Put up a job listing and you’ll get a number of resumes. Is that success? Quantity is never the goal. Quality is. So, what does it take to attract the best talent? If it were as simple as free meals, this article would be very short.
To uncover the answers, we interviewed dozens of recruiters, tech employees and hiring managers to ask a simple question: “What do you do to attract the best tech talent?” And as an adjunct, “What shouldn’t you do?”
One consistent theme was about “respect” for yourself, your company, your mission and your employees. Here are the results, broken down.
1: Show them the big important problem they’re going to solve
If you want to attract great talent, “provide an opportunity to solve cutting edge technical challenges, with other exceptional technologists,” says Brad Hoover, CEO of Grammarly.com.
You can communicate that opportunity by telling your company story.
“Demonstrate why people should want to join you,” says Sara Fleischman, Senior Technical Recruiter at Expedia. “We as humans all want to see how we can make a difference, how what we do on a daily basis can make someone’s life a little better.”
“The best technologists don’t define themselves by programming languages (e.g., Java engineer). Instead, they are phenomenal problem solvers, who will use the right tool for the job,” adds John Vlastelica, Managing Director for Recruiting Toolbox.
2: Get personal quickly: Introduce prospects to the team early in the process
“When I found someone we really wanted, I made sure that the candidate spent time (usually lunch) with a group of his/her future peers,” says David Nason, COO and CTO of Robust Decisions Inc. “Once they get to know you, ‘warts and all,’ and share in the excitement and optimism of the team… it becomes more personal.”
Although antithetical to the standard interviewing process, Nason suggests you bypass HR until the closing process so as to maintain a personal connection with the prospect.
3: Build a long-term relationship with the community
“What makes a difference is focusing on long-term relationship building and not only the short-term ‘hard sell,’” observes Katharine Bierce, Business Analyst for Opera Solutions.
You don’t want your only communications with the industry to be “We’re hiring.” Go out of your way to build a relationship with the community of talent whether they’re working for you or not. Bierce suggests these three techniques:
- Let employees blog on technical topics: Provide thought leadership and quality industry content to engage members of tech community.
- Host meetups at your office: Contribute to the tech community by bringing in thought leaders to speak and act as a connector to other members of the community.
- Maintain your reputation: This requires having a good relationship with media and other bloggers and your employees. As people come and go, they have the power to say good and bad things about your business.
4: Engage the community in solving a problem
Brogan advises releasing your API or a string of problematic code and asking for contributions from the open source community.
“Anything you can do to let them know you want to solve problems will get them engaged,” says Brogan. He thanks participants and lets them know they’ve got gobs more problems to solve if they want to come and work for his company.
We’ve also seen this technique used with contests, such as hackathons. If the contest is fun enough and challenging enough, and there’s value in participating in the contest itself, not only will you attract great tech talent, but you’ll quickly be able to see who is the best of the best.
5: Take your company culture on a university tour
“Sponsor workshops at universities where you can hold the attention of the students instead of competing for their attention with other employers as you would in a career fair,” advises Jawid Elyacy, Information Architect for U.S. Bank.
Even though green, Elyacy believes college students have great potential to be top talent.
“They’re young and energetic and aren’t necessarily ‘jaded’ for having worked in the industry for a long time,” Elyacy says.
Facebook brings its famous in-office hackathons to universities, giving students a little taste of what it’s like to work at Facebook. The social network’s periodic hackathons have been responsible for great company innovations such as photo tagging, video sharing, and the “Like” button.
Matt Millunchick, Technical Project Manager for Facebook, shares here about their traveling recruiting hackathons:
6: Be careful about showcasing too many on-site perks
“Circa 1993, I was interviewing with a Microsoft partner that did custom software development. During the interview they touted all the perks that they offered, starting with bagels and donuts that were delivered each morning, the eight varieties of coffee that were always being brewed, the in-office gym and showers, the sandwich trays that arrived every afternoon, and the late night pizzas,” says Mark Bromberg, Director of Sales at IsoSoft Solutions. “The message I got was not that the company provided great benefits, but that they expected their staff to be on site working 24 hours a day.”
