- Determining What Kind of Programmer to Hire
- Writing the Job Description
- Selling the Hire
- Recruiting Full-Time Employees (FTEs)
- Recruiting Contractors
- Reviewing Resumes
- Narrowing the Field
- Preparing to Interview
- Making the Decision to Hire a Programmer
- Making the Right Offer to a Programmer
- Follow Up until the Programmer Accepts
Recruiting Full-Time Employees (FTEs)
Now that you can describe the type of employee you’re looking for, you need to think through where you are going to find candidates and how much you can spend to do so.
You may luck out. If you’re in a large organization, there may be a programmer in another part of the company with an established reputation who wants to work for you. As with any other candidate, express enthusiasm while privately checking the facts, verifying the person’s reputation, and satisfying yourself that their credentials and qualifications apply to and are a fit with your project and your needs.
Be aware that most large organizations have an established process for employees to check out opportunities elsewhere in the company. There may be requirements that they spend a year in the job into which they were hired before they’re eligible to move. They may be required to give a heads-up to their current manager before talking to you. Or they may be allowed to talk with you informally about what you have available but be required to post a form to HR before they can apply. They may be required to resolve issues with their current organization before being allowed to look outside it. You as a hiring manager may have constraints. There may be rules to prevent or at least discourage the “cool” projects from “raiding” more mundane ones. Or conversely you may be expected to consider internal candidates first. These are questions only HR can answer definitively, and you should always ask.
At Fujitsu, Ron found a “diamond in the rough” programmer in the quality assurance (QA) organization and worked with the business unit’s executive director and his peer to ascertain the tester’s interest in development and then to transition him gently. That and some mentoring made him a stellar hire.
Always Be Recruiting
To start your recruiting, post positions on your own Web site. Include not only the active positions you are recruiting to fill, but also positions for which you always seem to need new talent. “At Gracenote,” says Mickey, “we were always looking for Oracle database developers and embedded programmers. So we continued to collect résumés and review them even if we did not have positions open. If we saw a bona fide superstar, we would bring the person in to interview and make the case for increasing headcount (which is always easier if you’ve found a bona fide superstar candidate).”
When Ron first went to Razorfish, his teams were working with almost every technology but Microsoft’s. “I didn’t even have a folder set up for Microsoft coders when an information architect from upstairs came by to give me a résumé of a guy she’d worked with before, a .Net senior coder. I took a look at the résumé and knew I couldn’t use him—and I sure didn’t anticipate that changing—but I also knew if I ever did need a C# programmer, I was looking at the résumé of one I’d want. It doesn’t happen like this often, but a few weeks later one of our clients asked us to help them solve problems with one of their C# apps! I sure felt lucky.”
Mickey has numerous examples of interviewing candidates but not having the right position for them at the time. One example comes from Brøderbund: “I interviewed a guy who was not right for the job we were recruiting to fill, but I liked him and stayed in touch with him occasionally. Almost three years later the right position opened up and he was hired almost immediately. He turned out to be a superstar and was well worth the patience and waiting for the right position to open up.”
By thinking of recruiting not as a series of one-time challenges but as ongoing relationship building, you’ll add value to your network in the short term and your recruiting in the long term. You should always be recruiting!
If you’re at a start-up, you may find that your own network, your list of potential candidates, and referrals from your colleagues are all you have to work with. You can make some great hires with nothing more; you’ll just have to work your limited paths harder.
Budgeting for Recruiting
One of the first things to know about hiring is how much you can spend to find candidates. Marketing costs to attract and recruit full-time employees can include
Paying commissions to headhunters
Engaging an internal recruiter or retaining an external one for this or a group of hires
Paying employees bonuses for making successful referrals
Paying to list your position online with the likes of LinkedIn
Organizing a special recruiting event, perhaps around the time and location of a conference focused on a key technology in which you need expertise
Paying to fly in remote candidates to interview (and potentially paying for moving expenses to relocate them, should you decide to go that route)
For any given hire, large companies will likely set strict limits on what avenues you can pursue and how much you can spend (mitigated sometimes by providing recruiters in-house and by letting you recruit from those already part of your organization—lateral hires). Smaller companies may be more flexible with outside recruiting resources and dollars. Early-stage start-ups may give you no budget whatsoever.
