CareerXroads Origin Story: Part I

CareerXroads is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this fall. That’s 25 years of gathering with forward-thinkers to examine what’s next in the world of talent…  of talent professionals coming together to raise the bar of the profession into a truly strategic element for the world’s leading corporations. Let’s take a look at how CareerXroads started and has evolved into the premier community for talent acquisition and talent management professionals.

A different approach to recruiting

I studied how society and technology impacted jobs as far back as graduate school in the early 1970s studying Industrial/Organizational Behavior at Stevens Institute of Technology. My Masters’ thesis was a unique piece of research called ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I had pictures of every student (300 men – Stevens didn’t admit women until 1973). I asked five judges to independently rank them on attractiveness (R for inter-rater reliability was .94). I also had 1000 interview schedules of 10-12 students where I required each company recruiter to assume they could hire each student and anonymously submit them to me in the order in which they would hire them. I then added in all the demographics for cumulative average, extracurricular activities, etc. etc.

I used half the interview schedule data to build an algorithm and then applied it to the second half of the schedules to predict which three students would most likely be hired first. Only two factors, cumulative average and ‘Attractiveness’, were statistically significant and they allowed me to accurately predict all three hires 87% of the time. Game on.

[Listen: Gerry Crispin & Glenn Gutmacher talk 25 years of CXR and Sourcing]

By 1977, I was working for Johnson & Johnson as a Personnel Director having started in training, development and recruiting in 1975. Computers were now coming into their own and I became fascinated about how to source the 150 very unusual scientists and engineers we needed. I spotted a NY Times print ad for a programmer with significant VAX computer experience. What made this ad different than any other at the time is that it provided a connection number to a VAX computer in Boston owned by MITRE Corporation. The ad invited candidates to learn more and indicate their interest by applying digitally… which required access to another VAX. The problem with this idea was that the VAX cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and thus were only owned by businesses. Using it to indicate your interest in another company’s opening was likely to irritate your current employer who was expecting their computer to be solving business problems rather than satisfying your curiosity about greener pastures. Still, it certainly caught my attention because this NY Times help-wanted ad seeking illicit computer-to-computer conversations was ¼ page on a Fall Sunday. I thought this was a pretty damn expensive way to get the word out to such a small group of prospects…but then, if you did apply, you were likely qualified.

In case you’re wondering, it was the first time I mystery-shopped a job. I applied and, yes, I was ghosted.

The first spark of CareerXroads

The ‘light bulb’ moment that started me on the road leading to CareerXroads came in the 1990s. I was working as GM of Shaker Advertising’s East Coast operations and had just added Stevens Institute as a client. While visiting my alma mater, I stopped to see Richard Widdicomb, the head of Stevens Institute of Technology’s Library & Computer Center. Like it was yesterday, I remember he had his back to me typing something on his computer which was big and bulky. As he finished, he turned to face me, smiled and responded to my news by saying, “Good for you Gerry, as a matter of fact, as you came in I was just sending an announcement for a Research Librarian that I need to hire out to the Library Science Usenet Group on the World Wide Web.”

I responded, “I’ve not been on the Web yet Richard, and definitely have no idea what a Usenet or not-using-a-net-is but I look forward to working on rewriting your job description for Sunday’s New York Times classifieds. In fact, if you can make me a copy of what you sent to the group you just mentioned I’ll have a head start for when HR calls me.”

Then the bulb lit and went brightly incandescent as Richard said, “Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary Gerry.” The Fax machine next to his computer began loudly spewing out the first page of a Research Librarian’s resume. I never did get to put in that ad. Neither myself nor my company earned a commission on the ad we didn’t place. The decline of the 10 billion dollar Print Help-Wanted industry had, in my mind, begun in earnest.

Connecting on the Internet

I set out to learn everything I could about the Internet. But first I had to get on it. There were only two ways to get on the Internet in 1993. If you were a student or, worked for a University, it was easy. If not, you had to find the phone number of a service that would let you connect and those services weren’t advertising. As it turned out there was one service in NJ and I managed to find it by cold-calling a young entrepreneur by the name of Ward Christman (currently the Co-Founder of HRTech Alliance) who at the time had a Bulletin Board called JobNet.

Ward helped me figure out how I could connect my computer to the Internet. I soon found myself spending hours every night trying to find and document what was out there with my trusty Pentium 286 and 300-baud squealing modem hooked to a landline. I subscribed to about 20 HR Usenet groups, many of which were run by a Cornell University Professor by the name of John Boudreau (“Beyond HR”). The threads were fascinating especially when dozens of PhDs from universities all over the world began disagreeing and calling each other out in the most uneducated fashion. They saved their most vicious ire for one young professor in particular. One who had a habit of poking them where it hurt. Every. Day. His name was Dr. John Sullivan.

