You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a book by Osman (Ozzie) Osman and over 45 other contributors. It is the most authoritative resource on growing software engineering teams effectively, written by and for hiring managers, recruiters, interviewers, and candidates. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, over 800 links and references, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

Candidate Sources

Most companies hire using a mix of sources or channels, and these evolve as a company grows and matures.

In the early days of a small startup, the founders often use their personal networks to hire people they have a pre-existing relationship with. They might start to tap into some candidate flow from recruiting platforms and marketplaces. As their hiring needs grow, hiring managers might start doing outbound sourcing for really specific roles, and working with external recruiters, either on a contingency or contract basis. Eventually, as a company scales and matures, it usually makes sense to start hiring internal recruiters to take on some of the responsibility of generating candidate flow. At scale, most companies rely on a mix of employee referrals, inbound applicants, and outbound sourcing.

startup Although data is hard to come by, Lightspeed Ventures’ Startup Hiring Trends report cited that startups at different stages seemed to maintain “the rule of happy thirds”: relying for about a third each of their hires on sourced candidates, inbound candidates, and referrals.

Image and video processing startup Kapwing detailed their top-of-funnel strategy, which helpfully walks readers through the channels they sourced candidates from, where job ads were posted, and ultimately what the most effective channels were.

The metric you’re looking to optimize is number of high quality hires—not number of candidates. Even if one channel brings in hundreds of good candidates, another channel that results in fewer hires but requires less effort will be a more efficient use of your time.Greg Brockman, Chairman and CTO, OpenAI*

Figure: Hiring Sources By Company Stage and Volume

Hiring sources by company stage and volume

Source: Holloway

Referrals

A referral candidate is a candidate brought to a company’s attention by an individual who has an existing relationship with the company. Founders, employees, investors, advisors, and even other candidates may refer candidates. Referrals, and particularly referrals from employees, are the most common source of hires across industries and stage of company.*

Advantages and Risks

Key advantages of referrals, particularly those referred by a current team member, include:

  • Knowledge of their abilities. Years of working together are far better signal of skills than an interview process can give.

  • Knowledge of their ability to work with the existing team. There is always risk when hiring people with no previous relationship with anyone on a team that trust is lower, or hard-to-predict interpersonal dynamics make a hire less effective. This is why it’s a common pattern in startups for one senior hire to bring with them one or two people from a previous team.

  • Team coherence and commitment. When joining a company where a person has long-term relationships, people may be more committed and unwilling to depart unexpectedly or in an unprofessional way.

  • Cost savings. Sourcing through referrals means you don’t have to hire a recruiter or spend time and money marketing your company and the position to the general public.

Focus on the right ways to source candidates. Basically, this boils down to ‘use your personal networks more.’ By at least a 10x margin, the best candidate sources I’ve ever seen are friends and friends of friends.Sam Altman, chairman, Y Combinator*

danger While Altman’s advice is very common in technical hiring and across fields, prioritizing hiring through referrals over all other sourcing and recruiting efforts can lead to a highly homogenous team that lacks the ability to challenge and question its decisions, directions, and tactics. Especially in early-stage companies, it can lead to diversity debt, which is difficult to remedy. Lack of diversity is an egregious problem in technical teams; Aline Lerner talks more about the relationship between referrals and diversity in a Software Engineering Daily podcast.

danger There are other risks from relying too heavily on referrals:

  • Lack of fairness. Heavy use of referral recommendations can lead to lack of fair hiring decisions because they may not prioritize an equitable assessment of abilities. Especially for early-stage startups, where networks might be limited to those of two or three people, referral-dependent sourcing can lead to hiring friends and family over the most qualified candidates.

  • Poor team dynamics. It can encourage the formation of cliques of people who know each other better than others on a team, which can lead to resentment.

These risks don’t mean that you should ignore your network entirely, but that you should approach your network with an eye for its gaps and blindspots. If the majority of candidates sourced through your network look the same, have similar backgrounds, and bring similar ideas and experiences to the table, make a careful assessment of who you’re asking for help and how you can widen your own network—you’ll want to explore the other methods for finding candidates in this section as well. As we discuss in Diversity and Inclusion in Tech, diverse teams, especially at the early stage where they set a hiring precedent, are highly influential to companies’ success and ability to innovate.

Startups: Working Your Network

startup Given that referrals remain the most common source of hires, it’s important to put effort into expanding the candidate source that is your network. When you do so with an understanding of the risks of referral reliance, you’ll have a better chance of hiring qualified people who might otherwise not have the chance to meet, rather than clones of current employees.

At some point, a purely referral-based candidate generation strategy might start hitting diminishing returns. You and your team might “max out” your networks, or your networks may not have the diversity or skill sets you need. Exactly when this happens can vary from team to team. Many teams might start maxing out their networks at or below 10 engineers, but one of this Guide’s well-connected contributors was able to grow to almost 100 engineers almost solely using referrals.

As a general rule of thumb, most people end up realizing that with a little persistence they can push their network further than they initially thought. Peter Kazanjy, co-founder of TalentBin, details his process for treating recruiting like a sales pipeline to maximize the potential of employee referrals. He even includes his outreach templates that you can use when you need to start sending emails to prospective candidates.

