The competition to hire the best technical talent has never been fiercer. This is hardly surprising as great developers can make a huge difference to a company’s chances of success, but it’s still a major obstacle to growth.

Just to be clear, growth is not entirely dependent on engineers. Dual threat marketers, with both software and traditional marketing expertise, can also make a huge difference to a company’s progress. The very best are often referred to as “unicorns,” akin to the mythical creatures with magical powers! John Koetsier has put together some great advice for anyone looking to hire tech-savvy marketers and growth hackers.

It’s the recruitment of top-tier developers though, that this article will focus on. It’s a task that’s become so hard that Silicon Valley’s major players recently banded together to form a wage-fixing cartel aimed at preventing talent poaching. The “Techtopus,” as it is now known, was an agreement between the likes of Apple and Google not to poach top employees from each other.

We hear constantly about software eating the world, but the problem with that is that we need more and more engineers to build (and feed) it all!

Are we on top of this?

The struggle to hire top talent is reaching fever pitch. Companies are resorting to out-of-the-box, wacky recruitment campaigns, and substantial perks to differentiate themselves from competitors.

Not the sexiest problem to work on in the Valley, recruitment is now getting some long-overdue attention from investors, with a number of companies springing up to try and tackle the growing company-developer asymmetry.

There have been some interesting attempts to create a framework that companies can use to entice superstar developers.

contractor-auctionsSo far, our solution to the problem has been a little one-dimensional — we’re just trying to offer better stuff.

Auctions

Engineers are such precious commodities that companies are prepared to compete for their attention in auctions.

Companies like Hired promise top developers an extra signing fee, before marketing their human wares to eager startups.

Companies are promised a fresh pool of talent every week, but is it the right talent?

Critics argue that auction systems have created a mercurial brand of developer, only interested in maxing out their paycheck, before flitting on to the next opportunity.

Exciting work

Development projects are not all created equal. Working on futuristic projects at Magic Leap is likely to be more stimulating than building email templates.

Companies like Workshape match engineers with projects that they are enthusiastic about.

On the surface this is great — companies are getting connected with developers who are genuinely excited about what they’re working on.

The problem? Companies might get motivated applicants, but the system doesn’t guarantee quality. If you’re working on something interesting, you’re still going to suffer the problem of unskilled applicants who “like the idea” of working at your company, but are not necessarily what you need.

Pre-assessment

Every company tends to have their own way of grading technical talent. Applicants can expect a personal interview alongside some kind of competency test.

These tests are often time-consuming, and can really stack up if a candidate is being courted by more than one company.

To counter this, companies like Trycatch are presenting an alternative: take one (week-long) test, apply to many companies.

This simplifies the process for job-seekers, and gives companies a uniform metric to help them judge talent — in theory, it’s a win-win.

Often, though, companies will insist that applicants take their test too — it’s the way they judge all incoming talent, why would they change it? It can also be tricky to stamp out cheating from engineers who think a perfect test score will be their golden ticket to a great career!


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Do-it-yourself hacks

If none of these solutions tickle your fancy, there are always shortcuts to help you track down technical talent.

  • Boolean search strings can help you filter LinkedIn for specific skillsets.
  • Using web scrapers on Tech Forums or Meetups can unearth talented people that you’re unlikely to stumble across when searching for potential applicants using more traditional means.

Tricks like this can be great to help you unearth the odd employee from time to time, but they’re not particularly scalable.

That’s the key: creating a sustainable process to attract, engage, and hire the very best technical talent.

Treating candidates like customers

All of these solutions share the same flaw. The approach is always transactional: companies are competing to give candidates what they think they want, as opposed to trying to build a relationship.

We’re offering bigger wages, easier applications, and “fun” work — we’re not making an effort to interact. We’re competing for attention, not adding value.

In that sense there are plenty of parallels we can draw with traditional, interruptive marketing models. These are usually predicated on breaking the attention flow of would-be buyers and getting them to look at your shiny offer.

In recruitment, this translates to using perks like money to distract candidates from the things that matter:

  • Why your company is so great
  • Why people really want to work for you

In the marketing industry we’ve seen a transition to an inbound model. Now companies work on earning the attention of future customers by creating interesting content, participating in online conversations and focusing (above all) on providing value.

Why should hiring be any different? There’s huge (and largely untapped) value in engaging site visitors and potential applicants in the online arenas that they frequent. Invest time speaking to people on Stack Overflow, Twitter, and relevant LinkedIn groups and try to make an impression.

The most talented candidates have a lot of choice; putting in the effort to build relationships with them has enormous value and helps you find people interested in your business vision (not just the free gym membership and hefty wage). Instead of inbound marketing, think inbound recruitment.

Building the right relationships

The customer acquisition process is based around the idea of a funnel. Marketing and sales reps do their level best to convert leads to customers, while continually topping up the funnel with fresh opportunities.

There’s a lot we can learn from this process, principally not to rush things. No one enjoys cold calls from recruiters “just checking in” — people like to be wined and dined a little!

Re-imagining your hiring workflow as a funnel is key to this idea. Constantly start conversations with talented people — who knows where they will end up! Not all of them will have an immediate effect, but who is to say that 6 months down the line an engineer who you made an impression on won’t apply?

If you’re desperate and speed is of the utmost importance, there is no harm in supplementing this process with other hiring methods like job ads, but you’ll be more effective if you focus on relationships.

What is your company really like?

Unsurprisingly, when you start speaking to great developers they’re keen to understand your company.

  • What do you do?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Why is it exciting?

Being transparent and honest is the trick. Buffer, which pride itself on its transparency and display everything from salaries to funding on its website, has released hiring statistics that show just how effective this tactic is. The company had 3,864 applicants (for 3 open positions) in January 2014 alone!

AngelList, which has quickly morphed into one of the premier places to find developers, provides another example of this trend. Aside from attracting investment, companies use the site to build a following amongst the developer community — generate enough buzz and your company starts to trend.

One of the keys to trending? Be transparent and give insight into how your company is doing. Building traction and getting investment? Make sure you make that crystal clear.

Done right, this can have a dramatic effect. Dealflicks, which recently used the platform to announce funding has received 272 applicants in the last week alone!

Conclusion

The key to hiring the very best developers is engineering that moment of serendipity when someone decides to organically apply to your company. This process starts long before CVs are sent, tests are taken and “apply” buttons are clicked.

Inbound recruitment is more of an indirect process: taking someone through the various steps from interested visitor to enthusiastic applicant, while providing value every step of the way. It’s entirely scalable and can make a huge difference to hiring success.


Ben Slater PhotoBen Slater is the Head of Marketing at Seed.jobs, an inbound marketing platform for recruitment. You can quiz him on inbound recruitment @BenJHSlater.