Resolve the headhunter question first. If you’re in a rush to hire, or you’re anxious to increase the certainty of making a hire, particularly in a fast economy, working with two or three effective headhunters can vastly improve your candidate pool.
There are lots of mediocre recruiters. The recruiter you want is one with whom you can do a quick mind-meld, one who will almost instantly understand your needs and mirror them back to you first verbally and then in the form of perfect candidates.
The cost of using headhunters—you don’t pay “contingency recruiters” unless you hire a candidate whom you had not previously contacted regarding a specific position—is usually a percentage of the new hire’s first-year salary. The percentage was once 15 percent, but these days it is seldom less than 20, and 25 percent is not uncommon.
Companies of any size will have their own standard contract stipulating the conditions under which candidates are presented and commissions are earned, including an absolute ceiling on the commission percentage. Just make sure you have a contract in place with a recruiter before you accept résumés or interview any of the recruiter’s candidates—or risk heartbreak when your HR department tells you that you can’t hire the perfect candidate whom you just had 12 people invest their time interviewing because the recruiter won’t meet your company’s terms.
Beware: There are some less-than-ethical recruiters. Look to engage only exceptional recruiters with absolute integrity.
Avoid boiler-room operations. These are people who would, but for the fortuitous offer of a job in recruiting, be calling you at home during dinnertime to sell you carpets or drapery cleaning or credit repair. When they interrupt you with phone calls at work, they’re no less annoying. Some of them will lie and tell you that your colleague “Bob” (pick a name in your organization they just heard) pointed them to you. Some of them will lie and tell you they have a “perfect candidate” with the very set of skills you’re looking for and a pedigree so perfect any manager would leap to hire the candidate. On the flip side, programmers get calls about “perfect jobs” that may or may not exist and soon realize the “recruiters” cold-calling them don’t know anything.
The worst for you—worse even than being unable to shake a recruiter who hounds you with phone calls—is the recruiter who “introduces” a candidate to whom your organization is already talking, then accuses you of lying and threatens to sue you for a commission.
You can mostly avoid the bad apples and find stellar recruiters by relying on recommendations from other managers and being nothing more than polite to the cold callers.
Ron’s feeling is that no interruption by an unsolicited recruiter on the telephone is acceptable. He is civil and asks them to e-mail him. He keeps expecting this to change, but so far it hasn’t: The boiler-room operators never, ever e-mail. Their game is a telephone game. He won’t hear from them for a month or more, when they phone again. He is always very cordial (until they try to keep him on the phone instead of listening to how he wants to communicate with them). He tells them he loves to communicate with recruiters—which generally truly throws them off their spiel—then after a pause says, “But until I get to know them, I only want to communicate via e-mail.” They pester him with questions, to each of which he replies, “I’ll look for your e-mail.” And after a few of those, he says goodbye and hangs up the phone.
There are, of course, the rare real recruiters who cold-call, but they will be more than willing to contact you however you want. From them you’ll see e-mails and candidates and interaction on your terms. And some of them will make it onto your personal list of preferred recruiters.
Recruiter Case Study
Initially, she gave her persona a guy’s name, a great résumé, and a good blog but got nothing for two months. Then she filled out a profile for him on LinkedIn—and was flooded. What she learned was that despite what every recruiter told her about how broadly they looked, by 2009 recruiters were relying almost exclusively on LinkedIn. So she began turning over rocks for non-LinkedIn-listed programmers.
When she found that her competition for the coders she wanted was not just the big guys—Google and Amazon and Apple and their ilk—but predominantly the midsize and smaller companies, she began working harder to differentiate her company from the rest.
She found that every single recruiter her company had ever employed who was no longer contractually prevented from doing so tried to recruit away her “programmer”—and realized how important it is to keep your prized programmers happy: free food, great people to work with, and interesting stuff to work on.
When she realized how poorly prepared most recruiters were—how many were shotgunning impersonal, canned e-mails—she made sure her own recruiters were armed with her company’s mission statement, had specifics about the role being recruited for, and referred to something in candidates’ profiles and on their blogs that made them a good fit for the job requirements. Realizing how few stellar recruiters she came across, she determined to treat her few good ones like gems.10
While we think you should make your initial decisions with respect to recruiters right away, in our opinion the number-one source of candidates (and in a start-up with limited funding, virtually your only source) is employee referrals. With referrals, you’re leveraging the people you already have in your organization to recommend their friends and former colleagues. Every study we’ve seen supports our experience: Good people recommend other good people. And you get a built-in reference, usually with contact information for other former colleagues who will vouch for the candidate as well.
