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Selling vs. Gate-Keeping

Despite changes to technical hiring practices, related hiring practices have been slow to catch up—especially when it comes to filtering candidates through the top of the funnel. Companies typically set up hiring processes to gate-keep rather than sell. But the demands of the market dictate that technical hiring be more about selling than filtering. The difficult part for companies isn’t sorting through a sea of candidates to figure out who’s “the best” or who’s worth engaging with.* Rather, technical hiring is a sourcing problem. A successful effort begins with getting candidates interested enough to talk to you in the first place and remain engaged as they go through the hiring process.

At a high level, selling is no different in the context of recruiting than it is in more traditional sales of goods and services. You talk to your customer (the candidate), ask questions, listen closely, and learn about their past, what their pain points are, and their hopes and dreams—and then you weave a carefully crafted narrative about how working at your company can actually deliver on those things.

Selling starts with writing great job descriptions that focus on how the role will improve the candidate’s life. This may include learning new things, gaining more responsibility, helping to fix problems in the world that matter to them, and so on. Selling ends with compelling offers tailored to the candidate’s needs. And in between, a good process will treat every candidate like a unique individual, never taking for granted that they have plenty of other options.

How is this approach different from what most employers are doing?

Read a typical job description, noting the ubiquitous laundry list of sometimes literally impossible requirements, and you’ll see that the typical hiring process is set up to exclude rather than attract. Many people involved in technical recruiting and hiring take for granted the fact that the people whose applications cross their desk want to work at their company. The common belief is that it’s not worth the time to engage with anyone who doesn’t fit an “ideal” mold.

Given the data available on the internet, a recruiter could reach out to every engineer at Facebook or Google who went to MIT or Stanford. That data is already out there, and between LinkedIn, Clearbit, Entelo, other candidate search aggregators, with a little bit of quick scripting, doing this isn’t that hard. What’s hard is finding the ones who want to talk to you, and finding the right fit between candidate and company. Companies who understand this are orders of magnitude more successful than ones that don’t, and the implications of a candidate-friendly market are what drive wise tactics at every stage of the modern technical hiring process.

Another important reason to develop a better top-of-funnel process is that, despite the volume of candidates out there, traditional hiring practices really only serve candidates who meet a specific small set of qualifications. Every company pushes pedigreed candidates—those with four-year degrees from top schools, who have already worked for a FAANG company—through their funnel, leaving candidates from nontraditional backgrounds feeling like they don’t hold a lot of cards. This is not a failure on the part of those candidates, but rather represents maladaptive hiring processes that smaller companies copy from the bigger, more established companies.

No matter where talented engineers come from, they won’t join your company unless someone sells them on the idea. This requires optimizing the time you spend on the candidates who want to talk to you. Filtering well at the top of the funnel becomes even more important, so that you do not waste time on candidates who won’t engage. There are a number of things you can do to sell candidates on joining your team when you are making the effort to diversify your pipeline. Each of these methods will help all potential employees feel supported.

This represents a big departure from the more traditional filtering approach, where you would try to save time by cutting candidates who aren’t skilled enough to make it through your process. Instead, this approach entails thinking about how you might gauge whether a candidate is likely to want to work for you. Maybe they feel alignment with your mission (or just the more nebulous alignment with your general approach to problems, like disrupting an antiquated, inefficient market space with new technology). Or perhaps they feel excitement about your stack, a history of thematically relevant past projects, or something else. Of course, the hiring process will always contain deal-breakers like whether or not the candidate has the appropriate level of seniority, specific skills, or location; but once those are off the table, the main question isn’t “does this candidate seem likely to fail my interview process based on their qualifications?” but rather “would this candidate be excited to work on the stuff we’re working on?”

A new wave of tools and credentialing approaches has arisen in recent years to help meet demand for talent in an increasingly competitive hiring market. Assessment tools like online challenges and hiring marketplaces can surface and filter engineers based on skill, rather than pedigree. Educational institutions like bootcamps train new engineers and connect graduates directly with employers. Companies can use these tools in conjunction with resumes, but it may be possible to effectively broaden the applicant pool by ditching the use of resumes in hiring altogether.

Software engineering credentialing is changing, and fast. Enrollment in undergraduate computer science programs is growing linearly (and not at all quickly at the very top schools companies recruit from most). On the other hand, enrollment is growing exponentially in software engineering-focused alternative programs/bootcamps and MOOCs. Those who can find a way to surface talent using other credentialing means are going to have a serious advantage for some time.

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