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FireEye SVP HR: Finding the right balance on the ‘HR data spectrum’

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Kenny Louie

Barbara Massa has built FireEye from 400 to 3,200 employees. Here are her views on the role data has to play in HR.

In the global marketplace, businesses, suppliers and customers are creating and consuming vast amounts of information.

We’ve all seen the gargantuan comparative figures, but in case you hadn’t, here’s a reminder:

  • Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.
  • The New York Times has published 2.9 billion words since 1959. Twitter publishes 8 billion words per day, Facebook 10 billion.
  • Every hour the data transmitted over the Internet, if stored on DVDs, would create a pile of DVDs 95 times the height of Mount Everest.

This flood of data, often referred to as “information overload,” “data deluge” and “big data” creates a challenge for business leaders.

Not in scale, but rather, moving from data to insight effectively. Because when it comes to data, what people want most is often overlooked: answers to the most salient of questions.

And for human resources professionals, these questions revolve around getting the most from employees.

Some believe that big data and HR analytics is the answer.

SVP Global Human Resources of FireEye, Barbara Massa, believes that there is a balance that needs to be struck.

“Before engulfing yourself in a world of zeros and ones, keep in mind both the size and resources of your company.”

Day one

Massa joined FireEye from McAfee alongside FireyEye’s CEO Dave DeWalt. The business was just 400 employees when the pair arrived, all of who were largely based in the US.

The problem FireEye was and still is trying to solve is end-to-end cyber security in an ecosystem where the sophistication level of threats is building to a level you would not believe.

“Hiring individuals was always going to be a difficult task,” explains Massa, because “largely these threats are unknown.”

“Is a threat going to attempt to come in and drop a payload and move laterally? Is it going to have a command and control server that’s going to go back to China and attempt to steal IP addresses or more?

This is arguably what makes my job so difficult. Hiring the most talented individuals who are going to be both a great cultural fit whilst possessing the technical ability to perform well.”

Without implementing a number of strategic initiatives to tackle these problems, including locating FireEye offices near technical universities in Dresden, Germany, Massa would never have been able to grow the company organically to 1,200 and entered 37 countries by FireEye’s September 2013 IPO.

“We’re now at 3,200 employees globally. As you can imagine, this has meant a huge amount of HR work. Strengthening my belief that HR is truly a human contact sport.

It is why when it comes to data, I sit firmly in the middle of the data spectrum. For high growth firms at least I see it as an enabler rather than an all-encompassing entity.”

Data can only get you so far. Unless you are Google of course.

The data side of the data spectrum

On the far end of the data spectrum you have Google’s People Operations department headed by Laszlo Bock.

Google won’t disclose the departments exact size, but estimates are that it is has dozens of employees including PhDs, hardcore technologists and data statisticians.

For Google, taking this approach is appropriate.

Bock deals with an employee population of around 57,000. Google’s business is search, data and intellectual information. “And so if I’m in his team I’m going to be spending a lot of time living in the realms of data” explains Massa.

To give you an idea of just how important data is to Google’s People operations department- every new hire is handed a laptop sticker that says ‘I have charts and graphs to back me up. So f*** off.

Its employees have both the tools and resources to do their jobs effectively, and undeniably, some of the work they have produced has been astounding. Smaller companies have been able to leverage it too.

For example when Google wanted to understand from a diversity and inclusion perspective why, and at which point in the career landscape they were losing female engineers.

They put Bock on the case.

His People Operations department found that it was actually a new mother problem, and women, who had recently given birth were leaving at twice Google’s average departure rate.

At the time, Google offered an industry-standard maternity leave plan and after female engineers gave birth they got 12 weeks of paid time off. For all other new parents in its California offices, but not for its workers outside the state, the company offered seven paid weeks of leave.

In 2007 Bock changed the plan. New mothers would now get five months off at full pay and full benefits, and they were allowed to split up that time however they liked.

Gaining this information required a tremendous amount of study and statistical analysis.

“It is fantastic,” explains Massa “because it shines light on why females may leave the market, and what companies can do to smooth out such problems.”

The human side of the data spectrum

The other side of the data spectrum is best encapsulated by Massa’s first and second years at FireEye, “I walked into an HR team of 8 people, all of whom were generalists spending more time chasing laptops and cube space than solving important business problems.”

Massa’s main priority was ,”helping build the business from the ground up,” laying what she calls, “the first floor of HR.”

“This included a global talent acquisition organization and a core HR system to serve all other systems as we grew as a company.

We needed to build immigration, relocation, university relations and an HR business partnering function. What’s more is that all of this had to be able to expand as we did, to the tune of 1,000 employees a year.

We invested heavily in ensuring we had a great set of recruitment professionals that weren’t coin operated, who could really talk about our story, the market and competitive landscapes.

Once these foundations were down I brought on a couple of data analysts to help inspect the business as it grew.”

They looked at things like 10-year retention, predictive modelling on attrition, identifying leadership competencies and studying where candidates were joining and from where.

It was from this perspective Massa used data, but she ensured that the human element remained in HR.

“I think it is a powerful position to place yourself because like I mentioned earlier, HR is a human contact sport.

“The minute you stop having personal conversations with people and stop getting on aeroplanes to go and talk to people you’ve made a mistake.”

Massa situates herself in the middle of what she describes as the ‘data spectrum’.

She’s in between what she calls a big data person on the right hand, and someone who is sceptical of data on the far left.

“It’s a position I’ll probably hold for some time, and for high growth firms at least, can be incredibly valuable.”