Society, Robots, and Us: Hiring for Inclusive Robotics

Back in April, I had the opportunity to talk at a Silicon Valley Robotics (SVR) event on the topic of hiring for inclusive robotics, moderated by Andra Keay. Now that the video of the event is live, I thought I’d clean up and publish my talking notes to make my dialogue more accessible.

The notes were rewritten to feel like a transcript. Enjoy!

Talking Notes

Hiring for inclusive robotics is a topic that’s been on my mind for a long time now, and this isn’t something that they teach you in engineering school. I’m fortunate enough to have a partner who works in the Office for Students with Disabilities at McGill University. She has opened my eyes to the bigger picture in many ways. It is also very relevant to the current growth phase of Halodi Robotics as we transition to “scale-up mode.”

I’ll be taking a two-sided approach to this topic, talking about the challenges as a hiring manager and some of the things I’m trying to do to help the situation.

If we’re building a product to change the world, we need to ensure that we represent the world through the product and the people making the product. But we all know that inclusion in tech is pretty terrible. So I approach this problem from an engineer’s perspective: how can I try to solve this problem? What are some of the factors that I can work on and make a difference?

I’m not a big fan of attempting radical solutions. Instead, I envision the ideal outcome and approach the problem in smaller 1% increments and efforts. Up to this point, I’ve identified three areas of improvement that I’m trying to target and work towards: better hiring practices, better community engagement, and better mentorship and growth opportunities.

Better Hiring Practices

First, let’s talk about hiring. It’s the big one.

While there’s no better feeling than finding that next awesome person to be part of your team, the process itself is honestly terrible for everyone involved. Hundreds of CVs to review, many of which aren’t even relevant. Scheduling interviews is a logistical nightmare. Job descriptions are never good. And from a candidate’s perspective, they’re often kept in the dark throughout the entire process.

I find it especially hard when hiring senior candidates and team leads. The diversity is terrible in these talent pools because the bias exclusion process has already taken effect for many years. I find a lot more diversity when looking for more junior roles.

However, I still need to have some team leaders in place before making junior positions successful. And that’s key: success isn’t just about the company, but it’s about the people in their roles too. If we don’t have the infrastructure to grow their potential and offer them proper mentorship or opportunities, then we’re not setting ourselves or them up for success. But it’s a chicken and egg problem because if we don’t start building an organization with inclusion in leadership, we’ll have a hard time recruiting for diversity in all roles, which will only worsen our problem.

And, all this effort doesn’t take into account that we still have a company to run. Startups and small companies often don’t have HR and recruiting teams. The engineers and leadership are trying to balance day-to-day operations with finding the next hires. We often needed a person yesterday, so, unfortunately, the gut reaction is to go with the best person we see first. It can be challenging for small companies to coordinate efficient practices and ensure that the internal culture and hiring process promotes diversity.

Now those are my core issues. Let’s talk about solutions.

First, we build a well-defined hiring process and put resources in place to ensure it receives the attention it deserves. If we want to become world-class, we need to act world-class. We need to promote our company’s culture and experience from day one. I like to take the approach of paying someone else to make it happen because I’m not the expert. I work with another Canadian company, Pivot+Edge, which I contract to build out my recruitment infrastructure so that everyone has a fair and well-defined interview process. Through them, we ensure that we have standardized evaluations, consistent feedback loops and communication with candidates, and well-defined job descriptions that all tie back to our employer values. We also use an interview process with an inclusive team interview since biases often arise individually, allowing the team to be empowered in the growth process and for the candidate to get a feel for their future group.

On the topic of job descriptions, I believe shorter is better. Focus on outcomes, not necessarily a massive list of requirements. Requirements are often a barrier to diversity. Many people may feel discouraged from applying if the requirements list is overwhelming. There’s a statistic thrown around that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women will only apply if they meet 100% of them. Overzealous requirements are also a barrier to those people who haven’t had the opportunity to have access to these privileges. Focus on outcomes and what success looks like for the role, not whether they specifically used this one tool in this particular application while having one specific degree.

Now back to our employer value proposition and our brand. It’s a complex topic, but I believe it’s necessary to sit down and identify who you are as an employer, what values are important to you, and who the people who want to work with you are. Are your people financially motivated? Are they looking for prestige? Do they only want a $300k salary and work at a FANG company in silicon valley, or do they want to build the next great product with great people no matter where? Hire for value fit instead of a culture fit, especially a fit of the current workforce.

At Halodi, through internal interviews with our team, we discovered that our people and the Halodi values focus on:

  • Innovation (i.e., I want to work on cutting edge technology and make the world a better place)
  • Performance (i.e., I want to be the best and work with the best)
  • Teamwork (i.e., I want to work with a diverse and close-knit team)

So with this, we can pivot our hiring process to focus on values rather than biased gut feelings that trap us in hiring only people we identify with. This also leads us to be objective with our evaluations.

We’re also building a hub-and-spoke model to reach people and make them successful no matter where they’re located. This hybrid model can help account for family situations, where relocation may be an issue, or at-home remote work may be necessary for child-care

So that’s hiring in a nutshell for me, and why I like to work with experts in recruitment and hiring to help set us up with a solid foundation and do good for our people. We want the company culture and experience to be represented from the very beginning.

Better Community Engagement

Now, on the topic of better community engagement, that’s why I’ve enjoyed being part of these recent SVR talks. It’s why I love conferences, webinars, and local meetups. If we’re not part of the ecosystem and community, we’re not engaging with reality and instead live in a silo. This is where diversity starts to become inclusive.

It’s through these opportunities and engagement that companies can find new and more diverse talent pools. These hidden gems that we didn’t know existed because we didn’t bother to look.

I like to work with recruiters that help us target non-traditional talent locations. For instance, last year, I travelled down to South America to hire developers with a Canadian group led by VanHack. We relocated them and their families back to Canada. We gave them opportunities they couldn’t locally find while expanding the variety of people at our company.

Halodi Robotics has had some of the best hiring experiences from robotics conferences worldwide, which is a great melting pot of international talent. For example, one of our lead software developers is Dutch and met our Norwegian founder in Canada at an IEEE IROS conference and moved to Norway. Now, his American wife is also now our VP of Supply Chain.

And it’s stories like this that we have to share more publicly, give insight into the realities of tech and robotics, demystify the industry, and make our processes and culture more transparent. Our employer brand as an inclusive place of work is more than just a mission statement on our website; it’s about the people, the lives they’ve built, and the stories that led them to want to work with us.

Better Mentorship and Growth Opportunities

Finally, we have the subtopic of better mentorship and growth opportunities. For instance, we recently published a story about Cayce, our current VP of Supply Chain. She rose through the ranks from temp to project manager to VP. Now how do we make this a regular part of our culture?

As I hinted before, there’s a supply and demand problem with finding diversity, to begin with. But we also need to make room for it. I believe internship programs targeted at getting diversity in the door early and building new talent pools that don’t necessarily depend on existing institutions are one way to go. We need to make opportunities available and spend some resources to make it successful, not just have the mentality of “build it, and they will come.”

I want to build a successful internship program that can help address inclusion and diversity in robotics. What kind of internship program or other opportunities should we build as a company? What would make you successful? What type of company do you want to work for?

Nicholas Nadeau, Ph.D., P.Eng.
Nicholas Nadeau, Ph.D., P.Eng.
Project Director

Nicholas Nadeau is the project director at Halodi Robotics, leading their mission of bringing safe and capable humanoid robots to everyone.