How to Have Better Recruiting Conversations With Top Software Engineers

Time to Read: 7.7 minutes

Updated: December 20, 2022

Successful hiring professionals understand the value of building strong relationships with candidates. All the right tools and software won’t make up for a lack of essential personal skills necessary to succeed at hiring.

Perhaps more than other candidates, software engineers and developers require extra attention. Bombarded as they are with unsolicited emails, hiring professionals will do well to treat these candidates with a focused strategy including a no-nonsense approach to their career development and the use of soft skills to develop a relationship.

Here are some of the ways hiring managers can have better conversations with tech professionals.

The Reality of the Recruiter and Developer Relationship

DaedTech founder Erik Dietrich writes about the persistent narrative surrounding the recruiter and developer relationship. In short, it has not always been rosy with the latter sometimes feeling pursued by the former.

But he cautions tech workers to think about how lucky they are to be in such demand. It is a chance to reflect on the good fortune in which they find themselves in a favorable job market.

As Dietrich jokes, some developers haven’t even heard of, because they’ve never had to struggle to find work.

This preamble gets to the bigger point of fostering positive relationships between hirers and candidates: Both parties involved should appreciate each other’s motivations.

“Recruiters are sales people. Their customers are companies that need software developers,” he writes. “Their product is mutually beneficial employment agreements, which really means that their product is you, developer. Recruiters sell you to companies. Kinda literally.”

As with most good hires, the referral network is key. This is as true for developers and software engineers as any other field. Perhaps, even more so, given the sentiment Dietrich presents.

The Power of Referrals

Ruslan Khalilov agrees, writing at Codility about how these networks, in addition to LinkedIn, remain effective ways to connect with tech candidates. There is a caveat, of course. Top programmers get a lot of attention from sourcers and “referral-bonus-seeking friends.”

This is why, as always, hiring managers need to build meaningful relationships within the technical community instead of “blasting out generic emails.”

It seems obvious but is worth stating: this isn’t a numbers game. It plays a part, of course, but good hiring has always been about people — finding successful fits and connecting with clients and candidates.

As Khalilov says, it’s worth taking these skills to the right places. GitHub is not branded as a recruitment site, but it shows developers’ actual projects. This gives hiring managers and recruiters the means of finding out what candidates are working on and where their interests and expertise lie before striking up a conversation — ideally, with a thoughtful initial email.

The hiring manager, Khalilov argues, needs to be the one to send the email because they have more technical credibility in the coding community. The feelers in the message can include talking about:

  • The technology stack used by the candidate and the challenges faced.
  • How the company develops new candidates and hosts hack days or meetups.
  • Opportunities to explore new tech.
  • Links to the company’s existing team members.

A personal connection is so powerful because it is an intermediary between a candidate and the company. In this situation, “there’s a much better chance that the match will be a good one,” says front-end engineer Travis Bloom, at It’s even better when the referral comes from a current employee, as it is easier to start the relationship in a meaningful way.

The reason for this, Bloom says, is that the hiring professional and candidate will have shared knowledge about the role and organization before their own conversation begins.

Accessing the right personal networks is important, Hyam Singer writes at Toptal. This is where to find the “best source of qualified candidates … as quality people tend to associate with quality people.”

Singer suggests searching developer blogs and online technical postings to find out who the best developers and engineers are to hire. Learning about candidates is an essential aspect of the hiring process.

Other good networks can be found by looking at open source code contributors and reviewing presenters at tech conferences.

Use Soft Skills to Hire For Soft Skills

A personal connection requires soft skills. Singer recommends a four-factor approach to hiring software development candidates: social networking, technical acumen, process management, and intuition.

These resources help facilitate a better and more constructive initial conversation and subsequent relationship; they allow you some insight into the candidate before you actually meet. Plus, you are able to evaluate the candidate’s own soft skills.