TripleByte co-founder Harj Taggar suggests asking referred candidates who they would refer as well–even if they’re not interested.* This is a second-order option that can expand the reach of your network but still originates from closely trusted sources.

Curious about how two early engineers at Facebook had to adjust when they created their own business? Read Aditya Agarwal’s story on his and Ruchi Sanghvi’s experience in “Hiring at Startups Vs. Big Companies: Hiring at a startup was drastically different than at Facebook,” on the Holloway blog.

Early on, the best approach to recruiting is to have people on your team actively refer in people from their network.Elad Gil, entrepreneur, author, and investor*

startup Founders or hiring managers at early-stage companies should allocate a chunk of time to working their network. Some approaches:

  • Perform systematic scans of your network. Browse your entire list of connections on LinkedIn to jog your memory. Ask investors, advisors, friends, and former coworkers for referrals, giving them enough context to allow them to make good referrals.

  • Nurture mutually trusting relationships with others who are well-connected and a good judge of talent. When the time is right, reach out to friends and explain what you’re trying to hire for and why.

  • Whenever you can, offer to help others with referrals, too. This may not immediately solve your recruiting needs, but being helpful to others helps everyone, including yourself, in the long run.

  • Identify candidates who are known by your existing connections, and ask if they’re willing to make an intro, taking care to make the introduction both optional and easy.

  • Ask your referrals for referrals.

People are often glad to make referrals, as a good referral is a positive thing for all three people involved.

dangerA common pitfall for those looking to get referrals is to be too transactional or thoughtless when asking for help. Unfortunately, it is common for people to reach out wildly to hundreds of connections in a way that inconveniences or annoys. Referrals take time, thought, and social capital from the person making the referral. Don’t ask for them lightly, or act like you value your time more than the person you’re asking a referral from. Explain the real value of what your company does, or what’s interesting about the role. Try to reciprocate with help. Don’t expect to reach out to someone you’ve not bothered to talk to in years, only to ask them to enthusiastically introduce you to their most talented friends.

Always remember, you’re asking for a favor. It’s important to make it easy to say yes:

  • Be specific. Ask for what you need and explain why. Don’t be vague in the hopes that the person will make an offer to help you with exactly what you’re looking for. If the person you’re asking for help can’t figure out what their role is supposed to be, it’s going to create more work for them to go back and forth with you until they can pull it out. But specificity does not mean over-explaining. You also want to keep it short. You can (and should) include a line like, “Please let me know if there’s any more information I can provide.”

  • Be complimentary. It never hurts to pump the person up a little. Are they uniquely positioned to help you because they’ve been really successful at hiring fullstack engineers in the past? Do you completely trust their opinion and ability to judge the quality of someone’s work because so-and-so in your circle speaks highly of them? Maybe you read a recent blog post of theirs that blew you out of the water. Let them know.

  • Don’t be selfish. Yes, many people in the startup community are eager to help others. But you are not entitled to other people’s time or to a connection. Don’t use language like “I need,” or anything that sounds like “It’s really important that you do this for me.” Don’t demand anything, and be sensitive of their time even if you’re running on a deadline.

  • Encourage the double opt-in introduction. This strategy is for the person making the connection for you, but it’s good for you to know, because with a forwardable introduction email (below), you can help. The double opt-in introduction is a mouthful but pretty straightforward. When you ask someone for an introduction, that person should double check that the person you want to meet is actually interested in being introduced. If they say yes, your contact is free to make the connection. People are busy and this is a gesture of respect. So in the future if someone asks you to connect them to another person, you’ll want to check and see if that person is interested and if they have the time.

  • Use the forwardable introduction email. The forwardable introduction email is a way to maximize your chances of success with double opt-in introductions and make it easy for the people you’re asking for help to say yes. This is a big one.

    • The problem with most double opt-in introduction requests is that they create work for the person connecting the two parties. To check whether the person you want to meet is interested, they have to write an email that lays out why you want to be connected and why they should speak with you. For most people, writing an email about someone else’s company isn’t the biggest priority in the work day. As a result, doing so gets deprioritized and may never happen.

    • To get around this, when you’re asking for an introduction, you should write an email to the connector that they can simply forward to the person you’re asking to meet. This email should contain a bit about you and why you want to be introduced. This way, the connector can simply press “forward,” and add a short note along the lines of, “So-and-so is terrific; I think you should meet them.” It only takes a few seconds. If the person says they’re interested, then all the connector has to do is add you on a new reply on the same email thread and the connection is made.

    • importantWhen you get this far, make sure to Bcc your connector when you thank them in your reply.

  • Say thank you. In addition to thanking the person and Bcc’ing them, it’s always nice to send them a follow-up email letting them know that the connection was successful and you really appreciate their involvement. If the connection turns out to be huge for you—if you end up hiring the person—you can even send a handwritten note or a small token of appreciation. When you’re the person being asked for help, what would you like to hear?

For more tips on building a great network, visit Networking for Startup Founders, a free excerpt from the Holloway Guide to Raising Venture Capital, from which this list was adapted.

