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Career Advice Nobody Gave Me: Never Ignore a Recruiter

They are frustrating, annoying, and one of the best career resources you can find

Photo: GettyImages

If you ask a room full of software engineers what they think about recruiters, there are a number of themes that arise. There are jokes about how overwhelming the experience is, the volume of messages, how eye-rolling-ly bad the targeting is, how impersonal the process is.

There are chapters in books lamenting the feeling that someone in the tech industry gets from the constant recruiter outreach.

Recruiters, are just cold calling. They don’t care who you are — you’re just 10% of your first year’s salary. And they’re the main reason I never pick up my phone.
(Paraphrased from Michael Lopp — Being Geek)

The implication here being that they don’t know you, they don’t care about you, it’s relentless and spammy.

… and one in a hundred can double your salary.

If you’re a technology professional there is an asymmetry here. There’s only one of you. Outside of some dubious edge-cases you’re really only able to do one job.

There’s also a chance that (like me) you’ve got some discomfort around responding to recruiters.

  • If you respond, does that mean you’re being disloyal to your current employer?
  • If you respond when you’re not looking does it make you dishonest?
  • If you respond to a spam-cruiter that only sees you as a paycheque are you just rewarding bad behaviour?

It can be frustrating and annoying.

The obvious adaptive response that I suspect the vast majority of us use is to roll our eyes and ignore them. We tell each other jokes about the problem all the time. We’ll gripe and moan about how annoying it is, how obvious and crass it is.

No one ever explained to me that recruiters are also one of the best career resources you can find.

If you think about it, who better to be completely honest with about what you want from your career? Who else has real and direct insight into how much money any given role pays?

… and what better time to enter a negotiation than when you perfectly happy to walk away if you don’t get what you want?

I’m telling you that the absolute very best time to talk to a recruiter happens when you’re not looking for a job.

Back to the initial problem though. Here’s the script that you probably get pretty frequently:

Hi {{first-name}}, I was going through your profile and noticed your work as {{job-title}}. I have an open role with a {{startup|scale-up|fortune 500}} and we’re looking for your skillset. Would you have time to hop on a quick 15 minute call to discuss the opportunity?

Of course, if the message comes in with a company name, job description and, compensation budget, then you can skip to the “Now what?” section below.

If it doesn’t have all that, your first thought, the adaptive response, is to roll your eyes and delete it. Maybe mutter to yourself, “If I hopped on a 15 minute call with every darned recruiter who sent this message it’d take up half my workday.”

Recruiters can send this message to dozens of people in a single click.

If you want to turn this situation to your advantage, you’ve got to find a way to reduce the cost of your response.

In the year since I wrote Professional Development is a Choice I’ve been refining a script that I paste in to every single recruiter that reaches out.

The goal of the response is to help me politely but immediately eliminate every low quality opportunity in order to find that diamond in the rough which is a good match for the next step in my career.

Every part of the script has been deliberately included with a distinct purpose in mind. First the script, but next I’ll go through, annotate the underlying intention then offer some options and strategies around what to do when the responses come in.

The Auto Response Template

(Feel free to copy this and use it/modify it yourself! Although, if your name isn’t Alex you might consider editing it a little in. In fact feel free to fork it on github!)

Thanks so much for reaching out. I’m always interested in hearing about what new and exciting opportunities are out there. As a software engineer I’m sure you can imagine that I get a very high volume of recruiters reaching out on LinkedIn. It is a wonderful position of privilege to be in and I’m thankful for it.It does however mean that I don’t have the time to hop on a call with everyone who reaches out. A lot of the time, incoming messages represent a very poor fit indeed.I would love to continue the conversation, but before I do, I’d like to level set around the level of seniority that you’re looking for. Can you send along the company name, a job description and, total compensation details for the role you’re reaching out in reference to? While I very much appreciate the fact that exceptionally talented and engaged recruiters reach out consistently, sorting serious and high quality opportunities from spam would be a full time job without an autoresponder.In the absence of detailed information regarding the nature of the opportunity in question, I will be unavailable for further discussion.Thanks again for reaching out!

