Note: This post was adapted from a few posts I wrote on Quora (What should you know before starting your own third party engineering recruiting company? and Is it easy to become a technical recruiter from a software engineer background?). A version of it also recently appeared in Forbes.
Like many commission-based jobs, technical recruiting has a pretty low barrier to entry, everything you need to know you can probably learn on the job, and the payouts can be huge. On top of that, having an engineering background can give you a significant edge over your non-technical colleagues. However, it is not an easy field to be successful in, in much the same way that consistent, high magnitude successes in sales are difficult. Confound that difficulty with the terror that comes with striking out on your own, and you’re in for a bumpy ride. Below, I’ll share the most salient things I’ve learned in the process of launching my own technical recruiting firm. Some of these things are obvious, and some, at least for me, were entirely unexpected.
Before getting into the list, one thing I want to stress is that, if you’re thinking about doing this, you shouldn’t quit your day job until you know it’s really something you can do. People, engineers especially, tend to think that technical recruiting is easy money. Certainly, it’s not the hardest job, and it uses a very different part of your brain than writing and designing code, but by no means is it a walk in the park. Therefore, before committing to this new course, if it doesn’t create a conflict of interest with your current job, try placing people part-time while you continue to do whatever it is you’re doing now. See if you can make a placement or two before you go all-in. And, even more importantly, see if it’s something you like doing. Because the day-to-day isn’t always awesome… which brings me to the first item in the list.
1. A good chunk of recruiting is wrangling people. And that part sucks.
When I first got into recruiting, I thought that most of the job would be finding talented engineers and presenting them with great opportunities they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Sounds great, right? I thought I’d be getting paid to judge people, unearth the good ones, and rack up karma points for making their lives better.
In reality, a good chunk of the job happens after you find great engineers. You have to convince companies to talk to them because unless they fit a very specific, pedigreed mold, most companies won’t touch them with a 10 foot pole. Following up every few days to make sure that everyone who’s supposed to talk to everyone else is actually talking. Checking in to see what everyone thinks and how they’re feeling. Keeping track of your candidates’ timelines. Potentially getting into shit situations where multiple companies are interested in the same person and trying to figure out how to best recuse yourself so no one thinks you’re an asshole who’s instigating a bidding war while still trying to make sure your engineer gets the best offer they can.
It’s a hot mess. A lot of this job is like being stuck between 2 different, mildly adversarial high school cliques and making sure that, at the end of the day, they both still like you.
At the end of the day, the guys from Hacker School (formerly Hackruiter) said it best when they talked about why they pivoted away from being a recruiting org, so I’ll just quote them here.
[Recruiting is “soul-crushingly awful.”] When the idea first came up to become recruiters, pg [Paul Graham of Y Combinator] warned we’d hate it. He said it’d be miserable grunt work, but worthwhile for what it’d teach us. He was right on all counts.
A few of the many reasons recruiting sucks: You spend all your time having meetings (on the order of dozens a week) and writing emails. You never code. Your meetings and emails consist primarily of either rejecting people or being rejected (or watching people you like get rejected, frequently for dumb reasons). Desperate people lie to you, companies ignore you, and even if you’re ethical and upstanding, most people (understandably) initially distrust you because you’re a recruiter.
2. Dr. House is right; everybody lies.
Last year, I worked with a really great engineer who told me it was his dream to work in the ed-tech space. He also told me that one of his deal-breakers was working in advertising and that he’d never do it. I set him up at Udacity, and he did an onsite interview. Then, while he was in town, for shits and giggles, he interviewed at an advertising startup where one of his friends was working. That’s the place he ended up choosing.
The truth is people will tell you all manners of lies about where they want to work, what they want to work on, and what’s important to them. But, of course, they’re not lying deliberately. It likely means you’re not asking the right questions, but sometimes knowing what to ask is really hard. For many of the questions you can think of, people will have all sorts of rehearsed answers about what they want to do, but those answer are framed to a specific audience and may not reflect reality at all. Or, a lot of the time, people simply don’t know what they want until they see it.
Because of these roadblocks to getting to the heart of what people want, I’d suggest not dwelling too much on what people say. Instead, pick some interesting companies, and get them to talk to someone who works there. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that, at the end of the day, one of the biggest parts of a recruiter’s job is to get the right two people in a room together. Regardless of industry or domain or stack or money (within reason of course), chemistry is king. Get the right two people to have the right conversation, and everything else goes out the window.