Larger Company Strategies

For mid-sized and large companies with multiple sources of candidates, referrals usually remain one of the most important channels. After all, every new member of the team has their own network just waiting to be tapped into. Some mid-sized or large companies invest in systemizing the referral process by:

  • Offering incentives. Incentives for employees who successfully refer candidates can range from simple recognition to a cash bonus to stock (from 2013-2017, Uber gave out 500 shares to employees who successfully referred new hires in software engineering, even for the recruiting team).* At some companies, this cash bonus can be in the thousands of dollars (as high as $5K for some roles). But don’t make it just about the cash. Your team should be convinced that referring a friend or acquaintance is a win for both their referral and for the company; you want them to be intrinsically motivated to help make that happen. Digital Ocean overhauled their referral program to include charitable donations along with cash for referrals, and saw a significant bump in the number of employee referrals.

  • Regular network reviews. Creating a regular cadence for recruiters or hiring managers to meet with employees to scan and tap into their networks can be a great strategy. Some companies conduct “sourcing jams” where groups of employees meet to go through their networks together. These can also be one-on-one meetings between a recruiter or hiring manager and each employee.

  • Memory-jogging techniques. Most people can’t keep their entire network top of mind. Sequoia’s Human Capital Team uses the memory palace to help employees dig deep into their memories for possible referrals, a technique they describe in a blog post, “3X Your Referral Rates.” Google found that aided recall using specific prompts helped significantly, while referral incentives did not.*

  • Involving the referrer. Giving employees regular updates on the progress of candidates they referred can encourage future referrals (as opposed to letting them feel like their referrals are going into a black hole). In addition, you can use the referrer to help build the candidate’s excitement throughout the process (and especially at the offer stage). Some companies give special attention to referral candidates by fast-tracking them through the process, but this can affect the fairness of your process.

candidate If you’re applying to a company, a referral from an existing employee is a great way to get your foot in the door. We’ve seen some candidates feel uncomfortable asking their connections for a referral into a company, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re pulling any favors. After all, if a referral works out, it’s a win for you, a win for your referrer, and a win for the company you’re joining.

Inbound Applicants

At first glance, this channel may seem low-effort because the setup is so simple: post your job descriptions to your own website and to other job sites and watch the applicants roll in. But because it’s easy for people to find and apply for these positions, the bulk of applicants may not be relevant to what you’re looking for. In fact, while some applicants may be really interested in your company, many others may not be and may have applied to dozens of openings without looking closely at the company or role.

The candidate flow you receive will also be a function of your employer brand. While having a strong employer brand may help attract more candidates, it can also further increase noise.

Ultimately, it’s useful to think about the types of candidates that will find and apply to your job postings. Many of the best candidates may never apply to job postings because they are so actively sought after. But there might be a fantastic new up-and-comer applying for jobs who hasn’t been given a shot yet or isn’t connected to your networks. Inbound applicants can also give you a more diverse pool of candidates than relying solely on who-knows-who.

We do know some really great hiring managers who rarely rely on inbound applicants, but that’s typically because they’ve been around for a while and have built strong networks. Inbound can be a good way to supplement other channels if you approach it with the right strategy:

  • Try to get your job postings and company in front of a targeted audience. Think about where you can reach the types of candidates you want to hire: mailing lists, products, conference, or meetups. Will exposure in that channel increase your signal, or your noise?

  • Have a systemized way of easily screening applicants for appropriate technical knowledge.

  • Consider introducing some friction, but be careful about what this friction selects for. For example, if you’re a desirable company trying to hire new grads, asking applicants to complete a coding challenge can help filter out candidates that lack a serious interest in your company or the requisite technical skills. But not all friction is good friction. Extra steps might end up deterring desirable candidates as well. After all, they might be less likely to be willing to jump through hoops before you’ve even established a relationship with them. Some applicants will simply follow the path of least resistance.

  • Inbound applications can also help you gauge market sentiment and brand value of your company. You can add a brief survey to job site applicants asking about how they found your company, their opinion of your company, and asking them for feedback on your process.

An Intercom guest post by Oren Ellenbogen lists a few helpful suggestions for increasing your inbound leads, including:

  • Engaging with people online, through social media, and answering questions on StackOverflow, Quora, and elsewhere.

  • Writing about your product, team, and engineering practices—if you don’t have your own blog, seek out those that you think best attract your target candidates and ask to write there.

  • Hosting hackathons, giving talks, and creating public coding challenges.

  • Open sourcing some of your tools.

Filtering Inbound Candidates

Many companies don’t give inbound candidates as much time as their other channels. Because the market is saturated with candidates, the perception is that the most talented people do not need to apply anywhere—the jobs will come to them. But the better you can treat your inbound channel, the more leverage you can gain over competitors who neglect this source. Along with junior candidates, like those just graduating from college, the inbound channel is typically where you’ll find more nontraditional candidates who have typically been gatekept from tech. There are certainly diamonds to be found.

We cover this topic in detail in Connecting With Candidates, but while you’re here, these are the two most important things to look for when filtering inbound candidates:

  1. Polish. The number of grammatical errors and typos in a resume matters more when it comes to job performance than a candidate’s pedigree.* Polish is one of the first things you can look for when filtering through your inbound. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but the ability to communicate well, especially in a document that has had the chance to go through multiple revisions, is a strong signal that this person is conscientious and cares.

  2. How they talk about past work. How someone talks about their past work can give you a good indication of not only what the candidate has worked on but also how much they care about the work they’re doing or have done, how well they understand it, what actually matters to them, and of course, whether they can communicate complex concepts clearly to others.

