Allen Blue, Co-Founder of LinkedIn: Leveraging 900M Career Profiles for Employment Insights
Van Ton Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. It’s safe to say that nearly everyone listening on this podcast has a profile on LinkedIn or if not, has visited LinkedIn to learn about someone else’s career history. It has approximately 900 million registered members worldwide and has become a powerful tool for employers, job seekers and entrepreneurs.
Our guest today, Allen Blue, was there at the creation of LinkedIn twenty years ago and has stayed with the company ever since, currently serving as VP of Product Management. His areas of focus include equity products, climate products and LinkedIn’s economic graph, which involves working with governments and institutions to share economic data and improve education and workforce policy. Allen is also engaged in policy advocacy around economic opportunity, the future of work and climate change. He chairs the board of the Hope Street Group, a nonprofit that brings economic opportunity to Americans through a combination of policy and practice and sits on several other nonprofit boards.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Allen.
Allen Blue: It’s great to be here.
Van: It’s fabulous to have you. Our audience would love to get an insider view into the creation of LinkedIn, which is coming up on its 20th anniversary in May. I would love to know, Allen, what was the most fun problem you worked on solving while at LinkedIn?
Allen: Yeah, it’s hard to believe actually that it has been twenty years, but we are almost there.
We’ve solved a lot of problems. We still have some problems in front of us, of course. But over the years, there’ve been many, I think, really interesting ones. I’m going to call on one specifically. Back in 2006, we had one of the very first feeds on the internet. It was a simple thing. It doesn’t look exactly like today’s feed does. But one of the problems we had to solve was how do we make sure that professionals can stay up to date on what’s happening with their connections and with their industry, with the world around them.
So, we actually built one of the very first news products on LinkedIn, bringing in the things that people were sharing — not only on LinkedIn, but also on Twitter — and pulling them together into what was really the beginning of what has become the premier professional
news feed on the net.
Van: Wow, that’s amazing. I’m sure you didn’t start off in that place, but my goodness, the impact that it has on all of our lives these days. I just wanted to acknowledge your work, your leadership, Allen, at LinkedIn and much beyond. You once mentioned that the profiles on LinkedIn could possibly give us insights into how to navigate careers because we can see how others got to where they are. Is that future already a reality?
Allen: It really is. You can kind of think of a LinkedIn profile — which looks, of course, a lot like a traditional resume — as a story which describes your path or any professional’s path through their professional career. You can see where they went to school. You can see what their first jobs were like. You can see how they made transitions into new companies or new industries, how they added new skills all the way up to what they’re doing today. So, when you look at a single person’s LinkedIn profile, you get a feeling for what their story is. But when you look at all of the 900 million LinkedIn profiles, you begin to be able to see similarities in certain stories.
What are the paths which go from one career to another or one industry to another? And so over the years, we’ve been able to build tools which help people visualize and understand their own career paths and where their current career might lead them. It’s a powerful capability and something which I think that anybody would be interested in seeing, like, where am I today and what are the kinds of things which might actually be possible in front of me?
Van: Is that like a career fairy godmother who can predict where I’m heading?
Allen: It basically asks, ‘where are you today?’ and once you say, ‘this is where I am,’ then it can say, ‘well, here are five, ten, fifteen, twenty paths which have led other professionals from where you are to the possible places you might be able to go.’ Of course, when we look at those paths, we’re not just seeing a kind of a natural way — like maybe career paths built into the company, maybe getting promotions or whatever — by which you might be able to advance in your career. The fundamental understanding behind LinkedIn is that the people you know, the people who you work with, the people who you work for, the people who work for you are a vital component to you being able to achieve the career you want to achieve.
My own story is a perfect example. I started in a very different industry and then back in 1997, I was introduced by a mutual friend to Reid Hoffman, who was my co-founder at a dating site back in 1997. Then we went on to work at another company at PayPal, and then we went on to found LinkedIn together. That was through a relationship that I had. It was somebody who said, “Hey, you know, this Allen guy, even though he’s coming from another industry is a person we might want to take a chance on.”
