A Letter to Tech Recruiters —The Constructive Approach
I feel I did enough recruiter bashing in my two previous “letters to (tech) recruiters”: A letter to (tech) recruiters and A letter to (tech) recruiters 2.0 to try something else. Pointing out other people’s mistakes is easy. And fun. I must admit. I had my laughs writing it. Coming up with something constructive is, however, difficult.
But I decided to give it a go. Do a good deed. I scratched my car this weekend, so I could use some positive vibes. We can say I’m trying out the karma thing. I even bought a 10 euros lottery ticket. See how things go.
Supply and demand
The job market follows the same rules as any other market. It all boils down to supply and demand. And for the software industry, the demand far outweighs the supply. There’s a short supply of engineers and there’s a particular short supply of good engineers.
There’s a short supply of engineers and there’s a particular short supply of good engineers.
The reasons I believe are the digitalization of, well, pretty much everything and the high financial yield per employee.
I’m a millennial. But I was born in ‘83 which makes me an elder millennial. I can say to the others: gather around me you noobs and let me tell you the story of the rotary phone. Of the one square meter paper map that I kept folded in my backpack. Of the walkman and the 3 cassettes I was listening to on repeat the entire summer: Where did you come from, where did you go, where did you come from Cotton Eye Joe? Of the awkwardness of ordering pizza via phone call. Of the modem.
Now all that is gone. Pretty much everything we do is online. The way we shop (Amazon, Zalando), the way we listen to music (Spotify, Google Music) or watch movies (Netflix, Prime), the way we order food (Glovo, Just Eat), the way we keep in touch with our friends (Whatsapp, email). The way we date (Tinder, Bumble). Even the way we disappoint our parents has been digitalized. I used to do it by skipping school and lying about my grades. Nowadays there’s Fortnite and Tik Tok.
We need an army of engineers to develop and maintain all this digital infrastructure that we base our lives on. And there just aren’t enough of them. There’s a short supply of engineers.
High financial yield per employee
Traditionally, goods and services had a duplication cost. When the R&D phase is over, there is still work and raw materials going into each new item of the series. Take the auto industry for example: after the design, engine schematics, wind tunnel tests, and so on are done, each individual car needs to be produced in order to be sold.
Software is different. Cloud servers are cheap. Internet connections are widely available. Which makes the duplication costs negligible. An app can be installed by millions of users with almost no extra costs for its developer. Which can make it a very lucrative business.
Facebook acquired Whatsapp for a whopping 19 billion US dollars. Billion. The one with 9 zeros at the end. To put things in perspective, Mercadona, the largest supermarket chain in Spain has a market valuation of about 22 billion. At the time of the acquisition, Whatsapp had 55 employees. Mercadona has about 85 thousand. A medium-sized town.
Of course, to pull that off a company needs the very best. Which are difficult to find. There’s a particular short supply of good engineers.
And where does that leave us!?! In the current disequilibrium, with recruiters going out of their way to find engineers to join their companies and engineers making increasingly unreasonable requests.
Don’t get me wrong, as an engineer, I am happy with the situation. I do feel for the other side though. I had the privilege to work with some very good recruiters over time. So I put together a list of suggestions I feel may help bridge the gap. Make it easier on both sides.
It doesn’t work, it’s annoying and casts a negative shadow on the whole industry. At some point, people just stop reading these emails entirely.
And it doesn’t scale over time. Recruiters that rely on spamming large numbers of possible candidates are just automating their jobs away. If the strategy is throwing emails at a wall and see what sticks, that can be done faster, more reliably, and millions of times cheaper by a bot.
Recruiters that rely on spamming large numbers of possible candidates are just automating their jobs away
In my opinion, this problem arises when talent acquisition departments are using quantitative metrics, such as “number of possible candidates contacted per week”, which promote spamming. A way to mitigate would be focusing on qualitative metrics: “how many of our new hires get promoted in 18 months”. That may incentivize the recruiters to try to find the right candidates and drop the numbers game.
There are a lot of articles out there advising candidates on how to write their CVs and cover letters in order to stand out. I read some of them. I learned that a busy recruiter has less than a minute to skim over a CV and decide whether to discard the application or not. Given the impact that the right job can have on someone’s life, I feel that’s not enough.
We’re being told that CVs should be short, concise, and highlight our strengths. That we should aim to send CVs tailored for the job. I agree. It makes perfect sense. At the end of the day, it all boils down to sales.
The company doesn’t need to hire me, I need to convince them that they should.
