Rising to the Top

By Karen Rosen, ATLANTA TREND  

When Eric Presley joined HeadHunter.NET in late 1997, there were already two other software developers on board: One was 16 years old, had just gotten his driver’s license and had body piercings and long hair; the other was in his mid-20s and was known for being a tinkerer.

Eric was 31 and “the only guy without the piercings,” he says. “I wanted to be in the Internet so badly, I didn’t really care how I got there.”

The company’s CEO, Warren Bare, had told Eric when he hired him, ‘Hey, we’ll just figure out between you three guys who will end up being the leader.”

That quickly turned out to be Eric, who is now Chief Technology Officer for CareerBuilder.com, which acquired HeadHunter.NET in 2001.

Eric says HeadHunter initially thought it would make its money from banner ads, then progressed through different business models.

“We ended up switching to more of the traditional pay-per-listing model, and that’s when the business really began to take off,” he says.

When investors wanted to take the company public, Eric says, “We went through “the summer from hell,” working around the clock. When the company went public, it raised $34 million.

Then CareerBuilder.com came along. “It was disappointing,” Eric says. “We were here from the beginning and your goal was to win, and now somebody was buying you. We had bought companies, and we knew what happens to companies when you buy them: you absorb them in. It was kind of like your dream was over.”

But the dream wasn’t over. CareerBuilder.com said it had heard good things about HeadHunter’s platform and would consider using it. “It seemed as if they were kind of giving us a fair shake,” Eric says. “We were sort of biased, but we felt like ours is better.”

CareerBuilder, though, picked its own platform.

A Defining Moment

That’s when Craig Stamm, the HeadHunter CFO, sent Eric an e-mail which he still has. “He said, ‘I know they didn’t pick it,” Eric says, “’but you owe it to the board of the company to communicate why you think they should have picked the HeadHunter platform.’”
Eric wrote the memo, then left the company.

A couple of months later, he got a call from Bob Montgomery, the HeadHunter CEO who had also left. Montgomery asked Eric if he’d come back if HeadHunter’s leadership returned. Eric said he might. When Montgomery followed up a month later, Eric agreed to join CareerBuilder if he was promoted from vice president of technology to CTO.

Montgomery not only brought back the HeadHunter leadership, he also brought back their platform.

Eric still refers to that old e-mail from Stamm, and has forwarded it a couple of times, “just to tell people, ‘Hey, this is kind of where we’ve come from.’ It was one of those defining things.”

Large Company vs. Small

Eric grew up in Chamblee, graduated from Georgia Tech and got his masters degree at North Carolina State. He started his career at Northern Telecom doing embedded software development for their digital telephone switch. The company had thousands of engineers.

“It was a great learning experience, but because it was such a big company, your impact was pretty small,” he says.

Eric and his wife decided to move back to Atlanta, where he joined Advanced Technology Consultants, which had about 30 employees. That’s where Eric met Roger Fugett, now CareerBuilder’s Vice President of Information Technology.

Eric stayed with the company for five years, but says, “It was like I had hit the ceiling.”

“While at ATC I got hooked on the drug of working for a small company, where you get to do a little bit of everything,” he says. “It was great training to prepare for joining the Internet startup Headhunter.net in 1997.”

The first year at Headhunter was chaotic and exciting as the company explored business models while on a tight budget. When a successful business model settled in and the business prepared to go public, Eric realized he needed to set principles in place for the Technology team.

“We weren’t documenting anything,” he says. “We were just sitting at desks coding as fast as we could.”

Going by the Book

One day Eric walked into a bookstore and discovered “Lean Software Development, An Agile Toolkit” by Mary and Tom Poppendieck. One of its chapters was titled, “Decide as Late as Possible.”

“If you’re in software development, and you see ‘decide as late as possible,’ that’s the exact opposite of what you’re taught in school, which is ‘get commitment as early as possible,’” Eric says. “I realized that this is how we’d been working and it’s not so bad that we’d been working that way!”

He used the book to form HeadHunter’s foundational principles, which carried over to CareerBuilder, now the nation’s largest online job site, with more than 23 million unique visitors a month and 1.6 million jobs. Surpassing Monster.com in both traffic and revenue, CareerBuilder.com powers the career centers for more than 1,200 partners, including 140 newspapers and leading portals such as America Online and MSN. More than 300,000 employers take advantage of the job postings.

Eric says the economic downturn has had a transformative effect on CareerBuilder, which is tied to a growing economy.

“There’s a lot of business innovation at CareerBuilder, and a lot of it is even born out of the company values of disciplined freedom,” he says. “A lot of those innovations turned into some pretty good revenue-generating products.”

For example, an employee responsible for products sold to job seekers packaged them into an outplacement product that CareerBuilder could sell to companies laying off people. That provided a new revenue stream.

Eric says the industry is also influenced by social networking. CareerBuilder is the official reseller of recruitment advertising in Facebook.

“Companies are trying to develop more of a connection with potential job seekers than just advertising on a job site,” Eric says, “and we recognize that as well.”

Secrets to Success

1. Putting the right person into the right job. “I’ve seen people put in the wrong roles just struggle. When you pick them up and put them in a role that fits their strengths and what they want to do, it’s transforming.”

2. Prioritize. Bob Montgomery, Eric’s former CEO, would call him on the phone and after about 15 seconds of chit-chat, he’d say, “OK, I’ve got three things for you.”
It was never more than three things. “I began to realize that everything is about prioritization. You have a limited amount of time and limited resources, so picking the few things that you can focus on that are going to be the most impactful is a critical skill.”

3. Have a common language. CareerBuilder uses many of the terms come from the book “Lean Software Development. “So many problems happen because of communication problems. People think they’re saying the same thing, but they’re not.”

4. Remove as many layers as possible between the problem source and the people who can actually do something about it. “We try not to have interpreters in the middle.

 5. The importance of relationships. “When you’re in technology, you don’t think that much about relationships. You think about, ‘Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.’ Forming relationships with the people on the business side “will produce better understanding and solutions.”


Eric Presley is Chief Technology Officer at CareerBuilder.com. ATLANTA TREND expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Eric Presley for sharing his thoughts with us. 





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