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How to recruit diverse engineering talent in a competitive market

September 26, 2019
5 minute read
Last updated September 26, 2019

It’s a familiar tale. You’ve gone through your resume pile again and—despite all plans and instructions regarding diverse candidates—all of them are male and white. You complain to your hiring team and recruiting agencies. They give you the same response you’ve already heard: “There are no diverse candidates out there.”

Faced with this scenario, you can choose to accept what they tell you and hire more people who look and sound a lot like the people you already have on your team (and worsening your overall diversity in the process). Or you can hold up hiring until you get a more well-rounded candidate pool.

Meanwhile, other companies have read the same studies you have about diverse teams outperforming homogenous teams and are working hard to out-recruit you. Some of these companies are even succeeding

So what’s a hiring manager to do? 

First of all, I have some bad news. If you persist in clinging to the old ways of hiring, you’re likely to get the same results. There’s no magic way to create more diverse teams without fundamentally changing how you hire. Fortunately, there are a bunch of levers to pull to move the process in the right direction.

Soo working at computer

So what can I do?

Whatever you do, do *not* mention that you “really want to hire more diverse candidates” in job postings or any communications. It’s not a selling point. Your diversity problem is not their problem to solve. The right candidate will feel wanted and welcome for what they can bring to a team as a whole person, and not as a token hire.

Reframe your idea of the perfect candidate.

Reconsider what you see as the “perfect candidate” (i.e., someone with the exact skill set you need right now). Engineers learn for a living. So if someone has demonstrated an ability to solve problems in related technology, they can probably learn your technologies just fine. Also, even the most skilled engineer will need to spend time learning your business, current systems, and processes anyway, so it’s not as much of a time sink to learn a related technology as well.

Go where the candidates are.

Who says you have to fish in the same pond as everyone else? Go where your candidates are.

Send team members and hiring managers to under-represented coder events, such as Girls Who Code and Resilient Coders.
Sponsor local meetups for goodwill and karma, rather than instant returns.
Create a “returnship” program for people who’ve left technology (such as primary parents) but want to return to the field. Then support this program with funding and adequate resources to help your candidates succeed.
Hire non-traditional candidates, such as coding boot camp graduates, or self-taught engineers. Bootcamps, in particular, tend to have much better diversity representations than CS programs.
Consider enthusiasm and acumen for problem-solving to be two core requirements.

Revise your job description.

Does your job ad actually appeal to diverse candidates? At a bare minimum, comb your current job descriptions for any gendered-language and replace them with gender-neutral pronouns or terms. Stop using words that appeal to one gender more than another such as “rockstar,” “ninja,” and “badass.” At best, they don’t give helpful information about the job, and at worse, they will subtly discourage people who just want to solve complex problems instead of tearing up hotel rooms. 

Rethink your job perks, especially the ones you choose to advertise to potential candidates. I’ve got nothing against foosball and beer kegs, but things like flexible work schedules, remote work options, childcare subsidies, and a supportive and reasonable work culture are usually more appealing to all people (not just women), especially those with family obligations.

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Know that elite degrees don’t always equal on-the-job success.

As much as people love brand names, a degree from Stanford, MIT, or some other elite institution doesn’t guarantee success as an engineer at your company. Even Google doesn’t hire based on Ivy League pedigree.

It doesn’t matter where someone went to school. What matters is whether someone has the behavioral traits and cognitive ability to get the job done well. 

Rethink candidate assessments.

Some of your “favorite” interview tests have been shown to be near useless in assessing candidate talent. Brain teasers are notoriously bad indicators, and algorithm tests just mean that someone has recently studied algorithms. 

Replace whiteboard coding with take-home tests that are evaluated independently of credentials, or even completely blind. Try to base the coding required on actual work required, such as a debugging problem, rather than “build a full-functioning app in two hours.” Another option is to invite late-stage candidates to pair code on an actual problem. You can also consider hiring candidates for a small contract job before offering a full-time position.

Don’t throw every keyword out there hoping to catch more fish.

If you list every technology in use in all parts of your company, when the job touches only a few, you’re discouraging some folks from applying. Instead, show that you encourage a growth mindset in your job descriptions and work culture. After all, you want to attract individuals who truly love to learn. 

The rewards are real.

Changing the way you hire engineering talent is difficult, but the rewards of having a more diverse workforce are real. To further accelerate your chances of reaching your business goals, hire people who are a behavioral fit—not only the role but also for your culture and your business strategy.  

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