The following post was written by Noya Lizor, who was Director of Content at Viola from 2014-2019.
If you consider that one of a company’s greatest assets is its people (some would say it’s THE greatest asset), coupled with the fact that in the past 2.5 years ironSource has grown from a startup of 30 people into a company that’s now estimated to be worth over $1B, then you wouldn’t be wrong to deduce that Dana Primo Gershon, who has led the HR at ironSource since 2012, has played a pivotal role in the success of the company. It’s an achievement not to be sneezed at for one who is both so young and whose career in HR prior to joining ironSource was only just beginning.
Before she joined ironSource – the world’s leading platform for software discovery, distribution, delivery and monetization (and a Viola Ventures portfolio company) – Dana had just one other job under her belt at a boutique recruitment agency, but despite her greenness she proved herself to be an ambitious, fast-learning and diligent worker, all while still studying for her MA in Organizational Development and Counseling (specializing in HR).
“I knew I didn’t have a lot of experience, but I wanted the job so badly that my boss decided to give me a chance based on my sheer determination alone”.
Dana Primo Gershon, VP People at ironSource. Photo Credit: Nimrod Fisher
This notion of giving someone a chance on the back of an obvious determination and “hunger” for a role despite a lack of experience is something that wasn’t lost on Dana and which she still values to this day.
“I often search for potential and not just experience.”
In a glowing LinkedIn recommendation from her previous employer Yifat Bar-On, she was also praised for her outstanding interpersonal skills and personal charm, which is a winning combination in many fields but especially in HR, and after meeting Dana for myself I could see that the praise wasn’t given undeservedly; she really is way more humble than I would have expected given her astounding achievements to date.
“I think that it’s fun to work in a job that has meaning and truly impacts on a company’s growth engine.”
How Dana came to work at ironSource
When Dana first started working with ironSource she was actually working in-house under the auspices of her previous employer, but when the time came for her to move on to her next in-house assignment she had grown so attached to the company that she realized she didn’t want to leave. Happily, the situation was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction with Dana joining ironSource as a full-fledged team member.
Sensing an opportunity with ironSource that could lead to an exciting new chapter in her career – despite the fact that the co-founders weren’t even sure they needed a full time HR person at the time – she convinced them that they could rely on her to hire all of their staff on her own, which could potentially save them a considerable sum on placement fees.
And she was right.
Currently, ironSource employs a total of about 505 people (the number grows all the time), including some who joined as part of acquisitions. In what was the “original” ironSource company, however, there now are over 350 people, and Dana is responsible for hiring most of them, excluding about 30 or so staff who were already present when she joined the company back in 2012. In addition to being in charge of recruitment, Dana is also responsible for organizational development and employee welfare at the company.
Why is ironSource’s HR story so interesting?
The thing that makes ironSource’s HR story interesting isn’t the fact that they have grown into a big team that’s now 500+ strong. After all, there are many companies that employ thousands of employees, so it’s not the size of the company that makes Dana’s achievements ‘newsworthy’. What’s interesting is the fact that the vast majority of ironSource’s team was hired within the last 2.5 years entirely by Dana and her team (of just two people!) without the use of a single external placement company, saving the company a very serious amount of money.
Last year, for example, Dana and her team hired 165 new employees (109 for R&D positions and 46 for sales and marketing positions). Bearing in mind average hi-tech salaries, this translates into a saving of about NIS 3.6 million on placement-company fees.
The lean and efficient hiring system that Dana has developed at ironSource has essentially enabled some of the money that’s been saved on external recruitment fees to be invested in the workers, and not surprisingly, Dana considers this to be her proudest achievement for 2014.
Is hiring for a small company of 30 different from hiring for a large company of 500?
As far as Dana is concerned, there’s no difference. Dana’s “team” grew from one (herself), to a duo, and it wasn’t until the company grew to 250 people that she hired a third HR coordinator. ”I like to hire HR candidates who come from recruitment agencies because I know that they are the most appreciative of an opportunity to work in-house.”
