Stories about Software


How Do I Find Good Recruiters?

I’ve fallen off my cadence with answering reader questions of late, so I’d like to correct that today.  The question in question is a fairly straight forward one about how to find good recruiters.  This one is actually lifted from a comment some time back that I thought would be more conducive to a post than a comment response.

I would like to ask you how you get to “good” recruiters? My experience with recruiters has been rather negative and I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong here.

First of all, it’s had to imagine that you’re doing anything wrong.  From the perspective of the job seeker, this is not a difficult transaction.  It’s a lot more likely that the problem lies with the recruiting field in general.

What Makes Them Good?

I’ve had a lot of experience with recruiters, both on the hiring and applicant ends — enough to know well how the game works.  I’ve explained this before, about a year ago.  Short form version is that the typical recruiting firm will take nothing from the applicant, but will take 15 – 20 percent of the first year’s salary from the company that makes the hire.  This cut will be refundable if the applicant leaves within something like six months.  The recruiter’s game is thus to make a match and hope it sticks for 6 months.


Recruiters’ customers are thus hiring companies, and not you.  It’s like Facebook — you’re the product, not the customer.  The majority of recruiters are in the business of selling humans (that happens to be developers) to companies.  The good recruiters are in the business of selling a match to both the human and the company, since this is the best way to build reputation and avoid the six month refund blues.

But most recruiters are not good — they’re shooting for quantity over quality by treating you as the product.

Word of Mouth for the Win

There are really only two ways to separate the wheat from the chaff, in my experience.  The first is trial and error with some applied heuristics, and the second is word of mouth.  I’m mentioning word of mouth first because it’s clearly the superior approach.  I’ll get to the heuristics shortly.

Hopefully, if you’re cranking up a job search, you’re doing so largely with your network or through word of mouth about jobs.  Applying to unknown companies is generally not the easiest path to joy for salaried employees.  But, if you’re not going that route and plan to rely on recruiters to do the searching, then ask some fellow developers for recruiters they would recommend.  Developers hear from so many recruiters that they can’t keep the recruiters straight, anymore than most recruiters can keep developers straight — it’s a low touch, high throughput game.  So if a developer remembers a recruiter and remembers that recruiter favorably, then you’re probably on to something.

I have a few numbers I’d give out myself, so I imagine other developers do as well.  It can’t hurt to ask.

If you don’t have luck getting a referral, I’ll offer some heuristics to filter out the bad and be left with the good via process of elimination.

Time of Service

First up, look at how long a recruiter has been at it.  They’re usually over-represented on LinkedIn and anywhere else you might want to look, so you can see exactly how long they’ve been working for “Job Hop Associates” and how long they’ve been in the workforce.  If the emails I get announcing a “fresh face” from some of these firms are any indication, folks in this line of work are usually about 23 years old, and turn over at a rate on par with retail sales employees and telemarketers.

If you find yourself dealing with a relative newbie, you might want to pass.  It is the newbies that tend to favor dialing for dollars approaches and who are more concerned with sticking you at a company than worrying about whether that sticking will last the requisite six months.  They’re just looking to pay rent next month — not worrying about six months from now.

If you find a recruiter that’s been in the field a long time, however, this is a person much more likely to be savvy with the whole game and to recognize that it’s important for you to get hired and stay hired.  This, in turn, means they’re likely to care somewhat about whether you’ll be happy at your new gig.

Double Dipping?

Another way you can shake the tree a little is to do some investigative work.  Find out what recruiting firms your current company uses and avoid these for your upcoming search.  Reason being, one of two things will happen when you call them up.  Either they won’t place you anyway because your company is a client of theirs or, worse, they will place you in spite of the fact that your company is a client.  In the former case, you risk tipping your hand, but in the latter case, you’re going to be working with a pretty underhanded organization that profits not by helping its clients, but by shuffling people through their doors, trimming as much money as they can in the process.

It’s not necessarily easy to find out who your company uses — you’re probably not going to just walk in and ask your boss (maybe you will, but I wouldn’t).  Get creative instead — ask new hires what firm placed them before they forget after a few weeks.

Skip the Firms that Want to ‘Interview’ You

Every now and then some recruiter firm will want you to “come in for an interview here first,” before they send you out to their clients.  Sounds reasonable, right?