It would be nice to think that your entire organization would recruit their friends to your team every time you have an opening. But the fact is that people can be hesitant to solicit their friends; however, that can be overcome with money. You can expect to pay a headhunter a big commission to find a candidate who will be less predictable than the ones your own employees will recommend. If you were to offer a bonus of just half that for employee referrals ($10,000 for a $100,000 hire, say), employees would feel richly rewarded and highly motivated. Justified as they would be, we have never, ever seen referral bonuses that high. Nor have we seen a single study quantifying the difference between $2,000 and $500 bonuses, both of which are common. But we do know referral bonuses work.
By the way, hiring managers are a special case when it comes to employee referrals. In every program we’ve seen, as the hiring manager you are not eligible for referral bonuses; you are expected to lure former employees from your network to your current team. It’s not uncommon for managers to be asked, when interviewing, about their networks of programmers and their ability to hire from their own pool. Like many job expectations, doing so is not bonusable.
It is important to keep in touch with peers and former employees. In fact, a large number of employers, possibly a majority, would not hire you if they knew you hadn’t stayed networked with the best of the developers with whom you’ve worked throughout your career. That said, don’t solicit developers from the last company you worked for. Even if you didn’t sign a nonsolicitation agreement, it’s bad form. But stay in touch, connect with your former colleagues on LinkedIn, be friendly, let everyone know where you are, and let them contact you. That is OK. So is nonspecific recruiting like posting an update on your LinkedIn profile and other social networks to broadcast your need.
One note of caution: While the rule is that good people recommend good people, always, always, always listen to your “gut.” Ron recalls, “I progressed through one employee’s referrals from one of my best hires to one of my worst. My employee had been stellar at his job, so when he told me that his referral candidate was even better, I was skeptical; but after interviews I thought she would at least be good. She was better. She knocked my socks off. So when I next needed a hire and the guy had another ‘even better than me’ candidate, I ignored the odd feeling in my gut and chose his candidate over another that my team and my gut really liked. My entire group suffered when he turned out not to be stellar—and in fact was not even competent; it was a month of pain until he made it easy for me and left the company.” The rule of thumb: Trust your gut about the candidate, not about the referrer.
One more note of caution: You must avoid cronyism and the appearance of cronyism. Your job is to make great hires of people who are a superb fit, not to hire a team of your friends. Your hires should be the best candidates. Yes, that’s a subjective decision, and you’re the one making the decision, and you have experience with your candidates that no one else in the organization has, and all that is worth something. But if you have a history with a candidate, you should be explicit about communicating why that candidate is your choice; you should share the experience you had with the individual that makes you confident he is the right hire, especially in the face of a competing candidate who interviewed well. As always, communication is your “job one” as a manager, and maintaining interpersonal trust is essential.
Our experience with advertising tech jobs in print media has been to do it rarely, only when the company has a large number of positions to fill, ideally when the number is large enough that it leads you to hold a recruiting event (perhaps in connection with a tech conference nearby) so that the advertising can focus on getting candidates to the recruiting event.
One way to be cost-effective with your recruiting budget, if you have time, is to tier your efforts. Give employees a two-week lead to bring in candidates (and you might make the bonus higher for candidates they bring in during that initial period, possibly saving you the additional work of the next steps). During that time, scare up candidates yourself from your own network of former employees and colleagues.
Simultaneously post your job on your company’s Web site to ensure that candidates can get a clear idea of what you’re looking for and can feel confident in approaching you. If your company uses an applicant tracking system such as Greenhouse or Lever, you will post your job via that tool. Since smart candidates have learned to set triggers on such tools to notify them when an appropriate job has been posted, you may find you get traction from this move alone.
After two weeks, turn the recruiting over to your internal staffing department recruiters; if they’re any good, the number of résumés you will now have to read will multiply fourfold if not tenfold. Simultaneously, brainstorm professional organizations, meetups, and social-media professional groups to which you can post your need, some of which might additionally have job boards that you can leverage.
