From a recruiting perspective, the best engineering manager I’ve worked with established her reputation with two hires. It went like this:
ME: “We need to build an iOS team, and while we have talented engineers, we don’t have time to train the current team on iOS, it’ll be faster to hire.”
HER: “Great, who should we hire?”
ME: “Here’s the perfect profile. We’ll never get him, but he’s an incredible, well-known iOS engineer who is not only productive but also a phenomenal teacher. He’d be a perfect seed for the team. We need an engineer like him.”
HER: “Why not hire him?”
ME: “You’ll never get him. Everyone is throwing everything at him.”
Three months later, the long shot hires that I thought we had no chance at getting signed an offer letter. Two months later, same story. I mentioned an unattainable hire which was followed promptly by the hiring of that specific engineer.
You think there is a trick. You think we threw huge amounts of money at these engineers – we didn’t. Standard compensation packages. You think we promised an impossible role – we didn’t. Build the first version of an iOS application with a talented group of engineers.
There is no trick other than carving out time every single day to do the job of recruiting.
The Recruiting Rules for Engineering
Let’s start with the ground rules. For every open job on your team, you need to spend one hour a day on recruiting-related activities. Cap that investment at 50% of your time. No open reqs? There’s still important and ongoing work you need to do on a regular basis that I’ll describe below.
Take a minute to digest that prior paragraph because it might be a shock to great many engineering managers out there. 50% of my time? Yup. But we have a fully functional and talented recruiting organization. That’s super and will make your life better, but 50% of your time still stands. Why? I’m glad you asked.
On the list of work you can do to build and maintain a healthy and productive engineering team, the work involved in discovering, recruiting, selling, and hiring the humans for your team is quite likely the most important work you can do. The humans on your team are not only responsible for all the work; they are the heartbeat of the culture. We spend a lot of time talking about culture in high technology, but the simple fact is the culture is built and cared for by the humans who do the work. Your ability to shape the culture is a function of your ability to hire a diverse set of humans who are going to be additive to that culture.
A Recruiting Primer
A good way to think about your recruiting work is to delve into how the recruiting process fits together. Here it is:
This is the hypothetical funnel chart for The Rands Software Consortium, and we’re hiring!1 I love funnel charts because they help frame multiple lenses of information into a single digestible view.
- Applications – humans who have either applied for a role or were sourced by an internal or external party.
- Screened – humans who made it past a first round screen process.
- Qualified – humans who made it through a more critical screening process. Think coding challenge or technical phone screen designed to gather more signal.
- Interviews – humans who entered the formal interview process.
- Onsites – humans who were in the building for an interview.
- Offers – humans who received an offer.
- Hires – humans who accepted their offer.
This fake graph is for roughly six months. The “In Stage” number shows you how long on average the candidate is spending in each stage, the gray percent numbers down the middle show you what percent of candidates are making it through a stage, and the “Total” number on the right shows you total candidates per stage in the period.
Before we talk about where you should be spending 50% of your time, we first need to make sure we have two agreements with our recruiting team:
- Agree upon on the states and the definitions of candidates in your pipeline. The above fake chart is just one example and your flow might be different. What are those states? How does a candidate enter and exit a specific state?
With #1 defined, you now need to agree to make it ridiculously easy to access this information.
With all of these reports in place and running smoothly, you can learn about the efficiency of the different parts of your recruiting process and you can ask informed questions. Where are candidates spending the most time and why? We gather the most signal at the coding exercise and the interview – shouldn’t those pass percentages be lower? How long is a candidate spending in each part of the process? Is that the experience we want them to have?
This article assumes you have a fully functional and talented recruiting team. These humans are essential to you effectively doing your part of the recruiting gig. Part of their job is to give a clear and consistent lens into both the health of the entire recruiting funnel as well as status for any candidate in any state in the pipeline. When you have this, you’ll better understand where to invest your time.
Discover, Understand, and Delight
This article is not about the traditional recruiting pipeline and the familiar work you’re already doing. This piece is about the work of recruiting you are neglecting. Let’s call this the engineering recruiting pipeline and it’s a pipeline built right on top the funnel I described above. Our different states are based not on how we measure candidate progress but the evolving mindset of the candidate traversing the process. There are three states I consider: Discover, Understand, and Delight.