Outbound Sourcing

The great software developers, indeed, the best people in every field, are quite simply never on the market.Joel Spolsky, chairman and co-founder, Trello, Glitch, Stack Overflow*

Sourcing is a great way to find candidates who might not be actively looking for a job—many of the most talented engineers are rarely on the market. It can also be a good way to uncover candidates who may be overlooked by more brand-recognizable companies. But this channel does come with challenges. Many candidates may not be open to new opportunities, and so getting your timing right can be difficult. Additionally, so many companies have abused this method by spamming people that many have just learned to tune out the noise. At this point, most people you reach out to will never respond to your message, if they read it at all. And of course, the most sought-after candidates receive the most messages, and so are less likely to respond—that is, unless your message resonates and the timing works out.

Because of these significant challenges, outbound sourcing may seem like a numbers game: the more messages you send, the more likely you are to hit the right candidate with the right message at the right time… right? Perhaps, but getting them to then join your company is going to be an even more significant challenge—becoming a company or individual known for spamming the engineering community is not good for you. Every time you reach out to a candidate you are consuming some of your company’s brand equity. Unsolicited messaging is always a potential unwarranted interruption. But if your outbound sourcing is targeted and thoughtful, the less cost there will be to the brand, and the more likely the person will be to respond.

Tips and Strategies

  • Personalize your message. When reaching out to a candidate, it’s worth telling them why you found their background interesting and why you think they might be a good fit for your company. You-centric language (such as “your profile really stood out because X” is often more effective than we-centric language (“this is how cool our team and CEO are”). If you can’t do this authentically, you probably shouldn’t reach out to them at all. To stay efficient, you might still have templates that you use to form your messages, but any template you use should be customized for each candidate.

  • Keep it short. Your messages should be concise and to the point. Your message should contain enough information to help the recipient decide whether to respond, but most people process messages really quickly and will outright ignore messages that are too long or dense.

  • Tell them what they need to know. Say hello, say thank you, and cover the following:

    1. If you have a good understanding of what the candidate you’re reaching out to cares about, focus your pitch on those pieces. For instance, do they seem very mission-aligned? Have they expressed interest in this kind of role in the past, like on social media? Does it seem like they would fine the company’s business potential intriguing?

    2. If you don’t have concrete areas you can focus your pitch on, let them know the nature of the problems they would solve in the role, the potential financial upside of joining, and any proof that there are credible people on or behind the team.

    3. Include a call-to-action at the end, such as inviting to read more about your company or welcoming them to have a call to talk more, but without pressuring them.

  • dangerDon’t be too pushy or salesy. Most people have really good “bullshit detectors.” Most people don’t like to feel prematurely pressured to take action or invest their time, so don’t do things like withhold information from them until they agree to get on a call.

  • dangerDon’t use gimmicks. Jokes and “catchy” subjects are not a safe way to get people’s attention—you don’t yet know the person’s sense of humor. For some recipients, a little color can help you stand out, but to others it will come across as spammy or even offensive.

  • Follow up, politely. Do send follow-ups, but again, don’t spam people. A polite follow-up could solicit a reply from a candidate who missed your first message or saw it and forgot to respond. Keep follow-ups as short as possible, but use them as a way to check in and trickle some more information to the candidate (for instance, tell them about progress the team has made like a product launch or fundraising round). A good cadence might be a follow-up a week after the first outreach (to make sure they saw your original message), and another one a couple months later to check in (by giving an update and seeing if timing looks better on their side).

  • Timing matters. A candidate’s “recruitability” can vary over time. For instance, this study was able to predict recruitability based on an individual’s past job tenure and their current company and role’s average tenure: “If a UX worker has been at their job at Microsoft for 2.5 years, and they’ve never stayed at any job for longer than three years, and the average UX job at Microsoft is two years, then that worker is probably highly recruitable.” Of course, there are other factors that influence recruitability that may not be evident from a candidate’s profile. Maybe they haven’t found a way to move up at their company and are looking for more responsibility. Maybe they want to start working remotely, or they need a better benefits package because they’ve started a family, and can’t get these things at their current job. You can’t know this person’s circumstances until you reach out; sometimes it can be just what they were waiting for.

  • Play a long game. Do build relationships when you can. Some candidates might express some initial interest, but the timing might not work out. Keep track of those candidates and check back in with them regularly. You can use a spreadsheet, or relationship management software like an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) or Talent Relationship Management (TRM) to help manage all your follow-ups.* One idea is to add candidates on LinkedIn so they can see the updates you post about your company.

  • Block off time. If you don’t have a recruiter, sourcer, or agency in charge of outbound sourcing, and sourcing candidates isn’t your main job responsibility, it might be worth blocking off time on your calendar. Otherwise, it’s very easy to put off sourcing in lieu of your day-to-day activities.

  • Improve. Iterate on your targeting and your message as you learn patterns and heuristics for what works and what doesn’t. In fact, what you learn from your outreach can feed back into your job description and candidate personas.

  • Be careful about who’s doing the outreach. At many companies, teams delegate sourcing to specialized in-house sourcers, to recruiters, or to external agencies. After all, someone who is able to spend a lot of time performing outreach will probably learn what works and what doesn’t more quickly than a hiring manager who only spends an hour (or less) on outreach each week.

