Dave Fecak

About Dave Fecak

Dave Fecak has been recruiting software engineers for start-ups since 1998 and he has served as the founder and president of the Philadelphia Area Java Users’ Group since 2000. Dave is often cited and published on career topics for technology professionals, and he blogs at JobTipsForGeeks.com.

How to Hire Geeks, Brand Your Shop, and Beat the “Talent Shortage”

As a recruiter of software engineers, I hear every day how difficult it is for software companies to find technical talent. If hiring engineers was easy, I wouldn’t be in business. Using a recruiter is one way to have qualified potential employees neatly packaged and delivered, but there are several other strategies that forward-thinking firms can implement to differentiate themselves from their competitors who are just posting ads to the same old places and hitting up the friends and family networks. Your company probably spends significant amounts of money to advertise your product and brand, but very little attention is paid to promoting the company’s identity as a good employer for engineers.
 
 
 
These strategies can take a bit of time and effort, but the rewards are stronger talent at a lesser expense.
Here are a handful of ways to make your company more attractive to new engineering hires.

Creative ads, inviting job descriptions, unique process

I have both reviewed and written more job descriptions for software engineering jobs than I care to mention, and it seems that well over 90% of the ads out there consist of the same trite words and phrases mashed up in different ways. More importantly, it is incredibly rare to see ads that ask the reader to apply. You will see ads that specify who should not apply (“must have x years of experience with ______“), but how often do you see an ad actually encouraging an applicant to “check us out”? Request your reader to act and apply, particularly if your ad is placed in a location where qualified candidates are more likely to be.

Making the application process itself more interesting is another way to set yourself apart. I don’t know anything about Parse, but I know they allow engineers to apply via API. Asking an engineer to fill out an online application that takes ten minutes is an annoying barrier to applying, while adding a small element to the hiring process that engineers view as a minor challenge is a potential draw. If you are going to argue that the application process is a test of an applicant’s commitment and interest, I will counter that a better measure of interest is to have engineers solve a small technical problem to apply (see API example above).

Engineering blogs

Geeks like reading about cool stuff that other geeks are doing. How often do you see links publicized from the Twitter engineering blog, Facebook’s engineering page, or Netflix’s blog. Are you sick of seeing the phrase “____ is a GitHubber!“? Maybe your company isn’t solving the types of problems that these firms are, but that doesn’t mean the problems you are solving won’t be interesting to a specific audience. Smaller shops that post even once or twice a month about a technical challenge, decisions being made, or new additions will draw some readers and potential hires. Comments on your engineering blog are a signal of potential employment interest.

Open source projects and GitHub/Bitbucket public repos

If your company has developed something internally that could have some utility to other developers, making it open source can score your firm some credibility and visibility with the community. Exposing well-written code shows off your team’s expertise and making it freely available to others builds goodwill. Those interactions with developers that contribute to your project or use the code are a good way to start a recruiting dialogue.

Community involvement/outreach

Sponsoring and/or presenting at meetups, conferences, and users’ groups is probably the most targeted advertising you can do to promote your company as an attractive employer of engineers. In theory, money spent on sponsorships could be much more effective than job ads on general employment sites. Unfortunately, many companies spend the money but end up making a negative impression by trying to turn a meeting into their own career fair. As someone who has run a users’ group for almost 13 years, it appears that the most effective way to attract potential hires in these forums is to have a couple of your best engineers present and demonstrate how they solved a challenging technical problem. If you can get the audience to leave the session thinking “I’d love to work with them“, you will get some new applicants.

“Courting” during the hiring process

What is your typical hiring process? If you are like most of the companies I’ve worked with over the past 15 years, the process consists of a phone screen and one or two face-to-face interviews (and sometimes a test). When your process is exactly the same as that of your competitors, what does it say about your company? Nothing. Mix it up a little by initiating contact with an offsite coffee or lunch, especially if the candidate appears to be very strong and in demand.

Always be interviewing

If your company’s five best engineers resigned tomorrow, who would you try to hire? I expect that most simply don’t know. They say timing is everything in hiring (and everything else). However, the main reason timing is such a factor is that most companies are only willing to interview candidates when they have a well-defined open position. Timing is indeed everything when the hiring window is only fully open during short instances and cycles.

