The Tech Talent War​: Part I

Tech talent is hard to find. Talking to colleagues in the IT sector, the complaints are always the same: few people apply to job postings, those who do apply either do not even closely match the requirements, or if they do, they have hugely inflated expectations with regard to salary and other benefits. 

We recently posted our very first job. Having heard so many horror stories about how hard it is to find good people, we prepared for a long and difficult journey. Two months later, we decided to hire three great candidates instead of one. Here is what we learned.

Be proactive

In a tight labour market, simply posting a job online and waiting for people to apply will rarely be enough. If you want to find good people, you need to look for them. 

The first thing we did when posting our job was to shout it from the rooftops: we posted about it on social media, put it in our newsletter, and put in prominently on our website.

We also wrote personal emails to everyone in our network, asking them to forward our job posting to anyone they think might be interested. If you send that email to a hundred people, even if just some of them forward it, you may have a larger reach than a standard job posting on an Austrian job site might get. In addition, a personal invitation makes it much more likely that a candidate will apply than if they see your anonymous job posting on a job site. We found all of our candidates through recommendations from our personal network. 

Your personal network also includes your existing team. If you are looking to extend the team, your colleagues are in a very good position to judge who might be a good fit, and they might just know the right person. Actively encourage your colleagues to think about possible candidates, and to invite people from their networks to apply.

I also started telling people that we are looking to hire in personal conversations at events, and actively invited people to apply who I thought might be a good fit. You have to decide for yourself where you draw the line; I invited two people to apply at my best friend’s Halloween party. They would have found out about the job if I hadn’t been so forward.

If the pond is empty, fish in a different pond

Despite the shortage of talent, there are still people who are excluded from the IT job market for a variety of reasons. Sometimes language barriers prevail. More often, self-selection removes valuable candidates who are discouraged to apply by job postings. Too many requirements, application processes that sound daunting, and prevailing stereotypes that make it harder for people to succeed in finding IT jobs because they do not fit the standard image of a developer. 

The first thing you should do to address this is to write job posts that don’t discourage specific groups of people to apply. In addition, you can actively seek out alternative candidate pools.

There are several programs that support people to find jobs in the IT sector: women in tech programs, programs for migrants, and other specialised programs created to address the talent shortage in IT. These are great opportunities to find applicants with different backgrounds, experiences, and expectations which can be extremely valuable to your team. 

In addition, there are many coding schools that provide training to people looking to transition into the IT sector. While they might not yet have deep expertise in coding, it can be very interesting to talk to applicants from such programs: each of them brings their own set of experiences from different previous careers, which can make them a boon to your team. These training programs are often happy to actively direct applicants to you.

If you are advertising a remote position, it can also be a good idea to post it on pan-European job sites, or directly on job portals in other European countries. A Spanish developer is much more likely to find your job post on a Spanish site than on an Austrian one. In this way you might address people who hadn’t even thought about working for a company abroad, but might consider it when given the opportunity.

Prioritise

Figure out who your ideal candidate is.

Then figure out why this person would be your ideal candidate.

And then strip away everything that is not absolutely essential. 

Looking at job postings, I am often surprised at the very long list of requirements in them. While it is good to be specific about what you’re looking for, it doesn’t make sense to ask for candidates with ten years of experience in dozens of technologies who are willing to work for minimum salary. But this is what many job posts look like.

It is unlikely that you will find the perfect candidate who checks every single box on your list. Because of this, it is essential to know what are the most important things that you are looking for. 

We found that defining the core requirements for our open position was really hard. We needed to agree on two or three things that really mattered most to us. 

And those are the only ones we put in our job posting.

Personality matters

We decided to look for a personality. We have great developers and a lot of tech knowledge internally, so we know that we can train junior people. Personality is a lot harder to teach than tech skills, so that’s what is most important to us: personality that fits the team and is prepared to learn.

But be mindful: personality is not everything. We are a tech company, so we have tech knowledge. For example, if I were to hire an accountant, I would decidedly look only for a senior person. We do not have an accounting expert internally, so we would not be able to train a junior person. I would accept a less-than-perfect fit in terms of personality for someone who really knows their stuff in areas where we do not have internal expertise. 

It is not just the candidate’s personality that matters, it is yours as well. Don’t be afraid to show a little personality in your job posting. If you post a standard, bland posting, you will get standard, bland applications. If you show a bit of humour or edge in your posting, people who find it funny or interesting will apply. And they are more likely to be engaged by your posting if it is a little bit out of the ordinary.

Know what you can offer

We are a small start-up. We were worried that we would not be able to attract developers because we are not able to offer the same kind of benefits and salaries that bigger companies offer. 

It forced us to focus on the aspects that make us attractive besides salary. We offer very flexible working conditions: work anywhere, anytime. We are more than happy to hire part-time employees. We offer interesting problems for our people to solve. Our people can make a difference: in such a small team, everyone has a big impact on what our product looks like, and where we set priorities. 

Not every company can offer the same kind of benefits. This point is not about what kind of benefits you should offer your potential employees. It is about making yourself aware of what it is that you can offer. 

Every company is special in some way. Every person is different. Finding a good fit between the peculiarities of your company or team and a potential candidate means that you have to be aware of your peculiarities. Telling your candidates about your company’s peculiarities will make you more attractive as an employer to some candidates, and make it much more likely that your new hire will fit in.

Money

Talk about money right away. It is no use to you or your candidates if you put them through a multi-step application process only to find out at the very end that there is no way you will reach an agreement about their salary. Starting the discussion in the first interview will also give you and your candidates the opportunity to reiterate on the topic in later stages.

Austria is a country where people still don’t like talking about money. So it is your job to address it, and to address it in a way that makes the candidates comfortable to tell you what they would like, and what they need. Those are two different things. Ideally, your candidates will tell you both what their optimum and their minimum salary expectations are. Then you are in a good place to start negotiations that will make both of you happy.

Satisficing

Satisficing describes a decision making principle where you take the first option that fits your bill sufficiently well – the first satisfying option. This is in contrast to optimising, where you look for the best, or optimal solution. 

Satisficing goes back to boiling your requirements down to the very core of the most important requirements that you have. When you need to select your candidates, you need to make sure that you select the ones that fulfil the most important criteria, not the ones that fulfil the most criteria. It can also be about deciding for the candidate who is most likely to develop into your ideal candidate, even if they might not be there yet.

Bottom line

Being a young startup, we cannot claim to have the deepest insight or unique learnings to offer. In the past, we found that it is often easier to see what is important when doing something for the very first time. We decided to share our learnings in the hope that they might be useful, without any claim to exhaustiveness, exclusivity, or appropriateness for all situations. 

To sum up, these are the points we found helpful:

  • Be proactive: e.g. by using your and your team’s networks to find candidates.
  • If the pond is empty, fish in a different pond: e.g. by working with training centres.
  • Prioritise: the better you know what is important to you, the more likely you are to find it.
  • Personality matters: yours, and your candidate’s.
  • Know what you can offer: beyond salary.
  • Money: talk about it early and often.
  • Satisficing: the best candidate might be the first one that is good enough.