How To Identify And Retain Top Talent with Zack Burt Of Code For Cash

Kage Spatz
Sep 16, 2019 · 7 min read
Zack Burt

Distinguish must-haves from nice-to-haves: The Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the effort. Understand what is absolutely necessary and zoom in on that.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Zack Burt.

Zack Burt is the founder of Code For Cash, a recruiting firm that specializes in high tech talent. Previously, he founded Awesomeness Reminders and the open-source project CompassionPit. He is the co-author of The Software Engineer’s Guide to Freelance Consulting.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I first started in the industry selling bots for AOL Instant Messenger from my childhood bedroom. Eventually, I got an internship with a great entrepreneur named Alex Rampell, and together we wrote an app that got acquired. After the acquisition, I started freelancing as a software developer, helping build apps for other people. After some serious effort, I attained full-time employment in the tech industry as a quality assurance professional (getting full-time employment at $20/hr was quixotically much more challenging than getting freelance work at $85/hr!). Eventually, I worked my way up to Chief Technology Officer. I wrote a book freelance software development, founded a community of software engineers, and started working as a recruiter placing software engineers once people started tapping into my community’s talent for their vacant full-time positions.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career?

I was dealing with this big hedge fund, telling them about this absolutely fabulous candidate, which got the CTO excited. But as it turns out, this candidate had applied a year ago and nothing came of it, but after our conversation, he immediately launched into the interview process. The experience underscores the importance of timing, personal networks, and relationships in the recruiting process.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

We’re working on a series of internet crawlers to monitor the job boards of all companies that are known for hiring software talent. Developers can sign up for a profile on our website and get alerts when there are gigs that match their skillset. Since launching the service, we have helped hundreds of people succeed in finding software development work. Unfortunately, our coverage of the market is really just beginning; there are a lot more companies to cover and a lot more communities to serve.

Fantastic. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example for each idea.

Emotional inventory: Take an inventory of your emotions and your productivity after interacting with this person. How does it compare relative to the baseline?

Employee competition: Hire two people at once for the same role and see who performs best. If you end up with two winners, even better!

Work sample: Hire someone for a contract job before hiring them for a full-time job.

Personal network: If you’re a manager, your network includes your employees. Ask your employees for referrals. These candidates tend to close at a higher rate, too.

Distinguish must-haves from nice-to-haves: The Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the effort. Understand what is absolutely necessary and zoom in on that.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

● Use Facebook audiences to target campaigns to your top 100 audience as well as a lookalike audience.

● Understand your “lukewarm” audience — people who have liked or interacted with your social media content but have not reached out to you formally — and court them.

● Spending time to thoroughly research your top 100 dream candidates — a technique I borrowed from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s number one salesperson, Chet Holmes.

What are the 3 most effective strategies used to retain employees?

Connection to colleagues

There’s a saying that people leave managers, not jobs — and that’s certainly true. But people fundamentally don’t like to let down their friends. The human mind, wired for survival in brutal conditions, places a paramount premium on social acceptance. If people feel connected to their colleagues, they’re going to want to stay in their work tribe.

Impact to customers & colleagues

This is especially important to URM candidates. It doesn’t have to be saving the world. But what is the impact on society, other colleagues, the company, etc? 86% of millennials would take a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with theirs. Not everybody is in a customer-facing role, but ultimately, people who are mission-aligned end up staying aligned with the company — that includes enabling colleagues.

Growth (e.g. mastery)

“It’s the journey, not the destination” — every successful person reports that achieving their goals did not make them enduringly happy. Instead, they find joy from fully immersing themselves in the process. When an employee is stretching their skills beyond their comfort zone, they have the opportunity to achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” — being fully present and in the moment, fully enjoying and engaging in their work. This is a stable, mature form of happiness that doesn’t infantilize employees — happy people stay at companies.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends?

In my experience, following trends is a fast track to staying average and mediocre. Yes, some knowledge of the cutting-edge trends can be helpful so you don’t reinvent what other people have already figured out, but breaking away from the pack invariably requires going at it alone.

If you’re following what everyone else is doing, you might end up with a local optimum. In computer science, this is known as the hill-climbing problem and looks something like this:

A surface with two local maxima. (Only one of them is the global maximum.) If a hill-climber begins in a poor location, it may converge to the lower maximum.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

Highly customized compensation strategies, including benefits and promotions. There are four major career types:

○ Work to live

○ Seasoned master — career individual contributor

○ Explorer

○ Planned opportunists

Each type is going to value different things. The work to live group particularly are going to appreciate things like time off, flexible schedule, and benefits that translate into real dollars. Seasoned masters are going to appreciate the ability to further their education as well as teach others. Explorers are going to appreciate cross-functional projects and moving between organizations. Planned opportunists are going to appreciate direct feedback about next steps they need to achieve that promotion.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

At Code For Cash, we are thinking about starting a program called, “Random Acts of Code,” where employees are given a few hours each week to contribute a pull request to any open source project, whether it’s adding a new feature or performing the valuable service of documentation and tests.

Can you give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“A fair fight is the result of poor planning.”

I eventually learned in sales (and recruiting is sales) that you should know the outcome of a pitch before you make it. For example, if I send an email, I should have a good idea of the possible responses I might receive (and why) before I even receive the response. If you plan and anticipate the objections that people might have, then you are going to be successful a great majority of the time, something most people are going to chalk up to luck. This typically requires preparation and work.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Look, I have a background of great privilege and after working my tail off for nearly two decades in this industry, I have confidence that with enough perseverance, I could get the attention of anyone, if not directly, then through one of their colleagues or agents. I’d love to have lunch with someone who doesn’t have that same privilege and would like to have some help connecting the dots to breakthrough whatever rut they are stuck in.

But if I have to name somebody, let me just say: Maverick Carter, if there’s anything I could ever do for you…

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

You’re welcome. Thank you for the opportunity!


About the Author: Kage Spatz went from inner-city Teacher to Forbes-featured CEO & 3x Entrepreneur — most notably Spacetwin & Milburn Shaw. Kage provides win-win-win solutions across many industries. His latest project is connecting employees (and their families) to additional HR benefits at zero cost to them or their company. Connect with Kage on Linkedin to strengthen your network anytime.

Kage Spatz

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