Tech hiring is going through an intense period of change, how do you adapt?
This year started with an avalanche of layoffs, as the tech hiring market corrected for a period of post-pandemic exuberance. This has left engineering managers in a tricky position, asked to do more with smaller teams, re-think their progression frameworks, and maintain morale and productivity levels through the chaos.
Even if companies are largely freezing hiring, open positions still need to be filled, and those hires are now more important than ever. While the 2022 hiring spree may look short-sighted and impulsive in retrospect, 2024 must be marked by taking a long-term strategic view to grow your company.
LeadDev spoke to engineering teams that are still hiring in 2023 to learn how their practices have evolved in response to a different market, where fewer organizations are hiring, yet there are more technical candidates than ever.
Entering the tech market in 2023
Let’s start at the graduate end of the market. Computer science has long been seen as a safe degree when it comes to job prospects, but this is undoubtedly one of the toughest markets for grads in recent memory.
“I think a lot of students are struggling to find jobs,” said Timothy James, an engineering manager at a large tech company and part-time computer science instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. Instead of graduating to multiple job offers, graduates are having to spend longer actively seeking a role. “I think that adjustment is hard. Change is hard,” James said. One “really strong student,” of his had an offer in January that was rescinded in March.
Tech layoffs may have peaked, he observed, but companies are still bracing themselves for the worst, which has “led to sort of a tightening job market, and a lower number of openings.”
Companies still need different levels of people, those who can grow and those who can help them grow, but the ratios are shifting. “If you only have people who are more experienced, the balance of your team is very difficult to maintain because there's just not enough opportunity for the same things,” James said.
There may be more candidates on the market right now, but that doesn’t make it easy to find the right ones. How can we make sure we are hiring so that we invest in a sustainable future, not just for now? How can we avoid the impulsive expansion tactics of the last few years and only hiring who is necessary? And, in 2024, how can we create an engineering recruitment process that doesn’t waste anyone’s time and contributes to an overall better developer experience?
Preparing hiring managers
The first step toward a successful candidate experience is making sure the hiring manager is prepared.
This is especially true for specialized roles, where you need to clarify things upfront. Beatriz Suarez is a senior talent acquisition specialist at the semiconductor manufacturer u-blox, which has filled 190 mostly engineering roles so far this year. She recommends being extremely clear about the expectations and reality of the role that needs filling, and avoid publishing an impossible wish list posing as a job ad. Emphasize hiring for potential, not just for the perfect technical skills. After all, you are looking for someone to join and grow with your company, not just complete a one-off project.
“This topic is key for us, and we try to educate the hiring managers to keep this as a focus,” Suarez said.
For the observability company Honeycomb, recruiters also have kickoff calls with hiring managers to talk through requirements, especially to answer questions regarding what success looks like in the first six months or year. Amanda Shapiro, manager of talent acquisition there, said that this helps answer common candidate questions around how a company measures success.
A lot of consideration also goes into each Honeycomb interview panel, which they call a “loop.” Early on, they talk through what questions and focus areas the hiring managers would like the interviewers to have, so they can plan ahead to avoid repetition. "Each person has their different focus areas and provides a much deeper experience for the candidate versus walking through their resume,” Shapiro explained.
They focus heavily on different behavioral situational questions that are relevant to the role or cross-functional partner. Panel team members are only given a day or two to respond, Shapiro said, “where the candidate was maybe strong or where we would need to potentially ramp them up. Should they be onboarded? That helps with our discussion: Should we hire this individual, how do we make them successful here?”
The recruitment process at Honeycomb has also pivoted with the more crowded marketplace. Efficiency is necessary as the company is committed to considering every single applicant, after they’ve filtered out the need for a visa, which the scale-up doesn’t provide.
“It's much less of: What did you do with this job? How many years have you done this thing? And much more specific on, Have you run this particular piece? Walk me through how you did that?” Shapiro explained. “Just being able to dig a little bit deeper in our interviews so that we're able to get candidates that are more aligned with what they [the hiring managers] need.”
