The Talent Hacker’s Manifesto

Nick Marsh of Lostmy.name recently introduced the term Talent Hacking.  His contention was that hiring was broken and there existed a movement towards a new way of thinking.  How did it come to this?  Why is it that the world of recruitment can be called out as broken with no argument to the contrary?Long ago in the mists of time and still the case at some less progressive organisations, recruitment was owned by HR.  From behind the dull-warmth of privacy screens and bloated software that referred to people as resources, recruiters began to stir.Often regarded as the “noisy ones” on the HR floor, recruiters slowly began to emerge and be recognised as having a legitimate skill set.  A skill set that was distinct from their agency counterparts and yet not in keeping with the silo’ed silence of HR departments.   Moreover it was a skill set that was distinct from those of the HR generalists.  Over time the recruiters in more progressive organisations moved further away, diversified further and were allocated distinct budgets.  The dual pressures of speed from the business and for frugality from the finance department meant that in-house recruiters had to adapt the way they worked and began to become introspective – there wasn’t just one skill of recruitment but many.

The role of a recruiter has been split in many organisations and so to reflect this and also to highlight there particular skills there are now many different job titles in use – from Sourcer, Headhunter, through Talent Acquisition Specialist, the Orwellian sounding Staffing Officer to Talent Scout there seems to be a new way to describe yourself each day.  So is “Talent Hacker” doomed to become the next in a long list of buzzword-like titles?

I hope not.

Hopefully we can avoid the pitfalls of buzzwordism if we make a clear distinction as to what a “Talent Hacker” actually is.  Firstly, I don’t believe it’s a job title at all.  Talent Hacking is a methodology.  At best it’s a philosophical stance taken by a recruiter to adapt and experiment and at worst it’s the sharing and usage of a number of disparate tools to expedite hiring.

In Nick’s original article I was quoted as saying that “Hiring is still waterfall in an agile world”.  What I meant by that is that a “traditional” hiring process is slavish in adherence to accepted dogma. A job description is produced, it’s disseminated through advertising channels, resultant applications are pushed through a pre-defined process and those lucky enough to have impressed will be hired.  In this process, there is no feedback, no learning and no space for creativity…worst of all there is no scope to delight the candidates.

With the Agile/Waterfall divide in mind, I propose that the Talent Hacking outlook can be formalised by borrowing (stealing) from the Agile Manifesto.  The Agile Manifesto is a statement of values for software developers, reinforcing those elements that are of greater value when developing software.  Similarly we can list those things that we feel are important when hiring, like this…

 

 
While there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

Hires over Processes
 
Too often in large recruiting organisations the pressure to maintain robust process and measure the performance of recruiters in the organisation means that we lose sight of the reason we’re all there in the first place.  Measuring and rewarding things like number of candidates contacted or the number of contacts who made it to second stage is good practice but if the team isn’t hiring it’s all just “busy work“.  A robust and fair (free of bias) process is important. Processes are ways of doing things that are more efficient – they must make a workload easier to complete or faster, you can think of them as collections of efficiencies.  If they do not add benefit they are no longer of value.  A lot of larger organisations hang on to process as though it was a life raft in a rising ocean of change, once the process is no longer effective (which you should periodically test for) abandon it and find a new more effective process.  A point here on “Best practices”, to paraphrase Mary Poppendieck, author of “Lean Software Development” – Best practices are solutions to other people’s problems that you may not have.  So much of the processes of recruitment are done simply because “it’s how we did it at x company” or worse still “it’s how I’ve read x company do it”.  Process is great to ensure a level playing field and to expedite the flow of a candidate towards being hired – if it isn’t doing either of these things it should be questioned and if found to be lacking changed.
 
Data over Anecdotal Evidence
 
The Talent Hacking approach loves data.   Sourcing, screening and shepherding a candidate towards being hired calls for a lot of decision making.  Decisions are better when supported by data.  Even if you cringe or break out in hives whenever someone says “Big Data” there is little doubt that the digital exhaust trails that people now leave behind them have made them easier to find.  Ask a tame recruiter you know if they can find your email address, I’ll bet they can and it won’t be from anywhere you remember writing it… Data supports a hiring plan, salary benchmarking, advertising response rates, recruiter performance, process improvement – it’s all around us as recruiters.  Building a living breathing data set from which you can answer the future unknown questions will be one of the best investments for success as a recruiter.  Even better, a recruiter’s standing in the business can be improved from the simple provision of the raw data.  The Talent Hacker will go further and provide insight to hiring managers – affecting change and having a direct effect on the success of the business.  It is the data that will enable the wider business, as consumers of the recruitment service, to answer the all important “Why?”.  Why do we value this more than our own anecdotal evidence?  Anecdotal evidence is only ever the outcome of a single case, often it informs a bias or shapes action in a way that may have been right in a prior instance but not for the current one.  A Talent Hacker loves to hear the anecdotes of others because in unpacking them you can ask those questions that reveal what is “true” to an individual. They do have value, but I’ll take the data.
 