3. You should write down your principles.
This job is ethically gross. You will be tempted to do all sorts of things that you found to be abhorrent before embarking down the agency recruiting path. And the more you see them being done around you, and if you ever do them yourself, it’s a slippery slope. It’s simple really. Humans are frighteningly adaptable creatures. Scared of public speaking? Give 3 talks. The first one will be panty-wringingly horrific. Your voice will crack, you’ll mumble, and the whole time, you’ll want to vomit. The next one will be nerve-wracking. The last one will mostly be OK. And after that, you’re fine. Same thing applies to offer negotiation, approach anxiety, sex, and mathematical proofs.
And of course, it applies to vile business practices as well. When huge amounts of money are at stake, it’s easy to talk yourself into all sorts of things:
- If a candidate you’re working with has an opportunity outside of your lineup that’s clearly better for them, it’s very tempting to try to talk them out of it. Don’t do it.
- If a candidate is worth more than one of your clients is offering them, but you just want to close the deal to get your paycheck, don’t do it.
- If companies are pressuring you to disclose offer details, but your candidate asks you not to, don’t do it.
- If you know a candidate is about to accept a position because they really like their new manager, and you know that that manager is going to be leaving the company really soon, it’s going to be tempting to withhold that info. Don’t do it.
Write down what you won’t do and then keep not doing it because once you start, it’s going to be hard to stop. Which brings me to my next point.
4. Play the long game. Treat your candidates well.
In this market, finding companies who want you to help them hire is a lot easier than finding great engineers who want to work with you. Treat every engineer you work with like a precious commodity. Even if they don’t end up finding jobs through you, if you add value, are helpful, give them info they wouldn’t have had otherwise, counsel them on equity and negotiation, and go out of your way to get them the best opportunities (even if you don’t work with the companies in question), they will remember it. They will tell their friends, and they will come back the next time they’re looking. If you can get to the point where a good chunk of your business is coming from referrals, you’re doing it right.
5. If you’re risk-averse or not OK with never knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, this job is going to destroy you.
Be ready for night-sweats, terror, and creeping anxiety. If you’re working on contingency, especially at the beginning, you will likely go for months before making a hire. I started my firm in February of 2013. I didn’t get my first hire until the end of April. Those first few months were hellish. I’d wake up every morning wondering if I was ever going to make any placements. More immediately terrifying, however, was the fact that I had no idea what I was supposed to spend my time on. When I started out, I had 3 clients (2 of which were companies where I had worked previously), none of which were household names. I had no idea how to attack the chicken-and-egg problem of not having clients and not having engineers. Eventually, of course, I decided to start with the engineers, figure out what they wanted, and then beg, borrow, steal and do whatever it took to get them in front of the right people at companies they might like. But that took a lot of time, and there were never any guarantees. Brace yourself, because man is it rough in the beginning.
Which brings me to my next point.
6. Have a project to keep you sane.
When I started my firm full-time, between the night sweats and the terror that I was never going to place anybody, I was working on what eventually became Lessons from a year’s worth of hiring data. Even when I felt completely paralyzed by self-doubt, I had this one thing to keep me going. I knew that, if I could pull it off, it would be an awesome blog post. So, between sending sourcing emails and hating myself, I would spend the time counting grammatical errors and typos on people’s resumes. That work, tedious as it was, was deterministic. I knew what I needed to do and how to do it. Knowing that and feeling like I was making progress toward an achievable, well-defined goal saved my sanity in those first few months and very likely my husband’s as well.
I also started to write on Quora back then. I later learned that what I was doing was called “content marketing”. At the time, I was just doing something to feel like, despite all the unanswered emails and no hires, I was still making progress. Truth be told, if there is a single entity I can thank for my business surviving, Quora is probably it.
7. Find a way to differentiate yourself. Just having been an engineer helps, but it’s not enough.
Because of the low barrier to entry I mentioned, some of the hardest work you’re going to have to do is going to be around differentiating yourself — while getting into recruiting is easy, staying in it and consistently making good money is hard. If you come from an engineering background, as I mentioned earlier, that will be a huge help for differentiating yourself, but that will only give you a bit of a boost. At the end of the day, this is a sales job. Great engineers who are shitty salespeople will not do well at recruiting. Great salespeople with no eng background will likely do well. To that end, you’re going to have to spend time promoting yourself, whether it’s through writing, giving talks, offering services that other recruiters can’t, or something else. Self-promotion always felt very ungainly for me, so I decided to focus on data-driven blogging because then, instead of promoting myself, I could promote interesting findings and let them speak for themselves.