Some organizations have on-campus housing and will shuttle you back and forth to your place morning and night.
“This really just makes it so they are always close to work and rely on work to get home,” says Stephen Lytle, Southeast Pharmacy Campus Recruiter at Target.
If you never leave campus, it’s difficult if not impossible to have a sensible work-life balance, says Lytle.
7: Don’t fake it
“Great employment branding emerges from the heart of the company,” says John Sumser of HRExaminer. “The most attractive things you can offer are resources, challenge and freedom to make mistakes. Pretending that you do these things and not delivering on the promise causes morale and attrition problems.”
“Any employer (tech or non-tech) can’t make themselves more attractive. If it isn’t true, then putting lipstick on a pig will be found out and no one will trust you again,” says William Uranga, Senior Director, Talent Acquisition at TiVo.
8: Offer incubator training and opportunities
Last year at the Future of Web Apps conference, we interviewed entrepreneur Jason Calacanis of Mahalo about how he entices prospective talent away from Silicon Valley’s 800-pound gorillas. Even though the bigger competitors can beat him on higher salary offers, he offers education from him, a self-proclaimed entrepreneurial Jedi master, on how to begin a startup. All he asks new talent is three to four years of their time (he usually gets two) in exchange for entrepreneurial training.
If they leave, he may angel invest in their company or sit on their board of advisors.
Many techies want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and they’re looking for the kind of true entrepreneurship training found in an incubator-like environment. Just be upfront with employees and accept that they might leave in one or two years. Show that you need them now and for that you’ll help them with their own dreams, suggests Justin Sherratt, founder of Sortbox.
9: Ask them what they want
“I see employers take a cookie cutter approach to how they retain and incentivize employees who are at the same time becoming more and more individualized and unique,” says Michael Peterson, Acting Director of Recruitment Strategy at Sharp HealthCare.
“Something like a bonus may not matter at all (or may even be insulting) to someone that wants more time with their family,” he observes. “Challenging work may be the ultimate driver for others and no other incentive can replace that, especially to someone that is trying to grow and develop skills.”
10: Lower the ‘entry level’ expectations and offer training for those positions
“Gone is the day where training was expected after hire,” says Michael Wallstrom, Owner and Technician for Computer Repair Now.
Wallstrom is frustrated by the number of years experience required for “entry level” positions. He believes the disconnect hurts both the hordes of underemployed and employers. It’s almost impossible to find an entry level position that requires zero experience, and as a result, expectations have been raised too high for such openings.
11: Lure with “sexy” tech and the promise of training
“More and more developers are interested in ‘sexy’ technologies, such as Ruby, FLEX, HTML5, and open source tools,” says Debby Afraimi, Senior Recruiter at Collective. “I make sure to let potential candidates know that we develop in that ‘sexy’ space, and that we do train.”
Dice can confirm the attraction to these development platforms. At last year’s Silicon Valley Code Camp, classes for these technologies were consistently packed.
“I’m finding it easier and easier to lure people away from enterprise development roles, because everyone can see the writing on the wall: enterprise software is dying,” Afraimi says.
12: Make sure your recruiters are tech savvy
Many Dice users are frustrated by recruiters who they believe are just pattern matching and don’t actually understand the technical nature of what they do. For more, read the comments in the article and video “Listen to what Two Recruiters Say About Resumes.”
“Recruiters don’t have to know how to code, but they better have more than a passing familiarity with the lingo and the different roles in an IT organization,” says Sian.
13: Be eager to hire candidates with 80 percent of the qualifications
“Use the 80/20 rule,” says Bob Waldo, Senior Recruiter at LiquidHub. “If a candidate has 80 percent of the skills the job requires, they are qualified. Hire them! They will learn the 20 percent and be 100 percent whole in a shorter period than it will take you to find the perfect fit.”
In addition, Waldo argues that an 80 percent employee is far more attractive and much easier to retain than someone who is 100 percent qualified. “You get a much more motivated employee than the guy who has ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt to prove it,’” he says.
