Why you should play the long game as a recruitment agent

Long Desert Road

Back in 2017, I was working on-site for a client and at a bank of desks with two permanent developers sat across from me. Suddenly, one of them mentioned that he’d received an email and that he couldn’t believe how shady the recruiter had been.

What had gone on that was so shocking?

It turned out, the recruiter had basically sent him a dynamically-generated email. From memory, they’d gotten his first name wrong, the technologies he was familiar with and his working location.

It wasn’t a great look but developers are anything if not pedantic and some are far worse than others. The team I worked with were known to argue with each other, at length, about various chocolate bars being biscuits or vice versa. Is a Twix a chocolate bar? Is a Penguin a biscuit? I digress…

Anyway, this particular individual was affronted by the email he’d received and replied back to the recruiter with an arsey message about his name, preferred technology stack and location all being incorrect.

The recruiter then proceeded to pour petrol on the fire they’d lit

Within minutes, the recruiter had emailed back words to the effect of:

Wow…I was only trying to be helpful and send you a job that I thought you might be interested in. Anyway, since I’ve got you perhaps we could arrange a quick chat to discuss what you might be looking for in your next role?

Big mistake.

The developer I was working with then launched into a full attack. What on earth did this recruiter think they were playing at? *Obviously* he wasn’t interested in the job because *obviously* he was a React developer not a React Native developer. Did the recruiter even know how to read? Oh yeah, his name wasn’t Derek it was James and he didn’t want to work in London…

Eventually, the recruiter had the sense to stop replying but not before they’d exchanged another few angry emails. I’ll never know if the recruiter was just trolling my colleague but situations like these always make me a bit…sad.

How are we any richer for the experience?

Who has benefited from this exchange? Sure, as James became more and more wound up by the situation we all had a bit of a laugh at his expense and told him to take himself less seriously.

Other than that though, it’s just another developer having another low-quality interaction with a recruiter who has been a bit lazy and worsened the perception of their industry ever-so-slightly.

What might a good recruiter have done instead?

OK, let’s assume you were the recruiter in this situation. You’ve made the error and sent out a lazy, system-generated email that’s gotten a few things wrong about your prospect. They reply with a shitty email asking you if you are an idiot, a moron or both of the above.

What now?

Admit your mistake, apologise for wasting the individual’s time and move on. You aren’t going to salvage this relationship in the short-term but if you can smooth things over they’ll probably at least forget about it which means that your name won’t have been sullied should you ever want to approach them again.

What might a great recruiter have done instead?

Let’s take a step back even further. Why was the recruiter dependent on using a system-generated email and why had their system gotten so much wrong about my colleague?

Either the agency’s system is poor and shouldn’t be relied upon or it has been fed bad data and the agency’s processes are poor. I get emails like this all the time as a contractor and have just accepted them as part of doing business so this agent and his company are far from being alone.

I’d argue that a great recruiter wouldn’t be reliant on either the broken system or any associated broken processes. They’d be doing the hard work of manually building relationships with hiring managers and developers and only getting in touch with developers when they knew they had something of interest or relevance.

Good recruiters have bulk email systems that work but great recruiters, in my experience, aren’t using them.

What you can do today to become a better recruiter

Look, I’m a developer, not a recruiter but I’ve worked with enough of you to understand how the process works. Your job is to find people who want to hire me and match them up with me (or others like me) who want work.

What that means is you need a list of available positions and a list of people who can fill them. Obviously, the magic is getting the supply of talent to meet with the demand of hiring managers when both of them want the other one.

With that in mind, you need to start building relationships today with both parties. I spent most of 2019 emailing a hiring manager every few months for my current position, letting him know that I was interested but that I wanted to see out my current contract. Equally, the hiring manager had positions but they never quite aligned with my contract end dates.

Nothing happened until 2020 rolled around, my contract ended and (having built a relationship already) it was an easy decision for us both to make.

What would it take for you to play the long game with your work? Why not start investing in building long-term relationships that’ll pay dividends months or years from now?

How to send better emails as a recruitment agent

iOS Email APp

As a recruitment agent, I’d argue that email is probably one of the best tools you can use to build relationships with developers and hiring managers.

Why I no longer answer my phone

Years back, when I first started contracting, I handed out my number to anyone that’d take it and I got inundated with calls from recruiters. Were they calling to talk to me about a contract role? Of course not, they’d just “come across my CV on one of the job boards” and wanted to discuss what I “might be looking for in my next role”.

After a couple of years, this grew predictably tiring. I started blocking calls from the particularly annoying agencies who couldn’t remember that they’d already called twice that morning. More recently, I’ve gotten even more aggressive with this strategy in an aim to get more work done.

