'Which video games do you play?' How firms are finding and keeping scarce tech talent

‘Which video games do you play?’ How firms are finding and keeping scarce tech talent

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Between the Great Resignation and the chronic shortage of information technology talent, organizations have never had a harder time finding and keeping qualified people.

Although the task is easier for hot startups swimming in venture capital, hiring managers in more prosaic fields have told nightmare stories of losing prospects while offer letters are being prepared and watching new employees jump for other offers within their first week on the job.

That’s if they can even get candidates in the door in the first place. With millions of unfilled IT jobs nationwide, the scarcity of tech talent has never been greater. The consequences go far beyond schedule delays and application backlogs.

It comes at a time when enterprises are scrambling to transform themselves digitally and move more forcefully to the cloud. That, in turn, is crucially important to keep one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy — technology — humming amid headwinds such as inflation, oil shocks and war.

And shortages are growing. Business consulting firm Korn Ferry forecasts a global shortage of more than 85 million workers in 2030 could lead to $8.5 trillion of unrealized annual revenues globally and $162 billion in the U.S. alone. Gartner Inc. last year said the talent shortage is the most significant barrier to the adoption of new technologies, with 64% of the IT executives it surveyed identifying it as a factor, far ahead of the number two adoption barrier — implementation costs — at 29%. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to an IEEE study cited skills shortages as a problem.

To get a clear picture of what is and isn’t working in this chaotic environment, SiliconANGLE contacted more than a dozen executives with significant experience hiring technical talent to see what’s working for them. Bottom line: Company culture has never been more important, speeding candidates through the process is essential and you shouldn’t be afraid to seek outside assistance when your internal resources are exhausted.

Where the candidates are

Ankit Sharma, head of talent at site search provider Search.io Pty, makes it a point to attend technical conferences for software pros. “Every recruiter in technology will tell you that the developers you really want on your team aren’t on LinkedIn, but at meetups and industry events they feel passionate about,” he said.

HP’s Gardner advocates for academic partnerships “at all levels, from secondary through post-graduate.” Photo: HP

At HP Inc.’s federal division, Chief Technology Officer Tommy Gardner emphasizes partnerships with academic institutions “at all levels, from secondary through post-graduate. By introducing [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects earlier, students will be more familiar with the content,” he said. The Federal Virtual Training Environment, which retrains public service employees, federal contractors and U.S. military veterans in cybersecurity disciplines, is also a useful source.

Like many executives who were contacted, Gardner is less concerned with raw technical chops than with a person’s ability to bring new thinking to the organization. “Bringing engaged, curious individuals onto a supportive team can be as much of a learning opportunity for established team members as it is for new employees,” he said.

An aggressive bonus and referral program is paying off for Trevipay, says CIO Zimmerman. Photo: Trevipay

The speed and quality with which employers engage with prospective employees matters. WorkLLama LLC sells a conversation bot service that engages with people from the moment they land on an employment page. The bot is tuned to engage in a conversation that relates to the job the person is perusing and can administer basic competency and skills assessments. “The idea is to convert you to an applicant,” said Saleem Khaja, WorkLLama’s founder and chief operating officer.

The company also has a branded app its clients can use to stay in touch with prospective employees and alert them when an appropriate position becomes available. WorkLLama claims it can cut 10 days off typical hiring times.

Multi Service Technology Solutions Inc., which does business as Trevipay, recently launched a program that pays newly hired employees in designated positions a $20,000 bonus after their first 30 days on the job. Current employees can also earn $5,000 for referring someone who gets hired. “We’re in the early stages of the program, but so far are pleased with the traction, especially referrals,” said Dan Zimmerman, chief information officer at the payments processor.

Job seekers in control

Hiring managers stress the need to vet candidates quickly and make offers within a few days, aware of the likelihood that other employers also pursuing them. A 2017 survey of U. S. workers by Robert Half International Inc. found that 57% said lose interest if the post-interview waiting period is too long, with 62% pegging the maximum wait at 14 days or less. In today’s frenzied job market, the window is probably even smaller.

