Asking a tech recruiter2020-11-25
Since I left my comfy job as the tech lead for a SaaS product and went into running my own business I took a closer look at my relationship with recruiters. While working I mostly found the attention of recruiters slightly reassuring but often annoying. I think that annoyance is fairly common, usually built up from countless LinkedIn drive-by attempts from unreading keyword-hunting recruiters. I thought that now, out on my own, maybe this legion of recruiters can be my sales department. And they have been, to an extent.
During my first few days as a free agent I did reach out to one recruiter in particular. This was the one that had been closest to dislodging me from my previous position and I had a feeling he was a sharp one. I had also thrown my cousin at him and he had helped him land his first real ops gig. When I got in touch this recruiter quite swiftly landed me my first client. In parallel I started to accept more recruiter connections and had a lot more conversations with assorted recruitment agencies. It has netted a fair bit of work. But I dare say the hit-rate is mostly low.
The recruiters that I’ve found to give the best results also give recurring results. They are the people that follow up, consider your needs, balance them with client needs and make things happen. It is my feeling that there remains a large cultural gap between the majority of recruiters and developers. I’ve been thinking about how to usefully bridge that. I don’t particularly need it right now but I want to help junior developers find their way into work and more experienced developers find their way to what they actually want. I think recruiters could help there. But I think we’re still quite far off from that.
I reached out about this to my network on LinkedIn (where the recruiters live). I got a response from Emy Wennerberg Kristoffersson who was willing to take a chance and reach some new developers. Emy works mostly in Sweden around Gothenburg and Helsingborg, so while she might not work in your particular area I think the information and exchange is widely applicable. We figured a good first step is to tackle some of the common skepticisms that developers tend to have around recruiters and recruitment. I hope this will be helpful. The post is not sponsored, I asked her to answer a bunch of uncomfortable and nuanced questions which I think she does gracefully. Let’s get into it.
For some background, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your professional experience?
Emy: My name is Emy Wennerberg Kristoffersson. I was born and raised in Helsingborg (south of Sweden), but moved to Gothenburg back in 2016. I am passionate about tech, human beings and business development. I settled on tech-recruitment because it gives me the opportunity to combine all of these areas. For the last three years, I have been working in the recruitment industry. I work for Bonsai Consulting, a Gothenburg-based company that specializes in tech recruitment.
I have always had a huge tech-interest. Though, this wasn’t something that I seized back in my younger years, at least not to a greater extent (apart from when loved ones encountered technical problems and I wanted to impress – hah!). My father has always been in the IT sector so I’m quite sure that his tech skills have influenced me. I am a people-person at heart, so I eventually decided to study Human Resources in Gothenburg. In time, I got in touch with Bonsai Consulting whereupon I started to work as a researcher, and my main task was to build a network of candidates who were open to new opportunities. After a couple of months, I leveled up to a position as a recruiter and got a bigger responsibility within the company. Back then we worked broadly in recruitment and recruited to many different industries, but due to my tech-interest, the positions that related to IT and tech always ended up on my desk. One and a half years ago, we decided to work exclusively with tech recruitment due to the enormous demand within the industry.
One of the most interesting things in my profession is the potential for improvement in the recruitment industry. Today, I am aware that there is a lot of frustration against the recruitment profession and I do think that this is a misconception. Many jobseekers consider recruiters as an annoying part of the job search. Generally speaking, we have a pretty bad reputation (let’s talk more about this later). But the thing is, in fact, that we are an asset in a candidate’s job search and in a company’s recruiting process. My vision is to get fewer people out there to see us as an annoying piece of the puzzle, and instead see the value of taking our help as a job coach.
Finding and hiring experienced developers has been a challenging proposition for a while due simply to enormous demand, how does this affect your job?