Despite having a team of two to help her, Dana never misses an opportunity to meet with all candidates. “Knowledge is power” she says, meaning that by accumulating a sort of “library of candidates” in her head (and she remembers everyone!) she can recall, if necessary, certain candidates that might be right for a certain team dynamic, or complement a certain skillset.
So what is Dana’s secret to successful hiring? Well there are a few:
1. Invest in your existing staff. Dana is a huge believer in the notion that a company should invest heavily in its existing staff, because happy employees are the best possible PR ambassadors for the company they work for. “If they feel that they are appreciated by a company that’s also a great place to work at, they will attract their friends and other related candidates naturally.”
2. Learn to regularly refresh your approach to hiring. Since the tech industry is changing and evolving all the time, it’s important to stay a step ahead, so from time to time Dana reviews and refreshes her hiring “secret sauce” in accordance with the changing needs and trends of the day. “The only constant in this world is change” Dana says, “so any HR professional who doesn’t change with the times, including their approach to hiring, isn’t bound to succeed.”
3. Know where to look for new talent. It’s really important to know where to look for specific talent and how to target the talent you’re looking for. Although Dana is understandably tight-lipped about her own hunting grounds, she does concede that a good way to zone in on “the right” hunting grounds is by talking to the people who know the various niches most intimately, whether it be marketing people, technical people, etc. In other words, good HR professionals need to always have their finger on the pulse of potential sources of fresh talent.
“Since we don’t work with placement companies, we take a proactive marketing approach to scouting for talent. We know ‘where to be’ and how to generate tech events that attract the kinds of people we want.”
What about company culture? Can you tell immediately if someone is the wrong fit?
I asked Dana if she can sense with her exceptional radar for ‘types’ of people if there is ever an instance in which she can tell after just a few minutes into an interview whether someone is “wrong” for the company, to which she replied with a resounding “No, and I’ll tell you why: When we’re hiring someone I look for the right ‘fit’ for the role, for the team and for the company. But we don’t rely just on first impressions, because the type of people we’re looking for are often creative and a little ‘out of the box’ so we know they might be wired a little differently. To use a tech-related analogy, I won’t judge a person right away because I know that their UI might not indicate who they really are at first. Sometimes it takes time for their true nature to be revealed and they need to be given time to warm up.”
In addition, Dana reminds her team of the fact that when candidates arrive for a job interview, they are often either nervous or stressed, whether it be after struggling to find a parking spot (a true test of nerves in Tel Aviv), waiting at the Reception area for a while, or whatever the case may be, and this must also be taken into consideration. “It’s important for the interviewers to know what types of questions to ask in order to both relax candidates and extract the information they’re after.”
Existing employees appreciate a rigorous HR process because they like to know that they are working alongside highly qualified, great people. After all, their workplace is their home away from home, so knowing that that they are working with other people who had to meet certain criteria in order to be accepted into the company – including their potential to fit ‘socially’ as well as professionally – goes a long way towards maintaining a positive and thriving company culture.
Company culture – or in other words the way that the staff interact with each other – is usually a reflection of the general “vibe” that the founders wants to foster in their company, which is why everyone from senior management to brand new employees look to them as an example and follow their lead. A large part of cultivating the company culture relies on HR to create the right atmosphere through organized activities and also through the people they hire.
To illustrate this point, Dana tells me a story about a candidate who had arrived for his third interview at ironSource, and when she questioned him about why he wanted to work there so badly, he said that each time he’d been to their offices and waited at the reception area, he observed people coming in and out of the lifts, smiling, chatting happily, walking along with their dogs (ironSource is pet friendly) and so on. “It looks like it’s really fun to work here and I want to be a part of it”, he told her, which for Dana is a big validation that she’s doing something right (in case it wasn’t already glaringly obvious).
The priceless ROI of investing in your existing staff
One of the most valuable HR tips in Dana’s considerable arsenal of tips and tricks is to invest in your existing people, because happy and fulfilled employees invariably become your company’s best advocates.