“I believe speed-to-hire is going to be the one metric every talent acquisition professional will talk about in 2022 and beyond,” said Search.io’s Sharma.

Trevipay expects hiring managers to respond to every communication from its recruiters within 24 hours. “This ensures there is no sitting on resumes and no waiting days to provide feedback after interviews,” Zimmerman said. “It makes it clear that recruiting is a priority.”

Allego used video to cut down on the number of interviews and move more quickly to a decision, says co-founder Magnacca. Photo: LinkedIn

Allego Inc., the maker of a content management and training platform for salespeople, used its own technology to speed up recruitment times last year when it was faced with the task of hiring more than 100 people. Instead of putting candidates through multiple interviews with all the attendant time and scheduling overhead, it consolidated questions from multiple managers into a single interview that was recorded and shared with others.

Hiring managers used the platform’s video annotation and transcription features to highlight answers that were relevant to their peers. “Our normal process took four to five days,” said Mark Magnacca, the firm’s co-founder and president. “We were able to hire some people in one day.”

Circle Internet Services Inc., which does business as CircleCI, cut the stages in its recruitment process from seven to three as it scrambled to hire more than 100 technical professionals last year. “We had a lot of serialization that didn’t have a lot of value or we were optimizing for interviewers rather than candidates,” said Michael Stahnke, vice president of platform at the company.

CircleCI cut the stages in the hiring process from seven to three, according to platform VP Stahnke. Photo: CircleCI

The company also started measuring the recruitment process, tracking how long candidates lingered at each stage of the hiring cycle and requiring managers to act on applications in 24 hours. The old process, “didn’t have a sense of urgency,” Stahnke said. “It was an inconsistent experience for our candidates.”

Recruiters were trained to ask questions more specific to a particular position and to scrutinize candidates earlier in the process so weak ones didn’t get far. The focus was on delivering a better experience for the candidate. “Even if we didn’t hire them I wanted them to go away wishing they worked here,” Stahnke said.

Codility Ltd., which makes a technical recruiting platform, treats hiring as a big data exercise. It tracks the percentage of candidates who progress through each stage from initial application to accepted offer. “This not only allows bottlenecks to be detected but also helps to identify the right course of action to address them,” said CTO Snir Yarom.

For example, a low application-to-screening conversion rate “suggests the quality of candidates is low and you should modify the job description or change your sourcing method,” Yarom said. A low offer-to-acceptance rate means candidates don’t find the offer attractive enough. “Collecting feedback from candidates will help pinpoint the reason for the offer declination which you can use to help you optimize your future offers,” Yarom said.

Other metrics worth monitoring are the average time it takes to hire a candidate after the job was posted, the ratio of initial applications to hires and the percentage of new employees who pass a probation milestone.

Czech Republic-based Explore & Beyond S.R.O., which does business as Supertalent, conducts behavioral assessments for both job seekers and prospective employers. In the course of conducting more than 25,000 assessments over the past four months, it has created algorithms that match job descriptions with the most relevant candidates. The company claims its service cuts average hiring times by more than half and reduces management time wasted screening and interviewing candidates whose skills aren’t relevant to a position.

The crucial interview

The formal interview is what usually makes or breaks a new hire and veteran managers each have their favorite questions. Before interviewing anyone, however, they said it’s important to understand what skills you’re looking for. The questions you ask a candidate for a systems administrator job are quite different from those you would ask a software developer.

TackleAI’s Suarez Jr. values problem-solving skills as much as coding chops. Photo: CircleCI

For some positions, core skills are more important than mastery of a language or tools. “I look for creative problem-solvers,” said Sergio Suarez Jr., founder and CEO of Tackle AI LLC, whose software mines the data from unstructured sources. Among the questions he asks is what videogames candidates prefer. “If they talk about role-playing games, they usually won’t work here, but if they’re into puzzle games, it shows that they see the world in a different way,” Suarez said.

He also asks what candidates like to do outside work. Those who like mountain biking “are usually not our people,” he said, “but if they like ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ or building engines, those are the sorts of people who end up doing well for us.”

