3 Stages of Efficient Recruiting of Engineers

July 2, 2015

9:00 am

The experienced engineer is perpetually solicited via LinkedIn, meet ups, phone, text, and email about transitioning careers. To many geeks (read: engineers), they view recruiters as meat-market proprietors. They call blindly and ask for engineers by name, or send emails titled “Re: career follow-up” whether or not a previous conversation was had. Sneaky.

However, recruiters can play a vital role. Since the company was founded in June of 2014, recruiters have assisted in growing VideoAmp’s engineering team to 21, but even then, we have out-recruited them 3:1.

Recruiting is similar to particle physics. The talent pool is the electron orbiting a nucleus; aka Company. To attract talent, one must provide “activation energy” in order to break existing bonds and bring the electron into orbit around another nucleus.

In comparing big companies to smaller and early stage companies, the nuclei are more dense in a bigger company. They can retain a certain type of electron (read: engineer or talent) for a lifetime, while smaller companies have less dense nuclei and the energy orbits more quickly in lower valences. The risk of the whole thing spinning apart is much higher, however the nuclear forces can be stronger in terms of freedom, responsibility, and longer-term reward.

So, what is the secret to recruiting engineers?

There are three stages in the recruiting funnel:

  1. At the top is scouting/screening, however it is always a good idea for technical leads to be the second-level of scouting and first contact. This is where a candidate tells of their past work.
  2. During on-site visits, to view how they interact within a group discussion, writing code in a peer context, and white-boarding complex architectures. This is where a candidate shows their potential with past / present / future work.
  3. At the closing stage which can involve a lunch, a happy hour, or a dinner.

Scouting / Screening:

Initial contact is vital. It is important to reach out as a hands-on, hardcore engineer, not a recruiter. Take it one step further by knowing your potential candidate and HOW they can make an impact in your organization.

Once you have obtained interest from a candidate, the task is to screen them. This is a delicate process of being politely persistent about the candidate’s actual fit with respect to the job request. It’s often the case that when the candidate has been briefed on the position’s requirements prior to the phone screen, they may “stack” the CV towards the requirements.

The goal of the first phone screen is to find the deal-killers early, and politely short-circuit the discussion. It’s not always the case that this is due to an under-qualified candidate. This can also be that a candidate is, for example, super skilled with Java for the past 15 years, and a newbie with scala. In our requirements, we need an experienced scala engineer.

Let the candidate speak at length about their best work. Show them that you possess deep understanding of tech, and dive deeply into someone’s ownership of past technical projects.

Letting them talk about their best work is far more valuable than attempting to guide them down a complex of discussion for which you already know the complex answer. True genius can take time (walks in the park, so-called “shower sessions”, etc.) therefore it’s not wise to attempt to probe for it in a constrained environment. This is why we value the candidate telling us feats of true genius from the past.

During an on-site:

While on-site with a candidate, we put a huge amount of emphasis on peering/whiteboarding. This comes in varied forms which is dependent on the position we’re hiring for. Giving the candidate a chance to write code with their future team goes leaps and bounds. The group can see quickly that they type fast, use the same (or similar) tools, and have enough experience, when odd or janky coding conventions are used, can delve further in the candidate’s willingness to conform to a group-wide style guide, or if a candidate is floundering and can either change up the task-at-hand, or dismiss them early based on a lack of prerequisite skills.

It is a good idea to have a series of wildcard questions which catch people off-guard and yield interesting cues towards cultural fit (or not).

Examples of this includes asking: “Describe a negative experience in the past which really irked you, one which was a setback to your personal success, or a negative trait of a coworker or boss.”

Then the counter: “Describe a positive work experience where someone went above-and-beyond and exemplified the best-of-class engineer or boss”

Or a personal favorite: “Show or tell us about the most awesome thing you’ve built in the past year or two.”

Closing the deal:

Going to lunch or dinner/drinks with a candidate creates a relaxed atmosphere to suss out the cultural fit. There are many ways which a candidate can be a perfect technical match, but not a cultural match. A general formula for a bad cultural fit is someone who has a high intelligence quotient, but a low emotional quotient.

Ideal candidates have control over both their Lizard Brain and their Limbic Center, and can exert logic and control over their feelings enough to be empathetic and to interact in business professionally. They throw out their ego, and roll up their sleeves and get down to the real business at hand.

It’s not a flawless formula. Some candidates make it through because they can tap-dance, but it is wise to cut the cord early and quickly if they are not a good fit.

Recruiting is more of an art that is backed by a smidge of science. It’s important to greet candidates on their level with respect and understanding of their past experiences, verses as if it was just another transaction. It is equally important to listen and let the candidate speak for themself. Once all of the boxes are checked for the technical requirements, it’s of paramount importance to ensure a cultural fit.

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Dave Gullo is the Co-Founder and CTO of VideoAmp, a platform used to plan, buy, measure and optimize video advertising across all screens; desktop, mobile and connected TV. His past includes software and systems engineering, human computer interaction, and technology team leadership. He bootstrapped and solo-operated a snowboard ecommerce site from 1998 to 2009 which operated with a $0 annual marketing budget. More recently Dave engineered large-scale browser automation systems and data pipelines for Krux which tracks trends in online advertising and data collection. Following that, he Co-Founded and operated Command Line Interactive, a boutique developer agency catering to post series-A startups in the Silicon Valley. Notable clients for CLI were Lyft, BrightRoll, and The Minerva Project. When he is not leading the technology charge for the VideoAmp engineering team, Dave enjoys family, drums and snowboarding.

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