Stories about Software


A Developer’s Guide to Recruiters

More and more of my posts these days are in response to reader questions, but this one actually isn’t. However, I’ve been asked about specific aspects of this general theme frequently enough that I figured this was a good subject to cover. I’ve dealt with a lot of recruiters in my career, both as a candidate and a candidate seeker, and this has put me in a position to at least have an informed opinion about the subject. It’s something that’s at times overwhelming and often counter-intuitive, so hang with me, and let’s take a tour through the subject. Even if you’re a savvy job-hopping veteran, maybe I can at least offer you a different technologists’s perspective.

First Up, Check Yourself

Okay, so there are a lot of recruiters out there, and you’ve probably seen a less than stellar display from some of them. “5 Years of Experience with Swift.” “Mad XML coding skills.” “C-Pound a plus.” It’s common for developers to laugh together at these antics. There are even (hilarious) twitter accounts lampooning this. It can also be annoying to get repetitive emails from some organization about jobs that are not fits for you or to have a guy call you three times in a day, saying things like, “I couldn’t help but notice you hadn’t returned my first two calls.” I get that.

But here’s the thing. You’re incredibly, ridiculously fortunate to be in a position where so many people are saying, “hey, please come interview for this job for more pay” that you find it annoying. I’m not saying “you’re fortunate” in the sense that you lucked into it — I know this isn’t easy work — but that you’re fortunate the market is and remains so strong. It can be overwhelming at times, but imagine the alternative of being stuck in a dead end job and being thrilled when some company wants to schedule a phone interview after you’ve sent out 100 resumes through monster.com or something. You might not even know what monster.com is, and that’s because you don’t have to go looking for jobs like other people. That’s the reason that recruiters exist — because the only way to find software developers is to go prying them loose from other firms, and it’s not like CTOs are going to take it upon themselves to start cold-calling competitors’ developers to offer them interview opportunities (though some larger companies do have staff recruiters that do this).

Also to consider is that recruiters are humans, and often they are humans probably no more interested in cold calling you than you are in receiving cold calls from them. Their paycheck depends on calling up a bunch of people who are most likely to sigh angrily and tell them to lose their numbers. That’s not exactly the stuff dreams are made of, so you might extend them a touch of sympathy and understanding if they’ve built up a thick skin and don’t seem overly sensitive to your social signals. They’re out there trying to make a living by getting you job interviews.

The Nature of the Game

Alright, up front caveats aside, the next thing to understand is how the game actually works. Follow the money and understand everyone’s motivations. Understanding everyone’s motivations is the key to knowing whether you’re being fed a line or whether you should take what you’re being told at face value.

Recruiters are sales people. Their customers are companies that need software developers. Their product is mutually beneficial employment agreements, which really means that their product is you, developer. Recruiters sell you to companies. Kinda literally. Typically, their cut is 20% of your first year’s pay, give or take. So, if Devs’R’Us places you with Acme Inc for a starting salary of 100K, Acme Inc. writes Devs’R’Us a check for 20K, and the individual recruiter (typically) gets some kind of commission on this. (This obviously doesn’t apply to companies with internal recruiting staffs, except that I’d wager their recruiters are still incentivized with a commission structure.) If things blow up before an allotted time period (often 6 months) and you and the company part ways, recruiting firm has to cough back up their cut in the form of a refund.

So, you’re a “customer” of recruiters the same way that you’re a “customer” of Facebook or Google — you aren’t. You get a benefit for free by allowing something of yours to be sold to a bidder (your labor, in the case of recruiters, your ice bucket challenge videos in the case of Facebook, and everything short of your soul in the case of Google). Understanding this is the key to understanding recruiter behavior.


So Hot and then So Cold

This leads to sort of a weird arrangement. Typically, when you hear from a recruiter, you’re more than likely to ignore them or politely decline their invitations. But, if you don’t — if you show some interest — suddenly they’ll start blowing up your phone with interviews on which they want to send you. “Let’s pencil you in tomorrow morning for a phone call with Intertrode and how does your Thursday look for an in-person with Initech, and also my boss, the senior recruiter, would like to get on a call with you, and…” Wow. But then you say no thanks on Initech and Intertrode says no thanks on you, and suddenly you never hear from the recruiter again. Curious, you call and leave a message, and nothing. Maybe they get back to you halfheartedly.

Here’s the reason that this is happening. When you decide to stop ignoring the recruiters of the world, you suddenly become “fair game.” What the recruiter then does is evaluate every one of its clients that are seeking candidates and send you on a bunch of speed dates, trying to be the one to place you before anyone else snatches you up. But if none of those things works out, you’re yesterday’s news and not really worth revisiting until later when they’ve filled enough positions and taken on enough new openings that they can cross reference you against a bunch of new things.