  • caution That said, there are risks with doing so. Firstly, the more detached the person doing the outreach is from the actual work, the less likely they’ll be able to effectively target or engage the right candidates. Secondly, especially with external agencies, the person doing outreach may not be as protective of your company’s brand as you would be. Candidates have begun to learn this, and many have learned to respond only to hiring managers, and not recruiters. Make sure you take steps to ensure that the person doing outreach understands the role and the team, and that they are being as protective of your reputation and your candidates’ time as you would be.

Over time, you will learn tactical tips and tricks on outbound sourcing. Small things like how you structure your search queries on different sites, what time and day you reach out to candidates, and the ability to find a candidate’s email address can all make a difference in your response rate. We don’t cover these types of tips in this Guide (yet), but there are sites like Boolean Black Belt dedicated to providing them. They are worth visiting if you will be spending time on outbound sourcing.

contribute Some managers and recruiters disagree with a selective strategy and prefer a high-volume blanket approach. Let us know if this is you, and if you’d like to share your perspective.

Further Reading on Outbound Sourcing

Filtering Outbound Candidates

When it comes to outbound sourcing, many hiring managers conduct searches for engineers who went to Stanford or MIT and have worked at a FAANG company, and then blind email every name that comes up. Startups tend to copy the hiring plans and processes of large companies, who favor these filtering mechanisms for candidates.

But traditional markers like where people went to school or where they worked are not nearly as predictive as people tend to think, and there is a whole world of candidates who are just as competent but who are currently being overlooked by other companies. Not copying big, well-branded companies can actually give you a strong competitive edge. You’ll find that the perfect candidate may be someone who’s mission-aligned, driven, self-motivated, and will likely stay longer at your company—which may not be the person with an MIT degree and experience at Google. Don’t optimize for the candidates you’ve been taught are “perfect.” Instead, optimize for candidates who satisfy your deal-breakers and are likely to be interested in you.

Rather than looking only for people with a traditional pedigree, consider reaching out to people who:

  • Are interested in your space because they’ve blogged or tweeted about it or have contributed to or started open source projects related to your work.

  • Are active in a nice language community that your company loves, who are excited to be able to use this language in production.

  • Are existing users of your product who are engineers (here’s some guidance on how to surface them without a lot of manual work)

  • Have previously worked at companies solving similar problems, even if those companies aren’t household names.

It might not be easy when starting out to figure out which candidates are likely to be interested in you, but the more patient you are up front, the more repeatable patterns you’ll surface and the more unexpected pockets of engaged candidates you’ll find. Then, over time, you’ll be able to take what you learned and turn it into a sourcing machine that will put you miles ahead of everyone else who’s sourcing the same old candidates against the tide of market forces. There’s more detail on this topic in Early Signals and How To Read a Resume. And regardless of which type of candidate you’re looking for in your outbound sourcing, Aline Lerner’s Sourcing for Founders deck, originally presented to Y Combinator companies, will help you if you feel like you’re doing fifty things every day besides looking for your next technical hire.

If you decide to reach out to FAANG engineers or other traditionally pedigreed engineers, or well-known people in general, less is typically more. These people are likely fielding all kinds of outreach, so make sure you follow the tips and strategies above closely; one or two really well-written emails will get you better results than hundreds of automated, impersonal spam messages.

Agencies

In theory, you can contract out almost any part of your recruiting process to an external recruiter. This particular section is about working with recruiting agencies on a contingency basis, and less about retained or contracted recruiters, which we discuss in The Hiring Manager-Recruiter Partnership.

Contingency recruiters are recruiters employed by an agency who work to place a pool of candidates in open positions at one or more companies, and they receive payment only for successful placements. Placement fees for contingency recruiters are paid by the company where the recruiter places a candidate and calculated as a percentage of the candidate’s annual salary, with typical fees ranging from 15–25%.

dangerContingency recruiting can be fraught with mismatched incentives:

  • The recruiter may be working with more than one company, and could be incentivized to push the candidate toward the company with the largest potential placement fee (not just in percentage, but also in potential volume of candidates).

  • The recruiter may not properly represent your company or opportunity to the candidate. This might be due to lack of a deep understanding of your company or role. They might also oversell the fit in an attempt to win their placement fee.

  • If the recruiter is really unskilled, they may send you candidates that are not a good fit at all, causing this channel to resemble an unfiltered inbound channel, and flooding your funnel with noise.

That said, a really good contingency recruiter will be focused on long-term relationships (with both candidates and companies) rather than chasing quick placement fees. They will have a healthy pipeline of candidates, and will put in the effort to find a match between the right candidate and the right company. Great contingency recruiters can be a valuable source of candidates. Jose Guardado has some great tips on choosing a contingency recruiter.

cautionBut in general, we recommend getting a trusted referral when selecting a contingency recruiter, and vetting both the agency and the individual recruiter (the quality of recruiters at a given agency might vary).

Filtering Candidates From Agencies

Candidates who come in through agencies tend to fall into two categories:

  1. They look good on paper but have some tragic flaw you find later, after investing non-trivial resources to interview them.

