When you’re recruiting for open technical roles like engineering, the challenges can be endless. You’re often looking for skills and experience that didn’t exist 10 years ago — and that may not exist in another 10. You’re competing with big-name brands and cutting-edge start-ups. And that’s all before you get a candidate to take a good look at your job description.
Aline Lerner is an engineer-turned-recruiter who has recently focused her attention on improving the systems and processes involved in finding, interviewing and hiring engineers. And the start-up she’s co-founded, interviewing.io, is helping tech talent practice with anonymous interviews from — as well as find jobs at — companies like Facebook, Asana, Quora and Twitter.
Here are her thoughts on how to recruit in-demand tech talent when you’re competing with the big brands.
What kinds of challenges do employers face when recruiting engineers or technical talent today?
Aline Lerner: The challenges of recruiting engineers and technical talent are challenges that come with hiring all kinds of candidates. It’s a very competitive market, especially when you’re looking for senior talent. Differentiating yourself from other potential employers can be really hard.
And that’s why authenticity needs to be a priority for companies that want to stand out. Not just being true to your brand, but having the brand awareness to know what makes you special and then doubling down on that. Especially when we’re talking about engineers and technical talent, you need to be able to offer concise messaging that hits on exactly what makes you different from your competitors.
What tends to get in the way of companies being able to communicate with that level of authenticity?
Aline Lerner: In our work with top companies all over the United States, there’s often a lot of signal loss between the people working on a product and the people working on employer branding. And then the website copy or the job description goes through a few levels of corporate whitewashing, so by the time it’s out in the world, it doesn’t sound real.
This would be bad news for any candidates. But engineers are especially attuned to marketing speak. They have a very sensitive BS meter, and they care about having things be explained plainly and concisely.
For example, one of the more anaemic, generic things we’ve seen show up in job descriptions is something like, “Make an impact.” Every start-up says that. But it’s going to resonate much more strongly with a job candidate if you talk about how they’ll make an impact: the things they’ll work on and why it’s different from the start-up next door.
In fact, the best messaging to attract the candidates you want and discourage the candidates you don’t want is to be a little polarising. That way, people can self-select into whether or not they’re the kind of person who will excel with your company. If you’re writing copy that makes everyone happy, it won’t attract anyone in particular.
For companies that are getting this right, what are they doing differently?
Aline Lerner: More often than not, smaller companies are better at bridging the gap between the hiring manager and the employer brand manager. Whenever a founder is involved in the process, everything goes much better. Perhaps because, within reason, they can say whatever they want and not worry about it. At the very least, they don’t have to get it approved by several layers of HR and legal. They’re generally much more attuned with their company’s mission and values, and that comes out when they get involved in the hiring process.
What kind of common employer branding mistakes do you see employers make when they try to appeal to engineers?
Aline Lerner: That fear of being polarising often comes back to undermine the recruiting process. There’s a natural tendency for companies to want to please the entire audience. But when you do that, you create generic job descriptions that high-performance engineers are allergic to. There’s no way to please everyone, so you’ve got to use your recruiting and hiring materials to point out how you’re different. Because what’s the point of a culture if it’s exactly the same as every other culture? There’s no right or wrong when it comes to culture, but if what you highlight is completely generic, no one will want to work with you.
What common job description mistakes do employers make when they try to appeal to engineers?
Aline Lerner: Every job description has two goals. First, to get people excited about you. And second, to filter out people who aren’t a fit. Writing a good job description requires you to maintain the tension between those two things. And in this competitive job market in particular, anything a company can do to over-index on selling rather than vetting is to their advantage.
So, one thing that really gets in the way is that companies write a long bulleted list of everything they might want to see in a candidate, from years of experience to programming languages to having a university degree. But if you stop to really look at the role, they don’t actually care about those things, or they only really care about one or two items on a list of seven. They’re just a proxy to get smart people in the door.
This might seem like something you can work through when you go to interview a candidate, but this ends up excluding a lot of high-quality, nontraditional candidates who have the talent but who may not have the pedigreed education.
What tips do you have for companies that want to write better job descriptions?
Aline Lerner: Most companies need to overcome their inclination to write very generic copy. So it will help to look at each job description from the perspective of the technical talent you’re trying to appeal to. In-demand engineers looking for a new role want to answer three questions:
- What am I going to work on?
- Who am I going to work with?
- What am I going to learn, or how am I going to grow my career in this role?
Everything you write in a job description should speak to one of those points, not necessarily to what you’re looking for in a candidate.
Of course, in some cases, you might have some really cool things to say about your company, like if your company has done something amazing or is working on a super unique problem. But you still need to write about it in a way that prospective candidates will find interesting.
Other ideas include…
- Seeking out people on your team who chose to work with your company despite having other options. Ask them why they chose you and turn that into a hiring story.
- Sitting down with your job description material and asking yourself, “How would I write this if I were trying to talk a friend into working with me?”
- Identifying unique things candidates will get to do at your company that are not easily replicated. Is your user base especially interesting? Do you have a unique mission or data set that you are working on? Every company has something unique about it — but it takes time and patience to distill exactly what that is.