Of course, not all recruiting firms are identical in their approach, but this is extremely common. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from a recruiter that was extremely excited about a few gigs or even a single gig, and then radio silence for 3 or 6 months, only to have this repeated again and again. Recruiters’ clients are the companies, so they systematically go looking for people that would match that particular vacancy. Once they find you to match that one, they’ll economize by considering you for any others as well, but after that initial wave, it’s on to the next set of people.

If you can find a recruiter or a recruiting firm that is developer-focused — that is, one that gets your resume and talks to you, and then regularly checks in with you about potential positions — hang onto this one and partner with them on a long timeline. This is not common and it’s a nice resource for you.

They Say the Damndest Things

When you’re actively engaged in the interview process courtesy of a recruiter, the recruiter wants everything to go well. They want you to show up on time for the interview and make a good impression. They want the interview to go well and both sides to be impressed. They want things to sail along, resulting in offer, acceptance, and employment for at least six months. Cynically, that’s it, anyway. In reality, they probably want both sides pleased over the semi-long term so that companies keep giving them business (though they also depend on market fluidity, so they probably don’t want anyone sticking anywhere for too long). They want to pluck you from companies and put you in a new job as quickly as possible because higher churn rate means more money. Toward that end, they’ll say a lot of things, some of which are solid advice (such as their position on counter offers, described here), and some of which are nonsense.

Bear in mind their goal and the fact that they don’t mind a bit of reality distortion to achieve that goal, and it’ll be easier to understand why they say what they do and whether you should believe it. Here are some things that I’ve heard multiple times from different sources that you shouldn’t let fool you:

  • “Why don’t you come in for an in person interview with us?”  Nah, don’t do that.  It’s not a good use of your time.  They basically want to make sure that you’re not going to embarrass them and cause them to look silly to their clients, so they’d prefer to make sure you can dress and act like a human.  You can offer to do a chat over Skype, and they’ll usually be fine with that.  I personally just decline outright with no offer of anything because there are plenty of fish in the sea.  Almost invariable they say, “oh, yeah, that’s okay.”  If you’re employed, you don’t get that many absence excuses — don’t waste the ones you have going to meet with recruiters.  A lot of the savvier recruiters will often ask to meet you 20 minutes before your interview, so you could even suggest something like that.
  • “It’s okay for you to call in sick again, people do it all the time.”  No, that’s not true.  People don’t call in sick on a Monday morning and then again on a Wednesday afternoon “all the time.”  To be clear, the recruiter doesn’t care a lick if you get in trouble or jeopardize your current role — in fact, they’d probably prefer it because it would make you more likely to accept an offer, should one be made.  Do not ever listen to recruiter ‘advice’ about how to handle your job search when it comes to your current employer.
  • “We really need to get you over there today or tomorrow because they’re probably going to fill this role soon.”  Don’t rearrange your schedule as part of a pressure sale.  One of two things is happening here.  The first is that the recruiter is trying to light a fire under you to move quickly, in which case, who cares.  Schedule things when they make sense for you, not to let the recruiter squeeze in a commission before month’s end.  The other case is that the company is really scrambling to fill a role, and if that’s the case, you’re probably better off moving on anyway.  I mean, can you picture a company like Amazon, Facebook or Google saying “we really need a warm body in here in the next few days, so even though your resume is impressive, if you’re not here by Wednesday we can’t use you?”  That sort of reeks of desperation and I would consider it a red flag.
  • “Yeah, it’s not technically a senior title, if that’s the kind of thing that matters to you, but this is a great opportunity that you should take.”  Senior title.  Certain pay grade.  Certain benefits/perks, whatever.  If you have requirements you’ve made clear up front, don’t let them wheedle/coax/beg/manipulate/browbeat/guilt you into thinking that you’re being silly or overly picky.  Your requirements are requirements for a reason, but the recruiters don’t care at all about that reason or your ambitions.  If you want to leave your current role to become a “Senior Software Engineer” somewhere, don’t let them cause you to doubt your goals.  They want their placement fee, no matter what your title/pay/benefits/etc.
  • “Look, I make more money if you make more money, so I want to get you as high a salary as possible, but you really should take this offer as-is.”  Yeah, well, let’s talk expected value.  If there’s a 100% chance of offer acceptance of a 100K offer, there’s a 100% chance of the recruiter getting 20K for an expected value of 20K.  If there’s a 50/50 chance of an offer acceptance at 110K, the negotiated wage, the recruiter has an expected value of only 11K (50% chance of 22K and 50% chance of zero-Ks).  And they know it.  Like real estate agents, they don’t want you to have the highest wage — they want you to sign the offer.
  • “This is really a great opportunity and you should take it.  I’ve helped place billions of developers just like you and I know a little something about this industry.  Think of how much it will benefit your career and your personal life and everything else to blah, blah, blah….”   You don’t need life coaching from a recruiter.  This ‘advice’ when there’s an offer in hand is something you should utterly and completely ignore.  Think of the conflict of interest.  It’s like a car salesman telling you how important car ownership is when you’re contemplating a purchase.  Of course they’re going to say it, whether or not it’s true.  So it’s literally just noise.  Tune out the recruiter and make your decision.