That is a huge part of nearly every professional story. Who is out there who’s going to take a chance on you to help you move forward, and that helps you with every transition you make — whether it’s just to the next job up or whether it’s to the next department over or it’s to another company or it’s an entirely different professional life.
Van: Allen, another phrase for what you’re talking about in terms of relationship and the ability to achieve your career goals through these relationships is social capital. So, when you’re thinking about social capital and your work as chair of the Hope Street Group board — which is focused on understanding the shortcomings in the labor market and inefficiencies and inequities — how are you thinking about approaching those big topics today, knowing
what you know now?
Allen: Yeah, it’s very interesting. The Hope Street Group, for those of you who don’t know, is an organization founded probably 15 years ago by a group of people who wanted to be able to create economic opportunity for every American. It’s had several focuses over the years. Right now, we’re focusing on building up our capabilities in the world of workforce, so there are a bunch of pieces that go into that. But the fundamental understanding is that as much as we think technology might be a part of a solution and skills and training and so forth, it’s about actually bringing all of those things together with the people who can help you out, which enable people who don’t currently have a career path in front of them to find one.
So, if you’re a high school student, you’ve got to answer the question of where am I going? And the answer, ‘I’m going to college,’ might not be the right one for you. You might instead be saying, “Hey, you know, actually, I think maybe I’m going to go directly into the workforce for a while and then find out where to go from there.” The big question is, how do you actually make that happen? It’s not an easy choice for a lot of people.
Our question, and the one we’re trying to solve at Hope Street is, how do you help an individual who’s making that choice be successful in their career by finding not just more out about the world of work, but to be able to form relationships with employers who might be able to help them out? In other words, what kinds of introductions can they get, and then to find people around them who can help them navigate that career transition. Because as I said, the most important thing that we all need is someone who’s willing to take a chance on us, and so we would like to figure out a way to make that possible.
Van: In the past, it’s somebody saw the potential in you and then gave you that chance, just like you mentioned about your personal situation. When you look at technology — and of course, you’re dealing with technology that’s touching hundreds of millions of people — when should technology be used as part of this equation? What should technology solve and enable? And are there some really promising uses of technology when it comes to workforce readiness and economic mobility?
Allen: Well, there are quite a few. I mean, technology is one of those things which has become part of all of our lives. It’s part of the way we watch our entertainment, it’s part of the way we talk to people and hang out with our friends, it’s part of the way we participate in our communities, and it’s certainly part of the way we think about our careers. So, a few things I would point out.
First, there are tremendous opportunities for learning online, which simply have never been there before. Technology has essentially brought so much learning close to us. You all know this from the work that you’re doing at Futuro. I mean, there’s tremendous access and discovery of key training opportunities for you as a professional to be able to pursue a career that you want to pursue. Sometimes you’re finding that thing happening in the real world — maybe it’s an opportunity you didn’t know about — and sometimes you’re actually being able to take advantage of that online.
There are plenty of online trainers who work in hundreds of different fields to provide training directly through the net, and that’s something which basically didn’t exist, not in a serious way, not even 10 years ago. So, it’s a huge opportunity, which basically is still in its infancy, about delivering training and learning to people at a distance. LinkedIn Learning is a good example of it. We have thousands and thousands of classes which can train professionals to do all kinds
of different things.
The second thing is — and I know we all take it for granted now — but the whole idea of being able to find a job and an opportunity, to be able to find what’s out there that I might be able to do next in my career, almost all of that is delivered through technology now. I know your listeners will have a hard time remembering that once upon a time, all that information was printed in a newspaper and it was extremely difficult to find that information. Now it’s all pulled together in one place, whether it be LinkedIn or Indeed or many of the other sources out there for jobs. So all of that stuff comes together.
Then finally, the social network…that ability to find people who can help you out on your transition is something which exists in an informal way in places like Facebook and then, of course, it is the primary business of LinkedIn to help you call on other people and to be available for others to call on you when you need to be able to make that career transition or help somebody else do it.
