How to attract top recruiting talent

I’ve advised recruiting operations at close to 300 startups, ranging from a five-person team at Scalyr to a several-hundred-person team at Gusto. Most startups share a common theme: Technical recruiting is often a top business priority — and every startup wants to improve its recruiting operations.

In an increasingly competitive environment for technical talent, and with the average time to hire for software engineers now over 35 days at best, startups need to consider faster, more efficient strategies to recruit the best talent. Whether you’re building an in-house recruiting team from scratch or looking to maximize the efficiency of your existing recruiting team, read on for five strategies that will take your recruiting operations to the next level.

Focus on the “tech” in tech recruiter

Hire a tech recruiter who understands your technology. You would be surprised to learn how many startups hire tech recruiters that only have a cursory understanding of technology. A technical recruiter should be able to explain at a high level what a distributed system is, or the difference between a native mobile app and a web mobile app.

Having a good general grasp of technology is a core differentiator between an average tech recruiter and a great tech recruiter. Tech recruiters with a solid grasp of technology are more effective in understanding the complexity and relevance of the problem sets that technical candidates have encountered and solved. More importantly, they are in a much better position to determine whether or not those experiences and skills translate well and fill the technical gaps the new position is intended to address.

Edward Avila, head of global talent acquisition at Synaptics, stresses this point. “Effective recruiters are the ones who are able to go beyond the buzzwords of job description,” he says. “By having working knowledge of the company’s creation process, they are well-informed about the opportunities that they are sourcing for. They possess the advanced skills that allow them to appropriately engage and screen candidates. This is value that they add to hiring managers.  Anything less is just being too administrative.”

Here are some questions to ask a tech recruiter to get a sense of how technical they are:

  • Break down into three parts a technology stack for a large-scale web app: Frontend, Backend and NetOps. What would an engineer build and what kind of problems would he or she solve in each of these three parts of the stack?
  • What are some general technical challenges a backend engineer faces when scaling a web app from 10,000 users to 10 million users?
  • What are the trade-offs when building a native mobile app over a web mobile app?
  • What are the benefits of service-oriented architecture for web apps?

Look at tech recruiters as product partners

Ensure that recruiters attend product meetings that involve roles for which they are hiring. The effectiveness of recruiting operations begin to unravel when recruiters don’t have a seat at the table where product discussions are happening. Recruiters who are part of these discussions will be much better prepared to manage the inevitable pivots, get ahead of shifting priorities and have a deeper understanding of the technical challenges the team is facing.

What kind of recruiter do you want on your team?

Maryanne Brown, head of recruiting at Gusto, reinforces this idea. “At Gusto, one of our values is that we are all owners in the business. With that value in mind, our recruiters are expected to be thought partners to the functions they specialize in,” Brown says. “They attend all team meetings, and sit by their counterparts regularly to understand the daily needs of the team they work with. Organically they’ve grown into a more hybrid Recruiter and HRBP role where they help to predict the future needs of the team. This enables the recruiter to be in the driver’s seat and think further out in regards to the impact they can make. Being proactive versus reactive helps us not only to hire great recruiting talent, but also retain them for the long term.”

Armed with an understanding of the product roadmap and technical challenges, a great technical recruiter will provide objective insights around a candidate’s strengths, weaknesses and any potential red or green flags. Require your recruiters to call out where the gaps are for each candidate they submit, and make sure those areas are addressed during the interview process. If this is not being done, you are missing a key value-add of having a strong technical recruiter, and you should consider an alternative (such as hiring a sourcer).

Seek hunters, not gatherers

Recruiters are often split between two different types: hunters and gatherers. Gatherers need to be pointed toward targets, such as target companies, job titles or product spaces. They will post a job description to a bunch of job boards in the hopes that their golden candidate will apply. Gatherers generally begin to flail after the low-hanging fruit is exhausted and more emphasis on passive candidate sourcing becomes paramount to successfully filling the position. What you’ll typically get from a gatherer are the best currently available (i.e. active) candidates on the market, not the best possible candidate.

