5 Ways IT Leaders Can Lure Top Tech Talent

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Attracting top tech talent can be a challenge, especially at a time when competition is fierce for a limited supply of qualified applicants. Here are five tactics that can be effective. 

The FBI has had trouble recruiting the kind of technical talent it needs to compete with cyber-criminals. So the agency is trying to be more “cool,” according to The Washington Post. But its hiring rules, which disqualify applicants who have used marijuana within three years of their employment application, have apparently limited the agency’s appeal among hackers.

Other organizations may not choose to be so discerning in their IT recruiting, but even less selective firms can find it difficult to attract candidates with advanced technical skills. According to Robert Half, a survey of 2,500 CIOs from 25 major US markets about hiring plans for the second half of 2016 found that 61% respondents say it is somewhat or very challenging to find the skilled professionals they seek.

To bring in the best people, try taking a page from this corporate recruiting classic: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). For those not familiar with the tale, candy magnate Willy Wonka arranges to have five golden tickets offering access to his chocolate factory hidden among the multitude of Wonka chocolate bars distributed throughout England.

This undoubtedly profitable marketing gimmick turns out to be an elaborate executive hiring interview by which Wonka will find his replacement, the virtuous Charlie Bucket, among a number of less worthy candidates.

While turning corporate control over to a minor, however well-mannered, may not be a viable path for most organizations, the book nonetheless demonstrates that rare talent can be had with enough creativity. Bletchley Park, the UK’s codebreaking organization during World War II, demonstrated that in 1941 when it used a crossword puzzle contest in The Daily Telegraph to find people adept at cracking codes.

Such tactics have become commonplace for recruiting. Google in 2004 paid for a billboard with a math challenge aimed at “engineers who are geeky enough to be annoyed at the very existence of a math problem they haven’t solved, and smart enough to rectify the situation.” Later that year, the company published its “Google Labs Aptitude Test,” with the suggestion that completing the test might lead to a “really cool job.”

What follows are some of recruiting strategies that could work for your organization.

Hold Contests

Prospective employees often appreciate a fun challenge, and many companies have held contests of various sorts to engage job seekers. Game dynamics work for reality television, and they work for real companies too. The trick is coming up with a puzzle that attracts the right people. The UK’s GCHQ, like Bletchley Park before it, held a code-breaking contest involving JavaScript in 2011. The only problem was it turned out to be solvable with a Google search.

Offer Benefits

The most obvious way to recruit top talent is through material rewards. Almost anyone can be tempted with a sufficiently lavish offer. But organizations need not break the bank to attract top tier technical experts. Start by offering flexible work hours and up the ante from there.

“One of the hardest things to achieve, as expectations for technology teams continue to grow, is work-life balance,” said John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology, in an email. “So one tech startup in the Midwest is offering unlimited vacation time to their technology talent and giving their employees $7,500 to take a vacation.”

Reed also points to career development as a popular perk.

“Technology professionals are especially focused on staying up-to-date on industry trends for their career growth and development,” said Reed. “One retail company has industry leading speakers come to the office to teach in-demand skill sets, and they pay for extended education courses and conferences.”

Offer Cash

Athletes often get signing bonuses. In the past few years, a growing number of recent graduates have been offered signing bonuses, according to Bloomberg, often in technical fields. While organizations may not want to pay a premium for workers, such an upfront enticement is a pittance compared to the golden parachutes offered to executives. Gain sharing (profiting from reducing waste or improving efficiency) and profit sharing (profiting from increasing corporate profits) can be effective variants on direct-reward payments.

Be Cool

Having a positive corporate image makes recruiting easier. Not every company can muster the brand appeal of Google or Facebook, but doing work that makes the world a better place can help. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the ethics of an organization represent a critical factor for new college graduates seeking jobs.

One way to be cool is to be open. “Organizations are making it easier for talent to get an ‘inside look’ at the culture,” said Reed. “One creative agency holds an open house for tech talent. This allows the potential candidates to see their environment, meet some of the employees, and potentially get the first interview completed at this time. They hold these during off-business hours to accommodate working candidates.”

Make Them Feel For You

Generating positive feelings for an organization can help recruiting. In 2012, the Swedish Armed Forces, with the help of DDB Stockholm, created an interactive exhibit in which a person imprisoned in a box placed in a public area could only be released if another person selflessly took the prisoner’s place. In the military, not to mention other organizations, willingness to endure discomfort for the benefit of others obviously has value. The campaign to attract “world improvers” brought in 9,930 applications for 1,400 positions.

Organizations can solicit empathy by presenting scenarios that appeal to common humanity. For example, an IT group could offer to fund an animal shelter if a particular puzzle or challenge is solved. Or it could present a pressing social problem that can be solved by code.