Emy: The first thing that comes to my mind, is the challenge of getting the companies to understand the market and the developers’ situation. It is a bitter pill to swallow for many recruiters and companies, but today many developers have at least 4-5 opportunities available for him or her. Unfortunately, not all companies understand how coveted many developers are, and therefore they don’t understand the necessity of offering a great deal to potential employees. Not just the salary has been rising during the last years, other requirements have changed considerably as well. Today, many developers expect to be able to work remotely, having flexibility in their working day, good opportunities to develop within the company and to be able to develop their own skills (and so on…). Outstanding developers know their value on the market, and if a company’s position doesn’t sound interesting or profitable, they will go on to their next available opportunity. Many companies lack the understanding of how many offers a developer can have on their table and are therefore unable (or even unwilling) to match their needs. This is a tough nut to crack.
Another thing that comes top of mind is the art of standing out as a recruiter. Due to the enormous demand, many developers are likely to get contacted by a countless number of recruiters every day. The old-fashioned way of sending an email to a developer saying “Hi, here’s a job I’d like you to consider” doesn’t work today. Why? Because that developer has probably received multiple requests from other recruiters already, and my message is likely to disappear somewhere in all that noise. Over the years that I have worked as a recruiter, I have come to understand the importance of understanding the developers needs and desires before sending them multiple job descriptions, preferably even before I contact him or her. It is my duty, as a recruiter, to do my research before I expect a developer to take his or her time to talk with me. For example, If I check their Github I may find out that this developer prefers back-end development in C#/.Net, then I know that it won’t be necessary for me to contact him or her in order to talk about a front-end position where your main focus is in React and Typescript. If I don’t do my research, I’m likely to waste the person’s time. If I don’t find anything on Github or similar, then I think it is pure decency of me to first of all ask if they are interested in having a conversation with me and if they are, I can’t just throw a job description in their face without first understanding what this person is interested in.
Has everything changed with the pandemic? Is development work hard to find now?
Emy: A lot has changed with the pandemic. From my experience, I think that the biggest challenge for recruiters right now is that developers in general are unwilling to take on a new job, even though they might know that their current position isn’t exactly what they want. I think it’s a result of the uncertainty with the pandemic, that no one knows how it will develop and what will happen next. Since the pandemic seriously shook the market during spring and summer, many developers are worried that it will put them in a situation where they’ve left a permanent employment and the safety that it entails, to be the “last man/woman in, first out”.
In the beginning of the pandemic the market was disastrous, from March until September it was clear that even the IT-industry (despite the great demand) suffered from the pandemic. Many start-ups had to end their businesses and bigger companies were prohibited from hiring, many were even forced to dismiss employees in order to survive. Since August until today it has eased, and more companies dare to hire today. With that said though, companies take precautions when hiring and the processes might include more steps than normally in order to be really sure that it’s a good fit for the position.
I’d say that there are many opportunities on the market by now, but of course we are far from “normal”. Unfortunately, many companies demand more senior developers today, in order to fill the positions that they dismissed during spring. So, for junior developers it may still be a challenge to find their first or next position. Many companies can hire junior developers as a short-term consultant-assignment, so it is advantageous to be open to these opportunities as a junior developer.
Is the poor reputation of the recruitment profession in tech among developers deserved or overstated?
Emy: Sadly, I do think that it is deserved. I think that many recruiters have the wrong approach when recruiting for developer-positions. I have talked to many, many, many developers about this, and my understanding of the situation is that developers experience that recruiters don’t understand them nor their industry. And above all, many developers think that recruiters are a bit ignorant and uninterested in understanding it.
Recruiters and developers communicate differently, which is natural due to very different professions. Let’s face it, most tech recruiters lack programming skills. That’s understandable but since I am the recruiter and in most cases I am the one who expects them to talk to me, it is in my responsibility to educate myself to the extent so that I get a basic understanding of the developer profession and am able to communicate better with them. As a recruiter, and especially as a tech recruiter specializing in IT recruitment, you must have interest in getting to know the IT industry. I am no expert in IT and definitely not in development, but I quickly realized that I at least had to have a basic understanding in order to be able to communicate with the people whom I am trying to reach out to. Therefore I have spent my free time on reading books about IT and I took some online basic courses and bootcamps in development, just in order to understand the technical language. If I don’t have this basic understanding, I will appear frivolous and ignorant in my professional position, and then why would anyone spend their time talking to me?
