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Attracting Tech Talent


People are the most important part of any company as they are its motive force. They can also qualify as the biggest cost, so it behooves a startup to hire people that will stick around and help recruit others as growth occurs; however, yet struggle to achieve this type of dynamic with in-demand technical talent.

In order to create a mutually exciting relationship three very different things need to be kept in mind and properly positioned: lifestyle focused culture(s), measurable skills requirements and counselor-based searches.

Terminology

Human Resources:

I don’t like the term, human resources. It’s meant to sterilize the relationship between the work done and the people that do it. In the context of other industries, a "resource" is a stock of a required commodity that is used up in a process. I have yet to walk through an office and hear: “Oh, are we using John’s liver this week? Might want to slow down, last week we used up his whole left foot, took him an extra hour to hop back from lunch.”

The phrase “temporal resources” is less of a misnomer in my mind. When we apply a resource to solve a problem we are primarily asking someone to commit their time, which eventually runs out and cannot be unused. Everything else necessary to commit that time (relocation, commuting, shifting parental responsibilities) also cost more time on their part and is part of the deal. As with other resources, time can often run scarce and needs to be respected to establish a sustainable level of quality and supply...more on that later.

Employee:

Same reason as the one listed above. Sterilized nomenclature. I think “team member” is better.

Permanent/Temporary Position:

If what one does is a way to make a living, then all of one’s positions are temporary and there is nothing wrong with that. Permanence comes with a calling, a lifelong devotion to a discipline or cause and is not very common. I use “contract” and “full-time” instead.

A Perfect World

An ideal situation, in terms of talent acquisition, would be to have people lining up to work for your enterprise based on reputation. There would be little need for long drawn out candidate searches, minimal turnover, and a steady environment. This is a beautiful example of conservation of effort and although it may be impossible to attain exactly, there is a lot that can be done toward creating a version of this ideal.

The renown a startup gets is built from the ground-up by experiences recalled by team members. Every unique experience is shaped by an individual member's perception of the experience, which no one can control, and the environment or culture. The latter is a much more controllable and, essentially, a responsibility for leadership to create and maintain.

Two Milieus - Accelerating & Balanced

In my former career as a technical recruiter, candidates for technical roles consistently expressed interest in one of two very different company cultures.

The accelerating milieu is a highly engaging and growth focused atmosphere where risks are taken, mettle is tested, skills sharpened, peers made and confidence grown.

This hyper-focused environment is where you’d see newer engineers seeking to mature into their career, prove themselves and go above and beyond for the team. It's an exciting, stressful, highly creative environment where a surprising amount of work can be done (but not as efficiently as a senior team). The message in this dynamic is very clear -- work your ass off & earn your wings.

The give is mentorship and guidance, which takes a decent amount of effort on the part of the employer.

The other, balanced milieu, is a more laissez-faire setting where leadership is required, but mentorship or guidance is not. Leadership can expect consistent, quality output as well as for them to be heading home at 5:01 p.m.

Usually, this is an ideal environment for candidates with richer, more involved personal lives that include family, meaningful hobbies as well as altruistic or political causes. It would be a mistake, however, to think that they are not growth focused as well -- technical professionals love to join teams where they have opportunities to learn new skills in their field, it is a big pull.

Many may see the first as the only way forward for a startup, but that is a myopic perspective. Acceleration will eventually lead to burnout of talented, gung-ho team members and will make more experienced technical professionals weary of joining. It will always be better to have both of these worlds juxtaposed because most in the "accelerate" environment will eventually mature into the balanced version of themselves.

Conducting the Search

The typical methodology for recruiting is usually split into two separate screening efforts: social and technical.

The logic behind them is sound:

Social:

No one willingly wants to work with someone they can’t stand.

Technical:

It’s difficult to justify hiring someone who can’t do the work. That is all well and good, but one of the real challenges is in a reasonable job description and creating trust in the process.

One of the most consistent issues is a "skills requirement section" of a job description and I can almost guarantee that is a problem you will have to work through.

Essentially, there are almost too many "asks" for any given job description and even though it may be a very accurate picture of what one is expected to do, but it is used as a rubric for screening candidates and eventually I’d find out after multiple conversations and reiterations of the job description that at least 40% of the "need to haves" were actually "nice to haves."

Make Skill Requirements More Measurable - Avoid Using Years As The Only Metric

My suggestion would be to take a job description, go to the required skills section and move half of them to the preferred skills section. Forcing yourself to remove a "required" skill may sound ludicrous, but once you start doing the cost-benefit analysis of each skill as related to the duties involved.

Now You’ll Notice A Few Things:

- If a new hire doesn’t have a particular skill, it is something they can learn quickly.

- One or two skills is more important than the others (bingo!).

- A skill is not industry standard and may require some training or time to ramp up.

From there one last step is to make sure that the skill is measurable. Almost every job description has a requirement for experience in terms of years and that has been the status-quo for a long time. I would highly recommend using a different metric or describing the skills requirement in another way.

For Example, Here Is A Typical Requirement:

- Three to five years experience as a Quality Assurance Engineer

A major flaw with this requirement would be that not every QA Engineering role is equal. Six months at a fast-paced, highly productive company with many products may provide as much experience and industry exposure as one and a half years at a slower, more focused enterprise. It’s always better to state something measurable and specific, like so:

- Recent experience as a Quality Assurance Engineer.

- At least 50 cycles of implementing Incremental Sampling Methodology.

- Experience writing Quality Assurance Programs.

So in this example, we’ve removed some ambiguity and added testable, measurable and verifiable requirements. That will make an enormous difference because it will allow more precise screening questions and consistent results by those sorting through resumes. More importantly, it gives those conducting the technical screenings more specific, relevant and reasonable challenges to work through. 

One Degree of Separation - Career Counselor Recruiting Style

Recruiting can be very difficult, it is essentially a sales role and requires a dash of a match-maker, a smidgen of life-coach, a pinch of therapist and a decent amount of project manager. Also, different recruiters have different styles ranging from the fast-talking, hard-sell sales type to a therapist-like recruiter.

Given the goal of retaining talented technical professionals and creating a community where people are actively referred to apply for roles, then the middle ground of career counselor style recruiting would be the most appropriate.

What would that look like? Simply put, it is having an experienced team member that is a candidate’s point of contact throughout the process and after the process. It can be almost anyone in the startup, but the two best options would be the manager who is hiring for the role or an internal recruiter. This is because both of these roles have an insider view of the company’s inner workings and can help guide a new team member through things that an onboarding process might miss, help in one-off situations and be a guide to helping them thrive in the company.

Most importantly, they should treat the relationship with the new team member as a long-term investment focusing on the trajectory of their career and guide them in maneuvering throughout their tenure on the team. This primary contact person would ideally be in touch throughout the entire search process, meeting them when they come in for in-person interviews and tech challenges, and staying in touch from time to time after they started.

Conclusion

Providing a culture spectrum for technical professionals at different phases in their career, using measurable skills requirements to screen candidates and implementing a career coach recruiting style can go a long way to creating a vibrant and motivated candidate pool.   

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