The Subtle Art of Hiring World-Class Engineers

Recruiting seems easy, until you try. No matter your location, finding and hiring the best engineers is challenging. And it’s not getting any easier! How do you find the best engineers ? They are often hidden and hard to convince. How do you train your recruiters and teams ? You need the right pitch to woo those amazing yet demanding gems. I will point out ways and ideas to build the best recruiting team & process possible.

Disclaimer : I was supposed to speak at a tech conference in France. The organizers asked me to prepare a talk about recruitment to a crowd of engineers. Unfortunately, the schedule changed and my talk was cancelled a couple of weeks before the D-day. Considering my notes and slides were ready, I decided to turn it into a Medium post. If anyone wants to invite me to give the talk, feel free to reach out! 😉

Gif from Little Britain USA — a British television serie

Who Am I?

I chose to be a tech recruiter.

My parents are bakers and since I was a kid, I’ve witnessed the difficulty of hiring the right people at the right time to grow a company and scale. This statement can be applied to any job in any sector.

I started my career working at Margo, a selective consulting company specialized in finance before joining Criteo Labs, a global leader in adtech . Since I’ve been a recruiter, I’ve always hired software engineers, product managers and researchers 👩‍💻 👨‍💻. I enjoy talking to demanding minds. I love my job.

I love it so much that I wrote an article about Recommender Systems and created the Paris Women in Machine Learning & Data Science meet-up to highlight the talented female engineers in the field.

Recruiting will keep being my thing ;)

Usually, people think recruiting is easy until they try it 🙌

  • Have you ever been in the situation of contacting a kick-ass candidate? Someone you don’t know personally, someone senior who receives a lot of emails from recruiters every day…etc. What do you write to this person?
  • Have you ever imagined all the questions a candidate would ask about a relocation? What do you say?
  • How do you manage the fact a candidate is looking for a new job and interviewing with a lot of competing companies?

Recruitment is hard. It’s an emotional roller-coaster. However, nothing is more rewarding than hiring the best people 🤩 to make them join a new company!

Recruiting is an emotional roller-coaster! One day you close a kick-ass candidate, the day after no one answers your approaches 📈 📉

How to optimize your chances of hiring the best engineers possible?

This Medium post is all about it. Why would all that be important to YOU ? Well, in my experience, some candidates respond better to a ping from a senior engineer than from yet another recruiter (no matter how kick-ass the latter can be).

So… No matter if you are a(n) engineer /manager / professor, be aware you may be called upon to source and engage rare candidates in your job. All the pieces of advice I am going to share are applicable to you as well as to me 😊

Key ingredients if you want an excellent recruitment team are…

“You need to have a collaborative hiring process” — Steve Jobs


Like engineering, recruiting is as much a science as an art. And as every science, it should be measured properly. A basic rule is to measure without forgetting to analyze the performance!

  • What’s your conversion rate after an email approach? 📩
  • Have you already launched an A/B test on your approach? 📊

Measuring matters to change practices and habits. For instance, to be certain the content of your emails is relevant.

Powerful analytical tools such as MixMax exist. You can use it with Gmail. Amélie Collinet wrote a detailed article in French about the way to track your conversion rate when approaching candidates. The way you track depends on your the tools you use. One like Lever is already powerful enough to get insights on the activity generated with the candidates.

Why “number of hires” is a bad metric for recruiters” by Fredrik Johnsson from Spotify

Do not measure to -only- track your recruiters’ activity. It does not make sense. It’s like asking how many lines of code a software engineer delivered🤨

For instance, at Spotify, recruiters’ objectives are not only focused on their numbers of hires. Recruiters are boosted to go to tech conferences, publish on the company’s blog…etc. Those activities matter as much as recruiting!

It’s as easy as falling into the trap of only considering the short-terms effects : hiring. Data is easy to collect and long-terms effects are the ones not to forget! Long-term effects are also harder to measure. When building a candidate pipeline, make sure to caliber your metrics for the recruiters to have the time to focus on attracting senior candidates, writing blog posts or attending conferences / school fairs. The point is to maximize the quantity and the quality of the candidates engaging into a recruitment process!

Be Open to Challenge the Way You Do Things

“If your goals are ambitious and crazy enough, even failure will be a pretty good achievement.” Laszlo Bock

Accurate measurements allow you to go beyond intuitions about what works and what does not. The insights gathered may surprise you. Look at the metrics in order to improve your process based on facts and not feelings. Data is king but analyzing it matters as well!