14: Treat your employees right so they can be your word-of-mouth recruiting force
If you care for your staff, imbue trust—and help them—they’ll return the favor with incredible productivity, loyalty and recruitment, says Tom Cooper, Principal for BrightHill Group.
“When employees feel valued, they promote the brand,” agreed career coach Rita Ashley. “If employees aren’t referring their friends, there’s a whole lot wrong internally.”
Ashley noted one Seattle business that treated its staff so poorly that the reputation spread quickly among local talent. As a result, the company was forced to hire out of state.
15: Write a job description with realistic expectations
“Hiring managers have a tendency to write job descriptions about the most ideal candidate, asking for the world when in reality the job may not actually require that skill set,” says AutoTrader.com’s Ben Sian.
Doing that is absurd, argues L.J. Bothell of StudioBast, who has seen unrealistic job descriptions requesting candidates who do not exist. For example, she’s seen requests for six years minimum experience for HTML5 and CSS3, or concurrent 10+ years experience in open source, Apache, and Microsoft systems as if any company would have all three of those systems in play at any one time.
16: Be upfront. No one likes a bait and switch
Heather Hanson, President of Corvax Solutions, tells of her excitement when she was being recruited for a management position. That is, until she had her first interview:
“I learned that they believed their matrix system was so unique that they intended to hire me for a lower position and promote me in a year. Their arrogance regarding the superiority of the company’s procedures and culture was a negative, but the requirement that I take a demotion for the privilege of working there was a deal breaker for me. They should have mentioned this requirement before we wasted a day of interviewing.”
17: Communicate during the hiring process
“I know that I am guilty of not being able to communicate as quickly and in as much detail as I wish,” admits Greg Buechler, Recruiter and Researcher at eGain Communications. “But zero is too little.” He suggests you let candidates know where the process is with other candidates, and if anyone on the hiring team will be out of the office when an interview is scheduled.
Communications is just as important between recruiters and hiring managers, as Tim Heard, President of eSearch Associates, observes. “Unfortunately, I have dealt with many hiring managers who after the fact have added, ‘Oh yeah, we really need this skill too,’ when explaining why a candidate wasn’t a good fit.”
18: Vet your recruiters’ techniques to find candidates
Former recruiter Deb Hester of Deb Hester & Associates still gets calls and emails from recruiters trying to hire her as a programmer even though she hasn’t coded since FORTRAN was a big deal. She once witnessed recruiters offering advice such as “Don’t get married—you won’t have time to put into a relationship” or “If you’re moving, get rid of your pets—you won’t have time for them and you won’t have time to find an apartment or other housing that will take them.”
Hester left the business because she was disillusioned by the spray and pray tactics of some tech recruiters, which resulted in all recruiters having to face candidates’ jadedness or outright hostility.
19: Be disability friendly
According to a January 2012 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for those with a disability is about 50 percent higher than a person with no disability. Often the cost to compensate for their needs (e.g., special keyboard or larger monitor) is a drop in the bucket compared to other recruiting costs. If you want to attract this community, make it publicly known that you want all types of talent and will compensate when necessary.
20: Offer market value even if they’ll accept less pay
While undergoing a long stretch of unemployment, Al Costa, now Director of Alkol, accepted a job with a company at half the market rate. He asked for more money, but the firm claimed it simply couldn’t pay more.
After just one week, the company’s major customer approached Costa and made an offer at twice his salary. In an effort to keep Costa, his employer offered to cover the new offer. Costa then asked why they’d claimed to have no money. The company had no answer.
“I told them that even if the customer did not hire me I would not stay with them, as I found their attitude basically a theft,” Costa says. “I was hired by the customer and stayed there happily.”
21: Improve retention by reducing recruiting needs and improve your employment brand
“Tech employees often get trapped in the ‘same’ job for too long and the only way to get out of it is to find a new job in another company,” says Steen Koldsoe, Innovation Consultant at PinkCat.dk.
Business Analyst Katharine Bierce of Opera Solutions recommends reducing internal politics and any procedural bureaucracy. Software engineers won’t want to interview with a company if it’s known for a lot of internal BS, she says.
