Recruiting Q&A: Ciena

Human resources head Rebecca Seidman on finding new hires who fit the telecom-equipment maker's collaborative culture

The careers Web site for telecommunications-equipment maker Ciena features the usual types of information: job-fair schedules, descriptions of open positions, and a link to send your resume. But adjacent to each job listing is a curious button labeled "Boss Alert!" Click on the button, and up pops a bogus Web site that looks like a typical search engine. If your boss walks by while you're applying for a job at Ciena, you can jump to this page and pretend you're searching the Web. "You have to have a little fun in human resources," says Rebecca Seidman, Ciena's senior vice-president for human resources development, about the Boss Alert button.

The Linthicum (Md.) public company builds and operates optical-networking systems. Its fourth-quarter earnings of $41.3 million beat Wall Street estimates -- and were up 46% from the previous quarter. Revenues climbed 23%, to $287 million, during the same period. Ciena expects revenues to grow as much as 85% this year, as it expands its client base and gains on competitors in the networking industry. To keep pace with market demand, Ciena hired some 800 people last year, boosting its payroll to 2,800. If its careers Web site is any indication, the company will be looking for more engineers, sales managers, and other professionals in 2001. Recently, BusinessWeek Online Reporter Jennifer Gill spoke with Ciena's Seidman about the qualities she looks for in job applicants. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What positions are most in demand at Ciena?


There are really three constituent groups. One is our R&D group, and they're in four locations: Boston, Maryland, Atlanta, and the San Jose area. We also have a small group in Santa Barbara. In R&D, we're looking for software engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and others.

The second constituent group is manufacturing. Right now, we do the majority of our manufacturing in Maryland. We also just announced a lease of a big manufacturing facility in Atlanta. Manufacturing is different in terms of recruiting because it's a fairly new industry, and there aren't a lot of optical-manufacturing people on the assembly side.

Back in 1996, when we started to really ramp up manufacturing, we decided that the only way we could [grow] at the rate we needed to was to invest millions of dollars in optical-training labs on site [so we could train] unskilled people off the street. It has been a wonderful story in Maryland for a lot of people [who were in] dead-end jobs and have had the opportunity to learn a high-tech skill. [They go through] several months of training and then move through a whole variety of optical assembly. We fill our technician jobs [by promoting] our assemblers.

The third group is sales and marketing. They have to be highly experienced in systems sales. We are looking for people who know our customers or our prospective customers, and have a deep understanding of the general telecommunications area.

Q: What are your main avenues for finding qualified candidates today?


We're doing very well with our employee-referral program. It's very common in high-tech, and why not? A referral from somebody who knows the environment that you're asking that person to come into is really a step above anything else. This past year, we doubled the payout, and we have a little bonus at the end of the year for people who refer three or more people.

Q: How much does an employee receive if they successfully refer someone?


Depending on the position and the level, it's anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. There's a waiting period. Both the new employee and the referring employee have to be employed at Ciena three months following the date of hire.

Q: Is your Web site a productive way to find candidates?


There are always bluebirds that pop in it who are wonderful. It also just allows people to see what positions we are hiring and what kind of growth we are having. Generally, we get a high number [of resumes through the Web site], but the return is not as high as from job fairs, employee referrals, or other types of screening.

Q: Describe the recruiting process, please.


If it has to be, it can be incredibly quick. I got an unsolicited e-mail from a Frenchman who was in the United States. [He was] in the optical field with a French company, working at a division here in the U.S. He had done his two years for that company, and had researched Ciena and decided this is where he wanted to go. But he was a little late in getting me his information.

When he sent it to me, he said, "In two days, I'm being deported." His visa was up in two days. I called him right away, flew him here the next morning, and got him through a full round of interviews. We hired him before he was deported.

So it can be as quick as that. Generally, I like to have one of my HR generalists or myself do a phone interview before I take anyone's time to fly them here and put them through a whole day of interviews.

[During the phone interview] I like to get a sense of who they are. We operate on a philosophy that says, "You hire people for what they know, and you fire them for who they are." And so who they are is a critical component to success at Ciena. Although human resources people can't really probe for technical skills in-depth, we certainly are good at understanding the culture match. We will reject a candidate who on paper might look like a perfect fit if we feel that they will not be a good contributing member of the team.

Q: How would you describe the culture at Ciena?


Very collaborative. There aren't any silos or walls. People are very comfortable directly contacting a peer who works in another area. You don't have to go up any chain of command. There aren't any rules in terms of upward mobility.

We want people who feel comfortable walking into [CEO] Pat Nettles' office and saying, "I've got an idea." [We want to know:] How comfortable are you in doing that? Do you need a more hierarchically structured environment?

We also look for how you describe where you came from and the kind of work you did. Do you talk about it as a team effort? Or do you talk about all the things you did? That's another flag for me, because we are very team-oriented.

Q: How's turnover?


Turnover has been fairly stable. In the last couple of years it's been between 12% and 15%, which is lower than the industry standard but more than I would like.

Q: What qualities are you looking for in managers at Ciena?


At the end of 1996, we had a couple hundred people. [We were near] 3,000 at the end of last year. That kind of growth requires management talent that understands change, that knows how to scale. That's not a customary skill. I probe for that [by asking candidates:] "What environments have you been in where you've built an organization and kept it growing, as opposed to being dropped into it?" We're at a size where we need some people to be very good maintainers of groups. But I also am looking for people who can scale organizations. [Given] the growth we are continuing to experience, that's a real commodity.

Q: Is there opportunity for advancement?


No question. Because we're in an industry that has scarce resources, much of our growth is through promotion. Often we fill an upper-level rack with a current person and then back-fill with a less-experienced outside hire.

My feeling is that people gravitate to what they enjoy, and it's pretty apparent when people either like being individual contributors or managing small groups or when they really want to have larger managerial roles. You can move up in the organization in either direction. I don't want people contorting to get a promotion. I don't want to put people in a position where they hate coming in to work.

Q: So there must be career-planning discussions?


A lot. Performance evaluations provide a formal way of doing it every year. But because we are growing and our promotions occur throughout the year, we think about [career planning] all the time. It's probably the second-most-important aspect of human resources, outside of recruiting.

Q: What are some common mistakes that you see applicants make?


I know it's fashionable to use a resume template that [lists] all the things you've accomplished, [but] I like the more traditional resume that has a work history and, within that history, lists what you've done. Some [candidates] will give you a page and a half of accomplishments, and then there's a little section that lists where they've worked every year.

In terms of the interview, I look for people who think about the question I ask and answer it crisply. I don't mind somebody asking me a question about my question [instead of] going off on a long discourse. How crisply you answer and how much you hit the nail right on the head is a real plus.

Q: What's it like to work at Ciena? Do people eat lunch at their desks every day?


The manufacturing floor is the most structured. There are shifts, and so people have a structured lunchtime and break time. In R&D, they often like to scarf down their lunch. Sometimes there's a whiffle-ball game out back in the parking lot. I'm too old to participate, but it looks like fun. There are a lot of meetings around meals because it's a great way to get people to slow down, relax, and collaborate. It's a normal break time that people will make, and so we bring a lot of food in.

Q: How many employees would I see if I walked around the office at 6:30 pm?


It's not like an early-early [stage company] where people are sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor to get product out. But it's still pretty intense. Our optical-switching group still operates pretty much as a startup, whereas other groups are more established and structured. If you are in a more structured group, you'll probably have a lot of people leaving by 7, 7:30 maybe. The R&D groups in the startup areas are more pressured to get their first product out.

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