IT careers: Crazy recruitment tactics that worked

IT leaders and recruiters discuss the over-the-top ways they’ve attracted tech talent - and five lessons you can apply from them in 2020
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Three people rowing a boat in water

In a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, an anecdote from Justin Kershaw, global CIO at Cargill, demonstrated the lengths IT leaders will go to attract top talent in today's competitive market – the length of the Charles River, to be exact.

“A lifelong rower, [Kershaw] was preparing to race in Boston’s Head of the Charles Regatta last year when he and a friend rowed past the MIT boathouse,” stated the report. When they spotted the Sloan School Rowing Club on the dock, Kershaw didn’t let the opportunity pass him by.

According to the report, Kershaw yelled out, “Hey, all you data scientists – you can come to work at Cargill! I’m the CIO at Cargill, and I’m looking for people just like you. Come work at our company and work on some of the world’s biggest real challenges as opposed to going to [one of the big technology companies] and working on ads.”

Kershaw had emails from interested data scientists on his phone by the time he got back to the boathouse.

[ What kinds of talent are in demand this year? Read also: IT career goals 2020: Most-wanted technology and core skills. ]

How are you going above and beyond to attract the best talent to your organization? We asked IT leaders and recruiters to share their own examples of over-the-top recruiting – and found five solid tips for CIOs to take away.

1. Get personal

No one wants to feel like just a number on a list of job applications. If you are passionate about a candidate, let them know in unique and personalized ways. 

"I once sent a candidate an Apple watch band with the message 'Watch us grow your career' - and promised the watch at a day of interviews."

"There have been a few instances in which we were targeting a very experienced standout candidate and took a personalized approach to entice them to accept an interview or offer,” said Stephanie Newell, director of people and culture at ClearObject. “For example, I once sent a candidate an Apple watch band with the message ‘Watch us grow your career’ along with a commitment to provide the actual Apple watch if they participated in a day of interviews to learn about the opportunity with our company.”

Newell continued, “I’ve also had a CEO meet a candidate in the airport on their layover, or fly to the candidate’s home as a way to continue the interview process and take some of the burden off of the candidate. I’ve even had a CEO offer to pay a key hire a $5,000 annual bonus on top of the typical bonus plan as a way to support the candidate’s child’s college tuition. Just like marketers and retailers take a personalized approach to their customer’s experience, recruiters and hiring managers should also apply this personalized experience.”

2. Look for passion

Passion – like many core soft skills – can be harder to assess in a traditional IT interview setting. So, turn to a place where passion takes center stage: social media. 

“As a recruitment specialist, sourcing quality candidates is something we’ve refined over years, but every so often a special opportunity presents itself,” said James Lloyd-Townshend, chairman and CEO of Anderson Frank. “A couple of years back, we learned about a social media post that was in the process of going viral. The post was very critical of several prominent technologies and coding languages, and their user base in turn.”

“Naturally, the comments consisted almost entirely of people disagreeing with the poster. While some were simply dismissive, others took the time to discredit his points using their own experience and technical knowledge,” he said. “We spent an afternoon browsing the comments of [the] post to identify extremely passionate and knowledgeable candidates in all of the technologies he’d criticized. I don’t think we could have orchestrated a better candidate generation exercise if we’d planned it ourselves.”

[ Want to tease out core skills in an interview? Read: Soft skills: 10 ways to hire for them

3. Be kind

Don't underestimate the power of kindness. Even if your "perfect match" candidate turns you down, they likely won't forget the positive experience they had during the recruitment process, which could lead to another opportunity with your company in the future. 

"We offered to make introductions to other hiring managers to drive up competition."

“When Parabol was looking for its first technical hire beyond the founding team, the person at the top of our wish list wouldn’t write us back on any channel we tried: neither email, nor LinkedIn, nor even Twitter. He was overwhelmed by opportunity,” said Jordan Husney, CEO and founder of Parabol. “What finally got his attention was writing him a public love letter of sorts as a comment attached to one of his posts on Medium. When we finally connected and pitched him our vision he was intrigued, but politely declined because he suspected our tiny start-up couldn’t compete with the compensation offered by bigger ‘end-ups.’”

“Being somewhat well connected in tech, we offered to make introductions to other hiring managers to drive up competition for him and land him a job that was more to the liking of the offers he was getting. He asked us why we’d do such a thing, if we wanted him to work with us. We told him, ‘We believe life is long, and when the time is right we want you to think of us.’ That belief of ours struck him and he figured we were different enough in character than other folks he might work with. After a brief period contracting with us, he joined us full time,” said Husney.

4. Explore new talent pools

CIOs who tap into the usual places for talent – local universities and high schools, regional job fairs, the open source community – quickly realize they are not alone. To find untapped sources of talent, think outside the box. 

"Thousands of world-class developers spend their free time modifying their favorite video games on the weekends."

“Talent is hard to come by, passion even more so,” said Alexander M. Kehoe, co-founder and operations director at Caveni Digital Solution. “There is a source of immense talent that many people interact with on a daily basis and never even notice: video game modifications. There are thousands of world-class developers out there spending their free time modifying their favorite video games on the weekends. Some of the most talented people we’ve ever had the chance to work with were amazing modders from highly technical games." 

"Obviously, there are certain criteria to finding high quality talent, and the language and methods they use are highly varied. Scripting is a whole new world of talent. You can often find a single individual who has accomplished as much as a full team might in a year – all just for a hobby. That is the type of talent – and passion – you want at your company.”

5. Make the work interesting

Remember, no matter how personalized or over-the-top your recruitment efforts, they will fall flat without a compelling IT vision and interesting work.

“For us, it’s not just about getting the best IT talent in the door – it’s about how we give our IT team interesting work that challenges them and uplevels their skills,” says Scott Crowder, CIO at BMC Software. “We designed autonomous processes for the most common requests our IS&T organization was facing. This freed up our engineers to focus on challenging problems and take an active role in collaborating with R&D to test new products before they launch, effectively turning our team into ‘Customer Zero’ for the broader BMC business."

"That ability to work on customer-facing solutions has allowed us to move people up, as our IT employees develop the skills necessary for promotions. It’s ultimately led to an extremely low attrition rate and given us a strong brand among IT employees.”

[ How does your talent strategy measure up? Download the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  

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