Bigger and better: Cultivating speed and decisiveness during hypergrowth

Luke Baxter, our Chief Product Officer, shares how Handshake’s product development culture is helping to transform the world of entry-level careers.

When I joined Handshake in 2017, the company was around 30 people with a bold vision and mission. My initial focus was building our recruiting product and business from ‘zero-to-one’ with an early-stage entrepreneurial mindset. 

Five years on, now with over 500 amazing colleagues, I lead product management and analytics across our entire multi-sided platform of students, career centers, and employers. Through this journey, I’ve developed even more belief in our mission and the need for a platform focused on entry-level skills and opportunities. As a society, we must build the paths to learn and then earn, without needing years of experience or connections to get a ‘foot in the door’.

Handshake seeks to democratize career opportunities for all learners, so anyone can get a great job based on their skills; however, translating this mission into products, features, and specific projects can be daunting, especially in a multi-sided platform. Students, career centers, and employers all use our platform, and each have their own ways of working, user needs, and objectives. We need to empower them to evolve in mutually beneficial ways, for example, ensuring students follow up when they meet employers at fairs. We need to meet users where they are now, then help them to take steps to be more effective. 

Handshake taps the talents of its product, analytics, design, engineering, and data teams (known collectively as ‘R&D’) to accomplish its mission. I’d like to highlight three distinctive aspects of how we work as an R&D team: moving quickly at the strategic and tactical levels, empowering teams with ‘quality’ goals, and navigating pivotal decisions effectively. 

We move quickly at the strategic and tactical level

“When COVID struck in 2020, the majority of on-campus recruiting activity was canceled. What are you most proud of in how your team responded to this huge shift?” 

Handshake’s recent COVID-era ‘Virtual Fairs’ innovation demonstrates the strength of our team. When in-person career fairs paused abruptly due to COVID, there was a sudden vacuum: students, employers, and career centers across the nation needed a real-time solution to keep their talent programs running full steam ahead. The team had just a few weeks to decide our course of action to help. 

First, we made the strategic decision to build a virtual solution in just a few months, from a standing start with no video functionality. To make this commitment with confidence, we needed to address the full slate of product strategy questions, including pricing, differentiation, market opportunity, and mobile app experience. Within a hugely compressed timeframe, the entire team contributed to customer research, market analysis, technology evaluations, daily stand-ups, weekly executive syncs. All the while exercising judgment about the necessary level of depth in each area to make an optimal decision.  

Ultimately we decided to provide our network of educational partners and employers with a full-fledged virtual fair product, for free, and to refocus the majority of our development capacity towards this. Once decided, it was all about delivery velocity and fine-grained tactical decisions. Squads went into agile mode, problem-solving at warp speed and optimizing across UX,  customer, and technical considerations continuously. Do we need this option? Should we show this content in the video panel? When to send reminders, and how many? Which API is best for powering chat? Every week was a new set of choices and another tranche of JIRA cards completed… exciting times. The R&D team was empowered.

By Fall 2021, just three months after green-lighting the project, we had grown from 0% to almost 90% share of college virtual career fairs and helped millions of students connect with employers across the country to find their ideal roles.

This is a team that’s willing to be strategically bold and believe they can follow through at the tactical level to deliver transformational products.

We empower teams by setting ‘quality goals’

“Your product organization is unique in that you build for Fortune 500 companies, students, and universities all on the same platform. How do you set product goals which take into account these diverse needs?”

Exactly: Handshake is quite a unique three-sided network. Fortunately, there’s also a unique alignment of objectives. Students, employers, and educational partners are all striving for the same goal: get students & graduates great jobs to start their careers. 

For a product team spanning enterprise and consumer, this makes our work much more rewarding and constructive. We don’t have a tension between consumer value and, say, advertising screen space. We’re all trying to make the right match between candidates and great jobs. Given the complexity of the three-sided network, this alignment is critical for collaboration. 