If you aren’t in my favourites list, my phone will not ring when you call

Obviously, not all developers are created equally but typically we shy away from answering our phones at work. It’s unprofessional but the bigger problem is that it takes a while to get your head into the right space for creative work and that can be instantly undone by an inbound call.

Why email should be your main source of contact

What about LinkedIn? What about Twitter? Aren’t devs all using Stack Overflow now? Maybe your agency should set up a TikTok account and start posting funny videos about a new role!?

Attention levels in any of these platforms is limited. There’s simply too much distraction. Any meaningful message is easily lost in the maelstrom of Brexit rants (Twitter), lip-sync videos (TikTok) and pictures of people you barely remember working with attending award ceremonies (LinkedIn).

So, while my Mum’s inbox is a train-wreck of 9398 unread emails from Groupon, Wish and Jacquie Lawson eCards my own is pretty much empty. I might not be a case study for all contract developers but as I use inbox zero, anything you send to me will either be automatically processed (you’ve sent me rubbish in the past so I’ve unsubscribed from your list or your emails are automatically sent to the bin) or they’ll stand out in a list of maybe two or three other emails.

Developers a lazy bunch. We love automating things we have to do repeatedly…like check and process email. I’d put money on other developers either doing what I do or something very similar to it, which should make your opportunity pretty obvious.

If you send me something that I want to read, then it’s likely I will read it, in full, without any major distractions competing for my attention.

What does the typical email from a recruiter look like?

Well, as explained I tend not to see that many of them because I’ve set up a bunch of rules to file them in the bin or have unsubscribed from a load of mailing lists that my email address found its way onto.

Of the ones that do slip through on occasion, I typically see:

  • Evidence that you’ve used mail merge or a bulk email system. As a developer and someone who uses them, I suppose I’d know what they look like.
  • Personalisation attempts that are broken. Derek is the name of one of my references.
  • Irrelevant job locations. No, I do not want to work in The Hague no matter how exciting you think the company is.
  • Irrelevant job types. Stop emailing me about permanent roles, I have never expressed interest in them.
  • Irrelevant job skills. I am not a UX designer nor a C# developer nor a Java developer nor a business analyst nor a technical architect…
  • Ridiculous salaries. I’m not a junior developer. Don’t email me about junior roles that I’m never going to take.
  • Offers for me to do a favour for you. I don’t want to have a quick chat to discuss what I’m looking for in my next role. Take a look at my CV and have a guess.

Ok, you get the idea. The real shame is that I feel as though this could all be fixed pretty easily.

What does a good email from a recruiter look like?

I can’t believe I even have to say this but just getting the basic things probably puts you in the top 5% of emails I receive from agents:

  • The email was typed by your fair hand…or at least appears as though it has been. Well done!
  • You’ve personalised the email to the extent that you’ve used my name and not that of one of my references. I really don’t expect you to trawl my social media accounts and ask me about my holiday/birth of a child/extension but if that’s your thing then fill your boots.
  • You’ve got a job in Manchester that you’d like to discuss. I take work in Manchester. Excellent work!
  • The role is a contract position and I didn’t have to ask!? This is getting stranger by the minute…
  • It’s a front end development role and I’m a front end developer…that means that it’s a job that I can actually do. Whatever next?
  • You’re unable to discuss the salary with me for now but it’s a senior position and the role is paying, in your opinion, market rates. I’d rather know in advance but this is fine.
  • Am I free to discuss this role? Of course, I’ll reply letting you know that I’ll call the number you’ve added this afternoon if that’s OK because I have other commitments.

Your email has been sent to me, was to the point and has opened the door to getting me on the phone. Great work.

What would a great email from a recruiter look like?

In the above example, we’ve basically taken the shit that I’m used to seeing and inverted it to turn it into something remotely worthwhile. Most of the developers I’ve worked with are really, really smart people so they know how recruitment works and they know that you’ll get a juicy commission if you fill a role.

Yes, you’re potentially helping me out by finding a job for me but by filling it I’m helping *you* out by paying your commission either as a lump sum or as a chunk on top of my day rate. Additionally, I’m helping out the hiring manager who needs an extra developer for their project.

The point is not that the developer is better than anyone else here, but rather that the relationship is probably win, win, win.

That’s a good thing, but how could we make it even better?

What separates the good recruiters from the great recruiters are little things like knowing:

  • Where I’m currently contracting. What do you know about my current employer that could sell a new role to me?
  • When my current contract ends. I’m most likely to go for a new position at the end of a contract.
  • If I’m likely to be offered a renewal. If I’m not going to be renewed, getting me to move should be easy unless I want a break.
  • What my current day rate is. If it’s a drop, why should I take it? If it’s an increase, are you being transparent and telling me how we can both get top dollar?

Knowing these things requires staying in touch with developers in your network periodically. You can use a CRM to do this if you’ve got a load of contacts but you could easily set up a Trello board if not.

