What Brings All the Devs to the Yard? How to Find the Best Technical Talent for Your Agency

What Brings All the Devs to the Yard? How to Find the Best Technical Talent for Your Agency
How to Find the Best Technical Talent for Your Agency: 2016

It’s a question faced by just about any agency: how do you attract and acquire the best developer talent out there?

First, a quick introduction. We’re Tony Santucci, lead full-stack engineer, and Courtney Freeland, associate front-end developer, both at Rocket Code. In this article, the first in a two-part series, we’re going to explore the best ways to get the best technical employees to join your team. (The second article will dive into how to retain those employees.)

Since we’re both developers ourselves, the hiring and retaining of developers is our frame of reference in this article series — but the insights we’ve uncovered should be applicable across the spectrum.

Asking why

Last month, Rocket Code had its first quarterly meeting. The meeting gave everyone at the company, from founders to developers, a chance to step back from the day-to-day, and look back at not just our growth in the quarter, but the state of the company as a whole. As part of this retrospective, we all asked ourselves one question.

Why do we choose Rocket Code?

This question had two parts; why we chose to work for this company initially, and why we continue to work here every day. We also found that these questions had different answers, and that our motivations to join the team were not necessarily the same as our reasons to continue our careers here.

It’s critical for employers to recognize both parts of this “why” question; they not only have to motivate their employees to start working for them, but also cater to employees’ changing motivations to continue working for them.

The first part of that “why” question, how to motivate employees to start working for you, is what we’re going to focus on today. Attracting and retaining technical employees (read: developers) can be a challenge for any organization, even at the best of times. Doing so becomes even more important when you find yourself in the midst of a full-swing talent deficit.

There are many strategies out there for finding the right employees, regardless of what business you are in, and many of them might work for you when attempting to find the right developers. But if you want to maximize your chances of wooing the best tech talent, you’re going to have to employ some specialized tactics.

How to Find the Best Technical Talent for Your Agency: What Brings All The Devs to the Yard? Man walking into building
So, what exactly brings the devs to the yard?

First impressions count

To secure the best talent, be prepared to take your hiring in-house.

One of the biggest hiring trends in the tech industry right now is the use of agencies and placement firms. These solutions have a time and place, but they generally aren’t for finding your long-term candidates.

If you just need some temporary assistance, or the ability to tackle an isolated project that doesn’t match your team’s core skill set, then by all means hit up the agencies. However, the workhorses of dependability that you want at the core of your technical stack, are likely going to come to you through other channels.

Remember, whether through a third party or directly with your company, a developer’s first impression of your company is their first interaction. It’s your opportunity to show them that you take this process seriously and care about the outcomes. The interactions fostered through a third party, however, are transactional and rarely convey the passion and care you can share through direct personal communication with your candidate.

Courtney’s experience dealing with talent agencies and recruiters confirmed this insight. She discovered that learning about a prospective employer through someone who doesn’t work there can be off-putting, and makes it hard to gauge what the company is actually like. Every interaction she had with a recruiting firm before joining Rocket Code fizzled out in one way or another, mostly due to the impersonal nature of the interactions. It’s simply hard to take someone who has “a new opportunity for someone with skills such as yours!” seriously.

“Fast-growing agency seeks passionate effort-multipliers”

How to Find the Best Technical Talent for Your Agency: Effort-Multiplier
You’re looking for a rock star. Don’t settle for less.

You should never be afraid to invest in an employee’s career development. If the employee is up to the challenge, it can prove immensely rewarding for not only your company, but also for the employee’s career, as well.

This advice may sound like we’re jumping ahead — we’re talking about recruiting in this article, after all — but you can and should begin the investment into that mutually beneficial development when you start the hiring process.

To clarify, you should define not only what a candidate needs to qualify for the job, but also what they need to satisfy for it. You shouldn’t solely look to fulfill minimum prerequisites for a role, but for indicators of likely success.

Endeavor to find someone with a proven record of large-scale problem solving. Endeavor to find someone who can share the experience of picking apart problems and root-cause analysis. Endeavor to find the candidate who is going to have the biggest impact, not the one who will have the quickest impact. Endeavor to find the candidate with the potential to multiply not only their efforts, but the efforts of those around them. Syntax is straightforward to learn; problem-solving skills, harmonious fit, and the delicate balance between pride and hubris? Not so much.

Every employer has the ultimate goal of finding someone with the technical skills to become a rock star at their company. Everyone wants the most talented person they can find,which is completely understandable. However, they should not automatically place technical skills over ones that can’t be taught. Passion for the field, a desire to learn and grow, and problem-solving skills are much more valuable than experience in the latest trendy programming language.

