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
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:
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.”
At first, from the developers’ perspective, all this attention can be nicely flattering. Who, after all, doesn’t like being courted? But the emails (and the calls, and even, yes, the text messages that Hrivnak occasionally resorts to) add up. Aaron Patterson, the prolific Rails contributor, got two emails a day, over the course of three days, from the same recruiter. Shannon Rush, apparently, got one or more notes from the same recruiter “just about every day for weeks” before adding an email filter for the recruiter’s address. Patterson created a website, recruiterspam.com, that attempts to collect the recruitment emails coders and their colleagues have received in order to discern trends (and one day, he laughs, “generate our own recruiter emails”).
Patterson is onto something: There’s a cycle to these emails. LinkedIn’s keen tracking of job-holder milestones means that recruiters can search for candidates who have been at their jobs for a year or more—and are thus, ostensibly, plum for the poaching. Olex Ponomarenko is a full stack developer, which means he’s nimble with both backend (database) and front-end (design) web development. That combination of skills, not to mention a 14-month stint at Google, makes him particularly sought after—especially by startups, whose mandates for leanness give them an incentive to hire people with as many skill sets as possible.
Ponomarenko has kept track of the recruitment emails he’s received through LinkedIn alone. He shared them with me. They look, over time, like this:
You can essentially track Ponomarenko’s career movements, in other words, through the ebbs and flows of recruitment emails he’s received as he's made them. He joined Google in July 2011. He hit his one-year mark there in 2012. He joined a new firm, Big Human, in September 2012. He hit his one-year mark there, of course, in September 2013. “It looks like the number of emails is lowest about two to three months after starting a new job, and peaks around the one-year mark,” he notes.
Social networks' ease of use, Ponomarenko thinks, can make it easy—too easy—for recruiters to pursue him. Mark Rickert agrees. The iOS developer, who has been programming recreationally for 26 years and professionally for 12, is similarly sought-after by recruiters. To the extent that he has put the following note on his LinkedIn page:
This message, its ALL CAPS notwithstanding, generally goes ignored, Rickert told me. The emails still arrive—some of them without a mention of the LinkedIn line, others with an off-handed reference to it. And "some people have been really unapologetic,” Rickert says. The flood of messages has reached such an extreme, at this point, that “I've actually been thinking about deleting my LinkedIn profile.” Rickert currently has a senior development role at a boutique firm in North Carolina, where he gets to do side projects that include both skydiving and developing a skydiving-themed iPhone app. He is not looking to be poached. The opposite, in fact. “I don't anticipate going anywhere else, ever,” he says. If he leaves his current job, it will be to start his own company—no recruiter necessary.
The developers, tech-savvy as they are, could simply filter these notes and spare themselves the spam. Many do. (The site awfulrecruiters.com features an extensive list of recruiter URLS that can be used to create a catch-all—or, well, catch-many—filter.) But there’s also the flattery thing, and the human-optimism thing, and the tiny little chance that a recruiter is writing with a good offer that might get you a salary bump or a telecommuting gig or a cubicle in the Googleplex.
The assumption recruiters make is generally a fair one: that tech talent is always striving for more—more seniority, more responsibility, more money. And, indeed, it’s not that engineers and coders don’t want to hear about job opportunities; it’s that they want to hear about them from humans rather than humanoid bots. Yesterday, the software engineer Paddy Foran’s “Open Letter to Recruiters” made its way to Hacker News, the link-sharing board regularly read and commented on by tech-industry denizens. The letter reads as a genuine attempt to improve the relationship between recruiters and the techies they’re meant to recruit.
“Dear Recruiter,” it begins,
You are probably reading this post because you failed to approach me in a way that was in any way conducive to generating interest in working for your client. In the interest of getting fewer pitches that help nobody, I’ve written this handy guide to pitching me. I suspect it will serve you well in pitching other engineers.
That "recruiter" could also include an in-house talent scout. A worker-hungry industry has meant that even the firms in the echelons of the tech space can sometimes err toward excess in their recruitment strategies. The University of Virginia senior Nishant Shukla, who's a top student in computer science and has been recruited for summer internships at, among others, Zynga, Microsoft, and Facebook, told me that, even at those firms, "the interview process is a bit impersonal." Earlier this month, the computer scientist Colin Percival published the following Dear John letter:
Dear Google Recruiting...
We dated briefly in 2006. You flew me down to visit you in Mountain View, and I had a good time. A few weeks later you proposed to me, but I decided that you weren't really what I was looking for, and I rejected you. I know it's hard to accept, but I really think it's time you moved on.
In October 2007, you wrote to me asking if I'd reconsider; I talked to one of my friends who works for you, and he talked to one of his friends in recruiting, who put "DO NOT CONTACT" on my file. I hoped that would be clear, but apparently not. In December 2009, you wrote to me again, and when I asked if you noticed the "DO NOT CONTACT", you replied that it was in the system, but since it had been two years, you decided to ignore it. In May 2010, you wrote to me again. I replied by asking you to change the "DO NOT CONTACT" to "DO NOT CONTACT ON PAIN OF DEATH".
That seemed to work for a while, but in February 2013 you wrote to me again and (when I asked) claimed that the "DO NOT CONTACT" was not in your system, but said that you would update your records. In September 2013, I met two of your employees at EuroBSDCon, and they pulled up my file and confirmed that I had a clear "DO NOT CONTACT" on my file (the "ON PAIN OF DEATH" seemed to have never gotten recorded), and told me that anyone ignoring this could be fired because the last thing you want to do is annoy good developers.
In November 2013, I was contacted via LinkedIn. When I ignored the message, I received another one the following month from the same recruiter, which I also ignored. And now a second recruiter has contacted me on LinkedIn.
You're a great company. I use a lot of your services. A lot of my friends work for you. But I don't want to. I found(ed) a very nice company which I work for, and nothing you say is going to make me leave it in order to be with you. So please, it's time to move on and find someone else. It's getting a bit creepy, and I don't want to have to get a restraining order.
There may be, certainly, an element of humblebrag to this, and to developers’ general delight in discussing the vagaries of recruitment excess. (Percival, for the record, insists that he posted his rant only because he knew his experience was common. “This isn't about me,” he writes; “it's about Google recruiting being out of control in their ‘sourcing’ efforts.”) There is, many I spoke with acknowledge, a certain sense of pride that comes with being sought-after. And those of us who are not getting 30 monthly job opportunities, of course, may not feel too much pity for the plight of the sought-after programmer.
But flattery is a funny thing. It can get you everywhere; it can get you nowhere. One Valley-based recruiter included, as a signature to an email sent to a job candidate, the following client-focused pitch for his services:
Are you currently trying to fill any particularly challenging yet vital positions? A highly skilled recruiter can make all the difference. Nothing is more valuable to a corporation than its 'human capital', and a recruiter can save you time and money by filling a key position quickly, without the expenditure of countless wasted man-hours spent on a futile effort.
Use a Recruiter You Can Trust!
There's something to be said, however, for man-hours, and for emphasizing the "human" aspects of "human capital." The best recruiters may be the ones who understand that. "The good people, you never see them," Hansson says. They're the ones who do their work quietly, strategically, behind the scenes, without feeling the need to reference the "HOT POSITIONS" they're trying to fill. They're the ones, basically, who use the Internet's affordances to work harder, rather than less.
“It's a crazy world, for sure,” the recruiter Kelli Hrivnak says. “But I'm a glutton for punishment.”