So you want to hire some engineers?

It should go without saying that one of the most important—and most challenging—responsibilities of an engineering manager is hiring.

In a recent survey of 581 tech founders and executives1:

  • 62% say it takes 4 months or more to hire top product and engineering talent on average.

  • 67% agree that the “traditional recruitment process” is broken, taking too long and costing too much.

At the same time, tech workers are more restless than ever before, changing jobs at a staggering rate.

What should you do if you want to succeed in hiring the engineers you need for your team today? As we say in most engineering matters, “it depends,” but these are my earnestly held beliefs about what matters most:

  1. Attract (enough of) the right people,
  2. Conduct an exceptional interview, and
  3. Sell what’s important.

This is going to be a long one because there is a lot to say and it’s all important.

• • •

Attract (enough of) the right people

Aside from referrals, which you should also use, your primary vehicle for attracting people to your roles is your job descriptions.

Two key elements that have an outsized impact on who may apply to your role are word choice and hard qualifications.

Choose your words wisely

As you may be aware, among the most qualified applicants for your roles there are women, but chances are you’ll never meet them because your job descriptions drive them away.

If you want women to apply for your open roles, avoid using any of these masculine-oriented words (and if you’re still writing “rock star” or “ninja” in 2022, you don’t deserve to hire anyone anyway)2:

  • Active
  • Adventurous
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious/ambition
  • Analytical
  • Assertive
  • Autonomous
  • Decisive
  • Determined
  • Dominant/dominating
  • Independent
  • Lead
  • Ninja
  • Objective
  • Outspoken
  • Rock star
  • Superior

Instead, consider working in some of these more inclusive terms:

  • Adaptable
  • Collaborate
  • Creative
  • Curious
  • Multitasking
  • Imaginative
  • Intuitive
  • Resilient
  • Self-aware
  • Thoughtful
  • Trustworthy

Personally, I would much rather work with a team of adaptable, self-aware, curious, trustworthy folks than a bunch of aggressive, superior, dominating rock stars, but that’s just me.

• • •

Require only what’s required

Scrutinize “hard requirements” on job postings, especially degrees.

Stated requirements turn away applicants, so be sure that every stated requirement is a “hard” requirement. While it appears to be true that hard requirements turn away more women than men3, the difference isn’t as large as you may have been led to believe.

In the end, turning away any applicant because they fail to clear a bar that you and your team would consider “negotiable” only strangles your candidate funnel.

• • •

Consider whether your role has a degree requirement at all. When candidates greatly outnumber roles, setting a degree requirement is a convenient filter to reduce recruiting burden. But today, with roles historically difficult to fill, you may be artificially limiting your options.

Moreover, some of the most talented folks I’ve worked with have not had computer science degrees. Many of them had other four-year degrees, such as music, digital media, or a different engineering discipline like mechanical or biomedical engineering.

In fact, I’ve found that even graduate degrees don’t guarantee the kind of adaptability, critical thinking skills, or resourcefulness that I personally value on my software teams. I am not claiming an inverse correlation, but I suggest that the strength of the correlation may not be what you think it is.

Conduct an exceptional interview

The interview process itself is crucial, not only to determining a candidate’s fitness for a role, but also to sell the candidate on the opportunity the role presents for them. I have only one rule about interviews and this is it:

Aaron’s Law of Interviewing: An interview that doesn’t resemble the job is not an interview at all.

Interviews ought to be practical and collaborative, because that’s what the role you’re trying to fill is going to be like.

Quit it with the binary trees, already

All those clever questions you ask to “pressure test” candidates on solving the gnarliest problems you proudly contrived for the purpose? They are less than worthless if the actual job is copying and pasting code from StackOverflow.

If the role is truly to optimize compilers or build distributed database systems or whatever, by all means, evaluate that. But don’t you dare ask a candidate to write a depth-first binary tree search unless they have a substantial chance of encountering that problem in the course of the job.

Every programming job I’ve ever had was 75% searching the internet and 25% understanding how not to shoot myself in the foot. You’re better off evaluating the candidate’s ability to understand whether a StackOverflow solution is actually good than asking them to synthesize some arcane algorithm on a whiteboard.

The best interviews I’ve been in included things like pair programming activities, code comprehension, and collaborative system design. The less it feels like taking the SAT, the more realistic a read you’re going to get on what it’s like to actually work with this person.

Sell the important stuff

This piece in Gallup4 from mid-2021 puts it succinctly:

The great resignation is really the great discontent.

Workers are changing jobs mainly because they’re not engaged. The Gallup analysis, which was conducted across all industries, “identified a[n] employee engagement rate of […] 34% in the U.S. and Canada.”

In other words, 66% of American workers are disengaged in their jobs.

The likelihood is high that every candidate you’re talking to is considering your role as a replacement for a role they currently have, that they just don’t love. If you can get an understanding of what is falling short for them, you can determine whether your role will be a fit.

No matter the individual’s specific circumstances, there are two things that every employee wants, and that you should sell as hard as you can:

  1. Purpose
  2. Flexibility
• • •

More than ever, tech workers are realizing that they have the choice and ability to spend their time contributing to something that matters, and they want a job that gives them some sense of purpose5.

For some, the company’s mission is important—they may want to contribute to a social or environmental cause. For others, simply being a part of something that the company itself holds as crucial to success is enough.

The desire for “higher stakes” and leadership buy-in is repeated often in the conversations I have with my coaching clients. If you can’t demonstrate how the role you’re filling and the work the team is doing really matters, you may fail to close these candidates.

You may also want to quit that job, too.

• • •

Finally, flexibility in where and when and how to work are more important to tech workers than ever before. Whether your company is mostly in-office, fully hybrid, or fully remote, you need to understand where your flexibility level sits relative to your competitors.

When open to working remotely, software engineers on the Hired platform received 20% more interview requests overall than candidates who are not.6

The fact is this: an increasing number of companies, with fat wallets, are open to hiring the talent they need wherever they may be. If you also need to hire that talent, you’d better come to the table with a compelling story about what flexibility you can offer.

No matter what your company’s policies are, you, as a manager, are responsible for creating the environment for success for your teams. That means ensuring that on-site and remote employees have equal access to information, equal ability to share their opinions and solutions, and that everyone feels like a member of the same team.

An interview is your chance to proudly explain all you’ve done to level that playing field.

Questions for you

  1. Are you talking to the candidates you want to be talking to? If not, what is turning them away?

  2. If you took your own interview, would you want the job?

  3. What meaningful contribution will your new team member be able to make in the first six months? Do candidates for the role know this?

Lead image by @wocintechchat on Unsplash