Do You Make These Mistakes When Recruiting Software Developers?

by Ville Laurikari on Thursday, August 13, 2009


Picture the last time you were hiring.  Did you have trouble finding the best programmers and technical talent?

Well, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s my top list of big mistakes I’ve seen or done myself, and some helpful pointers on how to avoid them.

Do you post boring job ads?

The world is full of ordinary and basic job ads.  The first step in the long and rocky road to a successful hire is to get people to make note of your ad.  Spend time crafting a killer job ad which captures developers’ attention.

Do you post ads in the wrong places?

You have to know your target audience.  Post your ad to the relevant places which great developers follow.  At the moment, one of these places might be  These things change quickly, so be sure to follow the trends even though you’re not looking to hire right now.

Do you fail to immediately answer all applications?

A long time ago, I applied for a programmer job at a well known Finnish software company.  I sent them my resume but heard nothing back for a long time.  Finally, after several weeks of submitting my application, I received a reply thanking me for my interest in the “storage attendant job”, and informed me that unfortunately at this time they cannot hire me.  By then I had already been hired somewhere else.

You should immediately answer all job applications to let the applicant know that their application was received.  Also inform the applicant on how your recruiting process works, and when should they expect to hear more from you.  Radio silence will never work to your advantage.

Do you skip phone interviews?

Phone interviews are a great way to quickly find out if the applicant is a good communicator.  Nothing is more frustrating than going through all the trouble of setting up a job interview, only to find out that you can’t quite grapple a thick Elbonian accent.

Do you hire people who “might be good”?

You should only hire people who are definitely good.  Only hire if you’re reasonably sure that the person would be a great fit in your team.  The cost for training in a developer are high.  If things don’t turn out well, you’ve lost a lot of time and money.  Not quite sure if the candidate would be great?  That’s a no hire.

Do you ignore the local universities?

This is a glaring problem at least in Finland – maybe things are better on other parts of the planet.  Universities are full of smart people.  At some point, these people start looking for their first jobs.  For the best programmers this could well be the only time they are on the job market.  For the rest of their careers they just kind of go work wherever they want.

You would be wise to build a relationship with the relevant fraternities, sororities, and student guilds.  By “relationship”, I mostly mean free beer in exchange of a little attention.  When the students start looking for that first job, your company could well be among the first that springs to mind.

Do you not do internships?

Summer internships are a fantastic way to get young and motivated people working for you, before they are forever gone from the job market.  It’s also less risky than flat-out hiring, both for the intern and your company.

Now, picture again the last time you were hiring.  What would you change if you could do it over again?

Related posts:

  1. Inside Tips for Making Me Hire You
  2. Building High Performance Software Teams

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Doc Terror August 18, 2009 at 19:38

Do you pay enough? Do you have decent benefits?

The company that I’m working for is flirting with financial disaster, so I’m looking to move on.

I found an amazing number of job listings at firms that want to hire good developers at rates from $10-$15 an hour, often with no health insurance. It’s just ridiculous. I think of my brother-in-law, who makes $80k a year filling potholes for the government. This is somebody with no education and no unusual skills. Maybe software developers need a union too.

I’m coming to think the only way I’m going to get respect as a software developer is to go into business for myself.

Ville Laurikari August 18, 2009 at 19:46

Excellent points about salary and benefits. To get (and keep) great developers, you’re going to have to treat them with respect, not as typists. Competitive salaries and good benefits are naturally part of the equation – although money is the one thing the greatest developers care least about. However, they can tell when they’re being screwed over, and won’t stand for it.

In Finland, we actually have a union for developers (well, knowledge workers in general). It can help, but it won’t turn ignorant managers into good managers. It’s really kind of solving the problem from the wrong end.

tek_news August 18, 2009 at 20:29

HNews: Mistakes When Recruiting Software Developers

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

RomanZolotarev August 18, 2009 at 21:44

Do You Make These Mistakes When Recruiting Software Developers?

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

cancel bubble August 18, 2009 at 22:15

“Do you post boring job ads?”

This is interesting to me because let’s be honest, most of the jobs ARE boring. Odds are, you’re not going to end up working on anything cool or exciting. There’s a really good chance you’ll end up working with legacy/bad code, not even new development.