Recently, I met a CTO who told me that 50% of his company’s candidates were dropping out of process when having to do a technical assessment at home. He thought it was a motivation test in addition to a technical one.

I think everyone should look at the numbers to check the relevance of the recruitment process. I advised this CTO to shadow his recruiter to be sure the pitch presented to the candidates was a truly motivating one : focusing on the technical challenges rather than the “product”. The key of a good recruiter is to always personalize the pitch to the candidates.

On this case, when 50% of your candidates drop-off… you should challenge your process!

On a personal note, I am not a fan of take-home assignments for senior candidates especially if they were headhunted… Candidates have a job : they can easily decide not to engage into a recruitment process. I think it would be more motivational for them to speak with an engineer about technical topics (over the phone, Skype or IRL) than doing an home-assignment.

You can do take-home assignments when you are a big company… But even Facebook and Google don’t do it 😎

On this topic, I encourage you to read an excellent article written by Eric Bernhardsson, Head of Engineering at Better : Interviewing is a noisy prediction problem. He states that he pays 💲 candidates to do it because… :

I’m not a big fan of take-home projects. They hurt people with families and commitments. It also tends to increase dropoff for the people that are in highest demand, which is exactly the people you don’t want to lose. I still do homework assignments for a few roles where I haven’t found a better interview format, but we limit them to 3–5 hours and we pay for them.”


Sourcing is a daily challenge when looking for the best candidates

Using different sources to find candidates is the best way to be successful 🧐

  • Linkedin is a good source, offers nice functions to identify active candidates and is GDPR compliant. However, all the recruiters are using it.
  • Tech events : meet-ups & tech / product conferences are excellent to network, get leads, make your company visible and discover the competing companies.
  • Job boards can be useful depending on what you are looking for.
  • Referrals are an excellent way to find unexpected candidates. Obviously, giving financial rewards is not always enough to get the best results. Periodically, organize sourcing sessions between your engineers and the recruitment team. Finding candidates together strengthen the collaboration and help hiring more efficiently. It enables engineers to explore a recuiter’s life and realize how hard and time-consuming it is! Sometimes, the right candidates are within the engineers’ network…
  • Engineering gems : GitHub, StackOverflow, Kaggle…etc
  • Social media : it’s like sports, you should do it regularly ! It helps building your employer branding image and brings incoming applications.

The key is to to be different! Don’t spend your entire time on Linkedin !

Plus, reading platforms such as StackOverFlow and HackerNews enables your recruiting team to grow their technical vocabulary and spot tendencies.

Philosophy & Values : Read to Avoid Rookie Mistakes

Finding and hiring the best engineers is a massive challenge.

To challenge your own way of doing things, like an engineer, reading documentations and feedback from other companies’ experiences of hiring is more than a good idea!

There are plenty of resources online thanks to blogs and Medium. For instance, Spotify’s HR blog is a gem. Netflix is pretty strong on the culture aspect of HR.

On my side, I would recommend reading those 2 books 📚 :

Reading about Google’s methods or exploring an engineer’s mind thanks to Joel Spolsky can help to design the best hiring process : from the approach to the way candidates are evaluated once they are engaged.

For instance, I would encourage every company to define what are the core skills needed for every position, to prepare the interview questions in advance (to avoid any unconscious bias) and to define at least 3 core values of the company that you want to design your process around.

Consider a Recruiter as an Algorithm You Feed

Feed the intelligence of your recruiters & pimp their parameters! Gif from the movie The Hangover.

Last December, during a conference I attended, a manager complained about recruiting agencies only pushing resumes from candidates who exclusively graduated from France’s engineering top-schools. I told him :

“If you are willing to hire people who have the right skills no matter the diploma they have, say so !”

In France, many companies filter out candidates based on the school they attended. Apart from being a bad parameter (if the only one everybody focuses on), recruiters may choose not to present other candidates unless you explain that your company’s policy is different!

Recruiters are not dumb! They are algorithms you need to feed with the right information to provide the best results. As soon as you have this in mind, ask yourself : “How can I help my recruiting team?” 🤝

Be an Ambassador

Once, I heard a story about a recruiter who recruited someone during a Céline Dion concert. That’s definitely a challenge I would like to top!

