Informational Interviews for People Who Don’t Need Them

Feb 26, 2014

Sourcing has always been the hardest part of recruiting experienced, employed professionals (my experience has been with software developers). It’s much easier for me after I get into a serious conversation with candidates. I can establish rapport and find out what it takes to make them happy. But getting them to talk to me in the first place? Now that’s tough. 

Skilled developers don’t leave much of an opening to get through to them. Recruiters rarely get a response: Developers treat their messages as spam.

And of course, employed developers almost never apply to job ads, unless they have some external reason like following a spouse to another city.

In principle, they do want to talk to employers, if there’s a good chance of a much better position. But they don’t want to waste time talking about unsuitable jobs. More than that, they’re embarrassed to send their resume around and appear desperate, when they’re comfortable — if not fully satisfied — with their current position.

The result of all this is that anyone who applies to your senior software engineer position is signaling that they’re not qualified for it. Something has to be wrong there.

How can employers resolve this paradox?

What’s hard for recruiters works out naturally for a company’s professional employees. The best hires come from the employees’ professional network. A-player candidates love it when they can talk to a colleague who also loves the same professional challenges as them. They want to work with other A-players.

“Social recruiting” is great, but a company’s employees only know a fraction of the talented professionals who you’d want to hire. Many developers, whether your employees or potential candidates, don’t have strong professional networks, even though they know they should. Many top software engineers are introverts who don’t want to spend the time chatting up colleagues, but these are still people you want to have working for you.

Newcomers to an industry are advised to try informational interviews, in which they ask an industry professional to talk about what it’s like to work at their company.

But it’s not just newcomers. Some technology companies are pioneering a new approach for connecting to experienced, employed professionals, using their own employees as a bait. They let these potential candidates directly reach out to their peers in the company, even ones that they don’t yet know, to chat about each other’s work.

Such conversations are fundamentally different from informational interviews with students and the unemployed. Employed software developers come to the discussion from a position of strength. They’re not just asking a favor from the person who agrees to talk to them, and both sides can benefit equally. If the peer-to-peer chat goes well, the two professionals can go for coffee, and if it goes really well, the insider can recommend the potential candidate for technical interviews, which are then more relaxed and comfortable than the usual.

Hiring managers and HR departments are accelerating this communication with ambassador programs. They highlight their “ambassadors” on the company’s website and in ads across the Web, to let other developers know that they can talk to peers — people who speak their language and will tell it like it is. With carefully screening of contacts to let through only the serious professionals, this poses a minimum burden on employees’ time.

I contacted some CEOs and hiring managers to see if ambassador programs work for them. Ev Kotsevoy, director of product at Rackspace Hosting, said that though incoming cold contacts has in the past been rare, some of the ones he has received have proven to be an effective way to make a great hire. Martin Shen, CEO of UpOut, was enthusiastic about the value of employee ambassadors: “Informational interviews are a fantastic way to recruit new potential candidates.” He claims that there’s no significant burden on his employees’ time and in fact, he’s asked his software developers to respond even more quickly to get the conversations going.

Most developers — and that includes many of the best — don’t go to meetups, don’t have a lot of LinkedIn connections, and don’t socialize with their industry colleagues. To connect to them, you need to make them feel comfortable contacting peers who can sell them on your corporate culture from an insider’s perspective. By setting up your own software developers as ambassadors, you open up a new channel into your company from the 99 percent of top brainpower that’s not yet working for you.

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