There will probably always be a gap in the communication between developers and recruiters, recruiters will always be at disadvantage in terms of technology, but I hope that more recruiters understand the problem and start to educate themselves so that in the long run we can earn a better reputation among developers.
What are the major challenges you and your colleagues face as recruiters?
Emy: From a candidate perspective, the major challenge is what we talked about earlier, regarding the poor reputation of the recruiter profession among developers. Since many developers have preconceptions of recruiters even before we reach out to them, it’s always a challenge to turn it around. If developers have had some bad experiences with recruiters before, it is often quite hard to even get to the point where we have a fair chance to prove that not all recruiters are the same. Nothing makes me happier than being the one who disproves the preconceptions or being the one who gives a developer a better experience – but to do that I must succeed with the first part, to break through the noise of bad experiences to the extent that the developer is willing to have a conversation with me.
Another major challenge is also one that I’ve already mentioned. The one which refers to understanding the IT-industry and the developer profession. I once read that “never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first”. This is, of course, difficult in a recruiter’s position since it is impossible to master every language or skill, but I think that the mindset is very wise. It may not be necessary for a recruiter to be familiar with every detail of all programming skills, but I need to understand everything that is stated in a job description and in a developers CV in order to be successful in my profession.
In terms of challenges with clients, one of our biggest challenges is convincing companies to consider junior developers to fill their positions. Many companies ignore the potential of candidates, and stare blindly into the number of years of experience in their resume. In my opinion, the number of years doesn’t say it all. Many CEOs can testify that some of the best people that they’ve hired had very little programming experience when they took on the job, instead they had raw intelligence and knowledge that outweighed the missing experience. But unfortunately, many companies are afraid of hiring more junior developers – especially if it is a replacement recruitment of a more senior developer.
Are developers especially tricky to recruit or are the challenges similar in other fields?
Emy: With experience in recruiting for positions within different industries, from economics and administration to marketing, logistics/shipping, civil engineering and more, I know for sure that it’s trickier to recruit developers than any other profession. It may be due to the high demand, and the poor reputation of recruiters in addition. The shortage of talent and the infinite war over tech candidates make the job of technical recruiters challenging. When recruiting developers, a recruiter’s job doesn’t end after putting a job description on the career site, sitting back and waiting for the right candidate to drop by and say, “Hi I want this job”. It requires being active, putting effort in looking through coding-related sites and working actively with headhunting, since the person who we are looking for is likely to already have a job. I think that a huge contributing factor is that developers don’t “hang out” in the places where we traditionally look for them. Not all developers spend their time on Linkedin, which is the biggest business and employment-oriented social service available, and the number 1 social media tool for recruitment and hiring. While recruiters search for the right competence on Linkedin, developers hang out on Github, Stack Overflow, CodeProject, Hacker News and so on; i.e platforms where recruiters “don’t belong” and in some cases even are prohibited from contacting developers.
I’ve heard it said that recruitment is a numbers game where finding and reaching out to the largest number of candidates is the way to play. Does this match up with your experience?
Emy: I hear what you’re saying, and once again I must disappoint my fellow recruiters out there by answering yes, in some ways it matches up with my experience. I would not call it a game though. A recruiter’s career often depends on getting in touch with the right candidate. And as sad as it is, the fact remains that our reputation among developers have seen better days. And as a result of this fact, it is likely that we get 1 or 2 positive answers from contacting 30 candidates for a position. From my point of view, and from doing some research by reading and talking to other recruiters, I find that this is partly due to a lack of knowledge. I think that recruiters who give this impression, who unconsciously create this reputation, don’t understand the positions that they are recruiting for. They are fanatically searching broadly, contacting every candidate that they find at least a little bit appropriate for the position, hoping that they will find the right person among all of the people whom they are contacting. This is absolutely the wrong way of doing it, since it put us recruiters in a bad light, appearing unserious and unprofessional.
Then of course, it is not unthinkable that some recruiters do this on purpose in order to challenge a colleague for fun, or gain a bigger network. Many recruiters also receive high demands from managers to achieve different goals (including a number of contacted candidates) which may result in these kinds of “numbers games”. But I find it hard to believe that professional recruiters in general would aim to do this just for fun. I hope that the majority of recruiters understand that these habits destroy the rumor of our profession even more.
