stage they are in their thinking about the future for this organisation. It could be that you might be incorporated into a very large organisation very soon. You haven't even considered that, and he really didn't.
Renata: And as soon as I started talking about the different scenarios of what can happen to a startup, and yes it can fail too. Let's not beat around the bush. They could definitely be the technology that doesn't survive in a sea of rising technologies in the space that he was applying for. But it's still a great opportunity regardless. And I think we may not see that right now in 2021, but let's say it fails in two years time, things change really fast in two years time. And I think by then he will be okay with the fact that he had a stint in a startup. Am I right?
Nick: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Your life is certainly a journey. And I agree entirely there.
Renata: Hmm. I think, you know, if you have the opportunity and also the other thing that often, makes a senior execs uncomfortable about taking a startup job is that it may pay as well. Having said that, because the demand for great talent is so big right now in Australia, because our borders are closed. Startups are actually paying more than they have ever before. I can see that for my clients that are taking up jobs in startups, but you can always negotiate. So that, I mean, it's part of the salary negotiation with startups, you know, some ownership and bonuses and the salary negotiation is very different. Can I ask you, I'm going to go into a different direction now with your permission here, because I want executives that are working in different sectors, agriculture, engineering, construction, telecommunications to start thinking about those technologies that are coming up, that you are coming up with. Just before we began, I had to Google, this is how it will sound really stupid. I might have to delete this from the episode, but I have to tell you, I was Googling, is magnesium a metal? I was like, oh my God, I take a scoop of magnesium every afternoon. I didn't even know it was a metal.
Nick: Yeah. It's a vital one. And it's good that you're having it. It's good for you. Yeah. Excellent.
Renata: So, I want you to tell what's going to come next? So a year ago, exactly almost, I interviewed Catherine Ball. Interview is a big word. She basically took over the mic for 60 minutes and spoke. I didn't have to do a thing.
Nick: She’s a tour de force. And, you know, I hired her about that time and she's a remote employee of the ANU. And so that's another example. She's not overseas, but she's not Canberra based and we're making it work. It's a learning journey.
Renata: Yeah. So, you know, she's talkative. She's like me, she's worse than me. She can talk underwater for sure. But I think it's probably a great idea to have an update from you on what we can expect soon. So of course, Harry of expertise is more drones. I'd love to hear from you about 3d printing, but also machine learning, AI, anything that we could be looking forward to.
Nick: Oh, look, there is a heck of a lot to be optimistic about. I'm low to lean back on an example from the ANU, but of course, one of the core things that's happening at the ANU is we have a new school, the school of cybernetics that's working on bringing AI largely to scale. That's led by a distinguished professor, Genevieve Bell. That was the vice president of Intel. She's a fabulous anthropologist. And that's focusing on ethical aspects of AI. So having humans in the loop and so the reason I wanted to say that is it's almost like a disclaimer because I don't want to talk about the wonders that AI will bring and for folks to not think that behind that, it's going to be impacting humans and it's important to have that ethics and built in.
Nick: And, you were talking about that before. So with that disclaimer, wow, the future looks really, really beautiful. I guess I'm not going to separate things like 3d printing and machine learning and AI and drones, because actually what the future is, is it's really a highly interconnected streams of data. And those highly interconnected streams of data will lead to the ability to have advanced decision making happening in an automated manner, which is what AI is. It's currently not something that we see because part of the challenge that we have at the moment where we're sort of going from the old world and what I mean by the old world is the history of time up until a few years ago, and into the new world where you will reap the benefits of artificial intelligence, whether it's in route planning for your cycle home, whether it's in the sort of health advice that your doctor gives you and so forth. Where we are at the moment is this kind of an awkward period where the data we need to make appropriate AI based decisions, either is being generated or being trolled or being scraped or wasn't in a usable form.
Nick: So when I said before, I'm an engineer, I specialise in materials and the development of alloys. And of course now we make these materials by advanced manufacturing. But if you go looking in history over the last a hundred years, you have to scrape information out of libraries to finally get a list of all the alloys. I'll just use magnesium as an example, magnesium alloys that have been made in the history of time, you can probably make a list of about a thousand of them. Some of them won't have recorded all the information that goes into their ingredients and their cooking recipe, and they won't have the various properties. So you've got small and disparate data sources that are not very useful at the moment. So as we're going from old school to AI, we have these teething problems of trying to train the computers on disparate bits of information.
