by Rich Hein

How to Work With IT Recruiters to Find Top Tech Talent

Mar 19, 201313 mins
CareersCIOIT Jobs

Searching for the best IT talent can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, but using a headhunter can help swing the odds in your favor. Learn what it takes to get the most out of this symbiotic relationship.

The tech job market–especially within certain areas such as big data, application development and cloud computing–is a competitive environment.

As more companies get on the bandwagon of these technologies and as the pool of talent gets smaller, many experts warn of a shortage of IT talent and skills in the pipeline. Companies are wondering where and how to acquire the top tech talent.

Working With IT Recruiters

If you’re willing to lay out the money, partnering with an IT recruiter could be the answer to your problem. Most experts agree that the biggest drawback of using an IT recruiter is the cost. A standard contingency search is typically between 15-30 percent of the annual pay for the position you’re filling. There are less expensive routes but buyers beware. “You get what you pay for,” says Rob Byron, principal consultant of IT search group at WinterWyman.

To help make the tough decision of whether or not to use a search firm to find your next employee, talked to both hiring managers and recruiters to get the facts on how employers can get the most out of an IT recruiter relationship.

Why Would I Want to Use an IT Recruiter?

The first question to ask, of course, is “Why? Maybe you’re a smaller company that doesn’t have time or the HR resources to hunt for new talent or maybe you’re filling a mission critical position like CIO or vice president and time is of the essence. In either case, the top talent isn’t necessarily the persons you’ll find on job boards or through online applications. Often times the best candidates are already hard at work somewhere and not looking for a new position.

Two years ago when TrainSignal, a Chicago-based company that makes computer training for IT professionals had to make some decisions, CEO and founder Scott Skinger wanted to transition from being a content provider that shipped DVDs to a digital media or SaaS provider. The senior guys at TrainSignal knew they needed a great CTO and turned to an IT recruiter.

They knew they wanted someone who had been there and done that before. With that in mind, they started working with a recruiter and began to look at the local tech job market to identify individuals who they felt fit the bill.

“You have to put in the time to find that great CTO, of course–someone who is super-technical but also fits into the company culture. That’s something we put a lot of emphasis on at TrainSignal. You can’t skimp on either the amount of money you have to pay or amount of time it takes to find the right person,” says Skinger.

“After we realized that we needed someone with heavy development skills and experience, we looked hard at people in the Chicago tech community to see who is doing this, as well as who has done this. We took the approach of trying to find someone who wasn’t actively looking for another job. With how hot IT and tech is right now, people who are really good are probably not actively seeking a job or looking on,” says Iman Jalali, president of TrainSignal.

So how do you reach those individuals? “In today’s world of social media, Monster, CareerBuilder or Dice you can find those active candidates out there and start the search yourself. The real advantage of a good solid search firm, however, is that you’re identifying those passive candidates,” says Byron.

Types of IT Recruiter Searches

There are generally two types of recruiter searches. One is the contingency search. In this type of search, the only time a recruiter is paid is if he or she successfully fills the position. Hiring managers can see multiple candidates, interview candidates multiple times and check references and there is no cost to the company. This fee is normally between 15-30 percent of the annual wage of the position being filled.

Search firms on retainer are often used for C-level and executive searches. They are normally used exclusively to fill a certain position or role. The cost of this route is usually much higher, but employers can expect a different level of service and candidate vetting for their money.

Here are some items a good recruiter will do for you:

  • Identify and approach passive and active candidates
  • Provide objective input and feedback regarding candidate’s skills and backgrounds
  • Handle candidate screening
  • Handle candidate follow-up
  • Provide anonymity to companies/employers that require it

Questions to Ask the Recruiter

As an employer, there are things you need to ask the recruiter up front. Below are some questions that will help you figure out whether this recruiter is right for your company and for filling the position at hand:

  • Have you done searches in this space before?
  • What is your level of experience?
  • Do you specialize or do you do any type of technology search?
  • Can you give me some examples of searches you’ve done?
  • Can you walk me through some of the successful searches you’ve done?
  • How do you typically find your candidates?
  • How do you find those passive candidates and what resources do you use?
  • How long does the average search take?

Finding out how much experience the recruiters have in that space and what their network looks like is the information that you’re after. “If you engage with a firm that isn’t well-networked, you will get resumes that are off the mark. If they [recruiters] aren’t listening, then what you wind up doing is creating more work for yourself because you’re getting a flood of resumes and you have to screen them yourself,” says Byron.

Building a Relationship

So you’ve decided to take the plunge. The first step, according to Byron, is a meeting where the you fill in the recruiter on what you’re is looking for and introduce all the particulars.

One of the key things Byron does during this initial interview is gauge the client. Does he know the position, the top requirements, the technology being used, the skillset needed to make sure that they know what they want. What is the sense of urgency? Are they serious about hiring or are they just kicking the tires. Why is this position open? Do I have an immediate timeframe I need to work within? What Byron is trying to get at, is the sense of urgency, the timeline and a walkthrough of the hiring process.

A good recruiter is trying to build a relationship with the client. This is done mainly through regular communication and feedback and as the hiring manager you must reciprocate. “An employer should be willing to partner with the recruiter–that is what it takes to get the most value out of the process,” says Byron. What does that mean exactly? A couple of things actually:

For one thing, being able to provide both positive and negative feedback is a must. Whether it’s interviewing in person or reading through resumes, hiring managers need to be open and honest with their comments. For example, if someone is a perfect fit on paper, but they didn’t match up with the company culture, then it’s important to share this with as much detail as possible to allow the recruiter to sharpen the focus even more.