The Honeycomb team attempts to connect these questions to revealing their core values, like “everything is an experiment,” “act with autonomy and ownership,” and “feedback is a muscle.” She emphasized that exhibiting curiosity is key, and that experimentation is also encouraged in interviews. This more intentional interview process is also necessary because Honeycomb is experiencing a high volume of applicants due to the shift in the marketplace.
“We haven't been completely immune from layoffs. But we've been very focused on a sustainable growth strategy. And that's allowed us to keep staffing reductions to a minimum,” Shapiro said. “We slowed down on our hiring this last year, but it's allowed us to really reinvest in our current employees [with] plans to ramp back up for next year.”
Build a positive candidate experience
A hiring process is where you want everyone to be at their best and not feeling like they’re in the principal’s office about to be punished. The candidate experience actually begins with their first impression of your organization.
“Reputation was enough in the past to attract people,” Suarez said, but she described the talent pool in Europe as “still dry, and we still struggle everyday finding good candidates,” in the highly specialized chip making industry.
With these challenges in mind, the u-blox talent acquisition team has leveraged social media more “to humanize the company and feel closer to the outside world, showing who we really are,” she said. They also have “Open Door Days,” where they invite engineers into one of their offices, to get to know culture, tech, and the working environment.
"We personalize the way we treat the candidates. We involve the team so the candidates can feel how we are or how our facilities are, without working in the company yet,” Suarez said.
Once you’ve attracted applicants, you need to make sure they have transparency into the process. Both recruitment specialists walk candidates through what the steps should look like, following up in writing, and tracking everything within an applicant tracking system.
“We typically verbally share during the recruiter screen what that entire process would look like. We also include it in our email, [and] follow ups as we schedule candidates throughout their process,” Shapiro said.
Both growing tech companies recognize that this can’t be an exceedingly slow process, lest they lose talent, and the recruiter has to be available to respond to candidates just as quickly.
“We try to keep timing into account, respecting the candidates’ rhythms, too,” Suarez said, as candidates are often employed elsewhere at the time of their process.
Sadly, several of James’s students are getting ghosted by companies they’ve interviewed at – or are getting rejection emails without any explanation of why. Suarez felt it was important to note that, at u-blox, the hiring managers give technical feedback to all eliminated candidates, so they know what they can work on.
What a modern interview process should look like
Even when it was a candidates’ market, tech companies were getting tied up in seven- or eight-round interview processes. By planning your interview panels and cadence earlier, you can limit wasted time.
At u-blox, the recruitment process involves HR, the hiring manager, team members, and skip-level managers. Depending on the role, it may even include the department heads, and they are supported by a recruitment agency. Their process kicks off with a one-hour online interview with the hiring manager and maybe someone that would be the candidate’s teammate. The next round – on the same day – will likely include the hiring manager, their manager, and meeting the team. If all works out, an offer can follow quickly after.
As the chip company grows, Suarez said they are specifically looking to implement more training for interviewers and leveraging external talent acquisition specialists, all with the goal of reducing the time to find ideal candidate profiles.
Putting candidates in natural working conditions, instead of subjecting them to the dreaded white board exercise can also improve your interview process. “We sometimes prepare a situation that is solved by the whole team together,” Suarez said. By focusing on realistic technical and business use cases, candidates can be assessed on “aspects such as collaboration, team work, mentality, approach, and the personal fit into the team, and not just the tech capabilities.”
The secret to finding the right engineer-company fit isn’t a secret at all. By keeping a candidate clued in on your hiring process and being open about your company and the work they could be doing will help.
Lastly, everyone at an organization now has the potential to contribute to your hiring strategy. “Recruiting is not just a HR responsibility,” Suarez said. “We are creating a new hiring culture, as this matter impacts the whole company from a bunch of different angles.