Discover, first, is the state of mind of any qualified candidate who does not yet know about the opportunity on your team and at your company. It is your job to first find these humans and help them discover the desire to work with you at this company.
In recruiting parlance, those who find these candidates within recruiting are ‘sourcers.’ Their job is to look at your job description and then find humans who fit the bill. Sourcers cast their nets very wide and fill that top of funnel with as many qualified candidates as possible. Sourcing is also your job during Discovery, but your time is more targeted because you have intimate knowledge of the gig. More importantly, you have likely worked directly with humans who you know can do the job. Let’s operationalize this fact by building The Must List.
Make a list. Fire up a blank spreadsheet and start typing because you’re going to want to capture a bunch of different data and as it grows, you’re going to want to slice and dice it in different ways. This is a list of each and every person who you’ve worked with who you want to work with again. You must work with them again.
Every person. Doesn’t matter if they’re an engineer or not. Keep typing. Doesn’t matter if they’re available or not. Write down their name, their current company, their current role, and why they’re on this list. Done? Ok, put it away for a day and then come back. You missed important humans.
There are two use cases for The Must List. First, whenever a new gig opens on my team, I fire up the List and see if there is anyone on the list who might fit the bill and I mail them a friendly note. Hi. How are you? Got a gig and I must work with you again. Coffee? More often than not if we haven’t spoken recently, this human and I will get coffee regardless of their interest in the role because these are dear friends. Much more often than not, they are happy in their current gigs. Sometimes they’ll know folks who might fit the bill. Rarely, very rarely, they’ll come in for an interview. When coffee is done, I update the remaining columns in the spreadsheet: last contacted date, current status, next steps, and notes that capture their current context.
The second use case for The Must List is my monthly review. Every month or so whether or not I have a relevant open gig on my team, I review the list and see whom I have not spoken with recently. Time for a mail? Ok: Hi. How are you? Coffee? Again, they’re rarely interested in switching gigs, but if they happen to be looking, I will move mountains to work with them again.
Return on time invested in the Discover state is going to feel a lot lower than within our forthcoming Understand and Delight states because it’s hard to measure progress. There are currently 42 humans on my Must List, and if I get one of them in the building a year, I’m giddy. However, these are my people and the time spent investing in this network almost always pays unexpected dividends in ways that have nothing to do with whether I can hire them. These are my people, and they know other people who might fit the gig or who I should simply meet. They observe the world in interesting ways, and I want to hear those observations.
In Discover, you are making targeted strategic investments in your network. The reason these folks are on your Must List is that you have seen the work they can do with your own eyes. You built a bond with these folks in a prior life and these small investments of your time strengthen and reaffirm that bond. The value of this network is a function of the number and the strength of these connections.
Understand. A candidate has passed through the very crowded top of funnel and has reached the evaluation portion. If you look at the hypothetical funnel numbers, this candidate is statistically unlikely going to make it to the offer stage. Whether this particular candidate is getting an offer or not, your job is to Understand.
The recruiting funnel focus here is, “Do they have the necessary skills?” The interview process is designed to gather and triangulate this information from the candidate. Your focus during Understanding is to again consider candidate mindset. While they are getting peppered with skill qualification questions, they are also wondering, “Who is this engineering team?,” “What do they value?,” and “Where are they headed?”
Homework. Step away from your digital device this moment and ask a random engineer who is a part of your interview loops the three questions I asked above. Done? Ok, do it with another engineer. How do the answers compare? Is it the same narrative? Is it a compelling narrative?
The explanation of the culture of an engineering team is usually left to happenstance. The last few minutes of an interview where you ask the candidate, “Do you have any questions for me?” This lazy question is cast out with the hope that the candidate responds with a dull generic query like, “What’s it like to work here?” You respond with your well-practiced recital of “I love it here!” and “We’re solving hard problems!” which sounded great six months ago, but now sounds, well, rehearsed.
Your responsibility is to make sure the candidates understand your mission, culture, and values.2 While they will organically pick up some of this content during interviews, you need to make sure it’s one person’s job to responsibly and clearly tell the engineering story. This is not an interview; the point is to clearly explain the shape of the place they might work and – bonus points – you are going to organically learn about them during the discussion of the character of your company.
