As a child, Higginson-Scott would play “office” with his sister; they’d organize items and create nonsense lists of tasks. Through a series of serendipitous events, he now works in Human Resources (HR) where his passion for organization helps him succeed. His first brush with HR was a temp job with a tech company. At 19 he was “pushing the HR paperwork” but he didn’t fully understand the ins and outs of the work he was doing. So, presented with the challenge of learning on the job, he found his calling. “As is my personality, I dove into it. It was an opportunity to think about organizational planning, growth, and to learn compliance,” Higginson-Scott says. Turns out, he had taken the first step on his career path.
Over the next fifteen years, Higginson-Scott has worked in HR operations roles at companies of various size. At a small theater company he took the lead on transitioning a four-system payroll into one system of record. “It was something I actually really did geek out over and got excited about,” he says. A few years later, he jumped at the chance to work for his alma mater, Suffolk University. “I got there and they had terrible systems, which seems to be the story every place I go. I think it's because I love the challenge,” he says.
After seven years at Suffolk, Higginson-Scott worked at leading food retailer, Ahold, and biotech company, Biogen. Both were undergoing massive HR transformations, an area in which Higginson-Scott thrives. Currently, as the Manager of People Operations & Systems at Optimizely, he continues to live his passion for organization and the employee experience. Now an HR Expert in operations and systems, Higginson-Scott shares with us why he chose people operations, how he got started and the importance of continued learning.
Putting the “Ops” in People Ops
Higginson-Scott considered an HR Business Partner role before finding his specialty in People Ops. He says, “The business partner role is really more day-to-day partnering, a lot of one-on-one's with managers, helping them strategically plan.” Higginson-Scott’s role is more about keeping things running behind the scenes. Creating this seamless experience is where he thrives. “In my role I get the opportunity to work with different folks in the organization and keep the tires on. That’s the challenge. How do you fix something while it's in flight?” he says. The opportunity for creative problem solving in the role keeps him learning new skills. “No matter what systems or processes you implement, there's always a way to do it better, usually by the time you're done implementing it,” he says.
When Higginson-Scott joined Optimizely, most of the roles on his team were generalists. They needed to operationalize and get systems in place, Higginson-Scott’s specialty. “My boss said I was responsible for ‘putting the ops in people ops.’ It was also his first “People Operations” role, a relatively new term for “Human Resources.” When weighing these phrases against each other, Higginson-Scott says people operations explains his role more accurately. “My role really is geared towards operations,” he says, “Like, how do we as a team support the organization? What systems are we using?”
How to break into People Ops
Along with his love for building great process and organizational mindset, Higginson-Scott’s education prepared him for a career in People Ops. He received a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Business and moved on to pursue a master of science (MS) in Information Systems. Higginson-Scott says, “The MS was a step toward more ‘left-brain’ thinking - taking what I knew as an HR business partner and generalist, and developing the more tactical, system-oriented way of operating. The two schools of thought balance one another well, and help me consider not only the ‘how,’ but also the ‘why,’ when solving for a given problem or designing a technical solution with user experience in mind.”
In general, human resources can be a tough field to break into. For smaller organizations without a high-level HR program, Higginson-Scott sees roles like office manager or executive assistant as good stepping off points. “Something where the primary goal is to get and keep things organized. There are definitely elements of HR that you can being to learn by following a checklist,” he says.
In a larger organization, Shared Services (generally the tactical, transactional, direct employee-support arm of a larger organization's HR team) is one of the best entry points in his opinion. “You learn so much about an organization and its people so fast. You're supporting all of their people needs and you will learn how things work really quickly. That makes it much easier to support an organization and make the connections you need internally to make things better, make things happen faster, and problem solve.”
Continuing education in HR
When it comes to HR groups like SHRM and HRCI, Higginson-Scott says their impact depends on a member’s interest and level of engagement. He explains, “I got my SPHR [Senior Professional in Human Resources certification] through HRCI because I knew it would help me level out. I didn't want to be pigeon-holed into an HRIS role. I could show that I had broader experience in HR, working with contract negotiations, compensation, benefits and global mobility.” While that was his initial motivation to join, he now finds their online resources to be useful as well. He is also a member of Startup HR, a San Francisco-based Google group for HR professionals. The two organizations strike a balance for him between structured information and casual discussion.
Both SHRM and HRCI provide an opportunity for extended learning and training. To stay certified, HR practitioners must complete a number of hours in learning and experiential tasks. Higginson-Scott says, “It keeps you active, instead of just thinking, ‘Yup, I'm in HR. I do my HR job every day.’ I even enjoy - again, kind of a nerd - the emails I get every month from SHRM that announce recommended books for credit. I think it's really important, if not be a member of those organizations, to be aware of those organizations and the resources that they have to offer."
Owning the People Operations career path
At Optimizely, one of Higginson-Scott’s major initial projects was the implementation of Namely; a Human Resources Information System (HRIS) that acts as the point of record for all employee data. Higginson-Scott took information that had been held on various spreadsheets shared across different teams, and compiled the information into Namely. “My number one priority was to decommission as many of those shared spreadsheets as humanly possible,” he says. Now, people across the company are getting excited about the opportunities it brings to help them make informed decisions. They’ve also been able to compile onboarding information into Namely, simplifying the internal process for bringing on a new hire.
It’s the creation of processes such as this that keep Higginson-Scott interested in People Operations. He says, “Being part of the central team that helps a business run is really interesting to me. My entire career has been focused ultimately on user experience. How do employees engage or experience HR? It should be painless. It should be easy. It should be relatively smart. They should be able to get what they need as soon as possible. They shouldn't be spending their time figuring out how to be an employee, they should just be an employee.”