by Mark Chillingworth

SThree CIO Lance Fisher interview – Leading data recruitment

Jun 22, 2015
IT StrategyProfessional Services

Technology revolutions, and in particular today’s digital disruption being sped by the proliferation of cloud computing capacity and mobility, mean that organisations cannot continue to operate in their traditional manner. For some businesses, demise is inevitable, just as blacksmiths and coopers are no longer mainstay trades. But extinction or shrinkage is not always necessary, as forward-looking companies rethink the services they offer. An organisation can only rethink its services and then deliver those if it has a leadership team that embraces that change.

The internet and professional social networks have had a major impact on the recruitment industry. But as the CIO 100 and surveys of our community by analyst houses show, there is a severe lack of skilled talent in the technology sector. As former CIO and now a contributor to this title Ian Cohen puts it: “It’s a big talent issues. A new economy requires new skills and we lag behind.”

So despite these challenges, publicly-listed recruitment firm SThree and its CIO are in good health. “SThree is a global recruitment specialist that started out in 1986 as Computer Futures,” CIO Lance Fisher says evoking a recruitment brand name many CIOs will have used as part of their career progress. “I’m quite wedded to that brand name,” he quips in his central London office close to the City.

“Traditional permanent and contractor roles are the mainstay of our business, we are more weighted to contract roles. Contract is easier for our clients to hire, but is more complicated for our business and systems. We have to provide contractor services and this has become increasingly complex as we have grown globally,” Fisher says of the nervousness around staffing at organisations. Our interview took place in early spring, with the UK poised for a general election which, of course, added increased uncertainty. Post-election, CIOs and organisations face a new uncertainty, that of whether the UK’s trading and political position in Europe will change drastically under the Conservative government.

Major banking groups with headquarters a stone’s throw from Fisher’s office have already said that they will pull out of London should the UK exit Europe, with a significant impact on the employment sector in the UK.

SThree has a heritage in IT recruitment, and the organisation is also a major recruiter for the energy industry, as well as pharmaceuticals. As a result, globally the company has 2,100 recruitment consultants in 46 offices. It still operates Computer Futures, as well as the Progressive Recruitment, Huxley and Real Staffing. Progressive focuses on the energy industry, Huxley banking and financial services and Real the life science and healthcare sector.

What the data says

“We fill the harder to find roles, for example a Java developer that also has Hadoop skills, so we spend a lot of time looking at our data,” Fisher says. Data analytics is where SThree has found its place in the digitally disrupted world of recruitment, something the CIO describes as the “chocolate sauce” SThree offers. As an organisation sitting on masses of data about employees, whether oil, gas, drugs or technology experts, SThree has realised that, as the now hackneyed motto says, ‘data is the new oil’ and that is where it will derive its revenues from.

“The data tells us where the next skills shortages will be,” Fisher says. This data focus has repositioned SThree up the value chain for organisations that need skills. He describes how the organisation is able to be more than just an agency that can introduce perspective employers to future employees; it has become an advisory company that has helped clients rethink recruitment strategies. For example, SThree has helped organisations looking for a team with Java and Hadoop skills and place that development team elsewhere in the country. The data tells the company and therefore its clients that there are regional pockets of skills. Not only are organisations then able to take their work to the skilled people that can deliver the outcome, in some cases the organisation benefits not only from gaining the skills base, but those employees could in all likelihood be in a city other than London. Therefore remuneration rates are lower, employees have a far higher work and lifestyle balance than those trapped in London and as a result can be more loyal.

A number of CIOs in London have told this title that with competition for IT talent so stark, especially if you are near the City they are considering moving parts of their IT operation outside of the capital.

“We have the full CV and can mine that data and be very selective,” Fisher explains. SThree is able to observe too, that women IT professionals are easier to place. “Try finding a female SAP professional? But if you need project management office skills, business analysts, that is where the women professionals are, Salesforce is also a strong skill set among women IT professionals,” Fisher argues. “So if you want to affect the diversity of your organisation, it is about looking at the skills you need. Then it is about the placement process and the data that produces. How you advertise the role.”

Again, it is interesting how the data can help an organisation. Royal Mail CIO Catherine Doran told this title: “The language of the advertisements for the recruitment meant that at the end of cycle, we have 31% of the team is women,” backing up the data and experience of SThree.