I look forward to hearing from you.
Alex

That’s it, I keep this message set up as a pinned item in my keep.google.com account. When a message comes in from a recruiter on any channel I’ll copy and paste it back.

Now let’s go on, break it down and explain what’s going on.

Thanks so much for reaching out. I’m always interested in hearing about what new and exciting opportunities are out there. As a software engineer I’m sure you can imagine that I get a very high volume of recruiters reaching out on LinkedIn. It is a wonderful position of privilege to be in and I’m thankful for it.

Even if I concede that the vast majority of recruiters are not approaching with high-quality opportunities, you don’t want to be a jerk to the one in 100 who have taken the time to carefully craft a high-quality message to you alone.

Start that relationship off on the right foot, don’t be a jerk, remember that they’re real people who want to give you money.

You’re starting off pleasant and engaging, you’re ready to talk to them if they don’t waste your time.

It does however mean that I don’t have the time to hop on a call with everyone who reaches out. A lot of the time, incoming messages represent a very poor fit indeed.I would love to continue the conversation, but before I do, I’d like to level set around the level of seniority that you’re looking for.

Here you can give them the clearest possible justification for not wanting to hop on a call with them. If the job they’ve got is going to be a pay cut, then you’re wasting your time and theirs. Let’s prepare them for the fact that they need to show-you-the-money.

Can you send along the company name, a job description and, total compensation details for the role you’re reaching out in reference to?

Now let’s be real here. If the money isn’t there, the job is off the table anyways. If the money IS there you’re actually legitimately want to find out who you might be working for and what they’re going to want you to do.

Some offers will be higher than your minimum bar for response, but be at companies or in industries you don’t have high confidence in.

While I very much appreciate the fact that exceptionally talented and engaged recruiters reach out consistently, sorting serious and high quality opportunities from spam would be a full time job without an autoresponder.

You explain to them that this is a script you’ve written. Let them know that they’re getting a low effort bot-response in response to their recruiter spam. This will help them understand why you asked for a Job Description when it was very clearly in the message you they sent you.

If they are professionals they’ll figure out that the get the message if they didn’t send all three items from your checklist. They won’t be upset, most of the time they’ll be happy that someone responded.

It’s a chance to get feedback, a chance to get better at their job, to learn more about the nuance of developers want.

In the absence of detailed information regarding the nature of the opportunity in question, I will be unavailable for further discussion.

Here you’re laying down the law. They reached out to you. Remember, if they get you all the way to employed in the role that works out to 10% of your salary. It pays to follow up on a good lead.

Thanks again for reaching out!

I look forward to hearing from you.
Alex

Wrap it up and sign off. The balls in their court.

Next we talk about what to do when the response comes through.

So I’m a dog who caught the car. Now what do I do?

When you get the response you’ll find a few things can happen.

The salary is at or below your current: Congratulations! You collected a salary data-point. Maybe you’re getting paid about the right amount.

Thank them again for reaching out and let them know that you’re not currently open to offers less than $current*1.5.

The salary is less than 50% more than your current: It’s probably appropriate to have a think about how happy you are in your current role and how this offer might impact your long term career goals.

  • Is the company more prestigious?
  • Does it sound like something you’d like to do?
  • Is the technology stack more interesting? More modern? Have better long-term-prospects?

This is in the range where IF the important things are there, you can think about chatting a little more. Don’t focus on the comp and set up a meeting with the manager.

If they ask you what you want to be paid before you’ve spoken to the hiring manager, tell them all the things you like about that role. What are the things that really have you on the fence?

Then say something to the effect of:

I've been thinking about the compensation question. Reasonably speaking there are way too many unknowns at this point in time for me to really have a sense for how much it would take for me to leave my current employer.This is a really exciting sounding opportunity and I'm definitely intrigued, but I still think I'd need to know more before I gave an absolute number.Factors like culture, tech stack, growth potential, and responsibilities will all play a pretty major role in what it would take to sell me on the job.I'm happy to continue the conversation if they're willing to speak to me.

