Imagine Getting 30 Job Offers a Month (It Isn't as Awesome as You Might Think)

Web developers and engineers on the spammy economics of tech recruitment emails
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David Heinemeier Hansson is a book author, a public speaker, a photographer, a father, a race car driver, and the founder and CTO of the productivity management tool Basecamp. He is probably best known, however, as the creator of Ruby on Rails, the open-source web development framework that is popular with coders for its efficiency and ease of use.

Hansson is, in a certain sector, a celebrity.

It was funny, then, when Hansson received the following email

Hi David,
I came across your profile online and wanted to reach out about Development Opportunities here at Groupon. The company is growing, and we're always looking for folks with solid skills that can make positive contribution to our continued success. Any chance you'd be open to a quick conversation about opportunities, or for any possible networking potential? If so, let me know when you're free and we can set up a time to chat. Also, if you are interested, it would be great if you could forward a current resume over that I can take a look at. I look forward to hearing back from you! Please let me know if you have any questions.

This was the rough equivalent of asking Toni Morrison to write for your high school newspaper, or of gauging Mario Batali’s interest in becoming your line cook. Hansson was being asked, perkily and politely, for a resume that would prove his skills as a junior developer on the framework he had created

“That’s just one of a very long list of incidents that are quite similar in nature,” Hannson told me. “And they all stem from the basic fact that very few recruiters today actually do recruiting.”

It’s a common complaint. Talk to many people in tech about tech recruiters—people whose job is ostensibly to get them better ones—and they will often groan. And sigh. And use the word “spam.” Repeatedly.

“They harvest emails from GitHub or elsewhere," Hansson says, "and then they build up these massive spam lists. And then they just blast everybody with absolutely no shame whatsoever.”

This is a logical consequence of a tech boom that features, among other things, a job market desperate for coders, developers, designers, and engineers. Firms large and small, across Silicon Valley and beyond, are competing with each other for the still-relatively-small pool of tech talent being churned out of colleges and universities and, sometimes, parents’ basements. Larger companies often have their own, in-house recruiters (who tend to target job candidates with precision, and are generally well-regarded); smaller ones often rely on third-party agencies to do their headhunting for them. They are all extremely eager.

A note from a third-party recruiter might look like this: 

Hi, ****

** **

I was trying to reach you about, *Senior Ruby on Rails Developer* a client in *Englewood, CO*. Please find more details below, as this is a *HOT POSITION* and *URGENT*,  please reply back to me soon. *And even ready to pay any rate*****

** **

It might also take a message-board form—as in this note, from October 2013, subject-lined “Hot Digital Media Startup in SF Bay Seeks RoR CTO and Coders” and also sent out as an email blast:

Attention talented Ruby on Rails Coders,

My new client is an exciting startup in the SF Bay area which has just closed on VC funding and is actively seeking to hire a hands-on CTO and several senior-level RoR coders with 3+ years of experience. They are a web and mobile platform solution allowing artists to sell digital content directly to the consumer. They have already established multiple "serious" music celebrities as members and are rapidly acquiring more. The position offers competitive salary, benefits, and pre-IPO stock options.

The reason “spam” is invoked so often to describe these messages is that they’re often only loosely targeted to individual candidates. “They’ll misspell your name in the email,” says Alan deLevie, a Rails developer based in Washington, D.C., who often finds himself on the receiving end of offers from ad agencies and consulting firms. “They'll spin off tech acronyms in a way that makes clear that they don't know what they mean.”

The emails may be written by humans; what chafes their recipients, however, is their appearance of roboticism. There’s often a Priceline-esque “mystery deal” element to the notes; they generally don’t name the company that’s hiring (though “you can sometimes figure it out,” the Rails developer Aaron Patterson told me), and they’re often cryptic about the details of the jobs themselves.

“The language is pretty consistent, I would say,” says Olex Ponomarenko, a developer based in New York who gets, he estimates, an email pretty much every day. “They all claim that it's a useful company full of really smart people out to change the world. And when you hear this 30 times a month, it's kind of weird.”

It’s the logic of spam email, essentially, applied to human capital. LinkedIn and its counterparts make the broad targeting of potential job candidates exceptionally easy; you can search its database for key terms—“rails,” “full-stack,” “engineer,” that kind of thing—and then send emails, via cut-and-paste or a simple script, to the people being sought. In the case of a filled job, recruiters get a hefty cut (sometimes as high as 30 percent, one told me) of the filled position’s salary.

Those portions add up quickly, particularly given that the positions being filled are for tech jobs with, depending on your perspective, awesomely and/or depressingly inflated salaries. Recruiters who send this form of cyborgian spam, just like traditional email spammers, are often simply playing a numbers came. It only takes a few successes to make emailing worth their while. And given the current demands—and rewards—of the job market, the odds are, as it were, ever in their favor. “I think the tragedy of it, actually," Hansson says, "is that it does work.” 

At their best, these emails offer the possibility of career advancement. At their worst, they are the tech-boom equivalent of the old Nigerian-prince trick. Their pitch is advocacy rather than royalty, with the windfalls they promise taking the form of high salaries, office perks, and stock options.

***

That’s not to say that every recruitment email is a spam email. There’s variation in all this. “I've actually met some recruiters who are actually really good,” says Patterson. Many know their fields. Many take the time to customize their pitches. Many make the assumption that also happens to be the default assumption of web salesmanship in general: that smart targeting is the best kind of targeting.

As the recruiter Kelli Hrivnak puts it: “They'll eat you alive, the tech people, if you don't know what you're talking about.”

The tension comes down to the efficiencies the web has brought to the recruiting process—which can help to target job candidates on the one hand, and create those spammy incentives on the other. Hrivnak, based at the firm Life Search Technologies in the D.C. area, points out that the recruitment process used to be, pretty much, “you get a phone book and you just start cold-calling people.” She works in a relatively small market; her clients tend to be ad agencies and consulting firms more than large tech firms. (I tried, and failed, to speak with Valley-based recruiters, who seem to be considerably less eager to return emails than to send them.) While Hrivnak and her colleagues still use job boards to post vacancies they’re helping to hire for, more and more, she says, “we're relying on referrals or a lot of the social networking tools liked LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to identify people in the market.”

Which is another way of saying that, as the web encourages us to become ever more public and performative about our daily doings, it also functions as a kind of de facto resume—for coders as for the rest of us. “You have GitHub, you have Stack Overflow,” Hrivnak says, “where they're going onto these websites and building out and showing projects publicly.” The programmers she’s targeting are “out there on the web, with their information, engaging with people about their Meetup groups or whatever the case might be.”

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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