However, even with this overall alignment, setting specific goals is essential for product teams to be effective – and requires real effort every planning cycle. You might wonder: isn’t the obvious goal simply “people placed in jobs?”. Well, in the long run, that’s exactly right; however that’s a time-lagging indicator which is hard to measure and optimize in real-time. So we must select the best goals amongst many metrics: user growth, engagement, applications, availability of jobs, attendance at virtual fairs, to name a few. Sometimes the best metrics are very specific, for example, conversion rate for a particular step in a process. Some make sense for a certain time window; for example, following the launch of our Virtual Fairs product, we focused on usage & success with that feature set. As a product team, we invest the time and effort to explore, align, and jointly commit with our many cross-functional partners. 

With a clear goal and freedom to define their own approach, each squad can be more dynamic; people can bring creativity and inspiration to their work, and find more professional fulfillment. Everyone needs that in the current world of remote work and increased distance. Final thought here: goals allow product development to truly be a team sport, where ideas and insight can come from anyone at the (virtual) table. 

We make great collaborative decisions with trust, candor, and transparency

“With so many different stakeholders, you must be constantly thinking about feature prioritization. How does your organization manage trade-offs and customer expectations?”

Product management is generally known as a world of trade-offs and tough decisions. It’s where market opportunities and grand strategies encounter the realities of building & resourcing – and that’s true everywhere, even the largest tech companies. So how can we maintain momentum and excitement?

As a foundation, we strive to build trust with transparency. We bring our cross-functional partners (customer success, marketing, sales) into our planning process and provide visibility into the overall picture we’re optimizing. We share the realities of building software, including the need to address technical debt and make architectural investments. Prioritization decisions are then a shared exercise in optimization, rather than frustrating with scarcity. 

Next, we strive to be candid about challenges and realities as things change – both internally and externally. For example, if a project encounters a major challenge, we strive to quickly understand that, re-frame it as a decision, and escalate appropriately. Escalations should help teams accelerate, but sometimes high-performing teams need prompting to take that step. They’d prefer to solve the problem themselves, but in reality, they sometimes do need more resourcing, reduced scope, or some other adjustment. Our executive team is committed to engaging constructively when a decision is clearly framed and surfaced early enough to meaningfully course-correct.

Looking ahead: We’re at a true inflection point as a product and team 

“Under your leadership, Handshake has grown more than 10X. As the organization enters the next phase of growth, how do you see your team evolving as well?”

I’m as excited about our mission as I was five years ago, and we clearly now have the partners and organizational foundations to achieve it. Our recent $200M funding round gives us the resources to accelerate our product plans. I’m committed to creating an environment where product development professionals can do their best work.

“Fulfilling our vision, meeting our users’ needs, and innovating while doubling the team every year is a huge stretch for the whole team. We can only keep succeeding if we’re conscious about how we operate, setting the bar high on culture, behaviors, and processes which will translate to products that meet that high bar.”

In our next phase, we’re creating a place for product development professionals – PMs, designers, analysts, engineers, data scientists – to do their best work. We are upleveling all aspects of our platform in the coming years: rethinking the fundamentals of our user experience, evolving our technical architecture, extending the platform to be useful for all learners, and accelerating our efforts in AI/ML to make the platform smarter.

In the early stages of product and development teams, everybody has to cover a lot of surface area. The focus is on functionality and establishing the initial model – not always user experience or robust technology. Now that Handshake’s team is growing; team members can be more focused and develop (or bring) deep expertise. I think of this as a ‘critical mass of focus’ – enough mindshare on a specific area. 

Personally, data analytics and insights are a function that I’m very excited about as that team grows. A platform like Handshake lends itself to measurement and improvement through data. We believe that impactful data and the analytical insight it generates are critical to our product team’s decision making process. Historically, the team has been stretched to do all that analysis and to understand what’s going on across the product. That will be a huge part of navigating the product as we advance. The conclusions we will draw from our improved analytical functions allow us to address employers’ needs more efficiently. We’ll offer our enterprise customers actionable information even faster to solve challenges like escaping stealth mode and honing in on their talent outreach practices to ensure they’re attracting the right candidates. 

Overall, it’s an exciting time to be at Handshake. Learn more about our journey and team at joinhandshake.com, and if you know anyone in college looking to make their next step, make sure they’re signed up!

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