Learn the Tech or Lose the Talent: Understanding Specialized Skills

Time to Read: 8.4 minutes

Updated: June 1, 2023

Tech people have their own language. Developers, digital project managers, database architects — they all communicate with words that are incomprehensible to the untrained ear.

That’s why the best recruiters must be at least conversant in tech. While it is not necessary for recruiters to understand the intricacies of every candidate’s skill set, they need to be able to understand the basics.

Here are eight tips that will help you understand a tech recruit’s skill set.

The Changing Nature of Tech Recruitment

Tech recruiting isn’t what it used to be. And that’s a good thing. What Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite, said in 2011 remains valid six years later. He argued that the technical skills required for many jobs change so quickly that recruiters will need to adapt or risk losing touch with the hiring processes of fast-growing companies.

This is something Dr. John Sullivan agrees with. He says the “avalanche of next-generation trends” in recruitment can quickly render recruiters’ skill sets outdated.

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality and predictive analytics are some of those next-generation trends, and recruiters need to be up-to-date on what those technologies are. An inquiring and receptive mind will be an asset.

Sullivan provides some tips for recruiters in an increasingly technical and specialized workforce:

  • Don’t become a dinosaur. Skill up or become extinct.
  • Sell, don’t source. Candidates are easy to find online. The job now is selling tech talent to companies with very specific and rigid demands.
  • Be driven by data. Recruiters who don’t know how to use data won’t be able to progress in the changing industry.
  • Keep learning. Adopt the mindset that assumes your skill set will be outdated within two years. Find places to keep learning. Check out tech blogs, websites, and forums.

Reading Between Tech’s Blurred Lines

There are highly specialized tech candidates with skills for very specific positions; however, a fair amount of crossover exists between roles and job titles. Candidates skilled in one area are often equipped to deal with or need to be able to cope with varied tech-related tasks.

This is especially so when talking about cybersecurity. Dino Grigorakakis says that the tech skills needed by cybersecurity practitioners and IT specialists often overlap these days, blurring the distinction.

These are no longer disconnected aspects of tech workers’ skill sets. Rather, companies realize nearly all IT staff will need to possess some cybersecurity skills. This will help ensure security is built into networks and systems in the planning stages, and not just as an add-on at the end.

The same goes for mobile. Developers will increasingly need to be adept at mobile to stand out in the busy employment market.

It is vital for recruiters to understand how the network of skills connects between job roles. This will help them find more versatile candidates.

Nail Down the Specifics

In order to find the right candidate, recruiters need to know what exactly the role entails. Ramesh Busavalla says a good way to do this is by carefully analyzing requirements with the hiring manager or the client. Determining the basics is a good place to start. These include experience, education, and qualification required of candidates. Addressing specific knowledge requirements and skill set is the next step.

That said, even the hiring manager’s own tech literacy can muddy the waters more than clarify. Michelle Spagnoli writes that hiring managers are not often equipped to translate the specs for the recruiter. Turning highly technical and nuanced requirements of specialized roles into recruitment language is not easy.

To overcome these difficulties, Spagnoli calls for greater collaboration between recruiters and hiring managers. She says recruiters should be responsible for sourcing candidates according to criteria defined by hiring managers, who are in turn required to provide ongoing feedback and direction to the recruiter to hone the process.

Toss Out the Buzzwords and Call In the Experts

Not having a proper discussion with hiring managers or learning the basics will quickly show limited knowledge. This is unfortunate for recruiters and candidates. But it is important recruiters do not try to bluff their way through the process.

Jacob Kimber at Undercover Recruiter warns about the danger of recruiters clinging to buzzwords without grasping their meaning. It’s better to understand who the applicants are and what they do. This will translate into recruiters getting a greater number of relevant resumes and building stronger relationships with candidates.

Kimber says recruiters don’t necessarily need to be the ones to learn the tech aspects of their applicants’ roles. They can also approach tech-savvy team members within their own company. He frequently calls on his good relationship with his organization’s senior architect to educate and explain different frameworks, and help with programming and database languages.

This is something Mervyn Dinnen also recommends. He says in-house tech talent can act as draw cards, points of reference, and even translators. It’s worth tapping tech-savvy colleagues on the shoulder in such instances — even going so far as to loop those tech people into the recruiting conversations.