The process isn’t straightforward, but often better than a direct approach, says Singer. “All too often, attempts at evaluating these crucial, yet elusive, attributes consist of questions or challenges that are sufficiently transparent for the ‘correct’ answers to be obvious to most candidates. Thus, nothing of substance is achieved by asking them.”

Relying on the direct approach only can also lead to an over-reliance on technical details, which may lead to failing to fully assess a candidate’s ability to solve problems and think creatively.

Understand What Motivates Tech Workers

Quora founder Charlie Cheever takes it a step further: “The only thing that works consistently well is to source through the personal networks of people that already work with you.”

Great software engineers want to work on great products for great companies on great teams. They want to learn, earn and gain respect from the community. Getting to grips with what engineers and developers want means recruiters or hiring managers can start a conversation in the right tone. Knowing what someone wants makes it a lot easier to tailor the job offer.

Remember, it’s not just about having candidates referred to hiring managers, it’s about being referred to candidates. Reputation is vital. Some ways to build a solid reputation, Cheever advises, is to:

  • Issue programming challenges to screen candidates’ abilities and their interest in an organization. This works well by offering generally shy engineers a way to engage.
  • Produce demos to showcase the organization’s goals, interests, and track record of innovation.

Know Industry Trends

Any hiring professional working with tech candidates will be up to date with industry trends and the skills employers are looking for. Top of the list is cybersecurity, a market expected to reach 1.8 million unfilled positions by 2022 in the US alone.

To have a better conversation with candidates, hiring professionals should be able to converse with confidence and knowledge about the companies with a big focus on security. Three prime examples of large tech companies with a focus on security include:

  • Cisco is on the cutting edge of cybersecurity research and leading the way in developing safeguards. Global Head of Executive Talent Acquisition Karla Samdahl confirms that engineers and data scientists with experience in cybersecurity are always in demand. “Bleeding-edge technology skills are relatively scarce and highly sought after,” Samdahl says.
  • Intel’s innovations in the Internet of Things mean the company is working at bolstering security to stop anyone from hacking these connected devices. Intel moves quickly, too. A few years ago, Director of HR Mergers and Acquisitions Cindi Harper, then the company’s HR director, began to speed up hiring timelines from weeks to days. In fact, some of her hiring managers have even gone to college job fairs and handed out job offers on the spot. “The talent’s not waiting,” Harper told JobsTheWorld in 2013.
  • Despite the premium on tech talent, Apple expects candidates to meet recruiters halfway and to tell their own stories so recruiters can assess their fit. “What is the story that it tells and why is it compelling?” says John Turnberg, a Silicon Valley-based recruiter. “Your cover letter, InMail message or email can be viewed as the synopsis that is found on the back cover, which creates the need or desire to find out more.”

It’s Not Just What You Say. It’s Where You Say It.

In a previous post about hiring tech candidates, we wrote about finding the right medium for contact. ‘Don’t use the phone’ was a resounding takeaway point.

Rachel Maleady, at ERE, picks up on this thread: “Don’t call me. I mean — you can email me. Just don’t call me. That’s what quite a few software developers say, at least.” The point to remember is that no matter what you may want to say to a candidate and the great position you may offer, you have to engage them on their terms.

Don’t Make Excuses

It’s easy to cite a lack of time to get out of the hard work of crafting personalized and thoughtful introductory emails to candidates and the subsequent relationship building that is required, but it won’t get you anywhere.

Rich Moy at Stack Overflow Talent acknowledges the administrative tasks that take up a lot of hiring professionals’ time. But the point is that developers and software engineers expect a lot from hiring managers. They are in demand and have the luxury of choice and the clout to make demands.

Tied to this confident position is the mindset that hiring professionals ought to do their research about the candidate they are sourcing. Put in the time to get the results.

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Shanil Kaderali

Shanil Kaderali is a strategic talent acquisition leader with global experience. He's managed and led recruitment functions at companies like Cisco Systems, Symantec, WellPoint, as well as having worked for several Baker's Dozen RPO winners.

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