When it comes to hiring, top-tier IT pros are the toughest to land. IT leaders and recruiters shed light on what it takes to inspire the highly talented to join your enterprise.
Recruiting and hiring high-end IT talent is among the most challenging tasks IT leaders face today. Even amid headlines announcing massive layoffs at tech companies, persuading change-making tech professionals to take up residence at your firm can feel nearly impossible.
“The IT skills shortage is critical, with CIOs losing talented employees faster than they can hire them,” said Mbula Schoen, senior director analyst at Gartner, in a recent Q&A. “IT leaders should expect increased competition in many talent pools and that the cost of IT talent will continue to rise.”
CIOs, and their recruiting teams, are well aware. They have thrown a great deal of time, money, and effort into addressing this issue. As Seth Dobbs, CTO at Bounteous, explains, “We do creative work. We’re creating things that don’t exist yet. We need people who think differently.” This is true for every technology company and, increasingly, for nontechnology companies seeking to implement technical solutions.
I spoke to tech leaders, technical recruiters, and CIOs about how they have cracked this nut to hire the top-tier tech talent they need. Here is their advice.
1. Market your brand to attract talent
“A lot of companies make the mistake of relying on job posts,” says Nancy Drees, CEO of technical recruiting firm Vacare Group. “That won’t work.” Talented technical people aren’t looking online for a job.
“Create a brand and reputation to attract this kind of talent to the work you do and your company’s culture,” says Drees. “That could be LinkedIn content or articles you post on your company site.” It could be stories in the news about your company or what personnel and clients say about the company in social media.
“Today’s high-talent IT pros want to work for a company that aligns with their values, to do work that is meaningful, and to have greater flexibility than ever before,” says technology career consultant Dr. Kyle Elliott. “If you’re updating your recruitment marketing strategy, add a storytelling element that incorporates narratives from IT employees who speak to your organization’s values and culture.”
This is a strategy Mike Beck, director of talent acquisition for Nasuni, takes seriously. The company’s marketing strategy succeeds at creating awareness among enterprise IT decision makers and customers. “But in talent acquisition, we create a brand that reaches an adjacent audience, to promote our opportunities to innovative spaces like AI, ML, fintech, cloud, and SaaS,” says Beck.
2. Build a culture people want to join
But you can’t market a culture that doesn’t exist. Mahmood Majeed, managing partner and global head of ZS’s digital and technology business, says to first focus on building a purpose-driven culture, one that nurtures talent and offers technical people time and resources to achieve their goals.
“Give people the ability to grow, mature, and evolve,” says Majeed, whose leadership team has spent a great deal of time, thought, and money on this idea, focusing on creating a culture that nurtures and incubates talent, going so far as to build customized learning programs that encourage people to learn new technical skills and to grow their career.
“We also give people so much flexibility to do what they want to do,” he says. This might sound like a distraction from work — time consuming, perhaps, or expensive. But it’s effective, he says. “It makes people more productive — they are working with passion and purpose.”
Creating a nurturing culture can also help with retention.
“A company culture that makes employees feel valued, appreciated, and with a strong sense of job security can help keep employees for the long haul,” says Gil Pekelman, co-founder and CEO of Atera.
3. Ask yourself: Is that degree necessary?
Listing a specific technical degree or advanced degree as a job requirement has long been standard practice in IT hiring. But lately, tech leaders have been rethinking this.
According to Lindsey Zuloaga, chief data scientist at HireVue, “Nearly half (48%) of the leaders surveyed in our 2023 hiring trends report said they are adopting a skills-first approach to talent acquisition, forgoing educational and past work experience unless they’re actually relevant to the job at hand.”
This strategy widens the pool of talent you can draw from and can be very effective at diversifying your workforce given that technical degrees — especially advanced ones — can require significant financial backing.
“I hired a gentleman whose background was finance and accounting,” says Dobbs, who prefers people who can solve problems to those with specific degrees. “He had this whole other background to draw from and brought diversity of thought right into the organization. He often had a completely different way of looking at things that was super productive.”
4. Go where talent lives
If you notice that your staff — especially talented engineers like those you are trying to hire — is spending time on social media while at work and that looks to you like time wasting, Drees suggests you rethink that.
“People ask me why they aren’t getting applicants,” she says, “My answer is, ‘You’re not hanging out where these people live.’” And, like your engineers, they live in open-source learning platforms, GitHub, Discord, and Reddit.
“Leverage the engineers on your team, who are excited about the challenges they’re solving,” says Drees. “Encourage them to be active in these places. It will generate interest in your company.”
But remember that your engineers are not recruiters, she says. Just as you wouldn’t ask a recruiter to solve engineering problems, don’t ask your engineers to recruit. “Partner your engineers with a recruiter,” she says. “Getting people interested is only 10% of this.”
Instead of frowning at an IT person’s proclivity for social media, partner them with a recruiter. So that if people ask them about job opportunities at your company, they know who to connect them with.