Candidate experience over Corporate Responsibility
 
Beyond external marketing and websites, a recruiter is often the first human interaction anyone has with a company.  When they are doing their job well they are exemplars for the brand – impassioned spokespeople it’s their enthusiasm that will bleed through in both their communication and deeds. So many recruiters at large organisations are a product of their environment they hide behind turrets built from template emails, missed phone calls and a fear of feedback.  An in-house recruiter walks a tightrope between advocating for the candidate and for the company at the same time, straying too far in one of these directions will not be beneficial.  A Talent Hacker takes a third position.  We must be aware that the talent war is over and that talent won.  Too many recruiters want to take an aloof position leaning towards the institutional arrogance that permeates some companies – “we don’t have to provide feedback”, “you’re only worth a bland template email”, “we have hundreds of candidates”.  I’m sure this was a perfectly reasonable stance to take…until it wasn’t.  You only have to look at Glassdoor.com to see reviews of interview processes that call out companies for their broken internal communication, ignorant recruiters and interminable, arduous processes.  For the Talent Hacker reading Glassdoor reviews is like a family owned restaurant being reviewed on TripAdvisor, scary as hell and a potential powder keg.  A recruitment process should feel like a personal service, the realisation that organisations are no longer all powerful and that bad reviews will stop people from applying hasn’t fully permeated a lot of companies.  As humans we love to share, and embellish, a juicy story of bad service and this penchant for negativity can be mitigated by a recruiter doing their job well.  Recruiters should protect their employers they do have a duty to them, but if it comes at the neglect of hundreds of individuals whose only crime is to have applied for a job then it might be wiser to limit the damage and stop recruiting altogether.
Responding to change over Following a plan
 
In life there are always events that are outside of our control.  As a recruiter we are often either privy to insider information or at the mercy circumstances outside of our control.  From hiring freezes, through acqui-hires to redundancies there are many business events that impact a recruiter.  The Talent Hacker must be aware of this and work hard to ensure that all parties, hiring managers, team, wider business and candidates are given the information where appropriate.  Working at the coal-face of recruitment often turns up interesting information that could be of great use to other areas of the business, if you don’t forge these feedback loops you are effectively losing out.  It can be simple things like competitor hiring strategy or market rates rising in demand for a particular skill, however it can also be large and impactful learnings that should be used to adapt and change strategy – mass redundancies at a competitor, a new product launch or even rumours of mergers and acquisitions, candidates reveal a lot of information that could be useful – not listening to this let alone not reacting to it is missing out.  Change can be a valuable tool and resistance stemming from traditional models of yearly planning can only leave an organisation exposed to risk.  A company I once worked for lost 32 senior developers within three months – did they stick to a static hiring plan?  Of course not! …but the changes shouldn’t have to be that drastic to trigger a period of re-evaluation.  The Talent Hacker doesn’t seek to control but instead knows that change will happen, they are not wedded to alternate contingencies but rely on experiences to suggest different paths to follow if the need occurs.
 
I like the appreciation of a new wave of recruitment thinking.  There have been pockets of genius in the underbelly of the people hunting game that have been hidden for too long.  From the boolean greats who sift through data to find that one unknown diamond of a candidate to the recruiters who do so much more than their remit, trusted advisors to candidates, hiring, housing and relocating their candidate’s families and pets as they go.  Perhaps the Talent Hacker flag is one we can all unite under,   recruiters and candidates might be all the better off for it.This manifesto is by no means an exhaustive list of what is to be a Talent Hacker and I welcome input to clarify the definition further.  By offering a definition we can at least trigger the debate and hopefully give the label more meaning.

Innovation in Sourcing – The Poaching Phone

I recently posted on the wealth of innovative techniques available to a forward thinking sourcing departments who are targeting known individuals in competitor organisations.  A Dubai based advertising agency, FP7, gives an object lesson in how to do this well and the direct return on investment they made from using this approach.

