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Wooing top tech talent: Recruiting in the Boston tech scene

Keith MacKenzie
Keith MacKenzie

Passionate about human resources, employment, and business management, and an expert at sharing that expertise.

Recruiting top tech talent in the Boston tech scene - A panel discussion

A memorable Workable event on tech recruiting opened with some surprising statistics, courtesy of Culture Amp’s Joshua Bach:

“10% of people [leave] within the first six months of starting a new job. And many people decide if they’re going to leave a job within the first six weeks.“

This isn’t just a problem for employers; it’s a problem for recruiters as well both in terms of cost and overall disruption. There are many reasons why people leave jobs. It’s especially a problem in an intensely competitive space such as in the Boston tech scene, where recruiters are constantly struggling to find top tech talent to fill much-needed positions in their startups.

In other words; it’s totally a seller’s market, one where candidates have the upper hand. They’re the ones who get to be picky about where they want to work. So, Workable pulled together four panelists and a moderator from the local tech scene to talk about how recruiters can better recruit top developers.

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Tapping into the Boston tech scene

More than 120 people signed up for the event, titled What it takes to impress and hire top tech talent, which took place on Wednesday, May 1, at Workable’s headquarters in downtown Boston. In attendance were:

  • Dan Pickett, Co-founder of Launch Academy
  • Mark Bates, Full stack developer with 18 years of experience
  • Monica Hirst, Engineering Team Lead at Toast with 10 years of experience
  • Erica Manoppo, Full Stack Developer at Crayon with 4 years of experience
  • Jaclyn Jussif, Moderator and Head of Talent Acquisition at EdX

Recruiting Boston tech talent is a popular topic nowadays, and one that has local recruiters scrambling for solutions. A video of the hour-long panel talk is below – meanwhile, read on to learn the key takeaways on how to boost your recruitment game:

1) Make the job matter

Let’s face it; when you’re a star in high demand, there comes a point where you’re sifting through job opportunities and nothing really stands out because they all offer more or less the same salary and perks. Consider the candidate hierarchy of needs; it’s safe to assume that a tech specialist in the Boston tech scene is not just looking for salary and benefits in a new job. They’ve set their sights higher up on the pyramid, and you, the recruiter, need to speak to those higher needs.

In other words: make the job matter to the candidate. Dan was clear on that, sharing experiences from both sides of the table as a hiring manager for Launch Academy and as a candidate himself in the past: “As a recruiter, if you’re on the candidate’s side, much more candidate-oriented and candidate-focused, that builds rapport and builds credibility.”

It also shows the candidate that you’re not just trying to fill a role in your company. You’re not just offering them a salary in exchange for their services. Dan said this sends a powerful message:

“I know that you’re going to work to try and find the right seat for me, rather than just trying to put me in a seat.”

Techies want to grow in their careers

Growth opportunities are a huge one, Mark added – often sharing his own experiences as a full-time developer for many years. Sure, developers love banging on a keyboard with headphones on and writing code, Mark half-joked, but noted the importance of the employee value proposition – or EVP, as elaborated on at the In House Recruitment Expo in England in October 2018.

“I want to grow as a person,” he said. “And probably the best way to grow as a person is to have somebody tell me, ‘Hey, we need you. Our company can’t grow unless we put you in this company. We’re going to use you to bring our developers up, raise the quality. We want to push into open source. We want to make a bigger splash.’”

Monica agreed, adding that the opportunity to learn a new technology was an attractive aspect of working in a new job: “What we found [in recruiting] is that there were some people who would give up brand recognition or having an Amazon-level salary to go work on a technology and build experience in this technology that they had an interest in.”

2) Make that personal connection

A common refrain among the panelists was that candidates were weary of poorly written boilerplate emails that didn’t engage the recipient on a personal level – for instance, Mark called email blasts an absolute no-no in recruitment.

Instead of doing that, you want to connect with the candidate at a personal level.

“I want to be talked to directly as a person,” Mark said.

“Show me that you know who I am and you know the things that I do. And you can tell me in that initial contact why I would make a huge difference at your company.”

Monica shared her own experience being approached by recruiters at numerous events and meetups, and what made one recruiter stand out from another. “I totally get that they’re coming to find people, but I think it’s the recruiters that keep showing up. I start with, ‘Oh, I remember you from the last one,’ then I start building a relationship with them. They’re the ones that I’ll reach out to when I’m looking for another job.”

Directly engage their interests

Monica also countered some common misconceptions: “I think a lot of people think developers don’t like interacting with people, but that’s not true.

“Once you ask a developer about something that they’re excited about, or that they’ve worked on, then they will talk to you for an hour. So just showing some genuine interest goes a long way.”

Mark explained: “Recognize your trends, follow the industry, follow the person. Don’t do the scatter shot approach to hiring. Find the right people. And that means conferences, that means meetups, that means reading blog posts, that means understanding your audience. Your audience are developers. You have to talk to developers; you have to understand developers.“

Learn more about how to write a recruiting email that will catch the eye of your coveted candidate.

3) Walk the walk

Developer candidates will also factor in a company’s mission and values when deciding on a job – not only in the Boston tech scene, but overall. They’re going to ask questions about what the company’s work culture is going to be like, what kind of support system is in place, and what the job actually entails.

So, be clear and upfront about those details – including being transparent about the lack of clarity of what the company or job’s future looks like – and know that a candidate’s impression of your company goes far beyond what you’ve told them at the interview.

Erica spoke at length about these expectations, including diversity and inclusion as part of the package. She’s very interested in the diverse backgrounds of a company’s dev team, adding that she’ll take notice if some team members don’t have the relevant experience for the job but were hired anyway – emphasizing the value placed on potential (more on that below) and a multilateral perspective on the work being done.

