Red Ventures Recruiting Manager Caroline Adams was getting ready to launch the company’s first-ever returnship program when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the company went fully remote. Caroline talks about the challenges and successes of adapting the program to a remote environment, what surprised her and hiring managers most about returning talent, and best practices for companies considering running a future virtual returnship program.
Company: Red Ventures
Role: Recruiting Manager
Tell us about yourself. How long have you been in technical recruiting at Red Ventures?
I’ve been at Red Ventures for a little over four years now, and have been in recruiting for almost seven. I joined Red Ventures as a technical recruiter, and after a few months transitioned into leading software engineering recruiting, where I’ve watched us build our team from 60 engineers to almost 400 today. We’ve grown as a company and my team has grown too, from a total of nine recruiters to over 35.
How did the idea of a Path Forward returnship program at Red Ventures come to be?
Our returnship program all started because I happened to attend a session at the Grace Hopper conference that I thought sounded interesting. It was a panel session with three companies who had either just done their first returnships or had done multiple returnships. I was sitting there thinking about how Red Ventures has always been dedicated to diversity and supporting various talent pools. The panel really struck a chord with me because I had never thought about this group – people who had made an admirable decision to raise their family or care for an ailing family member – but now struggled to get back into the workforce. It really resonated with me.
I texted my boss, and said, “We have to do this program.” And he replied, “Do it.” So I came back to work all fired up and met with a couple of key individuals within technology and HR and shared what I had learned about returnships. Everyone was enthusiastic about it, including our Chief Technology Officer. I started doing research, which led me to Path Forward, and things just went from there. Not only is Red Ventures a place where an idea becomes a reality very quickly, but we’re people-driven and always looking for ways to advocate for people.
What would you say Red Ventures is trying to tap into, in terms of the traits that these candidates bring to the table?
One thing we look for is someone who has good decision-making capabilities, good judgement, and is able to think through business impact. And these returnship candidates have all of that – from both a personal and professional standpoint. They have so much passion and drive because they’re committed to coming back to the workforce full time, innovating, and moving forward in their careers. At Red Ventures, we believe that there’s nothing that anyone can’t be taught as long as they’re willing to learn, and we spend a lot of time on learning and development. You don’t have to convince returners why technology is important, or teach them technical maturity. So it’s really just about skilling them up on new tech trends, which engineers are doing constantly anyway since tech changes so quickly.
Another benefit of hiring returners is that they have life experience outside of our environment that can help us become better. It shapes so much of their passion and drive, affects how they think about things, and will make them great colleagues and leaders. They’re empathetic employees because they understand the challenges that life brings..
What was something that surprised you about this talent pool?
You have these buzzwords that you say as a technology recruiter, and one of them is “languages are tools,” which means that knowing the most cutting-edge technologies does not necessarily make for a well-rounded engineer. When we were interviewing candidates, we understood that they might only know a language that was cutting-edge ten years ago, but if their fundamentals were strong then their knowledge can scale. Like many companies, we were a bit hesitant about whether they could really learn everything they needed in four months to be a great asset to the company. And we’ve found that the answer is yes, they absolutely can. So I would encourage managers to put those fears aside because those languages and hard skills can be learned.
What have you heard from the hiring managers, both during the interview process and once the returnships were underway ?
I’ve had hiring managers tell me after interviews, “If I hadn’t known I was hiring for a returnship, I never would have known that this person was returning to work.” And we’re finding that our returners are continuing to show the commitment and passion that they demonstrated during their interviews. Hiring managers are telling me things like, “My returnee did such a good job on this project in just three days. I can’t wait to see what they’ll be able to accomplish in four months!” One hiring manager came to me and told me that they gave their returnee a list of additional projects to work on because she wanted to continue to push herself. It was meant to last them a month, and she got it done in a week. The hiring manager was amazed at what a hard-charger she was, and how dedicated she was to her growth. And she’s not the only one – I’ve been hearing from many managers that their returners are asking how they can not only learn, but be more valuable to the company as a whole. It’s really cool to see the passion that our returners have, and it’s been going even better than we anticipated.
You embarked on launching the pilot returnship program before the pandemic hit. While you certainly could have postponed, you decided to move forward. What made you decide to continue with the program? What does it say about Red Ventures’s culture?
We were a company that was not set up to be remote. Collaboration is one of our core values, and we really believed that we had to be in the office in order to do so. But we figured out that, statistically, we were far more productive when we went remote. So when it became clear that we’d be remote for a while, there was no question that we’d go ahead with the program. It would have been a huge disservice not to, because our team had already spent so much time setting it up and wanted to see it come to fruition. At Red Ventures, we always say that we are “people first.” People are our passion and our focus. We figured that if we said no to a program like this because we couldn’t figure out remote work, that wouldn’t be a testament to our culture.
One of our core values is, “Everything is written in pencil” and one of the ways we test ourselves is to confront challenges and figure out how we’ll accomplish our goals despite a roadblock. We have a culture of rising to the challenge, and launching this program during the pandemic proved that. Through acquisitions, we already had remote, distributed teams, and some built-in remote infrastructure that we could leverage. Implementing the returnship program remotely then forced us to be better in our virtual learning and mentoring environments.
Can you discuss some of the ways you adapted the program to work remotely, with regards to everything from support and training to socializing?
We knew we had to change some things to make sure that our program could be remote, but still offer all of the tools and services returners might need. One of the biggest challenges for someone who is new and remote might be a hesitancy to reach out and ask questions, especially since you don’t feel the same connection with human beings on a virtual call as you would in a room. So creating one-on-one environments and creating a stronger mentoring program was critical. We also pulled in more individuals, especially our long-term remote employees, who had more experience working in this environment and could provide guidance.
