Alex Levy is accumulating accolades.

In 2011, PROFIT Magazine named him entrepreneur of the year. Then the Toronto Star named him one of 12 people to watch in 2012. And today, he’s got the incomparable honour of being Hirefly’s latest Hiring Hero ;)

Alex Levy with a MyVoice User

Alex Levy with a MyVoice User

It’s an unlikely outcome for a political science student from the University of Toronto.

But add together a mandatory science credit in artificial intelligence, a fluke encounter with a stroke survivor, and the will to solve problems, and you get a young man running a ground-breaking assistive technology company.

The company is MyVoice. Its apps, RocketKeys and TalkRocket Go, enable people with speech and language disabilities to speak using their iPads and iPhones and are already used by kids and adults in more than 30 countries.

And in talking to Alex recently, we learned a whole bunch about how a poli sci student staffs a tech start up.

CEO as chief recruiter

It’s something we hear a lot.

CEOs, especially those in technical companies where target talent is scarce, are increasingly taking up the mantle of chief recruiter.

MyVoice’s early team was assembled from the University of Toronto community, including engineers, computer science researchers, and speech language pathologists. But as the company evolved off the campus, Alex had to take increasing responsibility for finding great people in creative ways.

“Small businesses are not clued into professional HR,” Alex explains. “There’s a gulf. Big companies treat hiring like a big process and they pay a lot of money for that. Small companies effectively leave it up to chance. They could be doing a lot more to help themselves out.”

So for all the leaders in smaller organizations – who don’t have the big HR machine – here are Alex’s top five learnings from his role as MyVoice chief recruiter:

MyVoice App - Hello!

#1 – hire people who care

“You don’t go into assistive technology for the glory. You go into it because you care about making a difference. Most of the people on our team have some personal connection to the work – a family member with a disability. Tony, for example, he’s our community director. His daughter was one of our first users. That makes him the perfect person to help our users and their families succeed.”

#2 – get the word out

There are lots of skilled people with connection to and belief in the purpose of MyVoice. How do you get the word out top them?

“MyVoice works with the media to help shine a light on our amazing users. And that has played an important role in attracting like-minded people who find their stories as compelling as we do.”

If you can make your mission and purpose clear, people will come to you.

#3 – go where the people are

Similarly, seeking people out in groups has been helpful.

“I’ve looked for places where people congregate around shared interests – meet ups, groups for people with disabilities. These events are a magnet for highly-engaged people. People who got out of their pyjamas to be there.”

#4 – broaden your options

“If small companies hire only from their own networks, they’re limiting the range of people they can see. There’s a concept in computer science called the local maximum – where you find what appears to the best option, but is actually just the best option that’s close to you. That’s what I like about Hirefly’s model; it helps broaden the pool beyond your network, using technology and in an affordable way. That’s an emerging area.”

#5 – steal good ideas

There’s a lot of innovation in recruitment today, and that’s inspiring Alex to try new things. The day I spoke with Alex, he was visiting Twitter’s offices in California. They were doing two things that caught his attention.

One, they’re following the news of layoffs – looking for companies who are shedding employees with the skills they’re after. Two, they’re using interviews as a hunting ground, asking interviewees who else at their current/last company Twitter should pursue.

you found ‘em – now what?

Once you’ve found those high potential recruits, there’s still the difficult work of selecting the best ones.

“Picking between good candidates is really hard,” Alex tells me. “It’s a good problem to have but it’s really tough. You’re choosing between two or three good people. How do you decide? How do know you won’t regret the decision?”

Like all of our Hiring Heroes entrepreneurs, Alex, who comes across as outgoing and people-oriented, has had to work against his natural tendency to charm and be charmed by potential recruits. He’s learned to look past intuitive judgements about candidates in order to make better hires, particularly in technical roles.

“One of my mistakes, the biggest one, came in technical hiring. It’s hard to tell the good technical performers from the bad ones. They look the same on paper. They’ve programmed for three years but are they actually good at it? And the best programmers are ten times more productive than the average ones, so it’s really important to make the right choice.”

As a result, MyVoice’s interviews have become more structured, more technical. They’ve also used three month trial contracts. The best performers stay on as full time team members. It’s a trend he sees in similar companies.

something meaningful

In the end, our chief recruiting CEO tells me:

MyVoice en francais

“I’m very happy with the people who work for me. Programmers have their pick of jobs. They’re attracted to work here because we’re working on something meaningful. They even leave good jobs – jobs where they do something useful but not soul-nurturing – to work with us and solve these challenging problems.”

Sounds like hiring success to me.