Erica shared a recent observation at her own work, noting that she herself came to the job from a different professional background and that her company was hiring new people who had no web dev experience. That, Erica found, says a lot about a company when they’re willing to take a chance on candidates like her.

“That was a telling sign that this would be a good place to go.”

Diversity isn’t just a token

Closely related is representation, Monica noted. When she started at Toast, she was the only female team leader for a long time.

“But,” she said, “my director was upfront about it and identified that ‘Hey, I realize this is a situation’, and I was OK about it. [It’s showing me that] you care. It may not be where you are right now, but the fact that you care about it is enough for me.”

That kind of openness and sincerity goes a long way for Monica, who added that the opposite scenario – a seeming lack of interest in representation – can also factor in a decision.

“To be honest, if it’s all white males on a panel, then it’s pretty clear that it’s not something that they care about as a company. And while that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, that’s a huge red flag that could be a tie breaker between that and another company. “

Erica also talked about the importance of a company putting their money where their mouth is. For instance, a clear parental leave policy shows that a company cares about its employees.

“I’m also interested in seeing compensation for professional development,” Erica added, “because that means you’re developing your talent across the board.

“I’m looking for these signals that this is a company that’s investing in its people and that actually cares about its people, whether they may or may not pertain to me personally. “

Transparency isn’t just a window

Transparency is important for Dan as well, in terms of the job itself: “There’s the way that you present the role, and then the way that the role actually is. You can gain a lot of credibility by representing reality, and recognizing where you may fall short. Maybe you’re not all rainbows and unicorns, [but] show a little vulnerability and say that this is an area of growth.”

This kind of honesty in the message also applies for the actual team you’re going to work with, not just the hiring team, Dan added.

Mark took it to a higher level, expressing an interest in talking with the leadership and decision makers of a company: “I really want to meet whoever’s running the show. And that’s a big thing.”

4) Know your audience

Above, we mentioned the likelihood that candidates will come to interviews armed with questions of their own. In the past, that meant an opportunity to show interest in response to the inevitable “Do you have any questions for us?” query near the end of an interview.

But now, the tables have turned. Candidates aren’t clamoring for jobs in the Boston tech scene; they’re actually testing you and your company and exploring whether you’re a good fit for them.

Because of this, you need to be able to talk about what the candidate wants to know. That especially applies because you’re a recruiter looking for top Boston tech talent for a sector that you may not know at a deeper level.

Dan noted that while a recruiter can’t be expected to know all the intimate details of a job, it’s still important to know some things. “It’s really important that, if you do want to bring in some of the terminology and you do want to talk about the tech stack, you be able to actually have a conversation about the tech stack.”

You’re being analyzed too

“The expectation is that you can speak confidently and competently about the management,” Dan said, “about who is going to be leading the team that I’m going to join, or the team that I’m hiring into.”

Erica talked about one interview where she was impressed by the fluid communication and details provided which helped her a great deal. They were very clear about the context and goals of upcoming interviews, for instance.

“Walking into that conversation, you just feel prepared. So, on the recruitment side, seeing the effort put into it also tells you that there’s been thought put behind the interview process, that they actually know what they want to get out of this conversation. That’s one piece that I look for.“

The practical aspect of the overall candidate experience is also important, Dan said. “‘Did the interview start on time? Was I provided an agenda and was I able to do a little bit of background research on the individuals that I’m going to meet with? Did they observe the time that they had allotted? These are the things that you [are] as the interviewing company under the microscope for. People are evaluating whether you are delivering what you said you were going to deliver.”

5) Look at their potential

A huge increase in employee turnover and a decrease in time at a single job means that a candidate’s background matters less and less as their career progresses. When candidates are changing jobs faster than car tires on pot-filled Boston streets in the wintertime, that signals a desire to grow in one’s career, as Erica said.

“A lot of folks are just not willing to keep doing the same thing. They’re looking for what’s next, what’s different. Where am I going to grow and how is this role going to support that growth?”

This is doubly so in the software engineering biz, where developers have an innate desire to learn new things as members of the ‘early adopter’ culture. Developers are going to be excited at what they can learn at a new job, and you need to think about that when wooing talent in the Boston tech scene. That’ll put you ahead of your competitors in the recruiting space, Dan said.

“The bosses, particularly in software engineering, who are willing to invest in their talent and put time and energy into cultivating that talent – that’s what is going to attract more talent.”

In a similar vein, the old “tick off the boxes” mentality doesn’t apply for developers, Dan adds. You need to look at a candidate’s potential rather than their background. Take that time, Dan said, to really look at resumes and look for that latent potential and interest in learning.

“Sometimes the bullet points on the resume not matching up to the req doesn’t give you the whole story. I think it’s important to take a look at the resume, every single resume that comes across your desk.”

But what if you hire someone who doesn’t even know your tech stack? Don’t worry about that, said Mark.

“If you hire good developers, they’ll learn it. It’s like, a good developer wants to learn it. A good developer’s intrigued by the challenge and the excitement of learning it. So if I see somebody that maybe doesn’t have the exact tech stack I’m looking for, but is a killer developer, she is absolutely coming in for an interview with me because I know she can probably learn it if she’s interested.

“If she wants to do it, or he wants to do it, or whoever wants to do it, they’ll do it.”

Coders are people, too

Speak to those driving factors behind a candidate’s decision to take on a new job in the Boston tech scene, such as the potential for future growth and learning, a strong set of values, and a team they can be proud of working with. Throw in that all-important personal touch and sincere spirit, and you may well find yourself a team of developers who’ll stick around for much longer than those first few months.

Succinctly put, it’s all about relationship-building. You’re looking for a great fit for your company, and they’re looking for a company that they can really build a future with.

In other words, as Mark said: “It really is a marriage.”

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