Text Interviews

Recruiting Tech and Machine Learning with Head of Recruiting at Hot Topic, Johnny Sanchez

With his talent industry roots starting right out of college, Johnny Sanchez, Head of Recruiting at Hot Topic, has personally experienced the moving and shaking within talent acquisition. Even as a young recruiter, Johnny was a problem solver drawn to innovative strategy. It was a people-centric focus that molded his day-to-day advances within the recruiting world and led Johnny to orchestrate recruiting efforts over the years at some of our favorite retail companies including PacSun, Forever 21, and Manduka.

Guided by a foundational belief in first, connecting with people, and second, thinking strategically, it only makes sense that Johnny has nurtured teams throughout his career with a fervent emphasis on improving the candidate experience via constant evaluation of mission effectiveness and engagement. 

Lately? Johnny is excited to welcome the next generation of talent into the retail industry through implementation of new recruiting technologies and machine learning.

The 2016 US Retail Industry Overview reported, as of May 2015, 15.7 million people were employed in the U.S. Retail Industry according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Canvas team chatted with Johnny to pick his brain on recruiting in the retail industry as it continues to grow. What are talent acquisition teams doing to grow with it?


As a talent professional and leader, what parts of recruiting talent have you grown to love? 

I've always been a pretty driven individual, very solutions oriented. I love problems, I love challenges, and I love to figure out ways to solve them at scale. Every time I've had the opportunity to do that, I've jumped on it and it's definitely helped me advance in my career. Specifically in recruiting, I discovered early on in my career that I’m very passionate about the people function.

In what ways do you continue to push those envelopes?

Once I realized this was the career path I wanted, I really went all in to learn and understand it as much as I could. I still work towards a deeper understanding. I ask questions like, “What are practices now that have been accepted?” “What were best kind of practices then, where is this going?” With every position, I was always thinking of how to continually advance in my role in recruiting as well as within the recruiting functions of the organizations.

If you could chat with someone just starting their career in talent acquisition, what insights would you share to help them make the most of the opportunity?

I would say to think big picture. There’s a tactical part of recruiting and there's a strategic part of it. Many facets of the tactical part of recruiting will eventually be automated by technology so it's important to learn that and understand where it's going. Understanding the strategy piece is a big part of recruiting and where recruiting is going.

People value the human aspect of recruiting, so, building relationships, understanding recruitment marketing and recruiting tech is priority. It's really important for any recruiter to wrap their mind around these aspects regardless of what stage you step into the game at. 

  • From a career perspective, are AI and Automation things that should dissuade anyone from stepping into the recruiting space? 

I wouldn't dissuade anybody from stepping in, if anything, this is a really exciting time to jump in because there's a lot of technology emerging.

How do you encourage recruiters to take that opportunity openly?

It's exciting to be on the cutting edge of this rapid change. Progress is hitting the HR tech world and there’s a lot of impact opportunity right now. 

We couldn't agree more, Johnny. Could you speak to that a little more? 

Sure! For example, many of the day-to-day tasks that entry-level recruiter roles do can easily be automated because those are more transactional kind of paths. I think it's important to understand those functions and what they do, but then also understand, "Hey, in a few years those might be bots doing these tasks themselves." And instead of being afraid of it, you embrace it and say, "Okay, how is this going to impact the role recruiting plays?" If anything, AI and Automation’s entrance into the recruiting marketplace is going to allow us to be more strategic and add more value because we can do more as an entire industry.

If you could magically make recruiters in your industry better at one thing, what do you think that would be?

Embracing technology and not being afraid of it. Our industry is notoriously slow to adapt technology — one of the reasons why it's in flux right now and being disrupted.

Our business moves fast and we get so many applicants, it's really hard to stay on top of things. Technology can help facilitate that change. I've got an extremely lean team recruiting for two companies and over 10,000 employees and we receive hundreds of thousands of applicants a year. It's hard to stay on top of it. Embrace change to explore what our business challenges are and ask “How do we solve for these challenges and how does technology help?"

What are some of the unique challenges in the retail recruiting space?

What are some of the unique challenges in the retail recruiting space?

For us at Hot Topic, the biggest challenges are volume and a de-centralized hiring team. Our stores are responsible for recruiting at the store level. So the store managers are the recruiters and we receive hundreds of thousands of applications a year. If a manager needs to hire five sales associates and there's two or three hundred people who have applied, you’re not able to go through all of them. It's a big challenge.

What company in particular (outside of Hot Topic) do you admire with regard to their talent acquisition practices?


There's a number of companies that are incorporating an amazing branding piece. I do love what Warby Parker is doing. They're incredible. Their loyal brand strategy is so seamlessly integrated into their talent branding. It's really amazing.

Which talent industry thought leaders do you admire and follow regularly?

Leela Srinivasan, CMO at Lever is somebody that I follow on Twitter and read anything that she puts out. I have seen her speak a number of times. 

We always love the opportunity to chat with leaders in Talent Acquisition who are working to transform the industry. Johnny first approached the recruiting space at the beginning of his career with a deep understanding of the importance of learning and fostering innovation. This approach continues to benefit Johnny's teams as he readily dives into the the bright future of recruiting the next generation of talent. 😎☀️

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