“We set out to expand our creative department, but hiring talent in the region is a constant struggle. Headhunters charge exuberant fees, so we did our homework and captured the attention of the region’s best talent using the ultimate creative recruiter – The Poaching Phone. Faux industry Self help books were personalised to potential recruits and demonstrated how they could advance their career with us. Inside each book, an ordinary phone was concealed in die-cut pages and programmed with only one contact, our ECDs number. We then sent it out to infiltrate Dubai’s top Ad Agencies. Within a week, we received the phone calls we were hoping for. A month later, we had 4 new members join our creative family. In the end, we saved 97% of our projected recruitment costs with a simple phone.”

Four hires and a 97% reduction in projected costs make this a obvious success in the face of the “spray and pray” mentality of some sourcing strategies.

Advertising a Vacancy in the Key of C#

There is a problem with advertising a vacancy on a job board.  Not just the general problem of the decline in qualified candidates having to use job boards to find a new role but also the problem of standing out in a sea of other text all advertising the same type of vacancies.  How can you make plain text stand out when it’s just the same as everything else?  Better yet how can you make it truly relevant to your target audience?  
 
If you take the time to look at what your competitors are putting on job boards you might notice some strange behaviours.  How many of the “adverts” are actually just job descriptions?  A job description and an job advertisement perform two very different functions and should look very different.  If you produce a job description and post that instead of telling a reader how amazing it would be for them to work for your company you’re posting a list of demands in HR Speak.
 
This is the equivalent of a car manufacturer televising the turning pages of the technical manual, it’s just so boring!  Stretching the analogy further an advert for a new job should be just as aspirational as for a new car – we want all the cornfields on fire, explosions and leather clad luxury of a car ad.  We want excitement, something that will appeal to the target audience and something that demonstrates that we, as an employer, understand them. 
 
Today I worked with one of our developers to write a job advertisement in C#.  What would have taken me an age obviously only took him a few seconds to write but the feedback was the best I’ve ever heard for any advertisement, after we finished he said – “I would apply”.We’re currently trialing a number of different styles of advertising for our jobs over on our StackOverflow company page.  It’s particularly useful because we can see both page views and applications so we’re better able to judge the effectiveness of an ad.  I’m hoping this ad in code as well as other versions we’re working on might encourage those that see them to explore a little further.
  1. using System;
  2. using System.Linq;
  3. namespace CriteoQuestions
  4. {
  5.     class Program
  6.     {
  7.         static readonly uint THRESHOLD = 5;
  8.         static uint Question(string text)
  9.         {
  10.             Console.WriteLine(text + ” [y/N]”);
  11.             string answer = Console.ReadLine();
  12.             return answer != null && answer.Equals(“y”) ? 1U : 0U;
  13.         }
  14.         static void Main()
  15.         {
  16.             string[] questionTexts =
  17.                 {
  18.                     “Looking for a new challenge?”,
  19.                     “Want to work in the heart of Paris?”,
  20.                     “Do you enjoy solving hard problems efficiently and creatively?”,
  21.                     “Would you like to work where Big Data is more than a buzz word?”,
  22.                     “Want to work on a product at true web scale with 30B HTTP requests and 2.5B unique banners displayed per day?”,
  23.                     “Would you like to know more?”
  24.                 };
  25.             uint score = questionTexts.Aggregate<stringuint>(0(current, text) => current + Question(text));
  26.             Console.WriteLine(score > THRESHOLD
  27.                                   ? @”Contact m.buckland@criteo.com today”
  28.                                   : @”That’s a shame, you can learn more at http://labs.criteo.com/ maybe we can change your mind?”);
  29.             Console.ReadLine();
  30.         }
  31.     }
  32. }
What other ways are there to stand out when advertising jobs online?  How can you make the limitations of plain text on a job board into advantages that will make your adverts stand out from the crowd?

Innovation in Sourcing – Standing out from the crowd

The word “Sourcing” has come to be used in a particular way recently.  In an age of “social recruiting” the meaning of sourcing has become narrowed to the point that it really only relates to new ways of searching the internet or the latest in a long line of software tools to interrogate ever growing datasets.  However, as recruiters, often we already know who we want to target.  We know the companies they work for, we know the skills they possess, we know their titles, in some cases we even know their names.  The overly stalkerish amongst us sometimes even know their addresses…

In recent years there have been a number of landmark instances using more non-traditional tactics.  New companies wanting to make an impact, older organisations seeking out particular known individuals or just a grand gesture of recruitment, recruitment as an event or spectacle, existing to generate a larger story with the resulting publicity driving even more people to learn about the company. Further, frustrations over “access” to these candidates forces more innovative companies to imagine more and more innovative solutions to get their message across.  Some are clever, some confrontational, but all of them have made an impact beyond their original target audience.  Here are some of my favourites from over the years.