You may hear these exact things, variants thereof, or even arguments I haven’t encountered, but the important thing is always to keep in mind how they make their money and what their motivations are.  Their goals are mostly aligned with yours — you both want you to be placed in a new role that makes you happy.  But to you “makes you happy” is most important and to them “placed in a new role” is most important.

Working Effectively with Recruiters

With your goal and their goal being pretty similar, it’s not terribly hard for your relationship with them to be a beneficial one.  Here are some tips that I’ll offer for getting the most out of working with recruiter:

  • Decide your requirements for changing jobs ahead of time and be crystal clear about them when talking to any recruiter.  In fact, state up front that you’ll immediately shut down the interview process if at any point you discover one of them won’t be met.  If they believe you on this count, they’ll have no incentive to try to shoe-horn you into something with the hopes that they’ll figure out how to persuade you to take it.
  • Be firm about things, but be polite.  Sales pitches of any sort can be annoying, but keep your cool.  Stick to your guns, make your position clear, but resist the temptation to get worked up in any way.  They are, after all, trying to help you in general.
  • Screen your phone calls.  If you’re actively engaged with a number of recruiters in a job search, you’ll probably get a lot of calls that might be awkward to take during the day.  They might also be pinging you with needless status updates or check-ins.  Your mileage may vary, but I’ve generally found it helpful to let them leave messages and call them back later.
  • In advance of dealing with recruiters, decide on your preferred times of day/week for phone interviews and recruiter calls and also decide on your preferred medium of communication, such as email, text, phone call, whatever.  Make this clear to the recruiter up front.
  • Let them address and cover your mistakes.  Just like they’re trying to sell you on the company, they’re trying to sell the company on you.  If you had a brain fart and thought your phone interview was tomorrow morning instead of this morning, call the recruiter and ask what to do.  Most likely, they’ll apologize to the company and say it was their miscommunication.  Smoothing over logistical snafus is something they’re good at and usually willing to do.
  • Let them help you negotiate and do things like thank you notes.  I know I said that they’ll want you to accept offers as is, but once it’s clear that you won’t be deterred from negotiating, they’ll turn right around and apply the same shtick to the company about you.  Having this intermediary is nice because it defrays conflict between you and someone who is about to be your employer.  In general, the recruiting firm is good at maintaining the best face of both you and the company to the other party.
  • Avoid giving recruiters specifics of leads/offers you’ve obtained through other recruiters.  They’re clearly just going to try to talk you out of whatever it is, so there’s really no need to have the conversation.
  • Whatever happens, don’t take it personally.  Ideally, you land a job, and the company, recruiter and you are all happy.  But maybe you get two offers and then decide to take the other one.  Maybe you even accept an offer and then quickly switch to taking a better one (or decide to stay put).  Maybe you pass on an offer.  There are a lot of end-games where recruiters might resort to more desperate techniques: lecturing you, affecting anger, sadness or disappointment, telling you that you’ll never get a better offer, even vaguely threatening you.  It’s all part of the game.  I promise you that no matter what they might say to you and how you might react, they’ll call you in three months about a new full stack senior role as if nothing ever happened.  It might be offensive to you, but it’s just part of the game.

Recruiters provide a service that matters to our industry where job hopping is common and demand is through the roof.  They grease the skids for us to be able to move fluidly between gigs.  The paradigm isn’t ideal, but it’s the best we have for now, so you might as well get used to the idea that you’re going to be playing this game and then, and enlist their help to play it well.

Recruiters are really just sales people, and the relationship between developers and sales people is generally a somewhat reluctant ones.  We’re makers that want to build things so well crafted that adoption is a no-brainer and requires no selling.  Sales people are relationship-oriented and deal mainly in people.  Within organizations, these groups often have natural friction, so the friction only increases when the software people are the product being sold.  But if you can get past the intense weirdness of this arrangement and work effectively with recruiters, it will only benefit your career.  Work with a lot, find firms that you like and work well with, and remember them for next time you’re on the market.  You won’t regret it.