Rocket, a startup that builds AI-based tools for recruiters and offers recruitment services of its own, had been on the verge of profitability when the coronavirus pandemic hit. It quickly saw corporate recruitment pushes dry up.
With the pause in hiring affecting its main business and mounting layoffs at tech companies, Rocket turned its efforts towards matching laid off engineers with new jobs pro bono. Rocket gathered data on layoffs, set its AI software and recruiters on cleaning up the data and making it easier to navigate, and launched a new portal to the data. Dubbed Parachute, the portal now has 13,500 professionals from around the world on its original, U.S.-based English-language site, and Rocket is bringing up sister sites in other countries.
Here’s what Rocket cofounder and CEO Abhinav Agrawal had to say when IEEE Spectrum talked to him this month about the pandemic’s effect on tech jobs, creating Parachute, and what he sees for tech careers on the near horizon.
On the effect of the pandemic on tech jobs:
Abhinav Agrawal: “When Covid hit, we saw companies scaled back hiring almost immediately. As soon as companies started working from home—in early to mid-February—they became cautious in hiring. Interviewing took a big hit; we had all been conditioned to believe that interviewing in person was the gold standard, so a lot of candidates were impacted as interviews were pushed out or cancelled until they could be rescheduled in person.
“Then, as the market demands started softening, you had startups going into self-preservation mode. Prominent venture capitalists issued advisories to their portfolio companies, saying that winter is coming, so it is time to flip from growth at all costs to let’s batten down the hatches and survive this.
“Right now, we are in purgatory. We are seeing about a third of companies going straight ahead with hiring, a third just tiptoeing back in, and about a third sitting in survival mode [and not hiring at all].”
On interviewing in a pandemic:
Agrawal: “The process is completely changing. On-site interviews in four to five hours in a stretch are out the window. That’s been challenging for a lot of senior engineering leaders who like to do whiteboard interviews and are having to adapt.
“We are also finding that not being able to meet someone in person, makes it harder to believe your judgement—to sense fit—so people instead of doing three on site interviews are doing maybe five zoom interviews.”
On the impact of working from home:
Agrawal: “Initially, people still wanted to hire people in their headquarters’ city. But now, with companies doing fine with remote workers, people are wondering if they should look for candidates outside their headquarter cities, that even when office environments come back, they can still hire remote workers. Companies are, however, focused on the candidates in the headquarters’ time zone—looking at, say, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Latin America. Being in the same time zone makes collaboration easier.
“There are [salary] implications. People at every company we talk to are having difficult conversations internally about how to manage that. If current employees want to move, they say, ‘What do we do about salaries? Do we have different bands for different cities? Do we penalize them for moving?’ These are tough conversations companies are now having.”
On layoffs and starting Parachute:
Agrawal: “We saw layoffs starting to happen, even before the lockdowns. First they were in in concentrated industries, like building software for local retail, restaurant operations, and travel. By early April, we could see layoffs were beginning to escalate. Now we are hopefully on the other side of the peak of the curve, but layoffs are still trickling through. Companies that thought they could ride it out are starting to think they can’t, they might have thought [the pandemic] would be a couple of months; well it’s July now, and things could be worse in the Fall.
“Pretty early on we started thinking about how to help the community [of laid off tech professionals] and recruiters. There are a couple of issues in layoffs.
“For one, it’s hard to know exactly who at a company has been laid off when they announce, say that they have laid off 25 percent of their workforce. If you reach out at random, you’ll find three out of four people weren’t laid off.
“Second, there is a stigma around layoffs, so often people won’t mention that they’ve been laid off. But if layoff information is institutionalized, becomes a platform, and top companies are hiring there, it takes the stigma away.
“So we thought it would be great if there were a centralized place where recruiters could access data and reach out directly.
“We get the data from three sources. Sometimes, we work directly with companies doing a layoff to offer an opt-in [to our service]. We did that with the HR team at Lyft.
“We also look at publicly available spreadsheets or lists. These are sometimes set up by a coworker, or someone in HR; the formats vary a lot. We only use these when the information is available publicly. And we remove anybody on those lists who contacts us, we try to do that within an hour of being notified. Finally, you can sign up directly on Parachutelist.com.
“Then we standardize the data, which is challenging. Even something like “Bay Area,” people will say San Francisco, SF, Peninsula. We also try to standardize job functions and titles. Our AI tools take a first pass. They will, for example, ingest what someone does based on a description given, then give [the job] a standardized title, calculate years of experience, and label the region. They also , extract skills from a resume and standardize those to make them searchable. AI gets about 80 to 90 percent of the cases right, but we still have a human review every profile, to look for edge cases.
“We started building Parachute right about when lockdown started. We did a soft launch at end of April, started getting word out in early May. Right now, we have 13,500 on the list from all over the world—we had people signing up in India, Dubai, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and Nigeria. We now have a Spanish language version now live in Chile, and we have Israeli and French versions in the works. We are continuing to make improvements in how we ingest data and bring people on.
“We have candidates from just about every tech layoff that happened, like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Peerspace, and WeWork. We have several thousand recruiters using it, from every major company, like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Twitter on the big side, to Coinbase, Shift, and Doximity on the small side. We’ve had verified recruiters reach out to candidates from our platform 25,000 times; generally, mid-level professionals are getting the most interest. We don’t know how many have been hired; because we aren’t charging anybody for this service we don’t have a good way of tracking them. We have received more than 150 emails from professionals letting us know, but we believe the real number is two to three times that.
“My hope is that the need for this product goes away. It’s a weird thing, you build a product, but you actually aren’t hoping that it gets more use.”
This article appears in the September 2020 print issue as “Rocket Recruiting Is Using AI to Get You a Job. For Free.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.