Jeff Szczepanski, COO at Stack Overflow, discusses the various ways tech recruiting has changed with the industry.
Fifty years ago, software engineers were scarce. Fewer computers meant fewer people who needed to know how to use them and how to develop for them.
But as we’ve become more and more reliant on technology for everyday activities, computers and software development have become woven into the fabric of society: new products and companies are emerging every day. And, because of this, education around computers and technology had to evolve beyond the preserve of a few elite universities.
As the need for developers has become even more pressing, the tactics used to fill technical roles have also had to become more sophisticated, integrating modern technology and recruiting methods.
How has the developer hiring process managed to keep up with the times, and what can this tell us about the future of technical recruitment?
Evolution of tech education
In the 1960s, a computer on a university campus was a rare sight. Not only was technology less pervasive, it was a lot more difficult to access the means to learn how to write software.
Software engineering courses were also practically non-existent. Since formal career paths weren’t yet in place, companies recruited engineering, mathematics and even humanities students in their place.
As the years proceeded, software development gradually became more institutionalised. More jobs for developers were created – and young people became more keen to enter the world of software engineering. To match demand, universities began to roll out specialised courses that provided students with the skills they needed to enter the field.
Moving towards the present day, companies began entering universities themselves, advertising at careers fairs where soon-to-be graduates would compete for the best jobs. Pretty soon a software engineers’ university degree became one of the key indicators of their potential to prospective employers.
Today, there is widespread access for students and professionals to both formal, and non-formal coding education. In fact, our recent survey revealed that just 15% of developers in the UK & Ireland ranked formal education as ‘very important’, while over over a third of them said formal education was ‘not very or not at all important’.
Nowadays, there is a proliferation of free and paid courses outside of school for students who did not study computer science at university. In fact, it’s never been easier to enter computer science or coding, via online courses, on-the-job training, or open source contributions.
Employers can now look beyond a computer science degree, and instead access a greater pool of candidates who have gained their skills through a variety of means.
Five decades ago, software was crude and utilitarian. Developers worked on products for mainframe computer systems designed to make enterprise-level companies more efficient and effective, such as time-sharing, data processing and digital storage systems.
But as time went on, software became more interactive and relevant to wider and more inclusive audiences. Soon, everyone could have their own computer and the general public became more interested in software’s potential. So software engineers started making products to match the level of public interest – office suites, calendars, home finance programs – all designed to make the everyday citizen’s life easier.
Then the advent of the internet changed everything – increasing software’s possibilities exponentially. Now, we can’t live without software – and nor can we live without software developers.
This huge range of applications now possible for software has changed the demands put on developers. Employers now need to find candidates who display creativity, entrepreneurship and soft skills: these are the attributes that help developers succeed in this new environment.
Recruiting before the internet was an arduous and time-consuming process. Jobseekers had to trawl the newspaper classifieds circling the opportunities that were right for them. Headhunters were common, but they weren’t specialised – they would make general calls to offices with developers and cross their fingers that someone would be interested. Companies even employed over-the-top tactics like skywriting planes and fly-over banners.
Eventually, things changed with the appearance of recruitment agencies, on which technology companies have historically been heavily dependent on. However, these agencies were so concerned with serving employers and earning commissions, all too often they didn’t think enough about candidates’ interests. As demand for technical talent grew, developers would be bombarded with cold calls about completely irrelevant opportunities.
Nowadays, while some employers are still using these inefficient and often unsuccessful methods, there are a newer, more effective ways of recruiting for technical roles. Internal recruiters and HR managers need to target places where developers actually spend their time, and use the right tools to target each one individually. Recruiters are beginning to learn the language of developers – and I’m not just talking about C# – they are actively making efforts to understand exactly what developers do and what they want from a job.
This is crucial: forming a rapport with developer candidates will be very difficult if recruiters do not understand how developers spend their time and the things that are important to them in prospective job offers.
For example, the top three priorities for developers in the UK & Ireland when evaluating a job opportunity are: commuting time, opportunities for professional development and the languages and/or technologies used in the role. However, if you review most job postings for technical candidates, you’re unlikely to see them speaking directly to these needs.
The job role of a developer has changed so much over the past 50 years, and at times tech recruiting has struggled to keep up. However, as more employers dedicate time to learning about what’s really important to developers, we expect to see the developer hiring process dramatically improve.