Sean Jackson of Sift

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Sean Jackson, the founder of Sift, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of Sift – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

I’ve held roles in a range of industries: I started my career in the Marine Corps working on disaster response in places like Haiti and the Philippines, and economic development in Afghanistan. I then moved into policy while working on Detroit’s bankruptcy, followed by the private sector for a large conglomerate in Detroit. Regardless of the structure or goals of the organization, a constant thread was that there were experts in nearly any challenge you might face. However, despite having thousands of ‘colleagues’, in practice, you only knew the 10 to 15 people you worked closest with: leveraging the skills or experience of anyone outside of your personal professional network relied on the tribal knowledge of others, and a good deal of luck.

The magnitude of this problem struck me as I was reaching out to an old college friend on Facebook to get perspective on a challenge I was facing at work. It struck me as insane to be reaching out to someone I hadn’t talked to in half a decade as the ‘closest’ person I could find, when there must be dozens of people inside my own organization who had answers and perspectives that were much more relevant. I just had no way of knowing who they were or how to get in touch with them. We have so much access to our personal networks via consumer tools, but the people we work with for the majority of each day are inaccessible and distant by comparison.

We founded Sift to help organizations leverage the immense power of their internal talent networks, and to make organizations more human in the process. We feel it should be easy to understand the knowledge, skills, and experience of your peers across your organization, and to understand your colleagues as more than just titles on an org chart.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

The world has changed a lot since the mid-1990s: the internet is now ubiquitous, with magic computer rectangles in our pocket, and the rate of change has never been faster. However, if you were to look at the set of tools someone on the cast of Friends would use to manage the show, it would look basically the same as today – email, Word Processor, Excel. The tools an office worker uses today are an evolution of the tools they worked with back at the turn of the century, despite the fact that the way we work is radically different.

By introducing an entirely new category of tool (a people search engine) into the mix, we’re basically telling enterprise organizations to make a small but fundamental change to the way their people work. You’re freeing your people to cross chains of command, trusting them to leverage the right colleague when they need them, and basically saying “work however you want if it helps you achieve our goals”. For some organizations, this is just a tool that enables their collaborative culture, letting them realize a vision that they’ve held but never been able to achieve. For others, this is a big culture shock.

We’re betting that the world is trending towards more transparency and collaboration, but our ideal clients are some of the largest companies in the world, and helping forge that change to better align with a new paradigm is not always easy.

What does the future hold for Sift?

As the world becomes increasingly digital, organizations are facing a growing imperative to move faster, adapt more quickly, learn more rapidly, and embrace the dynamic nature of the modern world.
Organizations must enable themselves to be more adaptable and team-centric, allowing their team members to flexibly leverage the knowledge and experience of peers and colleagues from across the enterprise at a moment’s notice, while ensuring that the organization as a whole can understand and leverage it’s internal talent network.

At Sift, we’re building the tooling that will allow organizations and their people to flexibly leverage their talent to face whatever challenges tomorrow holds. We believe that enabling this flexibility first requires a good understanding of an organization’s human capital that goes beyond job titles that have been Sift’s focus to date, but we also know that tools will be needed to help leverage the right people at the right time. Tools are needed that help organizations find the right internal hire for a new position, that recommend the right team composition based on needed skills, and that help individuals find the right colleagues to help them develop themselves into whom they want to be.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Detroit?

When I moved to Detroit in 2013, I could count on one hand the number of startups in the city. Now, whenever I go to a meetup or startup event, I’m running into companies I didn’t know existed. Detroit is a special place for entrepreneurs because everyone is looking out for each other and trying to see our city succeed. People give each other referrals for big clients and trade perspectives on facing challenges in a more open and earnest way than anywhere I’ve worked.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Be problem-focused, not solution-focused. It’s not revolutionary advice, but I’ve seen over and over again that the job of the watchmaker is to tell the time, not explain how the watch is made. However, when I ask aspiring entrepreneurs what they are working on, they invariably explain their solution or widget rather than helping me understand the problem they are seeking to solve. The way you first approach solving a problem is rarely the right answer, but if you have a meaningful problem, when you finally figure out the right solution, you can have a massive impact.


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