I personally care a lot about finding work for junior developers as I know how hard it can be to find that first step into the business. Many are being trained but very few companies are in my experience willing to invest in levelling people up. What do you think we should be doing to improve that situation in this industry?
Emy: First of all, I think that this is a very important question that more recruiters should work with actively. In my profession as a Tech Recruiter, I am actively working with questions about recruiting on potential. I think that it is important for companies to rethink the idea that years of experience translate to performance. Just because a developer has done a certain type of job before, doesn’t implicate that he or she is necessarily good at it. More companies should think about what’s important to their company. Hiring a developer who is highly experienced can mean that they are very skilled at their job, which most companies strive to find. When recruiting for a replacement position, many companies aim to find a developer who possesses the same skills and experience as the person who they are replacing.
What many companies and hiring managers forget, is that an abundance of experience might just as well come with a very high salary requirement, an inflexibility toward change and difficulties in adapting to the corporate culture. A junior developer on the other hand, is likely to offer a fresh outlook for the company and is often more motivated to gain more knowledge and experience in the company’s field. In addition, a shorter career history may indicate that this person won’t have as many negative habits as a more experienced candidate. Moreover, hiring a candidate with less experience and giving them a chance to prove themselves will drive employee loyalty which is extremely important.
Skills can always be taught, but motivation and ambition cannot. Instead of putting all of their focus on the hard skills, companies should take vital soft skills that establish potential, in greater consideration. I am convinced that companies and hiring managers must transition into a new mindset when it comes to talent spotting, one in which an assessment of a candidate is based not on direct experience and competencies, but on soft skills and potential.
What advice do you have for developers to make the most of their relationships with recruiters?
Emy: To be open-minded and to reach out in time. Even if you’re not looking for a new job as of today, it is a good thing to establish a contact. Good recruiters won’t just throw random job descriptions in your face and expect you to grab the first opportunity that comes up. Instead, a good recruiter will take time getting to know you, try to understand what your biggest ambitions are and what you want to do next, and that’s a time consuming process. Some of the best moments I have had as a tech recruiter have been when I’ve had a chance to really get to know the candidate, and thereafter, I’ve done my utmost to help him or her to land the right job, at the right company. The ideal situation isn’t when you contact a recruiter by the time that you’re already in a hurry to find another job, by the time that your previous employment has already ended. Establish a contact today, explain that you’re not interested in a new job right now but that you would like to get in touch so that, in the long run, the two of you can work together in order to find your next challenge. I think that the conclusion is that developers should consider recruiters more as a friendly job coach. Consider us as a friend, one with a very large network that can offer many valuable contacts and opportunities. A friend who can set up a meeting between you and a hiring manager at your dream company, a friend who has inside information about specific companies and positions and who can provide you with career advice that increases your chances of landing the job. Working with a recruiter will get you closer to that dream job you’ve been trying to land. But don’t just work with any recruiter who reaches out, do your research: ask what companies they usually work with, what positions they’ve successfully filled historically. If you are an IT developer, it makes no sense working with a financial recruiter who specializes in accounting. Find a recruiter who is specialized in your field. The candidate/recruiter relationship should be a relationship of understanding what the two of you can do for one another. It is, after all, your future we’re talking about.
Finally, thanks for answering these questions. And where can developers that are curious to get in touch reach you personally and where do you work?
Emy: Thank you for the possibility to do this Q&A! I really hope that I have answered at least some of the most common questions and concerns regarding recruiters. Developers are more than welcome to contact me, either through Linkedin (Emy Wennerberg Kristoffersson) or by email, email@example.com.
So, dear reader. Was this useful or interesting to you? Would you be interested in me tracking down more of these proactive and deeply engaged recruiters that you could get in touch with?
Hell, I’ll poll it and pull the result from my logs:
Thanks for reading. As always, reach out to me on firstname.lastname@example.org via email or on Twitter @lawik. I’m very curious to hear what you think. If you want to follow my thinking and what I’m up to you’ll find the newsletter signup further down the page. I write different but related things there.