Alumni Profile: Pat Whelan

By Anne Marshall ● October 22, 2018 13:00

Headshot of a man.Pat Whelan is a co-founder of Paddle HR, a talent technology company that helps large enterprises keep their best talent by improving internal mobility. Using big data and deep learning, they help employers match talent to open jobs within their companies. Pat talked to us about his own non-linear career path, and how the “change of scenery” many employees seek might actually be found in their current workplace.

Q: Can you give us a brief history of how Paddle came to be?

A: Paddle was started in October 2015, with the broad and lofty goal of trying to help people succeed in non-linear careers – or to have an easier time job jumping, which is another way to think about it. The concept was that people increasingly want to have more diversity in the work they're doing. They want to have jobs that are different and exciting. That's true of younger generations more than older ones, but everybody wants more of that sort of freedom. Yet there are also these external pressures like job automation and more that are essentially shifting jobs.

They're not necessarily replacing old jobs – that’s the extreme version – but even when they automate some small part [of a job], that shifts the work that people are doing on the ground. So jobs are changing, and people want to change jobs more. The assumption was that there are going to be more job switching in the future than today – and there are more today than ever before. So our idea was to use technology to help us through that process, because it’s not always the easiest thing in the world.

We started by trying to help university students figure out what they want to do with their careers. Our idea was that it's not just one thing they’ll be doing. It's probably going to be multiple things. And how do they build agility in their career to prepare for those different career paths?

We built this wonderful product and sold it to Stanford University, a bunch of Ontario universities, and Singapore Management University, but we found that the only way we could make this business model work was to take money from employers to put job ads on your platform. And it’s a highly competitive space.

So we decided we didn’t want to go down that path. We took a bit of a hard look in the mirror and said, “Okay. We want to help people switch careers. We know that it's difficult to get financing from the individual who needs to prepare for career planning. It's a weird anomaly that people have: they’ll spend 20 bucks to go to a movie, but not 20 bucks to get their resume reviewed or something like that, even though the ROI is super clear. So we had to think, “Who's got a business case around trying to help people switch careers?”

What we found is that there's a really big problem in big companies. People no longer feel that there are career growth opportunities in large companies. And that was traditionally where career growth existed, right? Careers were built to these big corporate ladders, and now these companies are turning people all the time. It's something that they can't seem to shake, this perception that there's a lack of career growth opportunities. So we thought that within big companies, there would be a way to apply our products. It’s our mission to try and create some diversity for the people who work at them, by allowing them to engage with new opportunities more quickly and easily.

A man standing a grey sweater with his arms crossed.

Q: How do the seemingly contradictory dual goals of Paddle – promoting “internal mobility” recruiting within companies and “job jumping” for employees – align?

A: Well, where you work has a lot to do with cultural alignment – liking the people you work with, liking the mission, liking the customer or whoever you serve – but that doesn’t mean you don’t want a “job” job. People don’t necessarily say, “I am sick and tired of my employer.” They say, “I’m tired of this job, I want a change of scenery.” And it’s a lot easier to go external [to look for a new job] than to go internal. So it’s not about slowing down job jumping; it’s about increasing the opportunity to make that job jump internally, because there’s already tremendous opportunity to do it externally. It’s about giving those internal opportunities a fighting chance when you’re thinking about the best way to grow your career.

I think they’re complementary goals, and in large part, big companies have a lot to offer in terms of learning and development from an employee’s perspective. If a business is no longer a place to learn and develop in your career, then that’s obviously bad for the company and its employees, because it becomes a kind of revolving door – in and out. There’s definitely a business case to be made as to why it’s bad for employers. They’ve built their entire businesses on a labour model that is one person, one job. Increasingly that labour model is being broken. Now it’s often one person and a collection of jobs, doing different things. 

Q: What does a Paddle success story look like?

A: I have a couple of examples of how people are really trying to leverage this technology. I think it's really interesting in the Canadian context specifically, because in Canada, we have a lot of underemployed people. Going back to the demographic that I was trying to serve earlier in this business, students, there are a lot of new grads who are underemployed or not working in their fields. We also have a ton of new Canadians with incredible skills and credentials, who are also underemployed due to the challenges of starting a whole new life in a whole new country. And so companies in Canada are really interested in what we’re saying. They’ve got these massive operations, whether they be retail or call centres, or the tellers in banks, or whatever it may be. Within these massive operations, there are hidden, high-impact individuals they can leverage. They can pull them into the organization, and put them in a role where they can have a bigger impact on the overall mission of the company.

This is a story that an HR professional was telling me, about working with a bank that was looking to hire an industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologist. Instead of just putting a job posting up online looking for new grads, he decided to go in the database. What he found was that they had eight I-O Psychologists working as bank tellers. They had graduated and couldn’t find roles in their field, so they had worked for the bank while they were in school. It was a great job, so they went back to it. These people weren't necessarily unhappy, but they were certainly interested in the opportunity to move to corporate, and put their education in that field into practice. That’s a use case that I’m really excited about, especially in the Canadian context, because I think the underemployment of qualified professionals is a big problem here.

Q: Can an AI really be as powerful a recruiting tool as a seasoned HR professional? How does the platform operate?

A: We get our data from publicly posted career histories on the internet. So anywhere people are saying, “I did this job, for this time period, and these were my responsibilities… .” We’re leveraging technology, partners and a variety of different ways to gather that data, but it’s largely LinkedIn and similar sources. The model we were going for is similar to how you would get career advice. There's essentially two broad ways people seek this advice. Go to someone you trust, who may know very little about your actual career realm, but they're a parent or a friend, and you ask them for career advice. That's one way. The other model is to seek out mentors who have had similar experiences or career trajectories you admire, and you ask them how they did it. That's basically one data point.