When candidates are looking for a job, they’re selling themselves to the company. They have the need to make the sale. The company doesn’t need to hire me, I need to convince them that they should.
Flip the coin and it’s the same story. When recruiters are searching to fill a position, they are doing the sale. The candidates don’t need to change the job, the recruiter needs to convince them that they should.
The candidates don’t need to change the job, the recruiter needs to convince them that they should.
I remember a talk about “elevator pitching”. In a nutshell, an entrepreneur looking for funding gets in the same elevator with a possible investor and pitches the business in the couple of minutes of the elevator ride. It needs to be fast, concise, and arise the investor's interest.
The key point of the talk were the so-called USPs or Unique Selling Points. What makes that company stand up? Why should the investor pick this particular entrepreneur over hundreds of others?
It’s the same for the job market. If the busy recruiter only has only 60 seconds to decide whether a CV should be discarded or not, the busy engineer has about 0 seconds to look over unsolicited job offers. So the offer needs to stand out in the same way the CV should.
Know your strengths: is your company doing something innovative? Different? Any successful open source contributions? Are you paying towards the top of the market? Do you have ongoing social projects that you feel resonate with the candidate’s values? Open with that! These are your USPs.
Information is key
In one of my previous letters, I described a type of recruiter approach as the CIA spook. Messages that only contain some technology names and flamboyant empty words. I make a point of not answering this kind of messages. Try to add as much information to the offer as possible. My suggestions would be:
Information about the job — what is the job actually about? I think it’s best to start with the requirements. These should be split into:
- must have —skills I cannot perform the job without having
- nice to have — skills that may provide a competitive advantage
If I as a candidate see that I don’t match the must-haves, I can just drop out from the start and save everyone’s time.
The next bit of information should be the job description. Responsibilities and expectations. What exactly would I do if I pass the interview and get the job?
Information about the company — what’s the company about? Please don’t say “industry leader”. The company’s name will work much better. Now more than ever candidates are looking for companies that match their own values. If your company has a strong employer brand, don’t hide it.
Generally, recruitment agencies are reluctant to divulge the company’s name. Maybe they’re afraid the candidates will go and apply to the company directly and cut them out!?! I don’t know, but I will let you in on a little secret: engineers are lazy. We like automation. We don’t like to do things manually.
If you’re afraid that I will look for the company online, try to find this specific job on their career page — if they have one — or on LinkedIn and apply by myself, let me put your mind at ease. That’s not happening! I would much rather outsource this task to the recruitment agency and get back to my game.
Information about the process — not mandatory, but the absolute nice to have. Try to explain the process. How many interviews am I looking at? How long does it take?
Knowing what to expect makes it easier to commit than jumping head first in the unknown. Amazon does a very good job in this area. As a candidate, I know from the start what to expect with them.
Set salary expectations
Personally I prefer to know what the salary bands are from the beginning, before jumping into a long interview process. However, recruiters tend to be secretive about it. I can’t say I fully understand why. But it’s a fact of life that I learned to accept. Like crying kids on an airplane. Nothing I can do about it!
If you’re a recruiter reading this and you’re not allowed or willing to disclose the salary early on, at least try to make sure that estimations on sites like Payscale or Glassdoor are accurate. Because the candidates will check.
Bottom line, salary discussions shouldn’t be awkward
If the estimates are lower than reality, candidates may drop out of the process. Nobody will go through a series of difficult interviews at weird hours knowing that in the end, the prize may be a salary smaller than the current one. If the estimates are inflated, the candidates may feel they’re being shortchanged when they get an offer with an amount smaller than expected.
Bottom line, salary discussions shouldn’t be awkward.
Talk to the engineers in your organization
We’re not that weird! Okay, most of us are not that weird. Fair enough, 50% (ish) of us are not that weird. Recruiters should try to understand their target audience. Getting good practices out of them will, however, be difficult. “How would you like to be approached by a recruiter?” is a difficult question to answer.
The opposite approach may work better. Instead of trying to discover good practices, start by identifying bad ones and weed them out. “What are the things you don’t like when recruiters approach you?” is an easier question to answer. Trust me :)
Of course, different people will give different answers, but some will invariantly overlap. Stop doing those things!
Keep calm and carry on
Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. The perfect candidate is not answering or just replied saying they’re not interested. It sucks. And yet, it’s life. Sometimes people are happy where they are. It’s like dating. If someone is happily married, it doesn’t matter how good your pick-up line is.
Companies are investing more and more in retention. Which will create an even higher need for good recruiters that know how to deliver. And, hopefully, the spammers will go away.