22: Pick off the top talent to get the whole team
While working at Sun, Deirdré Straughan, now Community Architect for Joyent, witnessed other companies trying to poach Sun’s best talent after the company was acquired by Oracle. When you get the top player, other team members will follow, says Straughan, who witnessed entire teams fall apart because one star player left.
Similarly, if you get one true rock star, others will beg to come on board just for the opportunity to work with him or her.
23: Hang out in open source communities
People do comment and rate your open source code. You can see who the community views as a rock star by participating in open source communities such as Github. Don’t go in just to poach talent, though. You have to really participate.
And bear in mind how important it is for candidates to not just talk about their skills, but to show them off.
“I like that when I go for a job I can put on my CV that I’ve contributed to projects so a prospective employer can see my skills as well as just relying on my word,” says “slace,” a commenter on ycombinator.
“Hopefully someday all those CVs will be obsolete, and people will only be employed by their open source contributions,” added “thealistra” in the same discussion. “I never liked writing CVs anyway.”
24: Actively manage people during layoffs
When people get laid off, they don’t disappear. Treat their exit with respect and truly help them out with future job searches, possibly with other divisions of the company. One negative experience will result in bad word-of-mouth that can impact many areas of your business, including future hiring.
“Consulting firms view every former employee as a future potential client and thus try to make sure when they leave they are still a ‘friend of the firm,’” says Peter Kemp, SVP of Digitas. “Some have active alumni networks in which they host annual events.”
25: Promote ‘pay for performance’ over hourly wages
“Require deadline-driven project completion, where you really don’t care if they work days, nights, or weekends, as long as the project completed,” suggests Dawn Boyer, Small Business & 8(a) Consultant at D. Boyer Consulting.
We got a lot of comments from workers and recruiters who don’t think tech fits into the hourly worker model, but liked to see themselves as more a sub-contractor on a payroll model. Given that so many tech professionals like to work irregular hours and, like most of us, have families to manage, it’s an attractive model to promote. Just make sure you have systems that allow people to work from home.
26: Perks, perks, perks
It would be impossible not to mention this in any article about attracting top talent. There isn’t one perk that’s universally appreciated, but taken together a good variety can add up to an attractive offer. Perks can include additional vacation time, flex hours, all types of insurance, fully vested 401(k) plans, free food, pre-paid legal services, financial planning, concierge services, paid certifications, telecommuting, a pleasant work environment, health benefits that start on day one and, of course, a competitive salary.
27: Sell your company as a wise investment
Beyond discussing benefits, talk to the candidate like they’d be an investor or stock holder. Share current revenues, anticipated revenue growth, current market share and how you plan to expand it, he advises.
28: Promote your organization’s innovative culture
“People want to know that their employer thrives on innovation, engages their staff at all levels and—regardless of title or position—that they can approach, interact and share ideas with everyone, from the CEO on down, and right back up the chain,” Waldo says.
29: Encourage employees to maintain past employer relationships so you can source from competition
You know where your best future talent is? It’s working at your competition. After all, many of your current employees probably worked with competitors at one time or another. If you want to get more talent from them, you’ll need your employees to continue to interact with them.
“We actually have a great reputation among our competitors,” says Debby Afraimi of Collective. “We poached some people that still have friends at their former employer. That helps when I’m sourcing from the competition.”
30: Forget keyword matches and focus on candidates for the long term
“There are far too many excellent candidates in the marketplace that may not have the perfect resume, but have skills that would provide tremendous value for any organization both now and in future,” says Charles Caro, Executive Director at Rebounders Unlimited. “HR and many hiring managers have missed truly ideal candidates simply because they weren’t able to make the connection between a candidate’s visible and transferable skills with the current and future needs of the organization. That’s either because they didn’t have a good definition of company needs, or didn’t have a vision regarding the future needs of the organization.”
Conclusion: Respect the role of the tech worker
In all our interviews, we learned that tech employees view their career success as part advancement, part making a difference. Understand that need and desire, and foster it through a positive work environment that others want to share.
We know we haven’t come up with all the best advice on attracting the best tech talent. If you’ve got a tip we haven’t included, please add it to the comments below.
Research for this article conducted by Joy Powers.