Van: You know, Allen, I remember seeing some study where when it comes to workforce advice
or career advice, the best advice came from the employer. The worst advice actually came from your counselor because many of your, for example, high school counselors had no idea that there was this panoply of employment opportunities out there. So, if you don’t already have a robust network — which could grow and be amplified when you’re on LinkedIn — how do you begin building your network? Do you have any advice on that?
Allen: It is a fantastic question. This is actually the core of what we are attempting to make happen with Hope Street Group. So, at Hope Street, we know that a counselor or somebody who’s helping somebody transition either out of school into a career or between two careers can be one of those vital people to help you navigate that transition. As a matter of fact, that’s the term we use internally for them: navigators. People can help a job seeker navigate to their next role. But the main thing that we know we need to provide for those navigators is the information that they can act on to help you, to help them help you find your next step.
So, one of our goals is how do we make sure that, yes, a counselor has the information they need to be able to help you pick the right next step, and what’s more, can directly
bring you to employers who you can speak to and find out about what possibilities actually exist. Employers would love to be able to talk to potential job seekers more than they do.
They would love to be able to provide that information because they, of course, want to bring great people into their organizations, into their companies. They have a hard time doing it because the connective tissue between me as an employer and getting to those students at school is a little hard to navigate sometimes.
Our question is, can we use technology to essentially make it easier for an employer, with the help of a counselor in between, find students and vice versa?
Van: Well, I know that would be extremely welcome to fill a gap in what’s happening out there in all of our communities. Now, Allen, you do some policy advocacy nowadays. I was wondering what your thoughts are — in this domain of workforce development and economic mobility — on what’s the role of the public versus the private sector?
Allen: It’s a great question, obviously one which is much on our minds working in the technology industry. Technology has such a gigantic footprint and there are so many things which we provide. We all live in the private sector. We are companies, and many of us are for-profit companies, but we have this outsized impact on the way Americans and people around the world live their lives, pursue their careers and so forth. I believe that there are a set of relationships which will benefit both the customers we serve — who are the people who are hiring or the individuals who are seeking jobs or the individuals who are seeking to do the work they’re doing today better — there are a set of policies and partnership opportunities between these individuals and organizations, LinkedIn, and then government entities.
So, an example for us — and this goes on our economic graph side — we derive these insights about things like career paths, about how skills are emerging and changing, about the
landscape of education and how people are gaining these skills, about new technologies as they emerge, and we aggregate all that data. We, of course, remove any kind of identification about who the specific people are we are talking about and then we go talk to policymakers and say, these are the things that we are observing right now about what’s changing in the workforce, whether in the United States, at the state level, at the federal level, at the local level. And then we of course talk to governments internationally as well.
We provide those insights so that governments can act, and most importantly, find partners in the real world. I’ll give you an example of the work we did in New York City several years ago. We sent one of our data scientists who sat in the mayor’s office in New York City for a while and brought together data about the technology industry in New York City and brought together data about the training programs that were available in New York City to prepare that talent for work. Then we convened a group of the top fifty technology employers in New York and the people who are running those training programs to basically bring them together to share what we had learned and to help them forge partnerships, which not only would make sure that more people had an opportunity to work at those companies, but would also expand the training opportunities available in New York City. So, the mayor hosted us and we were able to sit down with all of these companies and talk about what kind of changes might make sense for them as well as for the education system in New York to create more opportunities for that kind of training.
For us, it’s a combination of both. It’s hard to imagine a world where technology can solve every problem, and it’s also hard to imagine a world where government can solve every problem, but the two of them working together can make a big difference for a lot of people.
Van: That process that you’ve outlined is a powerful one to give insights to all the parties on where there’s the gap. And from that insight, I would imagine that you could then begin to take action based on some of that data and data informed by actual conversation. So, I hope you’re repeating that process in many other cities beyond New York.
Van: Given the widening income inequality, what experiments make you excited and optimistic about the future, Allen?
