Attracting people to work for you

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Management 101

It’s not just the technology

It may be straightforward to look at the best companies of recent years and deduce that they succeeded due to having the best technology. There’s probably a lot of truth to that hypothesis. However, who created that technology? It was the people. The most successful companies manage to attract, hire and keep the best people available. No matter how grand the vision of the founder is, without the right people, this vision will never become a reality.

As a manager, hiring is something that you’ll be doing a lot of. It sometimes can feel like a drag, especially when the interviews aren’t yielding any result. However, getting the right people into the company is essential from both a technical perspective and a cultural perspective, so it deserves your careful attention and time. After all, since you are being judged by the output you delegate through your team, you need to make sure your team has top-notch people.

We’ll spend time looking at the actual hiring process in a future article, since to go through that process you’ll need people to have applied. The question is how do you get the best CVs through your door?

Generally speaking, there are four broadly different ways of attracting new people.

A potential candidate could be:

  • An unknown direct applicant: they’ve found your job somehow, perhaps online. They like the look of it, and they’re now applying.
  • Headhunted: they’ve been approached directly because of their skills and have been convinced to apply.
  • A positively-affected direct applicant: They’ve had a good experience with your company (e.g. they’ve attended a community event, or worked in partnership with you, or could be a client), and have therefore become a direct applicant.
  • A referral: a friend or ex-colleague (or both) of a current employee that has made a recommendation.

Let’s look at each of these routes into applying.

Direct applicants

These are the people who have found the role themselves, with little experience or knowledge of your company prior to doing so. Depending on the specificity and seniority of the description, you may get few or many applications. You might get lucky, you might not. I’d recommend against relying on this as your only method of locating new talent.

Tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Facebook have ubiquity in the industry and are thus guaranteed a steady flow of applicants. People just know them, right? You may work for a less high profile company, or be at a tiny start-up stage, and may be struggling to stand out. This is an increasingly difficult problem in the current market where the number of available jobs dramatically outweighs the number of highly talented job seekers. It’s an especially compounded problem in world-leading cities such as London, New York, and San Francisco.

In order to increase the number of direct applicants, there are some levers that you can pull. Firstly, make sure that you’re writing good job descriptions. Steer clear of making them too audacious or silly: despite a start-up saying it wants to hire a “rock star”, many, many people will be put off from applying due to this language. Keep them light-hearted, simple and professional. Make sure you focus on what the candidate can experience and learn by coming to work for you, rather than demanding a strict list of skills. This, again, can put people off, and prevent more inexperienced but extremely talented candidates from applying. Unless it’s a specialist role, don’t expect all candidates to have used every technology you’re using. Instead, look for bright people who can adapt and are excited about learning new things. It’s more intriguing to read that you will learn to work with petabytes of data, rather than expecting to be already experienced at working with petabytes of data. Don’t confuse what the job entails with what they are expected to have as a pre-requisite.

Secondly, get your job out there on as many boards as possible. Typically, most global boards such as Stack Overflow cost money, so you’ll want to do your research on the prices to see if it’s worth your time. Also, check to see how many other similar roles are posted on these sites to see if you stand a chance of people noticing. If you’re hiring for a specialist role, find others in that community and ask where the best place is to advertise. Specialists may all subscribe to a particular mailing list or forum. Posting to these niche lists can sometimes be (nearly) free. There are also frequent threads on Hacker News asking who is hiring that can be posted to for free, but do make sure you post in such a way that fits in with the community frequenting the site: don’t be a spammer.

Headhunting and recruitment agencies

In order to accelerate the process of finding good candidates, you can approach a recruitment agency to widen your search and cross-reference it with the job seekers they already have on file. There are many recruitment agencies and their quality varies greatly. Always get a recommendation, if possible. If you don’t have any colleagues to give you a recommendation, then take to Twitter and find people in your area (both geographically and via their skill set) to lead you in the right direction. Choose carefully, because dealing with bad recruiters can be painful: each bad interview with a candidate who hasn’t been properly pre-screened wastes your time.

Don’t sign up with a recruitment firm before meeting them first. Ideally, meet them in person. By inviting them to your office they’ll be able to get a feel for the culture of your company. Get a list of what they believe their best candidates are at the moment and understand their approach to finding people. Ask them frankly how many other similar companies they are working with, and how you can guarantee that you are going to see the CVs of the best candidates that they find.

Headhunting activities can be carried out by agencies also; some specialize in it. This method is especially useful for niche and very senior roles, as an agency will have a network for that niche to pull from. If you are thinking of having an agency head-hunt for you, make sure they explain their process. These agencies are acting as an extension of your own company’s culture, so you want to make sure that potential candidates are being treated with respect; not being pestered. You can also take head-hunting into your own hands, by having influential members of your own engineering staff personally get in touch with interesting-looking candidates at other companies.

Community outreach

A positive method of increasing the visibility of your company locally is by getting involved in community events and meet-ups. I’d advise against sponsoring conferences if you have a limited budget. Just having your name on the banner next to the stage doesn’t give any guarantee that attendees will even notice, let alone think of applying. Instead, think about how can you do something impactful for your local community.

We have had great success in Brighton by helping organize Brighton Java. All it costs is a little bit of time, some drinks, snacks and our office space for one evening a month. Not only does this get local technologists into our office and meeting our staff, which is very helpful for visibility and recruitment, it also helps us give something meaningful back to the community. If you are in a big city then it may be harder to devise a new meet-up that isn’t already catered for, but you can contact the organizers of other meet ups and offer your office space, money for drinks and snacks, and staff to speak at the event. We have also had great success in hosting the Codebar initiative and offering mentorship through it.

Community outreach is not a quick-win solution to hiring. In fact, if you go into it with the primary purpose of hiring people, you are going to have a shallow experience and you may turn attendees away in the long term. Instead, go into outreach with the goal of giving back to the local area and fostering the community. Recruitment is a side effect of the long game.


If you’re hiring high-quality people, then it’s very likely that they’ll know other high-quality people too. Capitalize on this. Hiring known entities can have a very positive effect by sustaining the current culture: staff are unlikely to refer people that they didn’t enjoy working with.

I wholeheartedly recommend a referral scheme for your staff. By offering a monetary incentive, your staff will more actively think about the best people that they’ve worked on over the years and get back in touch with them. Otherwise, it can be difficult to motivate people to take the time to revisit old work relationships with those they are not close fiends with.

There is one aspect to warn against here: referrals can easily decrease diversity within an organization. Make sure that those interviewing are aware of whether a candidate is a referral, and if hired, be careful of their placement into teams. Too many referrals landing in one team can create cliques and be detrimental to the wider department.

In summary

It’s getting harder to attract the best talent as there are simply more jobs on the market than there are talented candidates that are actively looking. Push in multiple directions to cast the widest net possible: take care in writing attractive job adverts, post to the right boards and lists, use headhunting and recruitment agencies that you feel are a trustworthy cultural fit, encourage your current staff to make referrals, and increase your presence in the local community by giving something meaningful back to it. With time and concerted effort, your magnetism will grow.

Next time we’ll have a look at what happens when you’ve had good candidates apply: doing interviews.

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  1. Pingback: Professional Development – 2019 – Week 1 – Geoff Mazeroff

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