In 2003 Electronic Arts in Canada took out some billboard space near the offices of rival games developer Radical Entertainment. Near enough to be read by the developers at Radical who had no problem working out that the message reads “We’re Hiring”.    The results of this obviously confrontational stance by EA didn’t really do them much good – the team at Radical garnered a lot of positive press. The public love an underdog it seems.  Founder and CEO at Radical, Ian Wilkinson sums it up well “This has been far more aggressive than past attempts, but I have no reason to believe that this will be any more effective.”

So overtly hostile attempts can often be jarring and work against you – at the very least they convey a lot more about the brand than was originally intended.  Here, EA were the giant trying to take down an independent success story, it didn’t work but it has been done better.


Enter Google.  In 2004 this billboard appeared near the Ralston exit leading to Santa Clara, California.  A prime location for attracting the attention of the employees of Silicon Valley as they sat in traffic on their way to work.  Free from any branding the billboard itself is a challenge.  Perfectly aimed at their target audience of engineers and researchers who love to solve problems.   The problem itself led to a url that in turn led to another problem and eventually a pay-off and reveal that it was a Google recruiting strategy.  This is still talked about today as being ground-breaking and it certainly aided in the establishment of the mythical status of Google’s hiring process.  Looking back it’s easy to assume that “of course it’s Google” but at the time they were pre-IPO, 1907 employees (as of March 2004) and they were already doing truly innovative things.  Interestingly, it also didn’t stop them pursuing other more “grey” tactics too – at the same time they were winning hearts and minds, and enjoying massive viral publicity with their billboard they were also sponsoring job adverts in their own search results.  As well as sponsoring traditional job applicant search terms they also sponsored ads on the keyword/name “Udi Manber”, who was then chief of Amazon.com’s search technology unit, A9.  It would be just two years later that Udi joined Google…

These are both still broadcast messages, though it’s true they act as a filter for talent, so the organisations only have to deal with those people who are able to answer the questions.  What if you already know who you want to talk to?  Not a type of person or a profile – what if you actually know the person?

Video game start-up Red 5 Studios handpicked about 100 dream candidates, spent time learning about their backgrounds and interests from social networks and personal blogs, and airmailed each one a personalized iPod, inside 5 artistic nested boxes complete with a recorded message from CEO Mark Kern. More than 90 recipients responded to the pitch, three left their jobs to come on board, and many more potential hires discovered the company through word-of-mouth buzz generated by the search.  Whilst it is true that these types of initiatives have a higher initial cost for the more price-conscious organisation this can be mitigated by the quality of the potential audience – they targeted their “dream” employees. The saving in costs versus the same approaches made through an third party recruitment firm are not to be sniffed at.  Chances are a single hire made through an agency would have exceeded the total cost of this project.  There’s also a third more intangible return on investment, the virality of this approach.  I am confident that there is a secondary impact of this type of approach the effect on other employees in the target organisation when told about the parcel and now the impact of this type of approach being shared on social media – the outlets of which have increased exponentially since Red 5 Studios did this in 2007.  

 

Facebook did something very similar in 2013 for hardware engineers.  As a pilot program they sent branded Raspberry Pi’s to potential candidates they had identified as a good potential fit.  On connecting the credit-card-sized single-board computer they were presented with a personalized video giving them a tour of the working environment and a brief of where they would potentially fit in.  This type of approach is hard to ignore.

A mobile handset manufacturer could send their latest handset with a willing hiring manager’s number pre-installed?  This would both show off the product and demonstrate the value the company see in the candidate.  Spotify already send tongue-in-cheek playlists to potential candidates, demonstrating the product in a fun way as well as letting the candidate know they are hiring.  There are dozens of these initiatives going on all the time.  Sitting back and waiting to resumes is unforgivable – what can your organisation do to differentiate itself?    

The Perils of “Social Recruitment” or Putting the “Anti” in Social Recruitment

Many years ago, too many to remember clearly, I worked as a third party recruiter.  All the clichés were present and correct.  We’d “hammer” the phones, stand up to “pitch” and the paper resume was a valuable commodity.  Job seekers were putting resumes on-line and those passive candidates were found by guessing at telephone numbers and taking circuitous routes to get around secretaries and P.A’s.