  2. Strong candidates who are much harder to close than similar candidates from other sources.

Market forces affect agencies. In this market, where strong candidates (or at least those who look strong on paper) have plenty of options, there’s not much incentive for them to work with agencies.

candidate While agencies sound tempting at first—you have someone who knows more about which companies are out there than you do and can make recommendations, actually connect you to companies, and even schedule interviews—the reality is very different.

  • In practice, agencies tend to add extra steps to the top of the funnel for candidates—now instead of just talking to company recruiters, they also have to have the same conversation with a slew of agency recruiters first.

  • Moreover, despite positioning themselves as trusted advisors, agency recruiters typically don’t have much insider knowledge about the companies they hire for, often not being able to summarize the basic value proposition, much less speak cogently about the roadmap, projects, or market positioning. (Of course, there are always exceptions, and there are truly excellent agency recruiters, but they’re rare.)

Working with an agency does not add value for candidates, so when candidates choose to do it, it’s often out of desperation, because of their inability to gain access to an employer through other channels.

Additionally, very few agencies have the means to vet candidates at their disposal. As a result, they tend to focus almost exclusively on candidates who look good on paper (for the reason that employers usually won’t engage with them if they present nontraditional candidates), but those candidates, more often than not, tend to come with some tragic flaw. If they didn’t have one, they probably wouldn’t be working with agencies in the first place.

If you’re fortunate enough to talk to an agency candidate who isn’t flawed and does well in your process, you have one more hurdle in front of you—actually convincing the candidate to accept your offer. And you’ll find that doing so will be unreasonably difficult. Agency recruiters get paid when they make hires, so it’s in their interest to get their candidates to interview with as many companies as possible. As such, any candidate who is presented to you will likely be presented to as many as 10–20 other companies. You can do the math from there.

How to Effectively Engage with Agencies

While we advise avoiding agencies when possible, if you’re really struggling finding the right candidates, you may feel compelled to give agencies a chance. The most realistic (and probably ideal) setup is that they’re there to get candidates in the door, not to own the process, despite how much control they might want. Here’s how to find and vet decent agencies and make the relationship with them as productive as possible.

First off, ask around for recommendations from your network. Good agencies are so rare that they’re often a well-kept secret.

Once you find a promising agency, do a mock call with them and have them pitch you as though you were a candidate. Ask them a lot of questions about the company and the role. The goal here is to figure out whether this agency would reply with something like, “I’m not sure, but I can find out.” What you don’t want to hear is the agency making something up just to seem knowledgeable, or pivoting away from the question. Another good answer would be, “You should ask the hiring manager about that, whom I’d like to put you in touch with—they’d likely have a better sense than I would, and I don’t want to give you the wrong information.”

If you do start working with an agency, have them Bcc you on emails for quality control. Tell them you want to be conferenced in on mute for a call or two. Are they representing your brand well?

caution Don’t give them roles that require very high-touch time management, as the best candidates are often off the market very quickly. They’re managing many clients, and unless you’re their cash cow, they’re probably not always going to optimize for you.

caution Don’t give them roles that require complex selling. They aren’t embedded in a company’s culture, internal communications, and knowledge base, and will lack the ambient knowledge to be effective. Train them to defer to you on hard questions.

University Recruiting

This section was written by Viraj Mody.

Setting up a good campus recruiting program can create a pipeline of junior talent that pays dividends over several years. Interns and new grad candidates can bring energy and ideas that complement those of more experienced members of your team, and can help scale your team rapidly.

The university recruiting machinery works pretty efficiently at large companies with well-known brands. Typically, large companies have established relationships with colleges, have large college recruiting budgets, and employ teams who focus entirely on university recruiting programs.

startup Getting the university recruiting flywheel going for smaller startups is an entirely different ballgame. Smaller startups don’t have the budget to spend extravagantly on campus recruiting, nor do they have dedicated recruiters or established relationships with colleges to give them leverage. Lavish perks and fancy offices often aren’t a tool they can use to attract interns and new grads against the bigger companies. But perhaps the biggest challenge is the lack of brand name. Undergraduate interns and recent graduates are trying to build impressive-looking resumes, and getting a job at a well-known company is the most obvious way to do so.

caution For a startup, a foray into university recruiting would be a huge and speculative investment of time and money. Interviewing candidates, flying out your team to campuses, and closing candidates will take a toll on your resources. The key to success when it comes to recruiting is to maximize return on investment, and many of the tactics described below are articulated with this primary goal in mind.

So when should a startup begin investing in university recruiting? At early stages, it might be worth exploring one-offs like attending a career fair or posting to university mailing lists. At some point, when a company has achieved product-market fit, hired an experienced engineering team, and built an environment where engineers with less experience can thrive, it might be worth investing more in university recruiting.

The first step is to choose which colleges or programs to focus on. It’s tempting to focus your university recruiting efforts on the most well-known or impressive-sounding schools, the same way students think it’s in their best interest to shoot only for employment at Google or Facebook. But if you only look at Harvard and Stanford, it’s to your detriment. You will target a group that is largely homogenous, in a very expensive process. Instead, we recommend that you:

  • Focus on local universities with reputable engineering programs. Having easy access to campus allows for stronger, more frequent engagement without a lot of the costs. Home-field advantage matters.

  • Some investors might hold career fairs to bring university students and companies together. Check if your investors have a university program you can leverage (such as Greylock’s Tech Fair and Sequoia Campus).