Additionally, I’d go a step further and say that your agency could actually provide value to developers in the form of market insights emails

Three reasons not to love the new TEKsystems Community App

Unhappy Emoji on iPhone

I contracted through TEKsystems at Rentalcars.com (now Booking.com) for all of 2018 and 2019 and had a great experience working with Olivia Dean. At some stage, my email has made its way onto a TEKsystems distribution list and this week, I received an email from TEKsystems about their new community app.

Apparently there are three reasons to love it! Let’s take a look:

  1. Search all open job opportunities
  2. Stay current and up-to-date
  3. Access career resources and guidance

Searching all open job opportunities

The first feature of the app is described as follows:

“Search thousands of job opportunities. Customise your job search filters to find exactly what you’re looking for. Save jobs or apply directly from your phone, so you’ll never miss an opportunity.”

Sounds good, what’s the problem?

The issue here is that TEKsystems don’t have a monopoly on the job market. I’ve been contracting in Manchester and London since 2012 and working as a developer with clients from all over the world since 2008. In that time, I’ve maybe dealt with them a handful of times via email/telephone. The contract with Rentalcars was my first and only face-to-face interaction with them, my only interview in a TEKsystems role and the only position in which I’ve contracted for them.

Logging into the app this evening and searching for contracts within 50 miles of Manchester I can see…2 jobs that contain the search term “developer”. One is for a UX development role in Chester, the other for an Android development role in Sheffield.

Speaking of UX, I attempted to tap the job to learn more about it but have sent it to my consultant…that wasn’t what I wanted to do!

What about searching for jobs on Indeed?

Comparatively, I just searched Indeed without downloading an app, without logging in and, using the same search term, found 22 contract roles containing the word “developer” within 50 miles of Manchester. I even filtered job postings to just those listed in the past 2 weeks.

Why would I use the app to find work when the listings are so limited?

Stay current and up-to-date

So, this feature is described as follows:

Upload your CV, and update your profile with new skills, interests whilst on the move. Each and every update helps us match you to new opportunities while highlighting your value to our clients.

OK, maybe this is more-appealing in other lines of work but for engineers in tech roles, the positives here are pretty limited. Any interview I’ve attended in the past 8 years or so has basically been an opportunity to review my skills, check that I’m probably not a complete nightmare to work with and to talk briefly about a recent project.

Maybe if your C.V. has a load of soft skills that are hard to quantify then this makes more sense but I’d guess for most roles employers just want to know what you can do and how long you’ve been doing it.

  • I’ve been a KS3 teacher working in state schools since 2013.
  • I’ve been a chartered engineer since 2012, specialising in high-frequency damping.
  • I’ve been an orthopaedic surgeon, specialising in upper-limb trauma since 2010.
  • I’ve been an estate agent, specialising in commercial lettings in Greater Manchester since 1994.
  • While we’re on the subject, here’s what I’ve been doing since then that shows I play well with others…

You get the idea. If I learn a new skill, being able to add it to my C.V. on the go seems like a real fringe benefit and I honestly don’t recall ever being asked about my interests at a job interview.

What about a recruiter matching me with a role?

Well, we’ve already identified that TEK Systems don’t have a monopoly on the job market so the recruiter is already limited by the jobs they have available.

Additionally, they’re incentivised to place people in a role so it’s in their best interest to do this for the candidate as opposed to putting the onus on the candidate to figure out what the hell some nameless hiring manager at a “market-leading company” that the recruiter “can’t name from the time being” wants from their next hire.

Again, this doesn’t strike me as much of a benefit at all.

Access career resources and guidance

Feature #3 is described as:

Help land your dream job by exploring our career resources hub and find all of the information you need about careers, interviewing, jobs and more.

Hmmm…this is all a bit vague. Let’s take a look at the app to see what’s actually going on.

* A few minutes pass while I log in to the app, get an error message for some reason and then have to login again…

Right. In fairness, this section was actually pretty good but let’s be honest it’s just a link to the TEK Systems blog. There’s some good content on there, but it’s not especially clear who the audience is. There’s content for hiring managers, for people wanting to get into tech roles, for industry journalists (I assume they exist and that they’d be the only people who might want to know that TEK Systems is now operating in Sweden…), content for people within organisations responsible for making them more Agile (usually called something glitzy like Digital Transformation Architect).

So…will I be back to read any of this? Personally, I won’t. I’ve got a limited amount of attention and while there might be some gold in here, it’s too deeply buried.

The bit of the app that is actually quite useful

In spite of the three issues above being highlighted as the main selling points of the app, the one useful thing it does is present all of the information about my current contract on the home screen.