Understanding the tech specs of a particular role will give recruiters more power to find the right candidate. This might come in the forms of redrafting a job spec or assessing whether candidates would be a good fit for the role after an intensive training course, writes Dinnen.

The Value of a Dedicated Specialized Team

Victor Goodman writes that filling technical positions usually requires uncommon and specialized skills from candidates. The result is fewer people to fill the gaps. This makes the job of recruiters that much harder.

Additionally, these highly skilled applicants require a honed recruitment method. Goodman says focusing on tech-specific job boards is a good place to start. But as the candidates’ skills become more specialized, so too will recruiters’ knowledge need to grow more focused.

Often, the only way to deal with this is by training specific in-house recruiters to deal with technical positions. Failing that, he suggests outsourcing the task to a recruitment firm specializing in placing tech personnel.

The Power of a Challenge

Companies are increasingly moving away from traditional recruiting techniques and opting for broad challenges instead.

Vivek Ravisankar writes that a number of organizations on the hunt for quality staff have started hosting contests. The idea is to attract programmers and pit them against one another to solve a particular challenge.

He cites as examples Stripe’s security challenge, which attracted 16,000 contestants, and Netflix’s AI challenge, which brought in 100,000 programmers.

Ravisankar says those in the tech industry often have a deep desire to solve complex problems. Puzzles, challenges and games are a great way to get applicants working on problem solving and showcasing their skills. This helps recruiters determine whether these candidates will be able to perform in the highly specialized role for which they are applying.

Get Interested

Recruiters need to be as enthusiastic as their candidates are about the industries in which they work.

Amybeth Quinn, the former technical recruiter at Hewlett Packard, says she had an exercise science background before moving into recruitment. The essential requirement, she writes, helped her as a recruiter not because of any specialized knowledge with she shared with candidates, but because she had “a genuine interest in technology.” And candidates recognized that.

Showing a real desire to learn from candidates can be a great way to identify quality talent. Quinn says the great candidates can “dumb it down” to make it easier for non-techies to understand.

Jon Bischke, the founder of Entelo, writes that recruiters can get away with not being technical. It is, however, going to make the process of talking to engineers all day long much easier if they get to grips with their applicants’ specializations.

To make the job easier, he suggests:

  • Doing a coding course to know the basics. Not only will it help give an idea of what applicants do, but it will show a real interest from the side of the recruiter.
  • Learn the lingo, and get to grips with industry terminology as possible.
  • Listen to tech podcasts.

Some Skills Will Never Change

Technology continues to transform the way we work. There are more technical jobs to be done, and with this comes the need to evolve recruitment methods. However, some skills will always be valuable.

Matt Deutsch at Top Echelon writes that technological progress has stabilized with regard to how the recruitment industry is being affected. The focus is back on human behavior, which is good news for recruiters. This runs through to applicants, too. Even as technical skills become more in demand, these can be learned on the job, through courses and regular skill upgrades.

Soft skills matter, too. Caroline Beaton, writing at Forbes, says that among the 100-plus HR managers, recruiters and CEOs she spoke with all want to see soft skills in new recruits. Beaton lists four essential skills needed in the workforce:

  • Attention. Despite automation and digital processes making us all less prone to periods of sustained attention, this is a vital skill to develop. Working on small side projects from beginning to end will help with this.
  • Curiosity and commitment, not college. University degrees are more common and, therefore, less of a unique selling point for candidates.
  • Agility. Being able to adapt is key to making an impact. Providing alternative plans and excellent emergency reactions is a valuable skill.
  • Humility. It’s a character trait people appreciate.

It’s clear that recruiters need to understand the scope of the technical and specialized skills of their candidates. Not only does it make it easier for them to do their jobs, but it will lead to better placements and lasting relationships.

Of course, there are limitations to how much knowledge recruiters can and should acquire. Rachael Ferrigno at Stack Overflow Business sums it up well. She encourages tech recruiters to get involved in the communities in which they operate. They should learn about their niches, what makes applicants tick and what’s important to them.

Active listening, genuine interest, and basic working knowledge will help recruiters connect with their specialized candidates.

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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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