We then asked ourselves, what other touch-points could we create to allow for more engagement among our employees? We started having more frequent “All-Hands” company-wide meetings, invited guests from various external health organizations to speak to our employees, and addressed the issue of “Zoom fatigue” – the hours and hours of looking at a screen can be tough, especially if you’re on-boarding and learning technology. So we implemented a setting where returners could be doing their work individually while being connected to others in a Zoom meeting where they can ask questions if they come up. This gives them a community of others who are there when they need it, without having to actively engage on Zoom all day. We don’t have everything perfectly figured out, but we’re using the feedback from our returners to make it better, too.
One of the biggest challenges of starting work remotely is helping new employees understand company culture. What are some of the ways you’ve been able to give the returners a better sense of life at Red Ventures?
The culture at Red Ventures is very open-door, with constant communication. We make sure that our returners take part in our all-hands meetings so they can see how the company operates, how we manage things, and how we deal with problems that come up. We also have a TED Talk-style program called “Red Talks” every few weeks. We bring in a speaker – most recently, we had Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks – and have a presentation or a panel-style discussion. Our returners are encouraged to take part in those so they can experience the leadership and development opportunities that we provide. We also set up more intentional meetings with leaders across Red Ventures to give the returners a better sense of our core values and what it takes to be a strong performer, how to advance your career, and how to advocate for yourself.
We’ve always held informal happy hours and coffee chats, and we’re continuing to do that over Zoom. It’s a bit clunkier, but it’s so important to keep having that organic and conversational engagement. Altogether, we’re trying to both tell returners about our culture in a structured fashion, but also show them our culture through talks and happy hours to get to know people. We really want our returners to see if Red Ventures is a place they’d be interested in becoming a full-time employee by showing the company through different lenses.
Did the returners express any concerns about starting work remotely?
They were all amazing at pivoting into remote work, and were just excited to get started. Some of our returners had younger families and were a little concerned about whether the company would be understanding about the interruptions and extra responsibilities they might face at home. It’s hard to separate yourself when your home is also your work. I really appreciated their transparency and once we assured them that it was not going to be an issue, they trusted us. They’re undertaking a big challenge by returning to work – and doing it in this environment – but they really took things in stride, have been doing great work, and have let us know how grateful they are that the program went ahead remotely.
Can you talk a bit about the support Path Forward has provided you throughout the process? What do you think has been most helpful?
One of the great things about Path Forward is that you all cater so much to what a company wants. You’re experts in the area of returnships, but you leave a lot up to the companies themselves to determine what works best for their culture and environment. Red Ventures has a really strong culture and a robust learning and development team, and we were able to implement all of that in our returnship program. Path Forward brings in the expertise that we don’t have, and the network of talented people who want to return to work. You helped us find the right candidates and dealt with the marketing challenges that come with targeting groups that may not be on LinkedIn, and encouraged us along the way. If we ever had challenges, we had weekly calls where we could get advice and talk things through. It was a true partnership, where Path Forward advised us in areas where they had subject matter expertise, but also let us be the drivers in what was critical to us, like candidate assessment.
Are any of the adaptations you’ve made to suit remote work and returnships things you’d likely keep in the future?
I think one of the benefits of holding the program remotely is that without the limitations of location, we were able to target candidates who aren’t necessarily located in Charlotte, or who may want to eventually transition in-person to our other offices across the US. We’ve really had to think about how we give all of our new employees, not just returners, a taste of the culture, and rethink how we communicate and connect with them remotely. Whether or not fully remote work is the future, we will always have some remote workers, and it’s made us consider ways to better support our remote teams. So going remote not only opened up our candidate pool, but made us a stronger and more connected company overall.
And in general, one of my favorite things that’s come out of pivoting into remote work is that those of us who have never had to think about work-life challenges now understand what it’s like. We all have background distractions, like how am I going to focus on a Zoom meeting when I also have a child who needs a snack, or the delivery man comes to the door? I’ve seen directors holding a baby in their arms while they’re on a Zoom call, or taking a few hours in the middle of the day to home-school their kids. We’ve become a more empathetic culture, which is good in any virtual environment, and definitely beneficial for returners.
For companies who are thinking about a returnship program, what advice do you have?
The biggest challenge we were expecting was how we could scale these people up. Your participating teams need to be committed to teach returners what they need to know and bring them up to speed, but that’s not as hard as it sounds. We’ve found that our returners are so passionate and proactive, so don’t let concerns about up-skilling be a barrier to entry if you’re really committed to advocating for groups that have limited access to jobs for reasons that are unfair. There’s no reason that returners shouldn’t have the same access to jobs as others do.
So my question to other companies is, what are you waiting for? To me, this is an equity issue that needs to be remedied and can have impact beyond women in technology. No one should be forced to choose between their career and caring for family, and the fact that it can hold you back is a disservice in the 21st century. So I can understand companies being hesitant about having the right resources, but remember that returners are still responsible for their own development, and they’re more committed than most to making it work. So find passionate individuals and give them the tools to be successful. I think you’ll be amazed by what you’ll find.
What has been your biggest takeaway from your program so far?
The program has made me consider how many other talent groups we’re missing that can add so much value to the company, and who aren’t coming through normal recruiting channels. So it opened my eyes up to all the different ways that we can identify great talent for our organization through unconventional means. This is an amazing program, and we’ve found talent that we probably never would have otherwise. It’s a unique talent group that, because of their combination of professional and personal life experience, I don’t think exists anywhere else. It’s been great for us, and I want to not only continue working with Path Forward on this returnship program, but continue to identify new talent pools to tap into that are just as rich as this one.