Most recruiters have never “hired 3,000 of the most exceptional super-nerds on the planet on a mission to make human life multi-planetary”, but Dolly Singh is comfortable on the road less traveled.
The former head of talent acquisition at SpaceX, Singh has a career that’s as unconventional as her recruiting strategy. Hired after graduation (from UCLA with a B.A. in psychology) by a boutique staffing agency, she sourced from the upper echelon of the aerospace and defense industry as demand contracted after the dot-com bubble burst. Singh developed her straightforward approach early: “Do your homework, understand the market and industry, find out who the best people are, and pick up the phone,” she says. Fearless when approaching the world’s top innovators; Singh acknowledges that while recruiting is a numbers game and leveraging technology to drive pipeline is important, nothing can replace the human factor. “It’s much harder for someone to tell me ‘no’ when I’m on the phone with them than in an email.”
After her early success came children and several years of working for herself, but Singh was ready to build a team for Elon Musk when SpaceX came calling.
What were the early days like, hunting the best on behalf of an untested company disrupting the aerospace industry? “We looked for the makers,” Singh says. “We searched for candidates with a proven history of building, and breaking things… candidates who had been tinkering with hardware systems for years (since childhood, preferably). Building some of the world’s most remarkable machines is not for everyone; it requires just the right level of neurosis. If you didn’t have a history of enjoying high pressure situations and daunting technical challenges, you would be unlikely to fit in.”
As far as tactical details of her recruiting process go… “There’s no gimmick, just hard work. Whether it’s handing out pizza to top engineering students on campus while trying to convert them into believers one by one or reaching out to potential executives, I was fortunate that Elon and SpaceX gave me an amazing product to sell, and a compelling mission that has a lot of appeal for incredibly smart and hyper-driven people.”
The company didn’t place undue emphasis on “fit”, but there was a type that always caught Singh’s attention and cleared Musk’s unyieldingly high bar set for excellence. “It’s a certain kind of craziness. I knew that the people who filled my open positions would be put to the test every day and would be asked to meet heretofore impossible targets. We looked for people with a history of defeating the odds, who had made careers of overcoming obstacles.”
After SpaceX made history with the first privately-developed spacecraft in history to successfully attach to the International Space Station, Musk changed the SpaceX recruiting focus from candidates who were the at the top of the spacecraft business, to those who were the best at everything else, from iPhones to BMWs. Now the name of the game was optimization, and mining the tech industry for its most talented doers. Singh–now jockeying for position amid Apple, Amazon and Google–scoured the industry in her search for world-class hires to “feed the beast” of a company hurtling on the forefront of innovation. How did SpaceX succeed in luring the best from Silicon Valley tech darlings? By continuing to focus on the mission and by turning people into believers one at a time. “We got the word out, made the call, made the next call, and the next call. Usually the biggest barrier people have in life is themselves, not any external factors. I’ve always told myself ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’. So I side with persistence; find the right people and harass them gently until they respond.” She adds, wry: “If someone turned me down, I’d take advice as a consolation prize. ‘Who do you think is smart?’ I’d ask, ‘Who do you admire?’ and so on to the next candidate.” Singh perfected this balance of research and referral to recruit candidates to boldly go where no one had gone before.
Post-SpaceX, Singh fills her time consulting in the startup space. Her recruiting advice is the same, however. “Spend less time filling funnels, get out there and talk to people. If you’re doing something interesting or effecting positive change, people are remarkably willing to help. Hesitant to pick up the phone? Ask yourself if you’re really working for something worth fighting for.”
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Images: courtesy of Dolly Singh, and via SpaceX.