Maybe at first blush.  But think about this for a minute.  You’re already going to be sacrificing your limited personal time and sick days to be taking a series of interviews for your next job.  Do you really want to burn one of these being interviewed by a recruiter for technical roles?  ‘Failing’ this interview is like failing to convince the cable company’s tech support line that you know how to power cycle your cable modem — even if you ‘pass’ it’s hardly something to hang on your mantle.


But it gets worse.  Many developers (including me, years back when I was dealing with recruiters as an applicant) would not agree to do this because it’s a waste of time.  This means that the applicant pool of this recruiting firm is the people who will agree to do it, which is necessarily less selective, notwithstanding whatever claptrap they feed you about how ‘exclusive’ they are or whatever.  It’s also a bad sign that they feel this is necessary.  Recruiting firms are utterly unqualified to make meaningful technical assessments, so they’re basically just calling you in to see if you’re capable of carrying on a conversation that won’t result in them being totally embarrassed when you talk to their customer.  This should hardly inspire confidence in the caliber of applicant they tend to find — “yeah, after this one guy pulled a cold hamburger out of his shorts pocket during an interview and started eating it, we ask people to come talk to us first.”

If It Sounds Fishy, It Is

Another red flag of a bad recruiter is one that tries to snow you with silly claims in order to convince you to take a job.  Sure, it’s totally normal to leave for a 10% pay cut.  Who needs health insurance when they’ve got a free soda machine?  You should probably actually give notice at your job now so that you’ll have time for all of the interviews I line up for you.

If you’re hearing things like this — things that don’t seem to pass the smell test — go with your instinct and skip working with this firm.  As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and you’re not going to find any.  This goes back to the first heuristic about time in the field.  Recruiters that tell you ridiculous things like this are trying to pull the wool over your eyes just long enough to get you to sign the offer letter, and then they’ll cross their fingers that you not wanting to switch jobs immediately outweighs your indignation at being snowed (though, if you make noise about wanting to leave, they’ll probably just tell you that leaving would effectively end your career or something).

If you want to feel this out more proactively, go on the offensive.  Hit Glassdoor, find the biggest complaints about their client companies, and ask about those point blank.  If the recruiter says, “oh, those 85 people that all made reference to pre-release death marches are all just bitter idiots who hated Acme Inc for their freedom,” then you should pass.  If, on the other hand, the recruiter says something like, “yeah, they have a beyond 40 hours culture at times, and that may not be for everyone,” then you’ve got a keeper and you should make sure he’s in your contact list.

Best of All, Skip This Game

I tend to belabor this point, but I’ll reiterate it here.  All of this advice pertains to finding good recruiters (mainly be learning to recognize and ignore bad ones).  But my real advice for the situation would be to think of your career in terms of first, how not to need recruiters, and second, how not to participate in the standard interview process.  Both are fundamentally disadvantageous situations.

I realize how frustratingly vague advice like “rely on networking” can seem in a vacuum.  So, I’ll say it this way instead — abandon the normal constraints you might have in regarding your career, and brainstorm how you would find work if you simply were not allowed to talk to recruiters or even to interview.  Would you talk to your friends a lot?  Look for temp to hire work?  Make a name for yourself in some niche?  It’s a pretty open-ended way to think, but it’s also the key to avoiding low probability situations, like hoping the recruiter, hiring manager, and new company stars all align to bring you years of bliss.

Editorial Note: would you like to ask me a question to be used as a blog post topic?  Please feel free to submit:

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7 years ago

Hi Erik – thanks for answering my question and thanks for all the good advice here. I’ll keep this article handy for when I’m out job hunting, but the point about “abandoning the normal constraints” really hit home – I’ll focus on that path.

Erik Dietrich
7 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Glad to hear it. In giving this advice, I try to be empathetic and think back to when it would have been hard for me to conceive of how it might work. It’s certainly a long play, but I think the exercise is beneficial. Hopefully it results in good things!

7 years ago

Erik, thanks for this excellent explanation. It helps me better understand how recruiters think and act.

Erik Dietrich
7 years ago
Reply to  dennyzhang.com

Glad it helped!