  • Consider the alma-maters of engineers on your team, especially those with strong connections to the university (recent graduates, honor society members, employees who have kept in touch with professors, those with connections to the Dean’s office, et cetera).

  • Colleges with a reputation for entrepreneur programs. You’re likely to attract and close candidates who are more comfortable with the risks and challenges that joining a startup provides them.

  • See Diversity and Inclusion in Tech for more on expanding the pipeline.

Finally, it’s worth noting that new graduates and interns may require a different approach to attract and hire; while many of them may receive many offers, they may have limited understanding of the startup ecosystem. Here are some recommendations:

  • startup Attend startup-focused recruiting fairs, rather than the standard career fair, to attract students who are specifically interested in startups.

  • Reach out to reputable entrepreneurship societies or clubs at the schools you want to engage with, and work closely with them to organize events.

  • If you already know some students, ask if they can help you identify the super-connectors on campus, and establish a relationship with them that you can leverage to get introductions to the most promising candidates. Previous interns can also help serve as ambassadors.

  • Reach out to college’s career services center and talk to them about how you can get creative together.

  • Find unique, product-aligned ways to get students’ attention. One idea could be to hold interview-preparation workshops for students.

  • Invest time with candidates that you extend offers to, with a goal of helping them learn to navigate the startup ecosystem and learn more about your company in particular. Provide opportunities for face-to-face interaction with people on your team that the candidate is likely to work with or relate to.

You can read more about setting up a university recruiting program at this article by Viraj Mody.

Marketplaces and Platforms

In the past decade or so, several companies have sprouted up with the goal of making the hiring process more efficient. Each of these platforms has different theses and selling points, but the basic idea is to go beyond traditional job boards by using technology to generate a two-sided marketplace of candidates and companies. As these platforms grow, they have also started to experiment with novel methods of matching and evaluating candidates and companies. Some of the more well-known platforms include:

Platforms can be straightforward to use, even for small companies. The set-up cost is low, and you can easily ramp up or down as your hiring needs change. Most of these platforms are free to try but they charge a placement fee per candidate hired (usually a little lower than agency contingency fees). Hiring desirable candidates from these platforms can get quite competitive, as they are usually placed in front of multiple companies and may end up receiving several offers.

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Alternative Education Programs

As demand for software engineers has skyrocketed and as traditional, 4-year university computer science programs have failed to keep up, a plethora of alternative education programs and bootcamps have sprung up to meet demand.

In some ways, the bootcamp industry, in its nascent stages, is the Wild West—program quality varies wildly, as does the hireability of graduates, but one of the biggest challenges of hiring from bootcamps is how hard it is to filter students because many of them have no previous experience and have the same collection of projects they did during their studies. If you’ve ever felt a bit lost when looking at a prospective internship candidate’s resume, because they simply haven’t done much yet, you’ll find that a bootcamp grad’s resume is even more sparse in most cases.

caution Not all programs are created equal. Some are known for the stack they teach, some are known for a more in-depth theoretical CS curriculum (though, odds are, it’ll still be way less computer science than you’d see at university), and some are known for not being quite good enough at anything. One of the best things you can do to vet a bootcamp is to research their placement rates and look at the employer logos on their site—is your hiring bar on par with those employers (though watch out, as you might expect, they’ll feature the shiniest brands first).

contribute We plan on improving this section with more coverage of alternative programs and bootcamps. If you know a lot about this topic and would like to write about it, please let us know.

Once you’ve chosen your pool to fish from, form a relationship with the career services team of the programs in question. Having this relationship will give you extra dimensions to choose from when deciding which grads you want to talk to. For instance, you can ask for people who studied STEM in undergrad or ask for the top X% of grads based on their performance.

Understand that any grads you hire are going to be at the junior level and will need mentorship before they can comfortably work in production. Do yourselves and them a favor and only pursue these candidates if you can honestly allocate the requisite time and patience.

Internal Pipelines

This section was written by Scott Woody.

One of the bigger sourcing opportunities for technology companies lies in the nontechnical staff they already have. We have seen successful companies convert non-engineers into engineers through thoughtful application of an internal conversion process.

Value of Internal Pipelines

  • Promotes nontraditional backgrounds. Engineering teams tend to be a monoculture of people from the same tech companies and top CS programs. Supporting people already familiar with your organization can be a great way to bring different backgrounds and ideas to your team.

  • Cultural risk is mitigated. Internal transfers are already employees, the cultural risk goes way down if you convert from internal employees.

  • Faster time to hire. Gauging interests, coordinating interviews, and getting references can be much faster when the candidates are “in the building.”

  • Internal mobility is a morale win. Internal mobility is one of the best ways to ensure that top talent feels like your company will always be their home.

  • Insights and motivation. Because they have experience outside of engineering, engineers who come through this channel have unique insights into product development. Additionally, because this process is so out of the norm, these engineers tend to push themselves to learn and grow at a faster clip than most new engineers.

The Process

Before the interview you want to put up some filters to ensure that the candidates who interview are likely to succeed in the process, and interested in a new role. Suggested filters include:

  • Excellent performance review. You want this program to be a reward to high achieving employees, so insist that they are already doing well in their current job.