Don’t agree to a technical screening yet. That’s too much stress and not worth your time. At this point it’s reasonable to hop on that 15 minute call with the recruiter and arrange for a meet and greet with the hiring manager.

If you get through the chat with the manager, you’re probably safe to quote $current_salary*1.5. If you really like the role or feel like it is something that will help you achieve your long-term goals add in that you’d still like to keep talking but that’s a number you think is fair.

If the pay represents a raise of 50% or greater: This is where you calmly reply “that sounds reasonable, let’s set up a time to talk.” Try not to giggle or do a happy dance while on the phone.

All of the advice around aligning your long term goals with compensation hold true. Don’t let your own dreams of swimming in a scrooge mcduck style swimming pool full of money cloud your vision. Don’t risk burnout, the market is hot, another offer is just around the corner.

At any time you can decide that you’d rather finish whatever project you’re attached to in your current role. Maybe you’ve got goals that are of interest to you.

Why 50%

There have been a lot of articles complaining about the stress and effort involved in the tech hiring process. If companies are going to continue making you do weeks of studying alongside 10+ hours of interviews, all for a role that you might still not even get, they have to pay a premium for the time you’re working “on spec.”

Your skills and experience while in your current job have only increased since the last time you negotiated. If you’re in a job that you don’t hate, you’re bargaining from a position of strength. You’ve got the job and it is incumbent on the recruiter to convince you that theirs is good enough that you want to leave the one you’re at.

Do not discount the physical and emotional strain that doing an interview costs you. You might “pay” the interviewing company in vacation days, late nights, time spent studying when you just want to flomp on the couch with the latest Netflix. Everything that goes with an interview for nothing more than a promise of maybe?

It’d better be a really great promise! Otherwise just stick with the easy life.

This isn’t to say you can’t go for more, but 50% is in my opinion the minimum you should accept when all other things are considered equal. (You’re happy, respected, productive, etc…)

Other things to consider

This really doesn’t just have to be about compensation. A friend of mine told me that her template included a line to the effect of:

I'm very much feeling ready for the next step up in my career and am interested in moving up to an Engineering Manager role.

What happened? The Good recruiters took note of that and reached out the moment something came across their desk. By being polite and willing to enter into a professional working relationship with them, she was able to land her first engineering management role.

You can tweak the message as you like and in accordance with your personal professional development plan (remember that article I mentioned from a year ago? If you don’t have a PPDP consider getting one so you’re networked and ready when opportunities pop up)

What happens if engineers start responding to recruiters?

So far, the feedback I have heard from people I’ve shared this tip with has been resoundingly positive.

I personally think that if more engineers respond, it will change the economics of spamming them. Recruiters will

  • get the feedback they need to do better: “I should include all this information by default”
  • pass salary expectations back to employers: “I’m getting a lot of responses from the profile you’re after, but they’re all asking for 50% more than you’ve budgeted”
  • start having to think harder about the profile of the person they reach out to: “If I’m getting 50% “hit rate” maybe I should consider sending smaller batches” (it’s almost like we’re spamming the spammers!)
  • maybe, just maybe, start to feel a little more like humans making connections and, helping other humans. (and wouldn’t that be nice for all of us?)

The advice is to make sure you stay aware of your true market value over the course of your career. That you remain confident in the options you have available to you and that you don’t stagnate or languish in any given job.

That’s the advice that nobody told me: never ignore a recruiter.

PS. I said it above and I’ll say it again. PLEASE STEAL THIS. If you use the advice and it works for you, I’d love to hear what your experiences are (so far with a much smaller circle of friends, it is universally positive)

Do you have any counter opinions? See any glaring errors? Ways to improve? Let me know! I’d love to hear what your thoughts are.

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Alex Chesser

Alex Chesser

Over the last 20 years a programmer, team lead and technical architect. I'm a father and podcast on topics in professional development and software engineering

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