Allen: Well, it’s a good question. I think the most visible experiments that exist out there are the ones which are around universal basic income. A few years ago, some folks began experimenting with this and seeing whether it made a difference. I think the pandemic actually expanded and accelerated some of those efforts because of the evidence that various programs which were put in place in order to help people out during the pandemic actually made a huge difference in things like child poverty. As we know, during the pandemic, child poverty in the US actually fell and it was because the government was basically providing very strong support, knowing the pandemic was disrupting everyone’s economic life. That kind of proof goes a long way towards encouraging policymakers to consider similar programs when it comes to non-pandemic times. Now, I don’t think we’ve aligned yet on exactly the right way to do any of that stuff, but as you say, these experiments are really important and these experiments with UBI, I think, are fantastic opportunities.
There are also efforts all around the country and in places you might not even expect to bring together the requirements of employers — in other words, people who are looking for
particular kinds of talent — and training programs together in the same spot. Here’s an example. Just before the pandemic, I visited a place called Jefferson, Iowa — it’s a small town…I think it’s about 2,000 people about an hour and a half drive from Des Moines — because there was a new technology shop opening up on the Main Street there in Jefferson. It was brought together by a group of people who had combined education at the local community college, as well as, I believe, the University of Iowa, with essentially apprenticeships to enable people who were living in Jefferson who didn’t really have access to a lot of technology jobs and economic opportunity to do that work right there in Jefferson instead of going to Des Moines or out of state. So, they literally set up a shop in downtown Jefferson, which I saw, where a bunch of people were able to come together and work together providing technology development services — actually writing software for companies around the world — and do it remotely from that location.
These kinds of experiments are being built out all across the country as people attempt to refine a model which can bring economic opportunity to places where right now people
are experiencing a real brain drain. And those are great examples of public-private partnerships on the small scale which are making a real difference for individuals and for the communities that are surrounding them.
Van: Thanks, Allen, for sharing these interesting experiments that are happening, and hopefully
we’ll get to track their progress and see how your thinking evolved as you see the results. So let’s wrap up today by having you share what big social challenge — not that we don’t have too many — keeps you up at night, and what call to action do you have of our listeners?
Allen: Yeah, well, there are plenty to talk about, for sure. There are almost too many, and I’m trying to decide which ones actually make sense. I think I would probably say that for Americans and for people around the world, economic opportunity remains absolutely fundamental to people’s ability to not only live the kind of life they want to live — to be able to invest in their family, to be able to buy that house, to be able to send the kids to school, to be able to handle medical bills and expenses — but also be able to participate in their communities and figure out a way to understand that the work you do enables you, and I think to some extent helps make you, responsible for the people who are right around you.
There’s a lot of work we can do when we come together to make it happen, and a foundation for that is the economic wherewithal to essentially be able to take care of your own, take care of your family, and take care of your kids so that you can participate effectively in the community. A lot of that, as I was saying earlier, comes from the people you know and that street goes both ways. So, my strong recommendation is that everybody out there who’s listening understand that they have things to offer, even in small ways, to people who are just beginning their path towards economic opportunity.
At LinkedIn, we call this the Plus One Pledge…that basically you’ll bring somebody into your network specifically because you recognize your own responsibility for helping other professionals succeed. I urge everybody who’s listening to do the same. Look around you for someone who may just be starting out in your company, who may be somebody who is a neighbor, maybe somebody who is a friend of a friend or the kid of a friend. Somebody who you can spend 45 minutes with, somebody you can spend an hour and a half with to talk about what the world of work really looks like. It isn’t a huge time commitment on your part, but for somebody who is entering the world of work or is having trouble navigating it some direct experience from somebody who knows what that world is actually like is absolute gold.
Remember, the person you’re talking to is a lot like you were when you were starting
out your career, which is you didn’t really know all the rules. You didn’t really know how the whole thing worked. You didn’t want to do anything wrong. You didn’t want to ask for too much. So, look for somebody out there who you can help out and especially look for somebody
who might not have grown up surrounded by people who were expecting great things of them or people who were great role models in the world of work. Again, it’s not a big deal for you, but it’s a big deal for them.
Van: I love that – a “plus one pledge.” Well, count me in. I know that I need to pay forward all the plus ones that were done with me as well, right? All the mentoring that I’ve received in my career getting started.
Allen: Me too.
Van: Well, thank you very much, Allen, for being with us today.
Allen: Great to be here.
Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.