entrepreneurship recruiting

Mon Jun 23 14:39:00 -0700 2008

Once or twice a week, I get an email from a recruiter looking to hire a Ruby developer. I can spot these within the first half a sentence, and delete them without reading the rest. Obviously they got my name someplace and didn’t stop to notice that I’m the founder of VC-backed startup and am by no means looking for employment. I suspect that most other Rubyists get the same sort of emails, and the better known you are, the more you get.

These emails are the waste product of an inefficient recruiting system. There are tons of Rubyists out there that very much want a day job using the language they love. There are also tons of great companies, big and small, who very much need to hire said Rubyists. But there’s no good mechanism for making those matches efficiently.

The first generation of web-based recruiting technology (, tried to solve this in a straightforward way. If it’s just a search problem, then throwing a bunch of job postings and resumes online with keywords and parameters like years of experience should do the trick, right? Turns out - no, not in the slightest. I used these sites a few times in hiring for the first company I founded, and they were borderline useless. Turns out that making a hacker <-> company match is way harder than just “you need code, I need a paycheck, let’s connect.”

This is a nearly identical problem to the one faced by dating sites. Again, you’ve got millions of people out there who want to make some sort of romantic connection with another person. But the parameters aren’t as straightforward as it seems. Posting an ad on a dating site which states “I am a heterosexual male, seeking a heterosexual female as a mate” probably won’t get you a lot of response. Even though there are in fact millions of heterosexual females out there looking for a heterosexual male mate.

You might think that this just a matter of needing more parameters. For dating, that’s stuff like smoker or non, drinker or non, age, photos, hobbies, and favorite movies. For hiring, it’s skills (languages and tools), years of experience, and keywords like “self-managing” or “enterprise” or “agile.” This stuff certainly helps, but it’s not enough - not enough by far. A dating site may make what seems like a perfect match, but more often than not, no sparks fly when the people meet face-to-face. A recruiting site can also fit based on quantitative parameters, but then the moment you sit down to start the interview, you discover something like that the energy level of the candidate’s personality is a total mismatch with that of the company’s engineering team.

In dating, we call this bit of magic “chemistry.” If you don’t have chemistry with someone, it doesn’t matter how many hobbies you share. In hiring, we call this magic bit “culture.” If the hacker’s culture doesn’t match with his employer, it doesn’t matter whether the hacker’s years of experience with a certain technology and desired salary are a perfect match with employer’s open position.

So what is the next-generation solution? Recruiters, in my opinion, are nearly worthless. I’ve experienced using them on both sides and while they do occasionally make a good match, as near as I can tell that’s usually blind luck. Yet they get paid a huge amount - $10k - $20k/yr for the length of the employment is common. I don’t think that the value they provide is really on par with this price; and I think both employer and employee would be much happier if that money could go into the employee’s salary instead of to the recruiter. This particular avenue seems like a dead-end to me.

So how about a next-generation technology solution? There’s Catch the Best, which is a tool to help manage the screening process. And there are two startups in my Y Combinator session, Snaptalent and Joberator. Snaptalent seems to understand the importance of culture, and have a lot of features like embedded video to try to help convey culture - like in this job listing for Anybots. They are also not offering a generalized search solution, but instead only expose the ads on targeted sites - blogs related to the particular industry or area of interest of the available position.

This only addresses one side of the problem, though. The other problem is that top people are never actually out looking for new employment. (This insight comes by way of Joel Spolsky, in a rare recent moment of relative lucidity.) Using myself as a data point, this seems correct: I’ve never once been on the job market. (Although since most of my career has been as a founder, I may not be representative.) Back in my employee days, I never really went looking for a job. I’d just start to get disillusioned with, or bored of, my current job. Then a friend or former co-worker would get hired someplace else and talk me into coming with them. So it was a matter of being solicited at exactly the right time.

This is why recruiters have the traction they do: they go out and bug people who, 99% of the time, are annoyed at being bugged. But 1% of the time it spurs them into action, even though they may not have been quite at the point of wanting to go start scanning job ads yet. Surely we can come up with a recruiting process which reduces that wasteful 99%.