My experience with the recruitment industry and how I'd like to be sold to

By Najaf Ali

Just today a seemingly good-natured recruiter (it turns out that's a thing!) asked the following in the LRUG mailing list:

What I’m trying to understand is why employers, and to a certain extent candidates, are so against working with agencies? Is it because of fees? Have you had bad experiences? If it’s company policy, why is it company policy?

Where do I begin? As with any good conversation, let's start with a fun Japan story...

And you thought recruiters in London were bad?

My first experience with the recruitment industry was from the inside. I was a recruitment consultant for two weeks at the Tokyo branch of a major international agency.

From day one, we were tasked with what was called 'name-collecting'. This involved working through a phone book and attempting to trick the person on the other end into giving up the names of senior staff at their company. Once we had their names and positions, we would pass them on to senior recruitment staff that would approach them with positions in staggered timing over the next few months.

I'll admit it, this was immeasurably fun. I got to weave my Japanese skills and the venerated Gaijin Smash into social engineering gambits that would make Kevin Mitnick proud. I was going through in the region of three to four hundred companies a day and was scarily good at tricking people into coughing up the names.

We took clients out to some of the most lavish restaurants and hostess bars in Tokyo, often without having to pay (note to self: HUGE red flag). I was young and very stupid. It turns out that the company were evil incarnate, and I feel genuine remorse a) for my behaviour in deceiving so many people and b) for having had anything to do with them. Here's why:

  • The company engaged in targeted poaching for the highest bidder. A-Company would approach us and over a networking dinner casually mention that they were in the same market as B-Company. They would also happen to be paying us triple rates and auto-hiring anyone we sent to them. We would also happen to repeatedly target senior staff at B-Company with the aforementioned lavish dinners, offers with higher salaries and generally do everything we could to make them leave B-Company. This was not to poach them for A-Company! This was just to get them out of B-Company so that B-Company would suffer.
  • They offered a conveyer-belt dating service. That's about the politest way I could think of translate what the practice was colloquially referred to. The theory is that Japanese salarymen are so focused on their work that they don't have time for dating, so in order to ensure the continued happiness of their employees, clients would come to us for 'temporary workers'. These would invariably be 20-something year-old OLs who were cycled into and out of companies to see if they 'took' with any of the male employees. Candidates were ranked into three tiers based on age, physical appearance and other qualities expected of a good Japanese wife. Evil enough for you? You seriously can't make this stuff up!
  • They received large, regular deposits from single-person companies to whom they had no record of providing services to. I didn't know and didn't care what these deposits were for. As soon as I found out about this and the other two little services the company provided, I was out the door. I had enough crazy in my life without this!

Compared to this, most recruiters in London are merely annoying

I've been placed multiple times with recruiters and generally the quality of job hasn't been good compared to going through my own network. It's also harder to negotiate a raise six to twelve months down the line, they've already paid a hefty fee to a recuiter and aren't keen on dropping more money for payroll so quickly.

I'm sure there are good recruiters in London, but just like hiring companies don't have time to go through all the bad CVs to find the good ones, I don't have time to go through all the bad recruiters to find the good ones. Perhaps we need recruitment consultant for recruitment consultants :P

I could tell you about duplicitous and manipulative recruiters but you've heard most of it before (and nothing is going to top my Japan story above). If for whatever reason I have to work with recruiters, I keep the following in mind:

  • They can't be trusted and are only in it for their commission - Regardless about what this says of their character, this makes them very easy to predict and I make full use of this when negotiating (i.e. don't believe a word they say).
  • As a candidate you are a commodity to them - It's their job to source you and sell you to the highest bidder. As long as you remember not to take the dehumanising nature of the affair too seriously and play them well at their own game, it is possible to come out on top financially.

I think after leafing through a couple of books on machine learning a nice weekend project might be to replace the entire London technical recruiting industry with a naive bayesian classifier. I'm only half joking about this. It would probably be more polite too.

How I'd like to be sold to

I'm dreaming I know, but here's what I would have loved to have when I didn't have a solid network at the beginning and throughout my career:

  • Information about how to get my first technical job.
  • Tips for negotiating better working conditions when I get that job.
  • Advice on interviewing + technical interviews from people that have been on both sides of the table.
  • Advice on how I can be more valuable to my company and tie metrics to the value I provide them (and therefore, hopefully better negotiate a raise).
  • Advice on whether to move from one company to the next or stick things out and affect change.
  • A host of other career-related advice that would help me achieve my goals.

Now that I have a company that is growing in revenue and am about to start considering a first employee, I'd like to know:

  • How to go about making my first hire.
  • What the hiring market is like in terms of salary, expected conditions etc.
  • What legal things I'd need to know when making that hire.
  • Advice on whether I should jump into hiring a fulltime employee or try out working with freelancers first.

Why isn't there a blog on these topics? Who exactly is the foremost consultant on technical career advice? Note that this has to be someone who genuinely gives a shit about my problems, not just making a one-off commission.

I have no trusted confidante here, and so have had to bootstrap my own knowledge in each of these departments. If only someone had given me the knowledge I've picked up on these topics when I was starting out, I would have saved years of my life and tens of thousands of pounds.

If there was someone who gave this advice and information out, I would most definitely be on their mailing list. Not only that, if they'd developed a personal relationship with me they would be the first person I go to, either when I'm looking for a job or starting to hire people.

I've changed jobs more than five times in my career. Think about the lifetime value that affords anyone in that consultant position. I would have no hesitation in recommending someone like that to others either.

This technique is neither hard nor new. Chet Holmes discusses selling through teaching extensively in his book The Ultimate Sales Machine. All you have to do is give a shit about my problems, give me some occasional good advice through a blog or mailing list and I swear, I will be your fan for life. Is this really too much to ask for in 2013?

Steve Buckley is an example of someone who's making a good start here. While I don't agree with everything he says, he's engaging directly with developers and providing good content through hacker jobs and a talk he did at the London Hacker News meetup.

Who do you think I'm going to email when I can't find a Ruby developer through my own network? Note that he's never cold-called me and I barely know him (I think I had a pint with him once at LRUG, but that's about it).

Providing relevant advice that helps me solve problems will always endear me to you. Do that. Cold calling me at annoying times of the day, bare-faced lying and trying to convince me that spending time with my kids is less important than the career opportunity of a lifetime you're selling won't quite have the same effect.