Iterations: Let’s Hear From Developers In “The War For Talent”

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is an EIR with Javelin Venture Partners and has been a contributor to TechCrunch since January 2011. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

Over the past few years, I’ve helped a small handful friends move from one gig to another. It’s a highly personal process, and I’m not a “recruiting expert.” Generally, in my limited experience, it often takes many conversations even before a close friend opens up about their desire to move or try something new. The motivations for each change are so different. Some want to work in a different industry, on a different technical problem, in a different city, for a different boss, for a different title, and so on. And, through these conversations, some patterns emerge, dangerous to extrapolate from, though illuminating given the fact every investor and founder stays up at night wondering how to deploy that early capital to find the right people to build out their vision.

Through this evolution, I wanted to know more about how some developers viewed today’s trends and their attitude toward phrases like “the war for technical talent,” and I’ve shared their answers below. (A special thanks to Jonathan Nelson of Hackers and Founders, who helped arrange the folks below, and who, incidentally, launched a new incubator this week with very different equity economics that you should check out.)

In the quotes below, I emailed with a small handful of longtime developers to better understand their perspectives on the most common mistakes professional recruiters and startups make when trying to recruit them or their colleagues and friends, as well as what motivates them in selecting their work. Interestingly, you’ll notice some subtle patterns and differences in the answers below. I wanted to document a snapshot like this to bring to light a different voice in the search for talented builders and hope that it may help some founders out there tweak their approaches as they recruit.

Dave Gullo, Core Engineer @ Krux Digital [Github]: “I would say the #1 mistake professional recruiters make are the hard sell and aggressive tactics. This includes calling your current workplace, trying to pierce through the company to get an engineer directly on the line. In a way, this can be flattering but oftentimes off-putting and zaps precious attention units. The #1 mistake companies make in recruiting is that many don’t “sell” the culture of their company well, because they do not participate enough in the broader community. A few examples of companies that are big enough to have in-house recruiters that do a good job at this are Adobe, LinkedIn. I’ve been to many great meetups at these locations. The single most important thing that motivates me to take on engineering work is when the technology and the mission are intellectually stimulating, and whether the overall work contributes to the greater good.”

Choong Ng, Software Consultant [Github]: “I mostly avoid talking to recruiters unless I already like the company they represent. The biggest misstep they can make is to not understand the company they represent, that’s pretty much 100% fatal in my eyes. There are good recruiters out there though. I was approached by such a recruiter once, he was a contractor but knew his client inside and out and was able to answer pretty much all of my questions. After that, he put me in touch with an engineer at the company and that pretty much sold the deal. A few months later he also joined the company as a full-time employee and last I checked was still there doing good things for them. When I’m choosing work, the #1 motivating factor for me is a market that I believe in though interesting technology and money do help.”

Girts Graudins, CTO @ Tripping International [Github]: “The most glaring mistake made by professional recruiters actually happens on the side of recruiters approaching companies. As a hiring manager, I frequently get calls from recruiters trying to sell their services. Often, they’re just using a canned script touting a “rockstar engineer coming out of Yahoo!” and demonstrate complete unfamiliarity with my company or the technologies involved. This is a non-starter. On the hiring side from the perspective of a company, the biggest mistake I’ve seen is bigger technology companies touting the “we move fast and have a startup culture” mantra but, in reality, moving at a glacial pace. In one instance, I ended up going through the entire recruiting process with several other startups in the time that it took a larger name-brand company just to schedule an onsite. By the time I walked into that onsite I already had three offers in hand. The best strategy I’ve seen is for the recruiters to take the time to actually get to know the companies and the candidates they’re working with and sending along only a few but highly relevant candidates or opportunities. I’ve been really impressed with the work of Erin Wilson and Viet Nguyen over at Jobspring Partners in this regard, and have seen great results both as a candidate and as a hiring manager. Finally, on the subject of what motivates me as an engineer, there is a really good TED talk by Dan Pink that I happen to agree with a 100%. In a nutshell it claims that the key to motivating creative talent like engineers is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And indeed, I tend to look for opportunities that allow me to maintain creative freedom, learn, and contribute towards a worthy goal.”

David Varvel, Senior Software Engineer @ Pivotal Labs [Github]: “The #1 mistake professional recruiters make is not tailoring their message to a particular candidate. Engineers have very different skills, backgrounds, and priorities, and it’s often clear that many recruiters are sending the same InMail to everybody. I’m much more responsive when the pitch comes directly from someone in the company, particularly if they’re passionate about what they do. Pivotal Labs is an example of a company that did it right. I talked to a Pivotal engineer that said it was an awesome place to work, with fantastic culture, interesting work, and 40 hours a week. I joined up, and amazingly it turned out to all be true. As as engineer, the top thing that motivates me is the opportunity to learn something new. Programming takes a ton of time, and it’s hard to get engaged for something I’ve done a thousand times before.”

Dirk de Kok, CEO @ Mobtest [Github]: “The #1 mistake recruiters make is that they don’t name the company and/or product they’re recruiting for, and the #1 mistake companies make in this regard is hiring recruiters to begin with. Most, if not all, engineers that you want are already working at a job that is at least 4 out of 5 stars for them, where they have a good challenge, good pay, and good perks. And if they’re not, maybe they’re not that great. Any company can offer good pay and good perks, but I think great engineers are mostly interested in great challenges, and working for companies that really value engineering and have a culture for it — less so money and fame. Therefore, hiring recruiters will not work because those people usually cannot tell and sell the story of the company, product, and technical challenges. At Mobtest, we try to get our best engineers to present technical achievements at events. We sometimes organize the events ourselves. We encourage our engineers to attend weekend hackathons and count it as company time. We encourage blog posts about our engineering work. We participate in open source. We have a strong referral program that pays a significant bonus when our engineers end up recruiting for us. At the end of the day, what motivates us is building products that matter to others, which usually leads to revenue, as well as learning new languages, platforms, and tools.”

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit / Creative Commons Flickr