How to Arm Yourself for the War for (Engineering) Talent

We live in a very interesting time when it comes to startups, innovation and jobs.

Unemployment in the U.S. is above 8% and we're in the longest streak of this level of unemployment since WWII.

On the other hand, the tech sector continues on an almost unbridled tear. Spurred on, in part, by an increasingly lowered threshold of the cost of launching a new startup, and in part by a general exuberance over the hyper growth of tech companies - growth that hasn't been seen since the last internet bubble.

Facebook now has 3,500 employees and Groupon has more than 7,000. In spite of the jobless rate in the rest of the country at large, tech companies in the SF Bay Area, NYC, Boston and other smaller tech hubs continue their struggle to find enough programmers, designers, and product and marketing folks to meet the growth demands of their businesses.

The "war for talent" is a term originally coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey & Company in 1997. It's also the name of a Harvard Business Press booked published in 2001.

And now, it's the name of a Bay Area conference founded by Justin Bedecarre where startup founders, VCs and talent mavens gather to try to get a leg up on their competition by getting uber-savvy when it comes to sourcing, attracting and hiring the best talent (not the least of which are software engineers).

I attended the event this week, and it was a veritable "who's who" of startup industry heavyweights. Rick Marini and BranchOut are trying to build a better recruiting app on top of existing networks like Facebook. Others, like Jon Bischke from Entelo were demonstrating recruiting tools that aggregate and surface data about individuals based on their online footprint.

Other companies, like InternMatch, are focused on matching students with their earliest career opportunities.

Another large group of attendees were the HR & hiring gurus at VC firms. These folks, and often the partners themselves, are resources that are used by the firm's portfolio companies for extra leverage when trying to find and hire the best engineers. (i.e. when the phone rings and it's Marc Andreessen personally asking you to join one of his portfolio companies, that's a call you'd better take.)

Several themes jump out in my mind as the most repeated during the course of the event:

Cultural fit is everything

During one session, superangel Ron Conway reminded the audience that for many years at Google, Larry and Sergei personally interviewed every single hire themselves to screen for cultural fit. When asked by an attendee during the Q/A what he would recommend a startup do regarding an otherwise A player engineering candidate that didn't seem to be a perfect cultural fit, Conway without flinching that he'd pass on that particular candidate.

In reflecting on this advice, and after taking inventory of my own experience as an entrepreneur, I've come to realize how crucial - but sometimes easy to dismiss - this advice is. Especially today, when it can be difficult to even get a handful of qualified candidates in the door to have a conversation, it's very easy to convince yourself that a one of these few candidates is the best (only) fit you're going to find right now. But if the person is not a cultural fit - if they don't understand the startup grind, or seem to indicate even a small amount of inflexibility - don't do it. Take a pass.

Be agressive - chase down your best options

The traditional, passive, approaches simply don't work any more. Job postings, for example, are broken - especially if you're looking for A players. Why? A players rarely apply for new opportunities via a job posting.

Rather, it's wise to think of recruiting like a marketer thinks of a conversion funnel - volume in the top, play the percentages, and squeeze out a conversion at the bottom.

The first step is to define exactly the profile of the engineer you want (general skills, level of experience, education, etc.). This takes thought.

Then, find 50 or even 100 engineers that fit your specific profile on LinkedIn and build a list. This takes work.

Finally, systematically contact these folks (you'll likely need to find contact info first). This takes patience.

Also, be aware that the role of the person who does the outreach can dramatically effect the response rates at this stage. Your CEO or CTO, for example, will typically get a much higher hit rate as opposed to a 3rd party recruiter or a more junior employee.

Jason Freedman told a great story of a public job offer his company, 42Floors, extended to a UPenn student named Dan Shipper. It was an open letter, published online, stating that Freedman wanted Shipper to work at his company. Freedman had become aware of Shipper and his work via Hacker News. And lest there be any doubt about how seriously Freedman viewed this potential relationship, "this offer," the letter read in its conclusion, "has no expiration."

Teach your engineers how to interview

All interviewers are not created equal. Often, many super-smart engineers (and other employees, too) are less than effective at interviewing simply because they haven't been taught how to ask good questions, or perhaps even more importantly, they're not aware how a particular interview fits into the overall candidate selection process.

It's important that each participant understand the overall interviewing process that your company employs, and also knows the specific goals for their particular interview with the candidate.

Oftentimes, debriefing the entire team once the candidate has left the building can be a great way to force your team to focus on the company culture you're working hard to create. Everyone who participated in the interviews should have a perspective on how/why the potential candidate may/may not fit in - and why.

And, obviously - the actual interview questions are important, too. Simple advice here is to ask less 'what' questions. (i.e. What do you know, what have you done, etc.) Try to ask more 'why' questions, as these will give you more insight into what motivates the candidate, what makes them tick.

(Teaching your engineers how to conduct solid interviews is something we'll be covering in depth in future blog posts here at g33ktalk, so stay tuned for more.)

Sell your company to candidates using your best people

These days many startups have awesome VCs, a strong product and good customer traction. But, in the words of LinkedIn's Director of Global Talent Acquisition, Brendan Browne, "these are table stakes." Every solid startup is playing with similar advantages.

So what do you do to differentiate? I think Jeff Lawson said it best when he explained that during a candidate interview you should send in your best people to passionately explain to the candidate in no uncertain terms "here's why I love this company." And, said Lawson in follow up, "You need to know exactly what your employees are going to say!"

Or, as Dave McClure said, "You need to tell your own story," and not simply sit back and hope that the press will do it for you.

McClure's best advice to startups that want to gain an unfair recruiting advantage? "Get out there and write 50 blog posts about your company, five of which don't suck."