  • Manager recommendation. In order to conduct an expedited interview process, you are leaning on signal from a manager in your organization who supports the transition. Keep in mind that this person likely can’t comment on their technical ability, but should be able to provide signal on behavioral and company-culture dimensions.

  • Prior engineering experience. This can be a class like Code Academy or Udacity and should include ample code samples to review. This gives you a minimal filter on their engineering ability, a sample of code to review, and direct evidence of the grit that they will need to convert to software engineering.

After filtering, you might do one of two things, or both.

  1. Run a normal interview process. Treat the candidate like a new grad hire. Ensure that they do not have access to the questions beforehand by modifying interview questions.
  • Use trusted interviewers. Internal candidates frequently have less CS experience (for example, they might not be super familiar with Big O notation). You want interviewers who are capable of distinguishing potential and ability to produce code from ‘familiarity with CS classes.’ You are likely trading off raw CS knowledge for hustle, values alignment, and raw talent to learn. These candidates start off slower than most CS new grads, but climb the learning curve much faster.

  • Use their prior managers as the ultimate reference checks. Lean into the performance review signal from their managers to help guide your decision. As mentioned above, you are not getting a new grad CS student, you are getting a seasoned employee with enough engineering chops to do the job. This raw material is great for creating excellent engineers, but it requires work.

  1. Have them step into an internship. Run it like a normal internship for a new grad. Give them a mentor, place them on a team they’d love to be on. Expect them to start off slowly but grow exponentially over a 3 month period. An internship is a great method of internal conversion: it allows you to sand down rough edges, ensure that they get the on-the-job-training to truly become a great engineer, and acknowledges the fact that this person will need a bit of time to get up to speed. The output signal is also a lot stronger: you can directly review their work and more objectively understand if they’re at the bar you expect.
  • Get a senior engineer to do the final evaluation. Internal pipelines require buy-in from senior engineers that set the bar for who is a ‘good engineer.’ By bringing in an independent staff engineer to do the final assessment, you are ensuring the output is objectively good enough for your organization.

How to Make It Successful

Ensure the candidates land in teams that can use their skills, and that can support them and help them grow. Choose a team that can leverage their prior backgrounds (for example, if they came from the sales department, place them on a team that works closely with sales). This will enable them to punch above their weight while they develop their engineering skills.

Whether you do an internship or normal interview, understand these engineers are going to start a little slower than most new grads you would hire. That is fine, because they will ultimately quickly accelerate their growth curve to match or exceed all but the best new hires. You know they are capable of being excellent employees, and you’re betting they can become excellent engineers. Because this is their first engineering job, they will likely need close mentorship and feedback continuously over the first six months. After that they will be indistinguishable from every other engineer in your organization.

Tips for Developing Your Internal Pipeline

  • Ensure equal access. You should advertise that you’re doing this program to all members of the company and approach it carefully. Engineering will be looking at these people and assessing whether they are at the right level of skill. Many people in non-engineering parts of the company will want to join. There will be a spotlight on this process, so ensure that qualifications and procedures are publicly known and equally accessible.

  • Maintain the same entry criteria. If the candidates that come out of this process are worse engineers than the ones you hire from outside the company, the program will not survive. You need to strive for independent evaluation of candidates. The best way is to find senior engineers who will do final assessment of the signal and place their stamp of approval on each internal applicant.

  • Guide your mentors closely. When running an internal pipeline internship, keep in mind that interns are already employees—they may have lots of pre-established relationships with the employees around them. This can lead to situations where an intern that is struggling isn’t honestly assessed by their mentor; the mentor may be afraid to give hard feedback or they may sandbag their expectations. As the manager, it is your job to precisely guide the mentor’s expectations and ensure they are not succumbing to social pressure to get this person though the process.

  • Limit the teams these employees can start on. These employees usually start from a slightly lower base of CS knowledge that they would have gotten in school or previous internships. This means they will start a little slower, but ultimately accelerate very quickly. The teams they land on need to understand this deeply, or risk making the new engineer feel excluded, or worse. Explain to the team that they need to be more forgiving in the beginning, and ensure the new engineer is working on projects appropriate to their level. At the same time, the team should hold high expectations for fast growth in this engineer’s abilities over the first six months, which can help them feel motivated and supported—everyone wants to know that their team believes in them. Rather than throwing these employees on a random team that’s not prepared for them, make sure they’ll be working with people who will help them fulfill their potential.

First Conversations

While the typical interview loop begins with a screening process, a more general first conversation is usually appropriate for outbound candidates, referral candidates, high-value candidates, and when hiring for senior positions. You may have exchanged a brief amount of information over email, or they’ve submitted an impressive application and you want to start with something more personal or intimate than a phone screen.

For this conversation, most companies will schedule a 30–60 minute call with the hiring manager, founder, or recruiter, depending on the size and stage of the company. For high-value candidates and where time and location allow, it might be more effective to try to do this in person, and for the manager or founder to reach out rather than a recruiter.

If the candidate is a referral, is a known quantity in some other way, or has done the exact job you’re looking to fill, you might have one of these calls with them to begin selling them and make a personal connection, and put them in the right pipeline. The general phone call at medium and large companies is sometimes conducted by a recruiter. The goal is simply to have a verbal touchpoint—likely the first—after some communication has taken place over email.

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