The ROI of cultivating a happy team can manifest itself in your staff telling their friends about how great it is to work at your company, and it can also be sensed by people from the outside who get to experience the vibe at your office for themselves.
Dana’s budget for HR activities at ironSource is relatively big, because part of the considerable sum of money that her team saves on external placement-fees is redirected back into the existing staff.
One example of an ‘investment’ in the staff was an enviable treat that consisted of a company holiday to Mykonos last year. Yes, you read that right (and there are photos to prove it). In fact, when Dana approached ironSource’s founders with the idea to take the company on an overseas holiday, not only did they support the idea, but they were adamant that the destination is a particularly great one.
“I can honestly say about the management of this company that the happiness of their staff is truly important to them. They want them to have a great experience working at the company and they invest in making it happen.”
As it so happens, a treat like a holiday to Mykonos (as well as a string of other super-fun activities that are regularly organized by Dana and her team) actually serve a dual purpose. For starters, it makes the staff genuinely happy (who wouldn’t love for their boss to take them and their colleagues on a kick-ass overseas holiday to say ‘thanks for all your hard work’?), but the PR value that’s created as a result of it is also priceless. Just by virtue of all the social sharing of the holiday photos, the word spread like wildfire that ironSource is a highly desirable place to work. “We were flooded with lots of CVs after the trip”, Dana said.
And the investment in the workers isn’t just on social activities; it’s also used for education and enrichment programs, such as ongoing training and onboarding of new employees.
Dana also notes that it’s important to reward worthy employees not just through fun social activities but also by recognizing them professionally, whether it’s through praise or positive feedback and making them feel involved and appreciated, or an actual promotion. “We just promoted 32 people to management positions, for example”, Dana tells me. “Promoting from within demonstrates to workers that there are opportunities to grow within the company and that their own managers care about their careers and their progress.”
Why investing in onboarding is so important
There comes a point in the life of every company that reaches a certain size where it becomes necessary to invest in a more sophisticated level of onboarding. A quick walk around the office and personal introductions to the entire team is no longer feasible due to its sheer size, and often also because the organizational structure has become too complex to grasp ‘at a glance’. There are more products, more departments, and more things to learn about how it all works, so when someone new joins at that point, if you don’t have an efficient onboarding process in place, you might as well just tell the newbies to find their way around the place while blindfolded. They might get the hang of it eventually, but it’s a waste of precious time, plus they may develop misconceptions about how things really work if they’re not explained properly.
To address this important need at ironSource, they engaged someone (from within the company) to take on the onboarding and training process as a dedicated role, which is yet another demonstration of the efficiency with which their HR department handles not just the hiring of new of new employees, but also their absorption into the company after they join. New ironSource employees are trained in the company’s many products and departments and in the synergies between them.
The point at which a company decides to step up their onboarding process may vary from company to company, but the point is that a proper onboarding program can make a huge difference to the way that new employees acclimate to their new roles and it can even set the tone (either positively or negatively, depending on how well it’s done) for the rest of their tenure at the company.
So what does Dana look for in a typical ironSource employee?
If the character of a company is defined by the collective character of its people, then you could say that a company’s staff represents the head of HR’s “canvass” and that the team they hire, nurture and grow is the result of their “artistry”. You might even say that the quality of a company’s staff is a direct result of the efforts of its HR team, which can of course turn out to be either really great or really awful depending on how talented they are.
In ironSource’s case, with a team that’s now 500+ strong and a company that has grown into one of Israel’s most successful startups, I would say that Dana has pretty much nailed it, and nailed it impressively.
Here are a few of the traits she looks for in potential candidates:
1. They must be friendly and positive. People with a positive frame of mind are more agile and more adaptable to change if necessary. Also, if they’re friendly, they’re likely to be group-oriented which can add to the team’s ability to bond and build friendships.
