In 2014, the New York Times reported that according to a Stanford study of dot-com boom startups, “tech entrepreneurs gave little thought to human resources. Nearly half of the companies left it up to employees to shape the culture and perform traditional human resource tasks.”
This perception still persists in tech circles despite notable achievements in HR in Silicon Valley. A well-known example is the 127-slide Netflix culture deck published in the late 1990s by then Chief Talent Officer, Patty McCord. It has been viewed millions of times and lauded by leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg as perhaps “the most important document ever to come out of the Valley”. McCord was in the role at Netflix for 14 years, working closely with founder Reed Hastings to build an exceptional team there.
The success of Netflix sparked a hot debate about the importance of culture in startups. But it did little to elevate the HR function in the minds of tech leaders.
Another big moment for HR in tech companies came in 2006 when Google appointed Laszlo Bock as the SVP of People Ops. Here finally was a real chance for a paradigm shift.
Well, first, there was Bock himself, a Yale MBA grad, an ex-Mckinsey consultant who served as the VP of HR at GE prior to joining Google. Then there was the new name: ‘People Operations,’ or ‘POPS’ as it is known to Googlers. In his book Work Rules, Bock describes the rebranding as a way to gain credibility in the ‘engineering first’ environment of Google. Between his credentials, the new brand, and Google’s coffers, Bock was well equipped to give HR an extreme makeover.
Bock’s key strategy was to make People Operations at Google an omniscient, data-driven organization. This made a lot of sense. Empowered with data, the POPS team was more effective in convincing engineers to take action. Also, the timing was right. The Mid-2000s were a time when data analytics was on the rise in the Valley. In 2005, Tim O’Reilly published What is Web 2.0 in which he asserted that “data is the next Intel inside.” Business Intelligence tools like BusinessObjects and Tableau had become a must-have software, helping companies “unleash the power of their data”.