There are two scenarios for a candidate passing through Understand. Scenario A: they receive an offer and the time spent understanding paves the way to a rich offer conversation and allows them to hit the ground running when they arrive. Scenario B: they don’t get an offer, but they leave clear about you, the character of your team, and your mission. Recruiters call the time spent interviewing “the candidate experience” and I would suggest that whether they get an offer or not, Understanding is the cornerstone of exceptional candidate experience.
Delight. Congratulations! You’re making an offer to an engineer. Going back and looking at those funnel ratios, you can see this is a statistically unlikely event. Let’s not screw it up, ok?
New managers erroneously think when we make an offer that, “We’ve made a hire!” Experienced managers and recruiters know “They’re not here until they are sitting in that chair.” If you and your recruiting team have done your work, the presentation of the offer is a formality because you already know their life situation and goals. Offer construction, presentation, and negotiation is an entire other article, but it’s a clear sign that you missed critical information somewhere in the candidate experience if the negotiation process is unexpectedly laborious or littered with surprises.
And they accept! Hooray! We’re still not done because they are still not sitting in that chair. Let’s welcome them. Let’s Delight them.
The nightmare scenario is a candidate declining an offer they already accepted. I think it’s professionally bad form, but it happens more often than you’d expect. Put yourself back in their shoes: they likely have an existing gig where everyone knows their name and they know where the good coffee lives. Even after a phone screen, an at home coding exercise, a day-long round of interviews, two other phone calls, and assorted emails, you and your engineering team remain an unknown quantity. In the middle of the night, when the demons of doubt show up, you represent an uncertain future and your job during Delight is to help them imagine their future here.
Reflecting on my experience in this state, I think of how I act after I’ve accepted the offer. After the initial high of receiving and accepting the offer passes, what do I do? I reread the offer letter. I review the benefits. I go to the company website and I examine every word. What am I looking for? Why am I continuing to research? I continue to vet my decision.
The offer letter is an important document. It contains the definitive details of compensation and benefits and these are important facts, but during this critical time of consideration, I want these future co-workers delighted with a Real Offer Letter.
I send the Real Offer Letter a week before the start date. I write a note each time that captures the following:
- My current observations of the company, the team, and our collective challenges.
- The first three large projects I expect the new hire to work on, why I think these projects are important, and why I think the new hire is uniquely qualified to work on them.
- As best as I can, I explain the growth path for the new hire.
Nothing in this letter should be news. In fact, if there are any surprises in this note, there was a screw-up up somewhere in the funnel. The purpose of this letter is to acknowledge that we are done with the business of hiring, and we are now beginning the craft of the work.
During the post-offer-accept time, most companies send a note… a gift. I’ve received (and appreciated) flowers, a terrarium, and brief handwritten notes. Thoughtful gifts, but small thoughts. At a time when a new hire is deeply considering their change of their career, I want them chewing on the big thoughts. I want them understanding the humans they are joining and their mission. I want them to concretely understand what they will be working on, and I want them to understand the potential upside for their career.
50% of Your Time
The work of recruiting is a shared responsibility. Yes, you can be a successful hiring manager devoting less than 50% of your time. Yes, all of funnel work can be completed by a recruiter; many of my best recruiting moves came from watching and working with talented recruiters.
The situation I want to avoid is a hiring manager who delegates the entire recruiting process to their fully functional and talented recruiting team. For Discover, Understand, and Delight there are critical leadership skills you need to learn and refine. In Discover, it’s understanding the power of persistent serendipitous networking, in Understanding it’s both understanding how to tell the tale of your company as well as being able to understand the tale of the candidate. Finally, in Delight, it’s the ability to discern what is the best way to delight this candidate at a time when their worry and risk aversion is the strongest.
Recruiting and engineering must have a symbolic force-multiple relationship because the work they do together – the work of building a healthy and productive team – defines the success of your team and your company.
- Not really. This is fake data, but it’s fake data based on experience. I’m making a couple of assumptions regarding this fake company. It’s around 500 employees. It’s in hyper-growth which means is has 100+ open reqs. Your company or team likely is likely in a different stage of growth, but much of the strategy of this piece still applies. ↩
- Yes, this means you’ve defined your mission, culture, and values and everyone agrees with these definitions. ↩
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