I am constantly trying to encourage my clients to always keep an open ear to new hires, and to be willing to interview candidates even when there is not a budgeted position currently open. It is probably important to tell candidates when there is not a current opening, but many will still want to take an informational or informal interview. This gives a firm the opportunity to develop a wish list of hires for when a vacancy arises. During times where an open job is not immediately available a company may raise the bar as to who is invited in, but interviewing exceptional candidates as they appear is one way to defeat much of what is attributed to ‘bad timing’.

Focus more on overall talent, less on buzzwords

If your company has explicit and rigid rules on only considering candidates that have a certain number of years of experience, whether overall or in a certain technology, you are doing it wrong. In a buyer’s market it is common for firms to create very specific requirements for experience, but in times like now when demand is high and supply is low we see the requirements open up significantly. Companies that hire the best available engineering talent instead of an engineer with a specific skill should end up with better teams in the long run. Turning away a savvy engineer because his/her experience is with a different language is a tough choice. Of course some hires are made with short term goals, particularly in the start-up world, but focusing too much on a narrow skill set contributes greatly to the perceived skills shortage.

Conclusion

In my own experience, the companies that are using some of these strategies are much easier clients to ‘sell’ to candidates. Being stealthy is intriguing but by design it won’t get you noticed. Making your engineering organization visible to your target audience (great engineers) and promoting the company’s image as “engineer-friendly” should result in a larger and more qualified candidate pool.
 

Reference: How to Hire Geeks, Brand Your Shop, and Beat the “Talent Shortage” from our JCG partner Dave Fecak at the Job Tips For Geeks blog.

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6 Responses to "How to Hire Geeks, Brand Your Shop, and Beat the “Talent Shortage”"

  1. Dean Schulze says:

    As a Java engineer I am on the other side of this process and have recently completed a job search. This job market isn’t nearly as good as you make it sound. There is a lot of junk out there. Many positions that look good on the surface don’t look very good once you look deeper.

    Hiring managers are in no hurry to hire, either. I received an excellent offer, but then had delay after delay before actually starting. If this job market were really hot I would have taken another offer during the multiple delays, but there were no good ones.

    It took an older colleague of mine 5 months to find a new position. Age discrimination is alive and well in this industry. Based on what I’ve seen the problems that hiring managers have are self inflicted.

    There just aren’t that many good positions available.

    • foolinator says:

      Dean, where do you live? I’ve found that the SF/NYC markets are very, very hot right now. Other places are lagging a little.

      • Dean Schulze says:

        I live in the Denver / Boulder metro area which, while not as hot a Silicon Valley, has a lot of high tech activity.

        The high tech labor market depends a lot on locale, and the shortage of talent you write about is limited to a couple of places. It’s also limited to the top tier of talent. There are a lot of average Java developers. There are also a lot of very good Java developers over 50 who get passed over.

        • Dave Fecak says:

          Just saw your follow-up here. Interesting points. I think a company that needs to hire 5 engineers feels it is an overall shortage, even if they are only looking for top tier talent. There are probably millions of average Java developers, and you are correct that many good Java developers are over 50. If shops are unwilling to speak to a 50+ Java developer they may have a hard time. Colleges in the US are graduating new developers all the time, but not Java developers. Finding good young talent in Ruby, Python, mobile, and even functional languages is much easier than finding good young Java talent.

    • Dave Fecak says:

      Author here. I just reread my article and I don’t see where I said the job market is so hot. Was there a passage I wrote where you got this feeling? Although I do feel the job market right now is exceptional for strong engineers, I’d say the market for average and below average engineers is not great. The market is great for the top 10% of engineers, but I’d say the market is only average for the others.

      I specialized in Java recruiting for most of the past 15 years, and even I am having a more difficult time with Java searches these days (and I also have run the local JUG for 13 years). I feel that many of the better Java engineers are less interested in writing Java these days, so that makes it more difficult. If the top 10% of Java engineers abandon the language, the market gets complicated.

      +1 on age discrimination, but there are several ways to combat that. Working on a book now that includes some info there, but I work with lots of older engineers and I’m constantly coaching them on resumes, interviews, and staying fresh.

  2. DevelopIntelligence says:

    “If your company has explicit and rigid rules on only considering
    candidates that have a certain number of years of experience, whether
    overall or in a certain technology, you are doing it wrong.”

    That’s a great point. You might find a phenomenal candidate that doesn’t have the “papers” your company would typically look for, but does that mean you should pass them up? There are a lot of great developers out there that don’t have the usual resume. That doesn’t mean they aren’t right for your company.

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