If you still aren’t finding your hire, advertise on low-cost classified networks such as Craig’s List, AngelList, Indeed, and LinkedIn. Your résumé reading list should increase again.
Finally, go to a few contingency headhunters. If they’re good, your résumé pile will grow by only a small number, but the candidates will be perfect and you’ll owe the recruiter a lot of money. (If your organization has a lot of money and little time, skip directly from employee referrals, head start or not, to headhunters.) If you find yourself working with a headhunter who doesn’t “get” what you’re looking for—who sends you one inappropriate résumé after another—drop that recruiter. Your time is too valuable.
There are a few other items to pay heed to when recruiting full-time employees.
First, given that your most important jobs are to recruit and retain the right people, the staffing and HR departments are the most important groups in your company to bond with. Staffing will play more of a role in your success than any other group. Make internal recruiters your friends. Their care and feeding should be a top priority for you.
The typical staffing department is wildly understaffed. And with your technical positions to fill, you’re at an additional disadvantage, since 95 percent of recruiters barely have a technical bone in their bodies, truly struggle to make sense of your list of required skill sets, and don’t really understand the people you’re looking for (even if they’re good at finding them!). Internal recruiters are typically either touchy-feely HR people who happen to demonstrate a bent for external networking, or marketing people who wish their colleagues would stop typecasting them as HR people. Either way, they have little in common with you.
Make it your mission to make these people your friends. Drop by. Be a friendly face; bring them a smile, coffee, a stuffed animal, or perhaps food (but not to recruiters who are dieting); learn to explain what you’re looking for in their lingo; ask about their kids and their hobbies and their interests; help them to figure out where to look for the candidates you’re seeking; review résumés with them to show them the words and phrases that jump out at you (both positive and negative). If they ask you for anything, get it to them by return mail. If they give you résumés to review, return them within hours, commented and prioritized by desirability against your criteria. Don’t ever make them track you down. Make their job easier in every way. Be their best friend. Figure out how to genuinely like them, and they’ll like you back.
Don’t ever assume, when you don’t hear from them, that they’re working on your hire. Ask them how it’s going. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help, or if there’s any additional information you can supply that would help. Follow these suggestions, and you’ll be one of their favorite managers.
Staffing may be located elsewhere. Find excuses to wander by. Schwab’s staffing department was on the same floor as its cafeteria, making it easy for Ron to drop by before or after lunch, or when visiting the vending machines at snack time. At Razorfish, Ron formed deeper bonds with the team upstairs when his recruiter was relocated to an office there. It worked. His job requisitions got the attention they needed.
Mickey has used contract recruiters quite successfully at Brøderbund and Gracenote: “When I had a bubble of critical positions to fill, I worked with HR to bring in a contract recruiter who can focus on those positions. Contract recruiters work for a lower fixed fee or on an hourly basis, which can greatly reduce the recruiting costs and result in more progress by focusing strictly on the critical positions. Like programmers, you can sometimes find contract recruiters who are passionate about their areas of interest. You can work closely with these contract recruiters to make sure they thoroughly understand the ideal candidate profiles and the critical skill sets, and they work very closely with hiring managers to optimize their time by presenting only highly qualified candidates. At Brøderbund we had one contract recruiter who became a specialist in locating great multimedia talent. He immersed himself in the technologies and prowled the technical forums and special-interest groups looking for talented individuals. He became almost obsessive about looking for and being successful at finding talent. I saw him a few years ago at a SIGGRAPH trade show where he was working for Intel recruiting 3-D graphics specialists and still obsessed by his mission. He was a special recruiter.”
Finding such passionate recruiters is hard, but when you do, your life will be easier and your recruiting almost a pleasure.
There’s another class of headhunters besides those who work on commission, but they mostly don’t apply to you. Retained recruiters are ones you retain and pay regardless of whether they find the candidate you hire. Retained recruiters mostly work on senior and executive management positions, where they specialize in having senior-level networks they can access to find candidates. Sometimes they specialize in or undertake searches in secrecy, to avoid putting the word on the street that someone senior is being replaced. For programmers, though, you’ll almost always pay recruiters a commission only if they find the right candidate for you—a contingency search.