When recruiting, every member of a company can help — it’s not just a recruiter’s job.

  • Is every team member able to introduce the company in 2 minutes during a party? , a French AI company, trains every employee to do so. It’s a quick win and creates a “team spirit”.
  • Do your co-workers share your job openings online? Do they share content on Facebook / LinkedIn / HackerNews / a Slack group? At Criteo Labs, some engineers refer several people a year thanks to a Slack channel from their home countries.

The more you communicate externally 🔉, the more you spread the idea that people are happy in your company. This really helps recruiters! Actually, it helps converting more email approaches into phone screens!

Key Principles When Recruiting

  1. Never forget what it’s like to be a candidate

There is something quite simple to remember to be good at recruiting : act with others the way you would like to be treated! Share detailed feedback, act fast, don’t make candidates wait without keeping them updated about the status of their application…etc.

Remember : you have been a candidate before being hired!

2. Share constructive feedback

Candidates are giving you valuable time of theirs while interviewing at your company. The least you can do is to share a precise and actionable feedback about the way it went no matter the outcome. One beginner’s mistake is to rush while sharing positive feedback with a successful candidate.

Never forget a recruitment process might be the beginning of a professional relationship. Hence, identify what the candidates could improve. It can help them to name areas of improvements, topics to tackle when joining the company…etc.

According to LinkedIn’s Talent Trends report, 94% of candidates want to receive feedback after an interview

In the same way, take the time to share negative feedback with an unsuccessful candidate. Unsuccessful candidates are raw potential, they can become excellent future candidates. They can even be ambassadors of your company to their more (immediately) talented friends. 👍

3. Always be transparent

A recruitment process is the starting point of a professional relationship. Never lie or hide an information which can impact the candidates in the future, when they join the company.

For instance, if you are recruiting for a Lead position because someone is leaving, be explicit and share the reason why. Otherwise, the candidates will discover it afterwards. Consequently, it could create an useless disappointment.

In the same way, adopt a clear communication about the interview process and the way it will happen : the content, the interviewers, the timing…etc. It improves the conversion rate drastically because candidates are better prepared. 🚀

4. The candidates are evaluating YOU!

When interviewing and looking for a new job, candidates are the decision makers. Indeed, they are evaluating their ability to picture themselves working at your company!

Bad Candidate Experience Cost Virgin Media $5M Annually — Here is How They Turned That Around

To get better, always welcome the feedback from your candidates about your recruitment process.

For instance, at Criteo Labs, twice a year, the recruiting team sends a candidate survey to get inputs and areas of improvements from the candidates who interviewed in the last 6 months.

Another option is to encourage people to write a comment on Glassdoor about their experience during the recruitment process. Algolia does it very well for instance.

Feedback from candidates can help to change and improve the process. At last, thanks to the feedback, a company can regularly make sure the process is what it should be.

One Last (Very Important) Thing

⚠️ ️One topic which is dear to my heart and that I did not mention so far is making sure to source and hire from a diverse and inclusive pool of candidates.

There are many actions to lead in that aspect. If I can point out 3 of them, it would be :

  • Train your team to be equally considering all the applications no matter the degree, gender, home country…etc. Train your recruiting team to avoid gender biases. If you don’t what gender biases are, read this study : “Orchestrating Impartiality : the Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians” by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse.
  • Make sure your job descriptions highlight the right set of needed skills and match what you are looking for. You want a senior candidate? Please mention the parent leave policy rather than the ping-pong table in the middle of the office OR both!
  • Check your online communication : display pictures of diverse people (not all white male engineers).

Last but not least, I would encourage engineers or colleagues to talk with their recruiters (or headhunters if they do not have an in-house recruitment team). Make sure recruiters are on the same page as you: aware of the current technical challenges and willing to ask you questions!

Recruiters are your partners and they will help you hiring the best!

👉 All these things I learned by doing (usually wrong at first), by reading about what others had already discovered, and by striving to get better. Now I’m passing along that knowledge, incomplete and maybe even incorrect as it may be. Release early, release often.

Are you doing things in the same way ? Please share how that worked out for you. Are you doing things differently ? Let’s chat and compare notes.

Looking forward to hearing from you all, the comments section is below, my Twitter handle is @MrsCaroline_C and I’d be happy to finally give the talk that this article originated from.

Gif from the British TV show “The IT Crowd”.