The Trouble with Recruitment for Software is that you don't Know Anybody

I've just read and article in the Guardian about how difficult it is to recruit software developers "The problem with recruitment for software jobs ... is you". There's this weird section where he says that finding CV's should be a “beauty parade.”

Recruitment should be a beauty parade. It should be a, wonderful, magical process of just having a procession of dynamic and enriched individuals parading in front of an employer blowing people away with their awesome coding skills and fascinating personalities.

What I was thinking was “well, a beauty pageant is a pretty horrible thing. It basically arises in societies where there is so little social mobility that women have to resort to taking nearly all their clothes off and parading up and down in front of dodgy D-list celebrities in the hope of getting any kind of career advancement.”

Why isn't searching for developers at the moment a beauty contest? The author of this article, Matthew Baxter-Reynolds curiously blames the recruitment agents and the developers themselves for refusing to don their metaphorical swimwear for pretty obscure reasons, like not paying attention to careers advice from their teachers when they were at school. But surely, the truth is that at the moment, things just aren't that desperate for skilled software developers. The only time you're going to get this kind of awful parade is when there are very few jobs and a large number of well-qualified people who are desperate to fill them. Actually, the last time that I can remember that there really was a jobs crisis in IT – after the first internet bust, the CV's and agency system really did fail for everybody, for agents, developers and and employers. For the employers, all the CV's were riddled with lies, or it was impossible to detect the truthful ones, because everybody would say anything to get a job.  For the candidates, you could send out maybe a hundred CV's to potential employers and not even get an interview.  It might well come to that again. We live in changeable times to say the least, but we aren't there just yet.

So why aren't developers wobbling down that catwalk in high heels and talking about their love of world peace and their desire to look after animals? If the companies that Matt is trying to staff are doing interesting, challenging work and paying quite well as he claim surely people should be parading themselves to work there. But they're not. This leaves us with a few possibilities either developers are really stupid or they know that the deal that's being offered isn't that great.

In my experience, IT contractors that command up to £750 a day pay rates aren't stupid, they may have many failings, but as a group I've dealt with quite a lot, stupidity isn't the adjective that immediately leaps to mind. That leaves us with the deal not being that great. And it probably isn't. My guess is that they're being offered 75%-80% of the going rate to work in a situation where's it far less than certain they will even get paid. It's also pretty certain that they won't be kept on for as long as they might be if they working, say, for a big, dumb, merchant bank, where you might work on a “temporary” contract for years. If they're being taken on as permanent staff, again, the salaries (and certainly the benefits packages) are probably lower than for the big organisations, so the only incentive you can really offer them is shares in the company, and I'll that's exactly what the venture capitalists who fund these “start up” companies expressly forbid.

So what's the solution? Well there are three that I can think of. The first, which probably isn't that palatable is to up the offer so that it starts to look more like a million pounds and a diamond tiara. If your day rates were genuinely competitive (at current rates, over £750 a day), and you let it be known that you wanted typographically beautified CV's, that is what you would get. As I said developers aren't stupid, they can pay a graphic designer to beautify a CV if that's really required to get the moula. Actually, no, it still might be a bit of a struggle, because one area where such developers are, if not stupid, then certainly obstinate is in insisting that that the content of their CV should be what matters rather than how it looks.  This is the same reason why they tend to be deeply distrustful of anybody in a suit.

The second possible solution, is to offer what you're offering to people who might think it is a million bucks and a diamond tiara – recent graduates. There are some very bright graduates out there, who probably could provide you with exactly what you need from a developer on a start up – enthusiasm, energy, a just-do-it attitude and a likelihood to hang around for eighteen months to two years at wages below market rates. But you need to find them. One way to do that is to take in interns. If you're going to do that, my inner circle tips, having managed an intern programme for Xerox are 1) don't hire computer scientists as interns – hire the brightest history or philosophy graduates that you can find and 2) pay them, don't take the ones who can afford to do it because daddy's rich.

There is a third option which is to de-risk the situation for both you as a company and the developers that are going to work for it. How about actually getting to know the community of developers that are working with the skills that you want to hire and let them get to know you. If developers get to know you and your company, if during the course of a series of meetings, chats, drinks, they get to see that your company really is doing something interesting and innovative and isn't going to go away any time soon, if they also get to see that you, and your colleagues that run the company, and that work for it, aren't arse holes, then they will be much more motivated to work for you. Similarly, if you actually turn up to some of these talks, and mingle with the attendees in the pub afterwards, you'll get to find out all kinds of things. Is the money you're offering competitive? Who are the really good people who it would be worth hiring, even at twice the money you're offering? Also, who are the arse holes? Actually, this kind of networking is very similar to what is classically advised as they way to come up with good negotiated agreements in such books as “Getting to Yes.” By socialising with the people who you're looking to get a negotiated agreement with (e.g. hire) you're “exploring their value landscape”. For example, it may be that lots of developers will sign up to work for you if you can guarantee that they'll always get to use the most recent version of the code – or even a certain source code control system or editor.

And there is at least one recruitment agent that I know of who is doing this – BarryCranford, who has been working tirelessly over a series of years to put together the London Java Community, organising talks and events and in the process getting to know a ton about what's going on in Java development in London, who's doing it, who's good at it and who to avoid. I'm not sure where and why Barry deciding to approach things in the way that he's doing them, but whether he knows it or not, he's essentially putting into practice the wisdom that's outlined in the classic article on how to get a job through connections “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter and in new books on the science of connections.

How do I know about what Barry's up to? Why would I recommend Barry? Because I know him through a friend and former colleague...

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