I’d love to say that the entire industry has undergone a sea change and we’ve gone through a Moneyball style transformation and that “Big Data” has made everyone’s life better, and in some ways it has. However, for some the old ways of doing things don’t seem to have gone away.  Social media and the growth of social networks have given us a tremendous opportunity to engage in a way unlike we as recruiters have never done before.  Unfortunately, there are some that seem to be going out of their way to ensure that’s it’s the noise not the signal that fills this new space.

It’s my contention that the growth of social networks has led to a new openness in the sharing of information and the access to that information has meant that employers are effectively forced to partake in the conversation.  Before the growth of this new communications forum companies controlled the flow of information and with it the entry and exit points to information relating to their staffing, now they are up for discussion and comment.

It is in being, or attempting to be “social” that I see some recruiters struggling, or at the very least being ineffective.  Sourcing using social networks should be a pervasive part of how we reach out to an audience of potential candidates.  Their unique properties that allow us to  enter into conversations with applicants is exactly the reason they are superior to the job boards of old, and exactly the property that is being ignored. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my current pet hates of behavioural anti-patterns I see when recruiters are using Social Networks.

1.  It’s a natural human trait to find the easiest path, to not have to repeat the same actions over and over again.  If you’re looking for a role you feel is generic there is a tendency to make your messages generic too.  Specifically with LinkedIn there is a tendency to cut and paste messages.  While this will get your message to more people you won’t get the response rate because people don’t like to feel like they are generic – especially if that message calls out the candidate’s “unique” skills then treats them like one of the herd, credit the recipient with some intelligence – they will know the message is a duplicate.

2. Social Media lets us learn a tremendous amount about a person before we make that important call.  Why then do some just rush to the first contact?  Using information that is out of date, or ignoring key parts will just be a waste of time.  If you call a a candidate and ask about the extensive work in C++ he did at university 12 years ago and not refer to the 5 most recent years he’s been coding in Ruby, you shouldn’t be allowed near a telephone.

3. At first glance automating the tweeting and status updates of job requisitions sounds like a great idea.  Jobvite is one a handful of applicant tracking systems that allow for the broadcasting of links and adverts of your live jobs through your own social accounts.  However, social media is an engagement platform not a bulletin board.  If you have a managed to get a number of followers or have a large network they will soon tire if your only update it to tweet links to an list of your vacancies. Effectively you are adding to the noise, you will be unfollowed, you will be ignored.  For a similar degree of success you might like to try shouting out job titles into a well – it’s largely the same thing and at least there you’ll have an echo.

4. When using a new network or forum for the first time it’s important to gain an understanding of the norms and conventions of that network.  Lurk a little.  Learn how and where it is appropriate to make an approach.  A good example of this is joining a private group on LinkedIn centred around a largely technical discussion ignoring completely a tab marked “Jobs” and pasting your job ad slap bang in the middle of a technical debate.  You instantly alienate the audience and risk being removed from the group in short order.

5. Being present on a particular network is not a guarantee of success.  Being first to place a job advert on a particular network does not make you more innovative or creative than other recruiters.  If a network exists for a specific type of content don’t try and circumvent this. If you do, you’re just adding noise.  Text based job adverts on Instagram are a good example of this.  Instagram at it’s best exists as a celebration of the visual form – or in more mundane terms as a platform for adding filters to a photo of a latte – why waste your efforts trying to circumvent the form?  Save Instagram for arty shots of your work environment, or find a happy employee and post their photo as proof they exist.

6. In adopting a more social approach there can be a tendency to ignore the socially established barriers that would exist in other forms of contact.  Some social networks are best used for discovery rather than contact.  For example, I might find a candidate using Facebook search or Twitter but for the candidate these could personal outlets rather than professional.  They may not welcome a contact here, knowing that a recruiter has found you on Facebook and has probably perused your photos and status updates doesn’t make for a relaxed and comfortable candidate experienced.  Look at how a candidate utilises a network, if it’s largely personal they might not want to be approached in a professional capacity on these networks, why not use a second network to make the approach?  Find them on Facebook and contact via LinkedIn.  Talk to them, don’t stalk them, talk don’t stalk!

Social networks allow for individual, tailored and above all, authentic approaches.  Social networks may well be the future of recruitment, but some old adages remain true – you only get one chance to make a first impression.  Make that first impression count, research, approach creatively, source intelligently and you’ll get the responses and referrals you’re looking for.  Smart sourcers make the candidate feel special and unique, their approach is measured and relevant, the lazy seek to broadcast, screaming into the void, looking busy and generating nothing.

Finally a post on social recruiting wouldn’t be complete without an Infographic, so here’s my snarky attempt.