Is Hiring Rocket Scientists Rocket Science? with UrtheCast’s Nicole Davidson

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UrtheCast’s talent acquisition specialist gives an inside look at recruiting for the commercial space industry. Tweet it

Nicole Davidson, Talent Acquisition Specialist at private space company UrtheCast

“‘Space is hard’ is something that you hear often in our industry.”

That’s Nicole Davidson, talent acquisition specialist at UrtheCast, talking about the challenge of recruiting super-skilled talent for the fast-growing commercial space company.

“It really is hard. We’re working on solving some huge challenges and everybody knows that having the right talent – the right people – is hugely important.”

UrtheCast has built, launched, installed, and now operates two earth observation cameras aboard the International Space Station. No small feat, and just the start; the company has several even more ambitious space-based camera and data collection projects in the works.

Sounds incredibly exciting.

It also sounds like incredibly tough recruiting. How do you find the few, ultra-specialized people who can solve the ‘huge challenges’ and bring those big-vision projects into reality? How do you win them over to your company’s particular mission and culture, when so many other competitors are trying to do the same? Is hiring rocket scientists rocket science?

Nicole kindly agreed to a little Q&A …

“ … We hold the managers to a really high standard – they are happy to be held to it, because they hold us to that same high standard.”

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UrtheCast is in hyper-growth mode – jumping from 80 to 150 employees in North America in eight months. How do you manage a recruiting strategy to keep up with that?

Starting right at the start, we try to establish really strong relationships with hiring managers. We work with them to build super-aggressive recruiting plans with realistic timelines – to the point where we will pull out a calendar and count backwards to figure out dates and deadlines. We use our ATS, Jazz, religiously, and we try to over communicate in a really concise way; when things change, we make sure that change is being communicated back to the manager. In the end, we hold the managers to a really high standard – they are happy to be held to it, because they hold us to that same high standard.

So it’s really about supporting the manager.

Absolutely. One of the most satisfying things for me is when you start working with a new hiring manager and you can see, feel and hear the stress. You know what kind of impact getting them the right person in a short amount of time is going to have, and then getting them that right person and seeing the stress just melt away. I find that just incredibly rewarding. We try to celebrate that as often as we can as a team.

When the candidate is happy, the hiring manager is happy and the company is happy, you get what I call the ‘triple win’. Getting that is very, very important to me as a recruiter.

What are the types of talent you’re recruiting?

The types of people that we are hiring range, literally, from rocket scientists with 15 or 20 plus years’ experience on our space segment and engineering teams, to software engineers for our cloud operations team. Our ground segment engineering team is growing really quickly, our operations team is really an interesting place to be, and then we hire all of the corporate functions as well – everything from HR to IT to Finance. We’ve been growing across every single department.

It presents a really interesting challenge, figuring out how to attract rocket scientists compared to a software engineer, and doing that in different markets. We have to be really creative and really engage our employees to help us with referrals.

“When the candidate is happy, the hiring manager is happy and the company is happy, you get what I call the ‘triple win’.”

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What are some of the ways you source people?

We do a lot of LinkedIn sourcing – not so much headhunting, but definitely looking at more passive candidates and making sure that we’re building long-term relationships with the right people. We’ve got these great ‘tiger teams’ who go to conferences, speak at conferences and sit on panels and get out there meeting people. Our team in San Francisco does a great job hosting a lot of Meetups and getting really involved in the NewSpace community, which is growing so quickly there. And then there’s employer branding: we all love working at UrtheCast, and we’re really working to do a better job at sharing and telling that story externally.

In North America, you have offices in Vancouver, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. – are there differences in trying to recruit for these different markets?

Absolutely. The strongest difference is probably between our two biggest offices, Vancouver and San Francisco. Talking to talent for San Francisco, we always assume that every candidate is already in conversation with other companies, and they might already have offers on the table. So we approach that conversation differently; we’ll invite candidates to meet team members very early on in the interview process and in a more casual, more social setting. We’ll give them full-access to our culture and try to help them understand what it might feel like to work here.

Brisbane, Australia as from one of UrtheCast’s Deimos Earth Observation satellites
Brisbane, Australia as seen from UrtheCast’s Theia camera. Credit: UrtheCast.

Aside from recruiting, you’re also focused on improving the UrtheCast candidate experience. What particular projects are you working on, and why are they important to tackle right now?

We’re revamping our on-boarding right now. We’re reviewing every step of the process, right from the time that the candidate signs on the dotted line, to pre-boarding before they start, what the first few hours of the first day look like, and who’s taking them out for lunch. We’re plotting it out right through to what we call post-boarding, which is training with their team, being assigned a peer-buddy, getting IT support.

A couple things we’re implementing:

  1. Revamped welcome email: We’re going to make it a little bit more on-brand, a little shinier, a little more fun, keep the energy up.
  2. First-day on boarding: We’ve been told that it’s really thorough, but we’re making little tweaks, like sending them links to the sites they need right away so they don’t need to go search through their Welcome Package for it. We’re also upping our swag game so the first time they sit down at their desk they feel ‘wow-ed’. We’re also trying to tell more stories and focus on our culture and what makes UrtheCast awesome, and moving some of the less vital first week logistics to the end of the week.
  3. First Friday lunch: They start on a Monday, so we’ll do a lunch on the Friday, to touch base and check in on how the first week went. We’ll answer any unfinished questions, maybe give them more swag.

We want to get new hires engaged quickly and ramped up as fast as possible. And we want them to have a fantastic experience, because not only does it contribute to retention, it inspires them to share referrals. We want them to end that first week thinking, “Wow, this is a great place – who else do I know that could join the team?”

“ … We want them to have a fantastic experience, because not only does it contribute to retention, it inspires them to share referrals.”

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Check out more of UrtheCast’s jaw-dropping shots of planet Earth at

From an interview with @ChristianDePape.

Banner image: UrtheCast’s ISS-mounted Iris video camera. Credit: UC/Roscosmos.

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