Here is one example of how an employer might provide good feedback:

“John Doe had all the required skills. However, he has worked as more of a lone gun in a siloed company for the last few years and seems to prefer that type of atmosphere. We here at brand X are all broken down into development teams and working together on a daily basis is crucial to create complex applications projects.”

The second item, according to Byron, is a willingness to dedicate time at the front end of the search. The search firm really needs to understand the job, the company, the culture and the team, so it can understand what the company needs to identify the right candidates and then sell the job/jobs to the candidate in a competitive job market.

Also the ability to work directly with the hiring manager is paramount, according to Byron. This is the person who really needs the candidate and will likely have the most insight into the skills necessary for the candidate to be successful in the job.

“The ones [IT recruiters] that are good spend some time with you and actually learn about the company to figure out what you’re actually doing, where you’re company is headed and what the culture is like,” says Jalali.

He points to the recent example when they hired a new CTO and an IT recruiter took up residence at his office (during work hours, of course). “She spent time with us and she learned about our culture. So when she was screening people and doing first-round interviews she was like an employee of ours,” says Jalali. He goes on to say that what you really need is a recruiter who cares about you and your company, not necessarily one that does a lot of volume.

Common Errors Employers Make

There are a few errors employers make pretty regularly when dealing with recruiters, but with some insight into the process and knowledge of the market, employers can avoid them. Here are some of the more common errors employers make when working with a recruiter, according to Byron.

Not being expedient enough. If someone fits your criteria and you think they are a good fit for your company culture, hire them. Some employers still feel like its 2010 0r 2009. The tech job market especially within certain IT skillsets is hot.

“Employers, many times, don’t understand the market and think they have time to get back on resumes in a critical or hot skillset, or they sit on a candidate and continue to interview even though they found someone that they really like,” says Byron.

The bottom-line is if you’re sitting on a resume or candidate that you love or waiting because you want to be sure you’re not making a mistake and you want to interview 20 more candidates, you’ll lose that candidate.

Another common error is that some employers feel like they don’t need to sell their company, but when you are dealing with top talent in a competitive market that is exactly what you have to do, according to Byron.

Employers need to be a part of selling the candidate and speaking about the advantages of working for the company. “Clients lose good candidates and then come back a month later and say ‘where is this candidate?’,” says Byron. He goes on to note that this is part of qualifying the client and helping to educate them on the state of the IT job market.

How Long Should My Search Take?

Many things factor into a candidate search. Some searches could take two weeks and another search could take six months, depending on the type of search and the nuances around it. “Timing is such a big part of this and there certainly is an average but there are outliers,” says Byron.

Depending on things like the location of the company and the niche they are hiring within. It could be a .NET development search but the employer wants all these niche technologies within that. This could lengthen the search. Also, in a hot market candidates may not be drawn to a company. This is why it’s important for employers to be selling the company and the job.

“A good recruiter is going to set that person’s [hiring manager’s] expectations and give them a couple caveats before they say it’s going to take three or four months,” Byron says.

Clues You May Be With the Wrong IT Recruiter

“The best ones [IT recruiters] are those who consider it an ongoing partnership and aren’t trying to make that one-time hit or commission,” says Skinger. Here are some items that could indicate that you’re not getting the most value out of your recruiter:

Some recruiters, according to Skinger, don’t do a good job of technically screening applicants or they take the candidates at their word regarding their skills, but you can tell pretty quickly that they aren’t necessarily qualified once you get them on the phone or in an interview.

If you have a recruiter who is consistently sending you candidates who aren’t qualified, it may be time to take a second look. “It’s OK to for a recruiter miss the mark on the first pass, but then with good feedback you fine tune and sweeten the search up,” says Byron.

The more you provide solid feedback and fine tune the search with your recruiter the better and more targeted your results will be. This is a critical part of the partnership between hiring managers and recruiters.

“Some of the less respectable recruiters do too much coaching with candidates. They’ll coach candidates on questions an employer will ask and how to answer them,” says Jalali. He goes on to point out that some will even tailor resumes. If you suspect either of these things are going on, it’s time to reevaluate.

“Time is money and if you’re not using a reputable firm then that is time wasted,” says Skinger.

Should I Use More Than One Recruiter?

There are times when more than one recruiter may be necessary for your company. For example, in a competitive role like a cloud developer or data scientist, you may want an IT recruiter that specializes in this type of candidate search.

“More companies are looking for recruiters to be specialized, because your networks need to be so deep to find those good passive candidates,” says Byron. That said, you wouldn’t want to have two search firms working on the same position.

Calculating the IT Recruiter ROI

Using an IT recruiter isn’t for everyone. “It’s not cheap to engage with a good search firm. Some companies don’t want to swallow that cost,” says Byron.

With the state of social media including sites like LinkedIn, Facebook’s BranchOut, Google+ and others, employers have a greater ability to network with talent than ever before. “Companies have so much more access to information and candidates and there are many searches you may not need help with,” says Byron.

That said, going it alone comes at a price, too. How much does it cost you to find someone to fill a position yourself? How much time is involved and how deep is your network of professionals? How much do delays in production and development cost you?

These questions are a little more difficult to answer, but those answers will help you decide whether an investment in an IT recruiter is worth the expense.

Rich Hein is a senior writer for He covers IT careers. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.