What we’re trying to do is do essentially like crowdsourcing, but instead of going to just one person, we're saying, “Okay, of the known people who are working here in North America and across Europe who have had similar career experiences to me, what did they go on to do next and how did they do it?” That’s essentially what the machine learning is doing. It is looking to find people who have or had a similar background, see what the patterns were, and then recommend jobs based on that. So we tried to model this big, fancy, new technology off one of the oldest ways of getting career advice, from people that have had similar career trajectories to one’s own aspirations.

A man standing in front of a clear podium with a microphone. Next to the man is a pink pull up banner.

Q: Has your own career path evolved the way you imagined? What would your high school guidance counsellor think of how things turned out?

A: (Laughing) I have no idea! It’s certainly been a winding road, and I do subscribe to the notion that I’m not going to have one career. I’ll have multiple careers, and entrepreneurialism is one of them. It’s certainly challenging and interesting, and you gain skills – as well as a bunch of bad habits (laughs) – all of that comes with entrepreneurship. Before this, I was working in the world of election campaigns and politics, and I enjoyed that as well. Before that, I was really involved in non-profit work and student government. I’ve bounced around and picked up different skills in different places. I definitely would not have mapped out this trajectory, but I’m certainly glad I’m here.

Q: What would you say is the best career advice you’ve encountered?

A: I think it’s generally to work towards what we call a non-linear career. After reading lots of really interesting work about cross-sector leadership and related concepts, that’s what it boils down to for me: work for lots of different organizations throughout your life. Not just work for Pepsi and then Coke, but work for governments. Work for that small non-profit. Work in an entrepreneurial environment. Work in XYZ, because then, later in life, you’ll be able to bring together these different experiences – and understand how to bring people who work in these worlds together to solve common problems. To me, that is a really interesting way to think about it. What collection of skills and experiences do I want to put in my basket? And I continue to build that experience, so that maybe I can be in a position where I can bring people together to solve problems.

Q: What have you and Paddle gained from working with the CFC IDEABOOST Accelerator last spring and IDEABOOST-Network Connect community?

A: It’s absolutely awesome mentorship. There’s an impulse in entrepreneurship to put your head down and get to work. You can sometimes lose sight of the fact that you’re in the midst of a community, and that community can help you along this path. There’s real benefit to that, from working with someone who can say, “Yeah, I’ve been there before and it is hard, and here’s how you can avoid it,” to making an introduction to a valuable partner or collaborator. So IDEABOOST was a really good way for us to re-engage with the Toronto community, and get to know a lot of really, really smart mentors, partners and practitioners – whatever you want to call them. People who have got this really excellent set of skills, and are dying to help companies like Paddle leverage it. The biggest gain for us was a community.

Beyond that, there is an accountability measure. That’s another challenge of entrepreneurship. You don’t have the accountability that reporting to a boss provides. So you need that sometime to make the steps you want to make in a month. It’s so easy to say, “Oh, I can wait until tomorrow.” When you’re in a community, though, you’re going to meet once a month and say “here's what I've done in the last month,” so you can’t get away with that. It's an extra push to stay a later and get that done today, as opposed to putting it off. So that's always good, always necessary, and mentors do that for you, too, of course – and we’ve met a bunch of them through the CFC and IDEABOOST Accelerator.

A group of five people sitting and talking around a round table.

Q: The reality that we’re in a time of precarious employment can’t be avoided – and Paddle is obviously riding the crest of a wave that is changing the way all of us think about work. Care to make any predictions as to what a “good job” might look like in 10 years? 20? 50?

A: Well, hopefully in 50 years we just don't have jobs anymore (laughs). Wouldn’t that be nice? But in the interim, I think what we’re going to see is first that people are going to take a portfolio approach to how they think about work. Most everyone I know has got a few things on the go, whether that’s a full-time job and some volunteering on the side, or they’ve got a small entrepreneurial venture that they’re cooking up. I think a lot more people are enjoying that kind of work, where you can get a little bit of this from here, and a little bit of that from there. I think that will continue, and may even continue with a single employer.

Think about the way companies hire engineering talent: typically for skill sets. So you hire a developer who's really good in the VR realm; you don't necessarily hire a staff member to a particular project and if that project disappears, so does that staff member. I think organizations are going to use that concept that we've already used in the realm of engineers, creatives and other high-skill employees across the board. They’ll hire people with that skill set or capability, and that will be the job posting: that’s what the person will get hired for, rather than a specific position, and the organization will be staffed. The project might run full-time for a week or it might be 10 hours for a year with a bunch of different projects. Then, when the project goes awa, and the organization doesn't need that skill set, they can pick and redirect that person to someplace that needs it.

I remember seeing these two articles side by side, and was one of the things that made me realize how important things like Paddle are going to be in the future. It was two headlines: “LinkedIn faces huge hiring costs in the Bay Area” right above “LinkedIn___ office lays off X number of staff,” because they discontinued some project or product. It was this disconnect, where you've got this excellent talent, but for business reasons, you’ve decided to discontinue that piece of work. Meanwhile in the other office down the road, they’re having trouble getting people to fill seats. If you could just create better fluidity and mobility within organizations, it would be less dramatic for employees, less dramatic for businesses, and people would likely have better careers because they could move around more. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photos by Brian de Rivera Simon.