Nick: And we're slowly working on when I say we, the whole world is working on algorithms to deal with small and disparate data sources. Algorithms to improve that transition into where we can actually start to really get into autonomous decision-making. And of course it needs to be ethical autonomous decision-making. We can start to see major improvements in what it is that we're doing. So, the magnesium alloys that we make and we try and 3d print, we will, hopefully in a few years time, have a computer tell us what exact recipe we should be using. And of course, when I say that it's not just to improve properties, there's a whole range of things. So if the computer is connected to a data source from all the local garbage tips in Australia, on any given day, it can assess the amount of materials in the waste stream and use those as the input for decision-making for the exact composition that we should make based on today's waste stream to get the properties that we need to achieve. So you can see data leads to decisions. They can impact things like circularity. They can start to minimise the damage on the planet, reduce CO2, and everything starts to really come together nicely. So I don't think we're too far away from being able to do that sort of stuff. And a good example where you can see that already is in smart systems that use autonomous driving, for example. So anyone that's fortunate enough to have a Tesla, knows exactly what the future is gonna look like.
Renata: Have you ever seen a movie called Brazil?
Renata: Oh, you have to find it. It's from the eighties and it's very iconic. And once you watch it, it's not that well-known, but once you watch it, then you can see all the references of more modern movies about this sort of CAF Kenyan, dystopian, future, where your food would be 3d printed in a machine, and you would eat that sort of 3d printed food. And it is called Brazil because it's a future that's also very bureaucratic. And then things just start going wrong because of data being input, like being sort of wrongly put into systems and getting into trouble.
Nick: Thank you. Basically what you've done is you've reinforced my very, very first point, which I thought was absolutely critical to deal with. You don't want to let the robots create havoc.
Renata: I always think about that movie and I shouldn't, but I also think that with the pandemic, I remember when I first met Catherine for example, and she used to say, oh, everybody's going to have a drone. And I'm like, Aw, nah. Now I'm like, I really think I need a drone. Like, I think everybody should have a drone to pick up something or, you know what I mean? Like, there's this change in everybody's mind about what it means to have your home office and maybe having a 3d printer right next to me to print myself whatever I need.
Nick: Yep. Yeah. Well, look, I have both. We're not at the point where we can get the drone to go and collect a latte from the coffee shop, but I'm hoping that that will change at some point soon. And you can see that that touches on a whole range of different legislative issues. So, you know, at what height, at what airspace, at what this, at what that. So it's going to be a busy future, but I am extremely optimistic that it's going to be a great future.
Renata: Nick, this has been such a great chat. I think we're reaching our one hour mark, but do you have any final thoughts? Is there anything that you've wanted to share that we haven't had the opportunity today? Happy for you to say your final words now, before we go.
Nick: Not terribly much. I just want to always remind people to be confident in their abilities when they're in the job hunt, ask a lot of people for advice, be yourself, be open about what you want to do in the future. And always just be kind to yourself. I know it's a difficult time and these words sort of bounce off, particularly those that have had a difficult journey in the past 18 months. To those people, I'm sending you good vibes and good blessings. And, thank you Renata for having me. It's been a real pleasure.
Renata: No, thank you. Thanks so much for taking the time.
About the Host
Hello, I’m Renata Bernarde, the Host of The Job Hunting Podcast. I’m also an executive coach, job hunting expert, and career strategist. I teach professionals (corporate, non-profit, and public) the steps and frameworks to help them find great jobs, change, and advance their careers with confidence and less stress.
If you are an ambitious professional who is keen to develop a robust career plan, if you are looking to find your next job or promotion, or if you want to keep a finger on the pulse of the job market so that when you are ready, and an opportunity arises, you can hit the ground running, then this podcast is for you.
In addition to The Job Hunting Podcast, , on my website, I have developed a range of courses and services for professionals in career or job transition. And, of course, I also coach private clients.
Contact Renata Bernarde
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