Phone screens are great, but even better is to do some actual coding during the interview.

Also more important than recruiting is retaining top people. Turnover is a killer and I’ve yet to work at a company who has put any real effort/plans in place to retain top talent. I’m talking more than just annual raises (which aren’t always given).

Ville Laurikari August 18, 2009 at 23:02

most of the jobs ARE boring

This is probably true. But, maybe you can make those jobs more interesting? Turn the job into a game of improvement (of processes, tools, code quality, test coverage, efficiency, what have you) to make things exciting. Create something to strive for, something to excel at. Not everyone gets to work with the next big thing, but at least you can try to do an awesome job and learn something in the process.

Coding exercise in the interview: yes, you should definitely do that.

I completely agree with you about the importance of turnover. Retaining the top talent is not something you can do separately. It it a side-effect of a healthy organization where people enjoy working.

kevindication August 18, 2009 at 23:31

You can’t refuse to hire someone because they are from Elbonia. (Exceptions of course for citizen requirements.)Also, they didn’t reply to you (I agree, not good) but that was apparently because they hired someone, so, your advice doesn’t help in this case.

This comment was originally posted on Hacker News

fi0660 August 19, 2009 at 01:52

I think the writer was talking about communication skills instead of country of origin.At least I would think twice before applying again to a company, that hasn’t previously answered my job applications in due time, so I definitely agree with the writer on that one.

This comment was originally posted on Hacker News

Propeople August 19, 2009 at 11:00

Do You Make These Mistakes When Recruiting Software Developers? –

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

BinBlog August 19, 2009 at 13:00

Mistakes When Recruiting Software Developers –

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

Doc Terror August 19, 2009 at 17:28

@Ville Laurikari,

Where does the statement “money is the one thing the greatest developers care least about” come from? It strikes me as something ideologically tinged: the kind of statement that employers would pay the McKinsey group to issue to justify paying developers peanuts.

Why don’t we start the meme that “corporate executives care the least about money?” and that they should be wooed by free massage therapy and being able to bring their dogs to work?

Ville Laurikari August 19, 2009 at 18:31

@Doc Terror, my wording was tragically bad. What I meant to say that money rarely works as an effective way to motivate developers – we tend be more intrinsically motivated. Spolsky’s The Econ 101 Management Method explains this better than I ever could.

Certainly I don’t want to start a “developers don’t care about money” meme. Developers should get paid well, and should get a bonus just as handsome as the executive managers.

Crossbrowser August 29, 2009 at 17:50

Seth Godin just posted something along those lines (Two ways to hire (and a wrong way)).

When hiring you are the one in need (the applicants are, but the good ones don’t *need* your job) so treat them well. Giving feedback quickly is a must.

I also like your point about internships and local universities. That’s how I got hired and how we got one full-time employee and one intern. Internships are a must in my opinion and both the intern and the company benefit from them (cheap labor and great experience).

Ville Laurikari August 29, 2009 at 18:21

Yep, I also read Seth’s post and was thinking “ouch, we’re doing it wrong.”

It is not often that my first impression of a candidate (after the first five minutes) changes significantly during the interview process. So it would make sense to do those five minute interviews as Seth suggests.

Actually, I do remember one person we interviewed very thoroughly, or at least for a very long time. Initially I was against hiring him, but in the end he won us over and we ended up hiring him. It turned out he was indeed a poor fit for our team, and he didn’t stay with us for long. That kind of taught me a lesson – but now I’m thinking I’ve been interpreting that lesson incorrectly: I thought the lesson was that I should interview even harder and even more thoroughly, but probably the correct lesson is to trust your first instinct and not even try to be thorough.

The first law of bad management: If something doesn’t work, do more of it. This kind of applies to interviewing as well.

Crossbrowser August 30, 2009 at 14:36

The first five minutes are important. We don’t have the best interviewing practices where I work, but one important thing is that it must feel right. If you can enjoy talking with the person, that’s what matters. After that, we just make sure he’s actually competent (some technical questions) and that he wants the job for the good reasons (not just money or because we’re his last resort, he must want this particular job).

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