For development jobs, Suarez asks when candidates started coding. “I don’t like to hear ‘when I got to college,’” he said. “Programming, like chess, kind of wires your mind. If you learn it at age nine, you’re just better at it.”

Stephen Franchetti, CIO at operations cloud developer Samsara Inc., asks candidates about projects they worked on that didn’t go very well: how they handled failure, what they learned and how it helped them going forward. “This gives me a sense of a candidate’s ability to face a challenge, be introspective and learn from a situation, as well as a sense for how authentic they are,” Franchetti said. “Hearing that someone has never been on a project that hasn’t gone well raises flags.”

Questions about how candidates have handled disagreements in the past give clues as to their approach to managing conflict. Franchetti always asks about “how they manage demand, which is especially important in a fast-paced growth environment. “I’m looking for how they set priorities and expectations around what will and won’t get done, and communicate those clearly,” he said.

CoderPad’s Richardson probes candidates for how they handle failure. Photo: LinkedIn

CoderPad Inc. Chief Executive Amanda Richardson also probes for failure stories as evidence of a candidate’s approach to teamwork. “I’m looking for someone who reflects on what could have been done differently and takes accountability and shows thoughtful reflection,” said Richardson, whose company makes an assessment platform for hiring technical people. “I don’t want to hear, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ Companies are like teams: We win or lose together.”

And like everything else about recruiting, there are startups applying analytics to the process. Karat Inc., which provides job interviews of technical candidates, takes the burden of interviewing off its clients by using a team of staff and contract software engineers to conduct highly structured sessions. Then it applies a scoring rubric to the outcome. “Because we’re doing so many interviews, we can see what factors lead to a more predictive result,” said co-founder and President Jeffrey Spector.

But contracting out the interview experience can also create a backlash. CircleCI tried the approach and found it efficient but stopped using the contractor out of fear that the structured and recorded interviews were damaging candidates’ experiences. “Some candidates were turned off and thought we didn’t care enough about them,” Stahnke said. “It was higher stress and they felt they were being judged.”

Intangibles

Managers can sometimes be so dazzled by technical credentials that they forget that a candidate also has to fit into the organization. Compatibility with job requirements is more important than raw skills, managers said. “Connection happens when an organization communicates the position correctly, interacts during the process effectively and prepares expectations appropriately,” said Jon Walden, CTO at robotic process automation firm Blue Prism Group plc.

“It’s exceptionally important that you can draw a line of sight between the work the team is doing and the strategies of the company,” said Samsara’s Franchetti. “If employees can see that alignment they are much more likely to stay because they see that the work they are doing is moving the company forward.”

Franchetti said he stays in touch with candidates at every step of the interview process to be sure they know where they stand. “It’s likely they’ll receive a counteroffer, so anything I can do to reinforce how excited we are to bring their talents to our team can add to their experience,” he said.

At technology services firm Endava plc, whose technical employees often interact directly with customers, Chief Digital Officer Justin Marcucci looks for empathy. “I try to see if they can put themselves in the position of the clients and demonstrate a level of empathy that they would need working with customers,” Marcucci said.

As a test, he asked one candidate how the person would approach a digital modernization strategy at a shipping company. “He walked me through a whiteboard of what he would do: the commodities, assets they weren’t thinking about and how that data could be useful elsewhere,” he said. “That person got hired.”

TackleAI’s Suarez has even offered candidates more money than they asked for to set a baseline of mutual appreciation. Other retention tactics include “throwing parties, maintaining a wide array of food options for those with dietary restrictions and empowering friendly competition in the workplace,” he said. He places a premium on creativity, problem-solving skills and collaboration, which “are arguably more important than technical skills,” even in a company with highly technical products.

The reason tech firms can’t fill the talent pipeline “is because of the artificial barriers we as an industry continue to put in place,” Suarez said. “College doesn’t matter a lot for me and I didn’t go to college myself. I want people who want to change the way things are done.”

In this crazy hiring environment, the old rules don’t count for much.

Photo: Flickr CC

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