One of the greatest challenges of growing tech companies is how to compete in the developer talent market. In some instances, finding and hiring qualified technical talent is a major factor in whether your organization will still exist five years from now.

So, what appeals to and motivates the elusive developer community?

As someone who has helped organizations of all sizes attract, hire, and retain technical talent for well over a decade, I can empathize with a company’s struggle to answer that question.

The worst thing you can do is base your recruiting efforts upon a set of unsubstantiated assumptions such as, “We need the highest salary” or “We need to bring in a free masseuse twice a week.” That’s why I find it extremely valuable to find hard data to back up — or make me question — my assumptions.

At long last we have access to such data, from the very heart of the software development community. Stack Overflow has released its 2016 Developer Hiring Landscape report, providing valuable data and insights into the key drivers of career decisions of developers. There’s a lot to digest in this survey, so definitely download the report and invest some time digging into the numbers.

How Receptive Are Developers?

One of the most notable statistics in the survey is that a whopping 75% of developers are either actively looking, or open to hearing about new job opportunities.  This is a pretty staggering percentage, especially when you consider how often we hear that the “developer market is one of the most difficult to engage.”

Gaining the attention of a prospective developer is challenging, however, this statistic reinforces my belief that it isn’t because they aren’t open to other opportunities. In fact, I know from conversations with hundreds of developers over the last several years that the 75% number is probably pretty accurate - though admittedly a bit higher than I expected. Assuming the statistic is even in the ballpark, then where are all of these supposedly “open to hearing about it” developers?

Well, just where you think they are; working long hours in lucrative jobs and — in their off hours — actively diving into their favorite hobby, developing their own projects or spending time with their family. All of this equates to ignoring recruiters’ emails and calls until something triggers their attention, such as job dissatisfaction or a life event like marriage, having a child, etc.

Unfortunately, when they enter the market, the developer talent shortage has made them a hot commodity and they know it.

How do I overcome the developer talent shortage?

I live in Seattle, WA, a well-established global tech hub. According to the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), citing more than 20,000 open technology positions in Washington State, the shortage level is “critical.” To make matters worse, giant global brands are setting up engineering offices here to tap into the already strained supply of developer talent.

Companies luring developers with brand name recognition and jaw-dropping compensation packages aren’t going away any time soon. Even with the many “bootcamp” style schools entering the market to help fill the void, the gap is just too large.  Additionally, new grads require guidance and further training by more experienced developers - creating additional drag on already overburdened teams.

So what’s the answer? Though I am not a wise hermit living on the top of a mountain, I will give you similar mountain-hermit advice and say, “seek internally… but not exclusively.”  If your organization is like most, then you hire developers out of necessity, either through growth or replacing poached talent. Reaching out to your network or incentivizing your teams for referrals may find you your next hire this time, but it can ironically be reinforcing lazy behavior that will come back to bite you in the future.

Internal resources and your network are two necessary components, but it’s not nearly enough.  It reminds me of someone who hits the gym for a solid month before his or her 10-year high school reunion.  While they might pull of off looking good on the big day, they’re ultimately missing the point of going to the gym.  Having a consistent and ongoing talent acquisition strategy will have positive impact on the health of your organization.

Ongoing Developer Talent Acquisition Strategy

Aside from the report, there are some very simple things a growing company can do to keep a healthy pipeline of prospects:

  • Create systems to keep in touch with candidates that were second and third on your list in previous open positions. The fact that they got so close to being hired means that they might deserve another look down the road.
  • Stay active on LinkedIn, linking with the local developer community and keeping on their radar.
  • Consider inviting select potential future recruits to some hosted in-office and out of office events.
  • Open in-house training seminars for new technologies to the developer community and follow up afterward.
  • Consider setting aside some budget for events and conferences that draw developers, sending an internal representative, hosting a speaker or having a booth.
  • Always keep in touch with reliable contractors you feel work well within your culture and get along with your team members.

The whole point is to build a list of potential recruits, make them familiar with your brand and keep an open line of communication.

The Salary Trap

This brings me to another eye opening statistic in the Stack Overflow report worth mentioning; when asked “What Developers Look For in a New Job Opportunity”, the number one response is salary - at 61%.

For some perspective, the wording of the report is a bit tricky, as it could lead a reader to believe the bigger salary will attract the better developer.  I disagree. I believe that salaries should:

  1. Reflect the developer’s level of skill and experience,
  2. Enable the candidate to maintain their current lifestyle and commitments.
  3. Demonstrate that the organization has an understanding of their market.

Of course, your compensation package needs to be reasonably competitive in your market, but you should be wary of those that are seeking the highest possible compensation for their role.  Let the enterprise organizations with deep pockets fight over the highest bidder candidates.

Environmental Considerations

Something I didn’t find in the survey, which surprised me, was the lack of mention of the work environment. I spend a significant amount of time visiting office spaces of partners and clients, and I’m often in awe of the spaces they’ve created. Full catered kitchens, open bars, rooftop decks with expansive water views, and stunning architecture seems to be the norm.

I can’t help but run numbers in my head about the investments to create such an environment, it has to be staggering.  I admit, I love these spaces and no doubt they make quite an impression on visitors and potential hires. The fact that it didn’t make the top 10 items that developers think are important may at the very least make us rethink where our investments are going.

Hopefully you’ll find some value in the report, as I did.  While I suspect that most of the responses and statistics are not particularly surprising to many seasoned professionals, hopefully it will serve as a springboard for future conversations or exploration of how you and your organization can continue to improve your strategy and process for attracting talent in this unprecedented market.

The value of investing in our people, both current and future, can’t be overstated.