Programmers are not in thrall to IT recruiters

In a recent post to the Guardian Technology blog Matt Baxter-Reynolds wrote an excellent round up of the state of IT recruiting, including this comment

Agencies are good at bringing people together. And that’s what the candidate and the employer need. They need to be brought together, but this needs to be done through a deeper understanding and a more meaningful relationship than just matching up technology tags on a CV.

I couldn’t agree more, and I’m not alone. Agents themselves bewail the lack of understanding that prevails in the IT recruitment industry.

I want to avoid labouring points that have been comprehensively made elsewhere, but the sentiment boils down to a few key issues.

  • Agencies appear to be the only viable way to recruit software professionals
  • Agents typically have a shallow understanding of technology, which limits their ability to properly screen candidates. They do keyword-matching instead.

In this post I want to convince you that that agencies do not have a monopoly on good candidates.

In the Guardian article Matt Baxter-Reynolds argues that candidates need to court employers more directly. When this happens (it does happen, though rarely) it obviously saves the employer the hassle of writing and posting a job advertisement.

While that might sound a scant saving, advertising a job can be a big hurdle, especially for small or medium businesses who may have little experience of hiring programmers.

This is the key advantage claimed by agencies; that they know a great many programmers, you just need to ask for help (and of course agree to their terms).

But underlying the claim is the questionable premise that any worthy candidate will inevitably be in thrall to an agency.The best programmers of my acquaintance will laugh at the idea. Agencies might want to believe otherwise, but the world’s population of programmers has little affection for the typical IT recruiter. If you need any proof of the absolute lack of mesmerising charm shown by the average recruiter there are plenty of tragic examples on Jobserve.

Most agencies claim to have another edge, and that is their totally awesome database. In this database are recorded the intimate details of every programmer who has ever touched a keyboard. It’s a strategy that is supposed to be able to connect employers and candidates. Agencies work hard to maintain these databases – I have the proof in my archived mail folder.

But suppose that an agency does have a large database of contacts. What would it mean? Here’s what I think.

First, contact details don’t mean much if the person isn’t actually looking for a new job.

A persuasive salesman might be able to convince a good candidate to apply for a vacancy, but this quite often leads to the vexing situation where an initially enthusiastic applicant goes off the boil and ultimately turns down an offer they probably never really wanted in the first place.

As a hiring manager who has experienced this exact situation more than once there are few situations more frustrating, or that waste time more extravagantly.

Second, a big database doesn’t mean much if the data is stale.

Consider how much your own circumstances have changed in the past five years. How many of you have received one of those “please update your details” emails from an agency you barely remember? What do you do with those emails?

I still get emails asking about my availability for an “urgent Delphi contract” even though it’s been ten years since I last closed the Delphi IDE (these days it’s gvim or VS).

Third, a database of contacts is not nearly as good as thriving community of programmers.

Stackoverflow, Github, Google Code, any of the major programming sites – these are the places where you find active, enagaged, enthusiastic programmers. You don’t need a database to find them.

Now, if you’re an IT recruiter, what have I missed?


Posted in Hiring, Recruiters

Ed Guiness

I am the author of Ace the Programming Interview, published 2013 by John Wiley and Sons. In 2012 I founded, a volunteering organisation for programmers. I have been a professional programmer for more than 20 years, and a hiring manager since 2004.

Ask me anything.