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.

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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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