Fisher has a real passion for the data and insights it offers, and says he finds it fascinating the way gender and skills divide, so that there are few women IT professionals in infrastructure, but a healthy presence in skills such as Salesforce and cloud tools.

“My passion is the data, and the data is the differentiator that gives us insight. SThree has just hired a CMO and their role is about the client-to-client journey,” the CIO says of the ridiculous claim that CMOs will take over the technology estate in organisations.

“I spend my time unblocking any blocks to the data. We now have one view of profitability, contracts, sales and placement data. That consolidated data is opening doors and I am always looking at what else can we do with the data,” he says of his role and how it juxtaposes and supports the role of the new CMO.

Fisher adds that as the recruitment business continues to change, so the CMO will become important as potential recruits will prefer a digital transaction rather than person to person relationships. This also shows how important the CIO will remain. As clients increasingly opt for digital transactions, so they will create more data that he can analyse.

“I’m also data protection officer,” the CIO says of also being the chief data officer for SThree and is responsible for the security of that data asset.

Fisher is not complacent about the rise of disruptive online rivals, in particular LinkedIn. “LinkedIn’s biggest revenue source is recruitment. We see LinkedIn as a social platform, there is Xing in Germany; there are job boards for sectors such as oil and gas. Globally, we use 120 different job boards and social platforms, and we are agile about how we play into them. We are a heavy LinkedIn user, with around 450 professional licences. But LinkedIn is a great headhunting tool, but we are about meeting organisational demand here and now,” he reveals. “But we do see LinkedIn trying to do a lot of skills and job coding,” he says of the potential for further disruption.

“Data is my background, I was in finance IT where you have a lot of your own data and the Bloomberg services. So I had a unique view and the attraction here for me is the data, we have around 11 million CVs at any one time.

“To me the recruitment process is like a financial trade. How can you automate that trading process, yet also keep it very personal? That is where the technology to skills match can add value.

Previously, we were not consistent in how we job-coded skills, now we are, so details of granularity on Java development skills, J2EE, the number of years, the age of the candidate are all coded uniquely to get a good picture. A potential recruiter wants to know if they can find a developer with five years of Java developing skills, in the Reading area and who had salary expectations of between £50,000 and £60,000. We can get down to that level of detail, and more.

“To do that, we have built a faceted search, like you see on the online auction site eBay. That means the data we put in has to be great and it makes our consultants more efficient,” Fisher says. The same technology approach spans the SThree businesses, but the CV data is protected by brand.

“Our chocolate sauce is the data and our ability to mine and innovate using that data. We can now ask questions that we couldn’t before,” he adds.

Fisher says there is an increasing need for greater collaboration between the brands as sectors such as life science and financial services become more dependent on technology skills.

For at least the past two years Fisher has been refocusing the technology at SThree to be social, mobile, analytics and cloud, dubbed the SMAC stack by one of the analyst houses.

“Simply put, as we reduce our on-premise and legacy spend by efficiencies, we channel the savings into SMAC,” he told this title’s CIO 100 annual survey of transformative CIOs. “The overall impact is that my IT cost is not going up as we grow global sales staff, yet we are delivering significantly more business enablement from our systems.”

Fisher has been a major user of Salesforce, which in turn has enabled greater mobility for the consultants of SThree, which improves the face-to?face opportunity for the business.

“The big-name strategic partners are Oracle, Salesforce, Microsoft and SAP. We have just done a strategic deal with Dell to refresh all our desktops this year. We also have a lot of niche partners who help us greatly: Bluefin and Tquila in particular are helping us develop new apps,” he says. Fisher is also considering the Microsoft Office 365 software-as-a-service toolset.”

The entire IT and data operation is run by Fisher and his team of 110 in London, which he described as being a highly efficient team.

As a technologist who has grown up through the ranks of development and product management and through to CIO, Fisher is concerned by what the data is telling the technology industry and why subjects like skills and diversity are so important.

“The eye-opener for me was when my daughter told me she had been taught IT at school. It’s called ‘E’ she said, by which she meant Internet Explorer,” he says. “If you don’t get them interested at that stage, then we cannot create the skills.”

Fisher has been with SThree since 2010 having joined from Crossbridge, a financial services regulatory consultancy. He cut his analytics teeth at FTSE Russell, a specialist in indexing and analytics tools for financial services organisations. Fisher was there for five years, joining in 2005 having been IT Director for markets and trade risk mitigation service providers ICAP.