8. Invest in tooling as much as possible.
A lot of what you do in this business is administrative work. Anything you can invest in that will cut down on the manual aspect is going to save you time and keep you from forgetting stuff. Some of my favorite tools:
- Boomerang – this email tool will make you look to the world like you’re on top of it, even if you’re crumbling slowly on the inside.
- Evernote – the be-all and end-all of note taking. For the love of god, don’t take notes in a physical notebook. I did it for a while because I was worried about people hating hearing typing sounds over the phone. Taking notes you can’t search later is dumb.
- Lever and/or Asana – for applicant tracking and analytics; which to use depends on your use case.
- Expensify – for keeping track of all the business dinners and drinks! (There can be a lot of drinks.)
Aline, that was brilliant as usual. Could you share how long it took until you exceeded your previous (coding) job salary-wise?
Thanks! I made more as a recruiter than I ever had as a coder in my first year. However, it wasn’t much more, and it probably bears mentioning that I wasn’t really raking it in as a coder — the company where I worked was bootstrapped, so salaries were definitely on the lower end of market.
Really good article – I get approached by many an engineer who “smells the money” and wants in. All your points are absolutely spot on. I would say that if an engineer wanted to dip his or her toes in, its best to start by partnering with a trustworthy recruiter and do a commission split. That way they can get used to the “candidate side” while keeping their day job and make some side money. Once they feel comfortable there, they can do the whole thing.
The teaming of a salesperson with an engineer can be like a good cop, bad cop buddy system. I find it strange that recruiters don’t do it.
I used to consult for a large recruitment firm that in turn got bought out by an international firm. Instead of a commission split, I would simply charge for my services. I would train freshly hired salespeople so that they had a basic understanding of the industry, the typical SDLC and key technologies. When bidding on tenders, I would assess the requirements and then review the bid before it got sent out. Working on commission split would have been more lucrative, but with much longer dry periods between drinks.
Of course, the same agency would also get me well paid contracts as well.
Great advice for non-engineer recruiters as well (and anyone else looking to start a services business on their own).
“2. Dr. House is right; everybody lies.” I agree with that point and it doesn’t exclude recruiter$.
Great stuff. Well written. Please let me know when you post again.
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I’m trying to dabble into the recruiting scene. I do have a contact with a primary recruiting company. My question is how to get the candidates? Do I subscribe to some job site datbases?
Which ones do you recommend?
Thanks for your help
I am an engineer and wish to start a recruiting business part time to begin with.
Please let me know how to go about doing that.
Yeah, I have a feeling that this lunch may drag on a bit. It's going to entail a corsonvatien I've already had several times with other relatives and friends. I'm starting to get tired of this.
Hello, I seem to have found myself in the role of a career contractor Mechanical Engineer.
My current contract has just been renewed for another year. I’m losing hope of ever being hired direct.
I’m seeing how much my staffing firm charges *for* me and how much they pay me. Why can’t I just start a staffing firm with only one employee (me and maybe a few of my friends)? Get that ‘company’ setup with the purchasing dept of my current company and give myself a $30/hr raise? I may have to undercut the old place, but if my boss can score an extra $10k in his budget and still keep me around, everybody wins.
I am a part owner in my family corporation (s-corp) if that helps. I already am required to have an accountant do my taxes. And we know lawyers if I need to incorporate separately.
I would like to address this from a the candidates side. Yes almost everyone lies .. especially about their ability. An honest candidate can’t compete with that. It’s absolutely maddening to be subjected to this industry when all you want to do is create awesome software. I’ve been programming since I was a kid .. that’s 3 decades and every time I look for a job I have to wade through a sea of bullshit .. sometimes for years, to find a job where up to 100% of my pay is also going to some idiots that spammed a bunch of tech people for money. Seriously fuck this industry.
HA HA YOU MAKE THIS SEEM LIKE A HONORABLE JOB AND A TECH PERSON WOULD REALLY WANT TO DO THIS. THERE IS NOTHING LOWER THAN A 3RD PARTY STAFF AUGMENTER WITH ZERO TALENT.
I HAVE NEVER MET A HONEST EXTERNAL RECRUITER IN MY LIFE. I DON’T WORK WITH THEM AT ALL. INTERNAL COMPANY RECRUITERS ARE THE ONLY WAY TO GO.