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How To Recruit Senior Engineers

One of the biggest challenges in our industry is how to hire more senior engineers. It’s a big challenge in a fallow market and perhaps counter-intuitively, even tougher in a strong and competitive market (eg, San Francisco, New York City, London). But the good news is that it’s not impossible–it just requires a different strategy.

The first thing you have to know about hiring senior engineers is that they don’t apply to your job postings cold.

A senior engineer (by definition) has been in the industry for a while already, and will generally have a strong personal network of current/former colleagues. They don’t need to hit the job boards to find their next job–they just grab lunch or drinks with an old coworker. They’re never really on the market, because they’re never really actively looking for a job. Many senior engineers will change jobs without ever applying anywhere or even conducting what we’d normally think of as a job search.

This stands at odd with how you hire more junior engineers (who apply to your job postings en masse). To hire senior engineers, you have to change your strategy.

Senior engineers must be recruited

You have to find them and convince them to join you. Unfortunately, there isn’t a magical website full of senior talent looking for their next job, so hiring senior engineers takes some time and patience. Be prepared to be flexible with your interview process: a senior engineer who is happily employed isn’t going to apply to your role just because you invited them to do so.

Where your hiring process for a junior/mid level engineer looks this like:

Post the req on job boards –> Candidate submits application –> You interview them

The process for hiring a senior engineer looks something like this:

Find them –> Gauge their interest in your role –> One or more informal interviews over coffee/drinks/lunch –> They formally apply for the role –> Standard interview process takes over

Where to find them

Okay, so senior engineers aren’t magically flocking to you and you know you have to go find them yourself. But where do start?

There are two main methods you can use: referral and cold, direct outreach.

Referral

This is by far the most effective method of recruiting anyone, but works especially well for senior engineers. It’s also really simple: ask your colleagues and extended network for who you should talk to.

Start by talking to your own team and ask, “Who do you know that we should hire for this role?”

A variation, if you have some experienced engineers on the team already, is, “Who should we hire but probably can’t get?” This one is especially good because chances are, your experienced engineers know a few amazing people that, in their mind, could never be convinced to leave their current job. We know better, of course: people can be enticed to change jobs for many reasons, and it’s all a matter of understanding what someone wants and then giving it to them.

Next, talk to other engineering managers, whether in your company or at other companies. They are often aware of great candidates they can’t (or couldn’t) hire, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be a great fit for your roles. So ask them who they know might be interested in a new job.

Cold, direct outreach

Sometimes you hit a wall with referrals, and building your own network is a long game. For that, we have cold, direct outreach. This isn’t nearly as effective as referrals, but it still works great, and is best done in parallel with the referral strategy. Caveat though: your success rate won’t be great. If you’re doing well, you’ll get a 50% initial response rate. Don’t get too discouraged if you’re only getting 20-30% initial response rate.

Some ideas for where to find senior engineers:

* Conferences & Meetups: They’ll likely be speaking, not merely attending–though not always (there are many amazing engineers who don’t speak at events)
* Podcasts: Look at the top engineering podcasts and see who hosts them and who has guested on them
* Blogs: Many great engineers maintain an active blog
* Github, StackOverflow, Hacker News: Top contributors on these sites can often be wonderful hires.
* Niche sites: If your role involves a niche technology (eg Clojure), then involve yourself in that community. You’ll find great engineers rather quickly.

How to reach out

Once you’ve found a few people you’d like to reach out to, whether they came via referrals or your own direct research, it’s time to make contact. There are a few rules you should keep in mind to increase your chances of success and to not be a bother to the person.

Rule 1

Be a company they’d want to work for. This can mean different things to different people. How do you find out what they want in their next role? Simple: you ask them.

Rule 2

You must do the outreach, not a recruiter/HR. Recruiters, rightly or wrongly, have a reputation for taking a spray-and-pray approach to finding candidates. Even if your recruiters don’t take that approach, there’s no way someone outside of your company would know that. However, when an engineering manager makes direct contact themselves, it shows real effort has been put in, and you will be much more likely to get a response to your email.

Rule 3

Your outreach must be extremely personalized. Do your research. If you’re looking at someone who is well-known in the Rails world and has spent a huge chunk of their career working with Rails, there’s a good chance they want their next role to be something involving Rails–don’t reach out about a completely unrelated role. Likewise, if they have any recent, public work, it can be a good hint at what they might be interested in working on next.

 

Recruiting senior engineers this way will take time, so be patient and keep at it. I know engineers receiving a dozen or more emails from recruiters a day and they ignore most of them. The key to standing out is doing your homework and making your outreach about them.