The University of Sumser

Class is in session at the University of Sumser where the Dean is opposed to idea that there is a quick fix to everything. If you’ve taken a class here before, you know that staunch opinion and firm beliefs always make an appearance. But there’s always an interesting discussion in the works. Next week, John Sumser takes his thought university on the road to keynote recruitDC, the region’s premiere recruiting conference and meet-up, for a course on localizing recruiting. The king of industry analysis, John’s been diving into all things recruiting and technology for much of his career. His recent leadership in the field includes a deep look at social technology in recruiting and HR, a multi-year investigation of influence in HR and a number of engagements with recruiting operations, employer brand initiatives and product designs.

I snagged John on his virtual campus to talk a little bit about his upcoming class, his history and ironically, his own influence.

Susan: You create these great influencer lists sharing great leadership examples across multiple disciplines. And yet, you’re actually a key influencer yourself. Where did all of this begin?

John: I’ve always worked in sales and influence to some extent. At eight years old I was selling magazines. When I made my way to college I decided to major in philosophy, which entitled me to be a door-to-door Santa Claus. It’s a great story actually. Polaroid had just developed an instant movie camera and for $1500 you could get an instant movie and Santa would come to your house for a party. But it was the same year that Sony introduced Betamax for $100 less. So technically my first post-college job was a bunch of Santas sitting around an office, smoking cigarettes and waiting for phone to ring. I think I was terrified that was going to be my life.

S: Santa to recruiting is a pretty big jump. I imagine there’s something in between?

J: There was. I cut my hair and then moved into the defense industry in Washington, DC and became the lowest paid employee in all of Westinghouse. As a copy boy I made $19,000 but surprisingly, really liked it. So over the next five years I [complemented that philosophy degree] with certificates in organization development and engineering. And I learned how to code.

S: And then you went from coding to recruiting?

J: Not quite. I became a technical writer and then a trainer. I didn’t even know half the stuff I was training on, but I had a mentor who told me “all that matters is that you’re an hour ahead of the class at the end of the day.” So I taught all day (crazy subjects like teaching the Chinese Navy to make frigates—don’t ask) and then I learned at night.

S: Fast forward some technology projects and proposals and then what?

J: I ended up as the VP of R&D. I had become the guy who was interested in the [new thing called] the Internet and the future of publishing. I stayed there 15 years.

S: It makes sense that they’d want someone interested in the future to be steering the future of the company, namely, research and development. But I still don’t get the connection to recruiting.

J: It came through technology really. I moved from Westinghouse to run a non-profit. But it was staffed by a bunch of hippies and I ran it like an engineer. I got fired. Since times were tough and the non-profit was ground zero for the commercialization of internet, I got three T1 lines for my severance. I used them to start to look for a job online in old usenet groups but it was boring and it wasn’t working. Then I decided to see how many jobs I could apply for. I applied for 70 jobs a day for 17 days straight before I needed a break which got me wondering--how long would it take to apply for these all at once?

S: And that’s how you became an analyst, delving into statistics and trends in recruiting?

J: That’s right. I founded interbiznet in 1994 because I had the statistics. I became an analyst for an industry by default. Many people then know the rest of the story. I sold it in 2006, edited for a year, worked with Jason Davis to build and then started HRExaminer.

S: I know there were other things in there too—you started and also played a role in the Jason Davis versus Jason Goldberg blogging controversy. In fact, it seems you gravitate towards controversy.

J: Look, I’m an analyst for an industry who evaluates technology and trends and in the world I operate in, (the world where you evaluate for a living), the truth is a scarce commodity. The culture craves big dramatic solutions. It’s normal for vendors and consultants to paint their products and services in very stark relief as if that was how one solved problems. Most real world answers are nuanced and subtle. I stay neutral and honest. I have a habit of noticing that the emperor is naked.

S: It’s funny how honesty can build and burn bridges at the same time.

J: Yes. I’ve often positioned myself as the guy who knows how the game ought to played and people don’t always want to hear that. But that’s fine. I’m okay with people being mad at me. I think high performance teams prefer candor. But high performance is not what everyone wants. Candor and civility are not always compatible.

S: Because of, or, in spite of the controversy, you’re clearly influential. What role or experience has had the most influence on you?

J: I learned as much from mowing lawns and selling magazines and bartending, so I am not sure. What I do know is that showing up and doing shit has an amazing effect. Showing up and talking doesn’t get you anywhere. But talking (which I learned as a bartender) is important while you’re doing stuff.

S: Is that part of the analysis? You’re talking out a solution, learning as you go?

J: Learning as you go is. I really didn’t know anything until I was out of work and started a company. There’s nothing but you and the cash flow and you have to decide between a ream of printer paper and a box of mac and cheese for dinner. The bottom line is I bore easily and am really curious and I’m capable of getting interested in what’s right in front of you.

S: I’ve been there—there’s no better learning experience than being an entrepreneur. You can make some serious mistakes and still come out the better for it. Would you brand yourself as a learner? Is that what drives the influence?

J: I guess. I think I’m most like a university. The essence of what I do [as a leader in the industry] is teaching. But I also take pride in being a laboratory for ideas. And then I never let my assumptions go unchecked.

S: Because of that you’ve predicted a lot of recruiting and technology trends. It’s a real talent of yours. What’s one you were ahead of the curve on?

J: I still really believe in talent communities but I was writing about them 15 years ago. I guess I was exceptionally ahead of the curve there. But everyone’s still getting the idea of communities wrong. It’s not about you throwing it out there and letting people decide if they’re a member of your community. It’s honing in on who the target is and focusing there.

S: Have you ever hung your hat on something that was totally wrong?

J: Honestly, not really. I’m a scout and I like to be able to see things ahead of their time. What helps is getting in early to understand it. There’s a great book, “The Timeless Way of Building” that talks about the only way you can really understand something in a way that matters is to get dirt under your fingernails and build it yourself. I try not to ever, have an idea that I haven’t tried to turn into something. You have to figure out how to do it before you tell people it’s a good idea.

S: Before I let you go, let’s talk recruitDC. Coming on the heels of some cities that have a really strong recruiting community (like Minneapolis), DC is coming together stronger than ever. You’re keynoting the upcoming recruitDC conference. What advice would you give recruiting and TA professionals about working effectively within their local market?

J: Most people assume that the world is like the place they live in. But everywhere is really like a weird bubble. That’s why recruiting is local. But you can’t assume that everyone outside of your bubble is like you. What I’m going to talk about are the solutions that work in the world you operate in. If your company is in Washington, you need to recruit in Washington.

S: So what’s next for you?

J: I’m actively looking for that next opportunity. I have a real interest in problems people have. I actually want to move away from controversy into something deep and new. That’s really the trajectory of my life as a whole.

S: Well then maybe it’s time for a university sabbatical of sorts? Teaching back to problem-solving and R&D? Sometimes it’s easier to be controversial when teaching – you can blame the school. Either way you can still be influential.

J: Isn’t that the truth.


Have a problem you want John to solve? Contact him or

This interview was compiled by Susan Strayer. Contact Susan at

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