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Recruiting The Best Talent For Your Software Development Team

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Finding and selecting the right candidates for software development is much like buying a car. You have to know the right places to look, understand precisely what you want, and weed out the lemons.
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Unless you have a fully staffed software development organization and are expecting no growth or turnover, you should be concerned about recruiting and hiring the best talent. The best software developers produce significantly better code than their average counterparts. The top software architects produce designs that are much more likely to be completed successfully. So how can you find and hire the best developers and architects? One key attribute of organizations that staff for growth successfully is constant recruitment to keep a full pipeline of candidates, even if the organization currently has no open positions. Another key attribute of successful organizations is hiring from internal referrals. Most companies find that there's no better way to recruit qualified software development candidates than through personal referrals.

Of course, this brings up a key point. If a software development team member is unhappy in the job, he or she is unlikely to refer others to the organization. After reading this article and the next, it should become very clear why recruiting and retention are so closely tied. Many of the best retention practices double as things that can help recruit top talent to your organization.

How to Staff for Growth

The following sections describe some of the more successful ways that top software development organizations recruit their best talent. Techniques discussed include internal referrals, campus recruiting, agencies, newspaper and other print media ads, job fairs, Internet ads, and perhaps one of the least considered, acquisitions.

Whether you use one of these techniques or all of them, you should establish metrics. If you invest $10,000 in any of these techniques, how many successful new hires can you expect to gain from each one? Good metrics will help you spend your recruitment dollars wisely, but can also help you justify the recruitment expense in the first place.

Internal Referrals

Successful software development organizations usually find a large number of their new hires from internal referrals. Good developers typically know other developers and are perhaps the best judges of how suitable a candidate is to join their team. Furthermore, few developers want to work with a poor performer, even if he or she is a close friend. Many software development organizations further encourage internal referrals through some sort of employee referral program. Among high-tech companies, it's not uncommon to find referral bonuses of $1,000 to $5,000—or more—for referring new software developers. As such programs have become commonplace, leading companies try to provide further incentives, such as entering each employee whose referral is hired into a drawing for further cash or other incentive prizes, ranging from stock options to weekend getaways and exotic vacations. The total cash outlay is still less than what would be charged by most technical recruitment agencies.

Campus Recruiting

Campus recruitment is another technique that many development organizations use to find new talent. While the top universities may offer the best chance of finding great developers, the competition there will also be the most fierce. There are several ways to improve your chances at college recruiting:

  • Research the target schools thoroughly. When targeting a school for recruitment, find out as much as you can about the school to determine whether you want to spend your recruiting resources there. Some schools have great technical reputations that are based on their electrical engineering or physics departments, and may not concentrate at all on software development. The school's web page is always a good place to start if you're unfamiliar with the school. If your organization includes alumni of the school, they can provide another good source of information. Finally, don't forget to contact the school's career center and discuss the skills you're seeking. The more information you have, the better.

  • Consider the school's location. If the school is not local to your work location, relocation of the new hire may be an important consideration. Of course, many students are willing to relocate for a great job, but it's likely to be an issue with at least some candidates.

  • Try to involve current employees who are alumni of the school in your recruiting efforts. There is no one better than alumni to return to campus and help recruit new graduates. If alumni are unavailable for the actual recruiting trip, you might at least try to get them to speak via telephone with any finalists selected.

As with recruiting in general, don't consider campus recruiting a one-shot-a-year opportunity. While a majority of students graduate in the spring, good candidates are likely to be graduating at the end of each quarter or semester. There is likely to be less competition for these mid-year candidates, as many companies will only interview on campus once a year. You should also look for ways to keep alumni and other interested employees involved with targeted campuses. Many schools have some sort of professional organization or affiliation program that your company might get involved in. These provide extra opportunities for you to get your company's name in front of students and prospective employees. An excellent example of a school-affiliated program is the UCLA Anderson School of Management's IS Associates program. For more than 20 years, the IS Associates have brought together CIOs and other IS executives with students from the school's MBA program. In addition to the obvious recruitment opportunities, the IS Associates events provide much-needed occasions for CIOs to network with their peers. In return, the IS executives and their companies provide financial support for the Anderson School, occasionally do duty as guest lecturers, and participate in quarterly events and seminars. The IS Associates also co-sponsor UCLA's week-long "Managing the Information Resource" (MIR) program. Many top CIOs and their direct reports from Los Angeles and across the world have attended this course, the second-longest-running such program in the country.

Finally, consider internship or co-op programs. There is no better way to find great employees than to have them work part-time for you while they're still in school.

Agencies

The reputation of technical recruitment agencies is often placed just above or below that of used car salesmen. Used correctly, however, a good technical recruiter can be an excellent source of software development talent for your organization.

As with any group, there are good and bad recruitment agencies. The organizations that use agencies most successfully typically establish a relationship with a small number of technical recruiters whom they learn to trust. You should take the time to meet with the agency and describe the types of individuals you're seeking. Having a personal relationship with the recruiter greatly increases your chances of getting qualified leads. Be sure to take the time to provide feedback to the recruiter when you get résumés, as this helps recruiters to understand the type of person you want.

Newspapers and Other Media

Open the Sunday paper in any major metropolitan area and you're likely to find hundreds of advertisements for software developers, ranging from tiny two-line ads to multiple-page spreads. Most software development organizations find that newspaper ads generate the highest percentage of unqualified responses. You must be willing to invest the resources necessary to properly screen the résumés that you get from newspaper ads.

Another problem with newspaper ads is that the best software developers are likely to be content in their current job and probably aren't spending their time reading the classified ads of the Sunday paper. You should consider more targeted advertising, such as in IEEE or ACM publications and journals. A one-page ad in IEEE Software is at least pretty much guaranteed to be read by a software development professional, although not necessarily one looking for a job.

Job Fairs

Job fairs can be a lot like newspaper ads in that there's no way to pre-screen the people who attend. If you're going to use job fairs for recruitment, be sure you're targeting the correct event. At a general engineering job fair, for example, many attendees have never written a line of code. For the best results, try to target a job fair that's very specific to software development.

Internet

As with newspaper ads, there's no way to pre-screen who will be reading your Internet job ads. With a little extra work, however, there is a way to generally monitor who's reading your Internet ad. You should use this to your best advantage. For example, one networking company noticed a large number of hits on their web site from a competitor. They modified their job listing page to automatically recognize when someone from that competitor was accessing an online job listing, and provided them with a special banner greeting. Another company recognized that their Internet job listings were being accessed most often during working hours, when someone's boss was likely to walk around the corner. They added a "quick escape" button at the bottom of each job listing page that jumps you to a product catalog page. Much better, they figured, to be researching a competitor's product catalog than to be researching their job listings.

Don't forget the online job-search sites, such as Monster.com. One possible advantage of advertising with these services versus newspapers and such is that even a satisfied employee (particularly someone who's very comfortable with software) can set up a job-search agent that scans all the new ads and reports only the "interesting stuff." Even happy employees often keep an eye out for better opportunities, or for potential leverage for improvements in their current position—for example, seeing that a bunch of positions in their field are open at a higher pay scale, better vacation structure, etc., than their current job. Gives them some ammunition to take to the boss. And if they're not so happy, well...

Acquisitions

There are many reasons that companies are acquired. Recruitment of software development personnel doesn't always make the top 10, but should be considered as a source of new development talent.

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