5. Tap (and expand) your network
Almost everyone I spoke to suggested that you leverage your own network and ask everyone on your team to tap their networks to track down potential hires. It can also help to focus some time, money, and people on intentionally expanding that network. Reaching out into the community, going to colleges, stopping by job fairs are all obvious ways to find talent.
But Heldin Lind, VP of people and culture for Testlio, says this won’t get you the reach you need or help you understand the cultural differences around hiring that create a diverse workforce, especially one that operates in a global market.
Testlio recruits worldwide. “And we know that we can’t reach every candidate in the same way,” says Lind. The culture around work, expectations about interview processes, and everything else about recruiting can vary wildly in different regions. “So we prepare, learn, research, network, create connections, and build trust in every country where we are hiring,” she says.
For example, she says, “Testlio’s employer brand manager is currently in Lisbon because — for Testlio customers — Portugal is a key market of interest. While there, they attended a local tech hiring conference for networking, which led to being invited to join another global remote conference and meeting several local recruiters to better understand the market. The company has used this same strategy in Central Asia and plans to use it in Athens and Barcelona in the future.”
6. Look for talent in unusual places
“We try to look for talent in different sources,” says Bounteous’ Dobbs. “I’m a big fan of bootcamps.” Many of the people coming out of technology bootcamps started out in another field. They might have degrees — even advanced degrees — that are not in technology. This gives them a different worldview that, with the addition of the right technical skills, can make them a terrific, innovative team members, he says.
“Some of them are more mature in their life experience,” explains Dobbs. “So even though they might be new in development, they bring a maturity level that you don’t always find in a fresh out of college person.”
Bootcamps recruit from a diverse pool of people, are often demanding, and focus only on adding specific technical skills. The good ones are quite intense. “The people that survive those usually have something great to show for it at the end,” says Dobbs.
7. Consider recruiting through technical contractors
Tim Rowley, COO and CTO at PeopleCaddie, a hybrid staffing firm that specializes in highly-skilled contract talent, says that many companies hire IT talent on a temporary basis, not only to fill a quick need but also as a recruiting strategy.
Bringing in an IT person who is highly skilled in a specific area can work well for the company budget — allowing you to scale up and down quickly. It also gives you quick access to talented people who are either highly specialized or who prefer to run their own show.
“A highly skilled employee might have a very specialized skill set that your company needs only for a short time,” explains Rowley. “Say you are doing a SAP implementation that will take six months. At the end of that, you may not need or want to carry a highly expensive SAP expert.”
This can also be a great way to get highly skilled people onboard quickly and work with them for a significant amount of time before you decide if you want to hire them into a permanent role.
“Companies often approach this as contract-to-hire strategy,” explains Rowley. “Or sometimes it starts off as a simple contract assignment, but they end up liking the person and, eventually, bring them on full time.”
8. Don’t blow it in the interview
In the good old days of recruiting and hiring — for the person doing the hiring anyway — the candidate worried and prepped while the employer breezed in with some poorly prepared questions.
Not in this hiring climate.
That high-talent candidate is looking at everything from your branding to your espoused company culture to the compensation and benefits to the real-world impression you give about all of that in the interview. So, once you have someone talented interested in a role, don’t blow it by falling back on old-school hiring tactics — such as lengthy assessments and tests.
“I understand you need to know if they can do what they say,” says Drees. “But make your evaluations collaborative.”
She has seen clients go to great lengths to lure a candidate to a role only to build an interview process that involves hours of assessments. The candidate disappears from the interview process — and very likely goes back to Reddit or GitHub to warn other people away.
Drees suggests whiteboarding a problem or discussing ways to solve things that create a collaborative discussion, uncovering technical ability and problem-solving skills while helping you get to know each other. Include members of your team in this so everyone participates and gets to know one another.
“Ask people to walk you through scenarios,” suggests Dobbs. “People like to talk about themselves. If you ask the right questions, you will learn how they engage in that kind of conversation, which can tell you a lot about a person.”
Dobbs coaches his team in interviewing and does post-mortem on interviews to get the most out of this process.
9. Be flexible about life
People — especially when they have a lot of options — turn out not to be willing anymore to sacrifice their home life, happiness, and health for a job. So, if you are still asking people to come into an office, haven’t taken the time to compare your benefit offerings to your competitor’s, and are clinging to a last-generation idea of work/life/health balance, you are making it harder than it needs to be to hire this level of talent.
“Qualified candidates are difficult to land,” says Claire Rutkowski, senior vice president and CIO Champion at Bentley Systems. “So be open to people not being in your backyard.”
Most people I spoke to agreed that offering a remote or hybrid option is necessary, at this point. “If the pandemic proved nothing else, it proved that our workforce can be productive and collaborative and get things done even while not physically co-located in an office,” says Rutkowski.
Don’t stop there, though. Take a look at all your work/life balance perks.
“Rarely do employers review and refresh their benefit offerings based on the current climate and needs of their employees,” says Lizzie Burton, executive vice president of people and culture at Snow Software.
Showing you care about their mental health is particularly current. “Leaders need to actively work to ensure mental health preservation tactics are part of their employees’ routine to reduce burnout and maintain employee satisfaction and retention,” she says.