2. They must be self-starters with the ability to learn new things. They need not necessarily have extensive experience in a particular area, but if they demonstrate an eagerness to learn and to broaden their skillset, then that’s a very important quality. This isn’t a trait that’s easy to demonstrate at the interview stage, so to filter candidates who really do like to learn new things from those who just say they do, Dana challenges them by asking them to tell her about something new they learned recently. If they have to labor too hard to come up with an answer, that’s a telling sign.
3. They must be passionate, enthusiastic, creative and show initiative. In fact, creativity is valued so highly at ironSource that several of the initiatives that were developed into actual products were the result of ideas born out of ironSource’s creative minds.
4. They should be ambitious, ‘hungry’ and achievement-oriented even if they lack experience. Although candidates with experience may have an edge over others in certain situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are always the best choice for a particular job. Sometimes people who take pride in their work and who obviously strive to excel at what they do can sell themselves better than experienced candidate, and good HR people can easily identify this valuable ‘x-factor’ when they see it.
5. They must have a sense curiosity and a spirit of innovation. Again, Dana likes to ask candidates about something new or innovative they recently learned about in their field, whether it be technology-related or even sales or marketing related.
6. They must be able to learn from their mistakes. This seems like an obvious point but it’s not a given that when someone makes a mistakes (and we all make mistakes because we’re only human), they draw conclusions that allow them to avoid the same mistakes in the future. One question that Dana sometimes asks of potential candidates to test this point, is “tell me about something you did that didn’t work out as expected and how would you do it differently now.”
Dana’s tips for job hunters on how to ace a job interview
1. First of all – SMILE. We like it when a candidate shows up with a smile and a positive attitude. We know that job interviews can be stressful but by turning up relaxed and smiling, it shows us that you can handle yourself well even under pressure. We also know it’s not so easy to conceal real nerves, but we can tell if you’re at least making an effort 🙂
2. “See and be seen”. Be active on social networks and go to industry events like meetups, hackathons (if relevant) etc. Don’t be afraid to reach out through LinkedIn to relevant contacts at the companies you’re interested to work at, but do it respectfully and make sure you target the right person. Don’t just message everyone in the company, it will almost certainly backfire.
3. Research the company before the interview and be able to describe what it does. Nothing screams “apathy” more than a candidate who has no idea what the company he’s applying to join actually does. Also, know your industry. If you’re hunting for a new job, you should be reasonably up-to-date with the current trends in your chosen field.
4. Make sure that you read the job description and if there is a requirement mentioned that you know you don’t have, then at least read up about it and show your willingness to learn it.
5. If you don’t have experience – show passion! Show that you have studied the industry and the relevant terminology a little, talk to friends who do have experience, and if possible refer to things you’ve produced (apps, presentations, projects) that could help make the case for your passion to gain new experience. Obviously there are certain roles for which passion alone isn’t enough, certain skills or qualifications are also required, but in many cases, for example in R&D roles where a test is might be involved as part of the application process, even if you don’t have experience in something specific, there are usually questions that test your logic and your ability to think creatively and resourcefully, and your performance with those questions is also taken into consideration because it indicates your potential to develop and excel.
6. Check out the product if possible. This goes back to the tip about “being prepared” before coming to the interview by researching the company. If the company has B2C products that are easily available, for example, you could try it out before the interview so that you can talk more knowledgeably about your impressions of it and what you could bring to the role. “One applicant even QA’d one of our products and offered suggestions, which was very impressive.”
7. If you don’t have a professional portfolio, then make/build/program something. For some roles, it can be helpful for you to demonstrate your abilities through something you’ve done. If you’re interviewing for a technical role, then it can be something you’ve programmed or if you’re in marketing it can be a blog or SlideShare presentations. In fact, a growing trend these days is to add links to these types of work examples in your CV, since it’s easier than ever now to share them digitally. Designers are especially good at creating interactive resumes, as to be expected.
8. Show that you can learn new things by recalling an example of something you taught yourself. This shows us that you are proactive in boosting your skillset and that you care about updating your knowledge base and keeping up to date with tools and tricks of your profession.