This point also hits close to home for Courtney; she was hired by Rocket Code fresh out of college, with no experience in the field. She didn’t have the skills Rocket Code was initially looking for, but the company saw a passion and an eagerness to learn.

How to Find the Best Technical Talent for Your Agency: Coding
Courtney started as an intern, learned the technical skills over time, and is now a full-time associate developer.

Finding the right fit, face-to-face

Finding a candidate who is a harmonious fit with your team and has a passion to learn sounds like a solid plan now, right? But how do you know what qualities will make a candidate a great fit?

Before your company begins the process of hiring any new employees, you need to have a clear set of company values. What does your team believe in? What skills or principles are critical to those beliefs? Once you’ve answered these questions, make a list of competencies that every employee should demonstrate to support your values. People with a similar work ethic and values simply work better together. Striving for fit will not only help in smoothly onboarding a new employee, but will also help foster the kind of morale that will keep that employee motivated over the long term.

You can start evaluating for fit the first time you sit down with the candidate for an interview. The values and competencies you’ve already determined to be important should be used to frame the questions you ask the candidate, as well as in your evaluation of their responses. And be sure to pay attention to not just what the candidate says, but how they conduct themselves in the interview. The in-person interview is a rich environment that lets you learn a lot about someone, if you go about it deliberately.

So when you’re face-to-face with the candidate, take the time to measure the impact of that interaction. Can the candidate converse with you openly and confidently? Monitor their eye contact, challenge their opinions, and express empathy for things that come up during the discussion. All the while, keep note on how the candidate is reacting, both verbally and nonverbally. Check-in with your intuition about the candidate. The insights you gain in this way will serve you well.

The information you gather face-to-face will tell you far more than any questionnaire could — and you shouldn’t be the only one gathering these in-person insights. So have someone from the team you’re hiring into do the same. Then invite someone from another team or from a different area of the business, and ask the same of them.

Give the people who will depend on the candidate, and those on whom the candidate will depend, an opportunity to present feedback on the fit of the candidate. There are very few things more disheartening than leaving an interview as a potential hire, having spent an hour in a room talking to a single person. Including more hearts and more hands in the interview will help you more thoroughly vet the potential recruit, and they you.

Also remember that when you’re interviewing and evaluating a potential recruit, it’s not enough just to seek a good fit. It’s also important to communicate to the interviewee that you value finding the correct fit, not only for the team you are hiring for, but for the organization overall. This transparency will serve to fortify the trust you’re hopefully beginning to foster with the candidate.

How to Find the Best Technical Talent for Your Agency: Play Chess
Challenge your candidate to a board game. You never know what you might learn.

Doing all this isn’t necessarily going to be a silver bullet for finding a fit, though. Many people can successfully put on a persona in an interview setting, and you need to break through it if you’re going to get a good read on them.

One of the strategies Tony has used to disrupt personas is to force the candidate to focus on something else, for instance, by challenging a candidate to a game of checkers during the interview. Often, human nature will take over and they will attempt to win the game.

That means the concentration needed to maintain the persona will be interrupted, letting you see what’s behind the curtain. You can achieve a similar effect by inviting them out to lunch at a place that has servers (self-service places don’t have the same effect, you need the outside interference.)

Finally, you need to show your candidates that you’re methodical and honest about your hiring process. If you determine early on that a candidate won’t be an ideal fit, then be honest and move on. Expect the same from them, too, as this is just as much about them interviewing you.

Conversely, if the candidate has satisfied a milestone in your process, be clear about it and let them know what comes next. The forethought and consideration you show during this process will foster the trust that underpins the entire relationship.

Hiring the best is just the start

If you take away anything from this article, it should be this: when looking for your next star developer, let your team speak for itself. No outside agency can speak to your company’s values and character, and you can’t rely on technical skills or experience as the best measure of fit. You’ll know you’ve found the right person for the job when it’s clear both parties want to learn and grow together.

Hopefully, these insights will help you ramp up your hiring practices a couple notches. But regardless of the improvements you make at the front-end of the process, there’s still a simple truth that applies to every company, every day: your employees can take their talents elsewhere at any time.

They may decide they want a more challenging position, or that their career development needs are not being met. And with LinkedIn constantly reminding users that hundreds of companies in their area are looking for their talents, the draw to the next big job opportunity is always present.

So what keeps your employees coming back?

In our next article, we’ll look into the transition from motivation to retention, how to harness that initial impetus to join your team, and ensure it continues over the course of every employee’s career.

About the Author

Tony Santucci is a lead full-stack engineer and Courtney Freeland is an associate front-end developer at Rocket Code, a certified Shopify Plus Partner that’s proud to build solutions that fuel revenue and profit growth for Chubbies Shorts, QALO, Stash Tea, Canonical, and other best-in-class brands.

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