[Listen: Gerry Crispin & Cathy Henesey talk about CXR Then & Now]

A meeting of the minds

With the founders of Black Collegian Magazine (L to R) Preston Edwards Sr, Gerry Crispin, Mark Mehler, Preston Edwards Jr


About six months later, I began reaching out to local chapters of SHRM to tell them about all the cool stuff you could do if you were on the Internet. I also began sharing my knowledge with clients and, shortly thereafter,  was invited to speak to the Richard Stone/Princeton Group. The Princeton Group was an invitation-only volunteer organization of mostly HR Leaders who were all out of work and willing to meet every third Saturday morning at 7am to share job leads. One of the other folks helping Dick Stone, even before I got there, was a high-end contract recruiter named Mark Mehler.

Mark wasn’t just any recruiter. A former HR director who found himself loving the recruiting side of the equation, Mark had built a successful business practice. At the time, Mark was working mostly for Lockheed Martin and J&J on short term month-to-month contracts that were almost always renewed. He also represented a couple of researchers and helped to upskill his F/T peers in every company that had him in.

What made Mark different in my eyes was how he stuck to a set of values about what he would or wouldn’t do alongside his focus in his dealings with hiring managers. Mark worked his butt off to deliver faster and with better quality than anyone else. He represented what I saw as measurably world-class service. My favorite Mark story from this time is about how he would start each intake meeting. He handed the new hiring manager a slip of paper with his home phone number on it in addition to his work number (cell phones were not as common as today). He then demanded the hiring manager’s home phone number and, if they refused, he walked out. We clicked immediately.

[Listen: Brad Cook reflects on two decades of recruiting with Gerry Crispin]

We both had an eye on disrupting traditional recruiting. Soon, to help our out-of-work colleagues back at the Princeton Group, we found ourselves investigating emerging technology players and job boards. Living in New Jersey, we’d hop in the car and drive hundreds of miles on our off-days to Boston or Virginia to figure out just how good these groups were versus how good they claimed to be.

MonsterBoard was emerging. Google didn’t exist. OCC was supposedly a community effort of employers. Hodes was pushing CareerMosaic. John Sumser began writing his daily commentaries about new sites and Peter Weddle offered similar insights in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition. Even before them, Margaret Riley, a small college librarian, began publishing the Riley Guide to Internet Job Searching with volunteers contributing dozens of sites (including yours truly).

How to share this new knowledge with recruiters

Within a few months, Mark and I were looking for something we could do on the side together that would benefit both our day jobs and use all the content we were curating. We searched for a computer lab with Internet access where we could teach recruiters and HR practitioners how they could use cyberspace to hire. We found only one possibility in New Jersey: Ryder College (now University). It had 20 computer stations in one room all hooked up to the Internet. We rented it on Saturdays and proceeded to pitch one-day sessions to recruiters by phone and US mail (fewer than 10% of them knew what email was and fewer than that had computers at work).

We filled the room immediately, over and over again. I’ve no memory how much we charged but it wasn’t much. These sessions helped us realize that it was going to take quite a bit longer for our profession to get it. We had no doubt the Internet was going to take over the recruiting function within the next ten years but getting that point across in that small computer lab was a challenge. We literally spent the first hour teaching recruiters how to turn a computer on and how to use a mouse. (Our first CareerXroads giveaway was a plastic ‘clicker’ that replicated the sound a mouse made). Lycos and Yahoo were the best of the search engines but error-prone and incredibly frustrating to work with. And by the time we got to teaching them how to use Boolean, you would have thought we had left the planet. What was exciting, however, was seeing the nascent efforts of employers as they learned how to add open positions into the corners of their web pages.

We were definitely onto something… turns out a big something that evolved into an amazing development and collaborative community. More on that in Part II.

Picture of Gerry Crispin

Gerry Crispin

Gerry co-authored eight books on the evolution of staffing and has written 100s of articles and whitepapers on similar topics during a career in Human Resources that spans more than 40 years from HR leadership positions at Johnson and Johnson; to boutique Executive Search firms; a Career Services Director at the University where he received his Engineering and 2 advanced degrees in Organizational/Industrial Behavior; and, GM of a major recruitment advertising firm even as he launched CareerXroads 25 years ago.

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