Now, my contract with them ended back in January 2020 but it displays that along with three key contacts at TEK should I need to get hold of them. I can see their names, their profile pictures (I like this a lot myself), their emails and their phone numbers. TEK has made this really easy and I’m happy to give them credit for it.

However, did it need to be in an app? What if I haven’t downloaded it? Shouldn’t I still be able to access this information easily? Furthermore, why wasn’t *this* promoted in the email you sent out?

What problem does the app actually solve?

My aim with this article wasn’t to rubbish TEK Systems. I had a good experience working with them, especially Olivia, and as recruiters go I’d recommend them both to hiring managers and candidates.

My issue is just with this app. I feel like it’s really missed the mark personally.

I work with app developers and have been known to build websites that occasionally function as mobile apps. Building anything that can be downloaded from the Apple/Play Store is not cheap. Given that the UX of the app is actually pretty smooth, I’d be surprised if this cost anything less than £50K to build and I’d guess that true cost could easily be much closer to £100K.

What do we have for that?

  • A limited job search function that I can get for free on Indeed/LinkedIn
  • The ability to update my C.V. (but only the one that TEK have) on the go
  • Access to the TEK systems blog which I can get to via their website
  • Contact info that while useful, I’d probably already have in my phone or email address book.

My biggest gripe though is why this had to go into an app. What aspect of the UX requires that it exist in an app an not just be available through your website?

What would have been more useful?

Let’s assume TEK got away incredibly lightly and this app cost them £50K to build and launch. What would have happened if they’d spent that on market insights instead?

Spending a bit of time and money on researching the market could have told them that there were certain trends that could be capitalised on. For example, there’s an increasing need for data scientists as companies start to figure out how to mine their customer data and use machine learning to provide a better experience for their customers.

In my own experience, there’s a huge demand for testers, user researchers, UX designers, Agile coaches and DevOps wizards. There’s also a shift away from dedicated web apps and towards progressive web apps that allow websites to function like apps but for the experience to be relatively seamless across devices, browsers and operating systems.

TEK could have helped nudge candidates towards some of these expanding technologies by providing them with market insights that they probably already have access to.

What might market insights from TEK Systems have looked like?

  • “We’ve seen a sharp decline in the number of PHP roles in the past 5 years…”
  • “React has been on the up since 2015 and has become the dominant JavaScript framework. It isn’t going anywhere for the time being…”
  • “Java developers remain the top earners, typically seeing rates of over £700/day with some of our banking clients but Python developers have seen their rates climbing steadily in recent years”

Why are market insights valuable to a developer?

This kind of information is like gold dust to me as a contractor as it helps me to steer my learning in the direction that the market is going. I only have a limited amount of time and attention so it helps to be told from industry experts that I don’t need to worry about a flashy new framework and can instead focus on getting really good at one I already know.

Could market insights be valuable to a hiring manager?

As a hiring manager, I imagine it would help to know that React developers are more in-demand (and therefore more expensive) than Angular developers but that it’s worth paying the premium because React is more widely-used and therefore easier to support.

What else could TEK have spent their cash on?

An email autoresponder sending out monthly market insights would have been a hell of a lot cheaper than £50K. So let me throw some additional ideas out there:

  • Donating a big chunk of it to charity. Great publicity and a good cause.
  • Setting up a grant to fund minorities in tech. More great publicity and another good cause. Tech isn’t completely overrun by white men with degrees but I’d say we make up the majority.
  • Educating smaller companies on how they can use contractors as an ad-hoc workforce. More jobs, more productivity, more income for candidates, more commission for recruiters.
  • Paying for tech meetups that aren’t obvious recruitment fairs. COVID has put the brakes on this kind of thing but I stand by the concept. A Java meetup night where you fund the beer and pizza can generate a lot of goodwill and expand your roster of candidates and hiring managers.
  • Paying your candidates to upskill. Maybe a bit controversial but if you know you can more-easily place a React developer than a JavaScript developer, why not help them to upskill and reap the rewards of a hefty commission when you do?
  • Smaller commissions when you place a candidate. More money for the candidate, which makes you more appealing, or a lower cost to the end client which makes you more competitive.
  • Better-training for your recruitment agents. I’ve had recruiters ask me if I can use JavaScript because I’d abbreviated it to JS on my C.V. I’ve also had them ask if I can write HTML, or if I knew how to use CSS as well as SASS. I’ve had some that didn’t know that WordPress was written in PHP and some that have asked if I could write JavaScript or just React. It gets a bit tiring sometimes.

Is your agency launching an app?

If so…best of luck! I’m sure there’s probably a business case for some fringe cases but as explained, I think TEK Systems have missed the mark with theirs and the money could have been better spent elsewhere.

Apologies to the team that grafted to get the app launched. I hope I’m the one that’s way off the mark and that it’s a raging success for you 🙂