Dialpad’s head of talent, Moses Sison, explains, “Having a strong hunting mentality in Dialpad’s talent acquisition organization has really been invaluable. We were able to hire A players, which created a network effect of attracting more A players to join. Without ‘hunters’ going after only the best candidate, I don’t think our engineering team would have been as strong as they are right now.”

Hunters take pride in seeking and landing the best possible candidate, not just the best currently available. These are people who are skilled in unearthing top talent far beyond saturated tools like LinkedIn. Hunters understand the product/problem spaces so well they can easily determine when someone overstates their skills and experience. They know the industry and product space so well they can effectively counter competitive offers the candidate may receive. They are problem solvers who get down into the weeds with candidates during their pre-screens, and are masterful in their ability to pitch the opportunity as a solution to the candidate’s pain points. The hunters are the recruiters you want on your team.

Integrate product and hiring roadmaps

Create a technical hiring roadmap, complete with deliverables, milestones and deadlines. Couple this roadmap very closely to your product and business roadmap. Now you’ll have something tangible that is driven by the company’s product and business needs that can be executed against. This will help you systematically move away from the “I needed this person yesterday” style of recruiting (also known as reactive recruiting) and into a “We knew this role was coming and already have five viable candidates” style of hiring (also known as “just in time” recruiting).

Recruiting is not just about pitching a product and a role.

Creating a hiring roadmap that ties directly to the product roadmap enables recruiters to reverse-engineer hiring needs and establish a clear set of company-wide priorities. From there, you can inject metrics around phone interviews to onsite ratios, cost per hire, time to hire and more. With clear visibility into the pipeline and process you can start to identify places where there is room for improvement. H. James Harrington, author and expert on business process improvement, said it best: “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

Mathew Caldwell, former VP of People at Instacart, remarks that, “Recruiting should be approached with the same rigor as product development. For every role you recruit for there are multiple people responsible for all the deliverables along the lifecycle of the recruiting process. The companies that are the best at recruiting approach recruiting like they approach developing a product — they identify what the ideal outcome is and when that outcome should be completed… If you have a solid product roadmap that identifies what you are developing and when, you should be able to determine the gaps in the team that will keep the company from hitting their targets. That will then inform them on how, who and when to begin recruiting.”

Communicate inside and out

Lindsay Grenawalt, head of People Operations at Cockroach Labs, points out that because recruiting is a process, we often forget that it is fundamentally a human experience. “At any stage of the process, you can lose a candidate because you reject them or they reject you,” she warns. “It is important that once you engage with a candidate, you listen to what motivates them. If it’s not your company, that’s okay. If it is your company, make sure you take notes at each stage of the process to understand how your candidate’s motivations may be changing.”

You’ll want to hire a technical recruiter with excellent communication skills when it comes to speaking, listening and exhibiting passion for your product space. Recruiting is not just about pitching a product and a role. It is a two-way conversation around how a new position can solve both a candidate’s and a startup’s pain points. Identifying and addressing candidate pain points, discussing the technical challenges and understanding how the candidate’s experience can help solve these challenges in a 30-60 minute pre-screen interview is hard to do. It requires very strong communication skills and the experience of knowing when and how to ask great questions.

Lastly, insist that your recruiter communicate opinions and points of view even if they are unpopular or contrary to your own. Avoid hiring someone who will recruit the way they are told, even if it is not the best approach. Imagine a scenario where you told your recruiter that they need to find, hire and onboard a mobile developer with deep knowledge in both iOS and Android platforms within two weeks. A weak recruiter will jump in and start sourcing new candidates without much thought about the constraints. A great recruiter will listen to the problem, understand the constraints and communicate solutions. These include hiring a contractor, promoting from within, focusing on the primary platform first and employing an agency.

Ultimately, ask yourself, what kind of recruiter do you want on your team? Look for those who understand your technology and mission, seek new platforms to recruit, understand the product roadmap and communicate effectively. Those are the technical recruiters who will get you to the best engineering talent faster and more efficiently.