Finding Talent that Thrives on Change
Dec 13, 2016

Alif Khalfan heads product development at Disney Consumer Products and is constantly on the lookout for top talent. He offers his insights on where education is going in the digital age and the types of skills needed for the future.

“Sometimes when we recruit today, we're not recruiting for what exists today. We're recruiting for what exists tomorrow,” says Alif Khalfan, the vice president of product management and revenue at Disney Consumer Products & Interactive.

Only 30 years old, Khalfan is like a college student who just started his own business, but he manages an entire mobile gaming development department of more than 100 people. His most recent smartphone game, “Inside Out – Thought Bubbles,” was voted as one of Google Play’s Best of 2015 Apps.

Khalfan graduated from Stanford University with a degree in computer science. While at the university, he interned at an aerospace engineering company, Goldman Sachs, a medical devices company and several startups. After graduating, he turned down offers from Goldman Sachs and NASA, opting instead for a startup.

“I wanted to work for a startup company because it's a lot more what I want. I really enjoyed being able to think about multiple problems at the same time and at my age and being an entry level employee at the larger companies, they usually don't give you that opportunity until much later,” Khalfan says in explaining his decision.

But nine months later the startup failed, and he was out of a job. He then joined another startup, online social network game developer Playdom. It was acquired by Disney in 2010 when it ranked as the No. 3 social game company.

Having personally experienced and harnessed the digital economy wave, Khalfan believes that the most important attribute for talent in the future is learning and understanding the underlying technology behind whatever service one is interested in. Below are excerpts of CommonWealth Magazine’s interview with Khalfan that focus on identifying, recruiting and preparing talent in the digital age.

CommonWealth Magazine: What abilities is Disney looking for as it recruits its talent for the future?

Alif Khalfan: For me, I just like to have smart people. That's the most important thing, somebody who can think on their feet.

It also depends on the role. For engineers, some engineers really like to work independently and solve challenges and think critically. And if they can do that, you want to give them problems or an interview to see if they can actually do that.

But in general what I'll eventually look for is I just want to make sure that the person can learn beyond what they have learned in school and they're passionate to learn beyond what they have learned in school instead of the person who says “I’m very good at this. I will show you that I can do this.” That’s probably a bit too narrow.

We always want to recruit the best. We always want to get the strongest talent for capturing the Disney brand and the storytelling of our brand. So that will always be a strong priority for us. We also like to make a lot of different products. We are constantly thinking about what the next new product could be in terms of technology. And sometimes when we recruit today, we're not recruiting for what exists today. We're recruiting for what exists tomorrow.

A lot of times people say the best product managers are people with technical backgrounds, people who have computer science backgrounds and they go into product management because then you can talk to the engineers and you know what they’re doing. And in my experience, yes, people with technical backgrounds do succeed very well in these types of roles. But I've also seen other people succeed, people with biology backgrounds, with communications backgrounds, with economics backgrounds that you wouldn't normally expect.

CW: Many colleges are cultivating interdisciplinary talent. What might be the difference between interdisciplinary talent and top computer science talent?

Khalfan: From my perspective, if you're talking just about digital, the ability to figure out how to incorporate digital into a non-digital environment is always an interesting question. That's how a lot of these companies have come about. You say, “How do I make photos more interesting?” You have more filters like Instagram. “How do I make communication more interesting?” Well you have Facebook and you do that. “How do I make travel simpler?” Well you have Google Maps to show you traffic and give you directions.

With literature and computer science, “How can I make reading more interesting?” “How can I make writing more interesting?” Maybe that person then goes on to create a writing tool that can automatically predict what you say or can incorporate that into a traditional literature environment. So those are really valuable for us, not because I think they're necessarily stronger than the normal computer science degree but because it allows the creativity to kind of flow through in a different area, one where the school probably can’t see. It’s an area where only that person who has that combination can go out and explore.

CW: How do companies in Silicon Valley recruit talent? How do they cooperate with schools to cultivate software talent?

Khalfan: One of the best things a company can do for themselves as it relates to the collaboration is to get interns to come work for the company and show those interns the value and appeal of working at this large company. Then when they go back to school they spread the word about how cool it was to work at Facebook or Google or Disney.

The company needs to also focus on those recruiting efforts. They need to have a presence in the school. So I’ll give you an example of what other companies like Airbnb, Pinterest, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, what they're doing in Stanford. It's not just going to a career fair, setting up a table and then saying here's our open jobs.

They're actually getting very integrated into the formal curriculum. So they are offering to guest lecture, to come in and talk about a specific problem, let's say some machine learning problem about how Facebook does their news feed. That senior architect of Facebook will go to Stanford and spend an hour and a half talking to the students about exactly how it works and then be available to the students afterwards. That's one thing. The second is those companies are offering different types of experiences for students. So they’ll host Hackathons at the company's campus so students can come in for free and hack and companies can identify talent by doing that. Students really enjoy being connected to the company and get prizes.

Another one is companies are offering more long term part-time jobs during the school year to have these students go and work with these companies. So Airbnb is an example. They are offering students as part of a course they get one unit of credit at Stanford from working at Airbnb. And they go to work at Airbnb part time and try to solve some of those problems for the company but also they get school credit by doing so.

CW: Are there any new jobs created within the context of the digital economy?

Khalfan: I think there's tons. We have data scientists. We started recruiting data scientists six, seven years ago. When you talk about big data, one of things that we have here is we have people that know how to interpret big data, which is really the next step about what you're going to do with that information.

Sure you can store all that information. But what is it going to tell you? And who's going to figure out what it's supposed to tell you? Those people are our data scientists and product managers, and we have been honing that talent for the past six, seven years. So now we're completely ready to be able to answer those questions on our products. Every single one of our digital products has telemetry. So it has data coming back to us that we can analyze and try to make those products better. A lot of them are live services too. So that's not the case that we have a digital product, and we put it out of the world and then we go and work on a different one. It's a case where we, in our games for instance, we make a game, put out in the world and as people play we capture information about where they’re getting stuck, where they’re not enjoying it. And we take that information and then we make those games better.

That's how Digital's been working. You talk about it as a service. That’s the phrase you’d like to put at the end of things – software as a service, business as a service, in our case games as a service. That’s really what the new digital age of technology is like. And so we're very much at the cutting edge of all those things, just as much as everybody else.

CW: So it seems like everyone in the future will be described as digital talent.

Khalfan: Yes, absolutely. Everyone is digital talent in the future. To me, you just eventually will be dropping the word digital because it’s already a given.

Edited by Luke Sabatier