Audio: Q&A with Top Tech Sourcers on Finding, Attracting and Assessing Tech Talent Remotely

Q&A with Top Tech Sourcers on Finding, Attracting and Assessing Tech Talent Remotely

By Jomiro Eming


Companies are increasingly hiring remotely, which can open the talent pool of developers from hyper-local to international. However, selling top candidates on your company’s mission and team culture without meeting them in person can be really hard. When hiring remotely, it’s incredibly important to focus on how you tell your company’s story, and the way you position a role to a candidate.

We spoke to two top tech sourcers, Sjamilla van der Tooren and Vanessa Raath, to discuss the opportunities and challenges that come with sourcing and hiring tech talent remotely. Sjamilla has worked for companies like Zenly, and now sources tech talent at Dutch bike company VanMoof, and Vanessa freelances from South Africa and hosts recruitment workshops for hiring specialists around the world. Both have presented at conferences and meetups, and both are active members of the tech recruitment space.

Some of the questions we explored in our discussion include:

Check out the full conversation Q&A, or watch the video of our discussion below!


What is ‘tech sourcing’?

Jomiro: I’m keen to hear a little bit from each of you how you’ve defined your roles as tech sourcers, and maybe also some insight into the nature of your tech sourcing. Vanessa, would you like to kick us off?

Vanessa: Sure! I’ve been on my own since last year April, where I actually do a combination of things: So, 50% of my time has been training recruiters on how to source more effectively and more efficiently — and that’s in a South African context, as well as all around the world; one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that people are reaching out from all over the place.

And then also the tech sourcing is something that I do globally, but also on a local scale. It’s pretty much just identifying the best people in a market or in an industry for a company that wants to hire the best of the best. For example, thanks to Sjamilla, I’ve moved Java developers from throughout Africa to the Netherlands.

It’s interesting, never a dull moment… But I prefer the sourcing side — so identifying talent — as opposed to the full 360 recruitment cycle.

Sjamilla: Well, how do I top that? What she said!

I live in the Netherlands, and I started working on my own freelancing basically in 2018, after being in house for a couple of years as a recruiter and sourcer. I would like to identify myself as a ‘person’ sourcer, but secretly, I’m not. I also like to kick around processes and make things better.

I love to geek out behind my laptop, find people that other people can’t find. And more importantly, that’s one of my niches: To get people to reply and to make every outreach worth it. And that’s also why some companies hired me in the past but also hired me, hopefully in the future to help them on their long-term sourcing goal.

For example, one thing I do is look specifically for female engineers, or work on diversity goals, which is a longer-term process. It is not something that you do overnight, and it’s not something that you should think lightly about.

Remote work: Netherlands vs South Africa

Jomiro: Sjamilla, my assumption with Dutch companies is that hiring developers remotely is not entirely new — at least compared to South Africa — but could you just give some insight into where European companies are at with remote work when it comes to tech talent?

Sjamilla: So, it really depends on the company that’s hiring, because I see a lot of companies that are open to it, that are not fully remote. And that makes it a bit difficult if you compare it to what I see, about my assumptions on the U.S. for example — then we’re far behind.

For example, when I’m sourcing in my niches in Europe, we’re five steps behind in terms of fully remote teams. But what we’re getting there, I think. A lot of it has to do with — if I look at the Netherlands specifically — that we don’t have these ‘large distances’. For me going to Amsterdam, I live in this really small village north of Amsterdam, but it’s still one hour away. So, it’s not impossible. Our country is so small that, within two and a half hours, you can drive across it from top to bottom. We have less need and it’s more possible to work at an office. And some companies are getting more flexible, especially in tech. I feel it’s weird if you’re not that flexible.

You also shouldn’t forget that a lot of people don’t like to work remotely: A lot of people are actually going to the office seeing their colleagues, especially when you live, for example… I live in a bigger house in a smaller town, but I know a lot of people who live in Amsterdam, or in Paris for that matter, in a very tiny apartment with a baby and they want to go to the office. They prefer to do that, but I don’t know how that compares to South Africa.

Jomiro: Vanessa, similar to Sjamilla’s question: In your experience, where are South African companies with remote work?

Vanessa: It was actually quite interesting, because this used to be driven by the candidates. It was never a defining perk for a business. So, my answer would be that: We are getting there.

There’s a lot of companies that are looking at remote models. I only have one client that I’m working with that is looking at 100% remote and staying that way. Generally, companies are looking for a ‘hybrid’.

What’s coming from the candidate side, as Sjamilla says: We mustn’t just assume that everybody wants to work from home in their tracksuit pants; some people want to go into the office. And, what we’re hearing from the market is that, they’re looking for the flexibility of three days at home, two days in an office.

Then what you’re hearing from the client-side is that: Business-as-usual business must continue. People still have salaries to pay people, they have to deliver on projects. We’ll be forced to go remote, but kind of past 2020…? I haven’t seen anyone making any hard and fast decisions.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the South African context: If people aren’t offering remote — or a partly remote option — anymore, are they still going to be attracting the top tech talent to their organisation?

How to assess if tech talent is a good remote candidate

Jomiro: Given that, how does it affect your sourcing when a team that you’re sourcing tech talent for is going through that transition?

Sjamilla: Last year, I actually worked for a client, before the whole global pandemic. This was a completely 100% remote company, they didn’t have an office.

And the thing with sourcing people in that kind of role is that you actually want to find people who are already used to working remotely. Everyone thinks they want remote, full time — but actually, it’s a completely different feeling, especially when you have a globally distributed team, and you have different time zones.

You need to get used to the fact that you might not receive an answer right away, and you need to be way more independent. You need to know if you are the kind of person that actually can keep their focus, but also knows when to take a break.

To get back to your question about how I used to do that, and where you should focus on: Find people who are used to that, or who can show, during the interview process, that they can handle their own stuff and know what working fully remote actually means.

Because it’s different, and you can’t do that with your laptop on your knees behind the coffee table; you need a dedicated room — which is different I believe.

One other thing that I can say on this topic is that: What I see on the client-side is that they want to fill a gap, but they can’t find someone, and then suddenly say, “OK, that part of the team can work remotely.” I often see that doesn’t work: If 70% of the team is working in the office — maybe one day a week remote — but you have 10% of the team working 100% remote, they might feel left out, because those people who go to the office still do drinks on Friday, or still have coffee table chats.

As a recruiter, I feel that I should give pushback on these kinds of things, and ask the hiring manager: Are you sure that you want to involve someone 100% remote, while the rest of the team comes into the office? How is it going to work long term?

Jomiro: Vanessa, looks like you wanted to add something?

Vanessa: I just want to echo what Sjamilla has said there. I completely and utterly agree.

The question was: How do we change the way we source when suddenly a role goes remote — and we don’t actually change the way we source: Our methods don’t change; who we look for changes. It actually makes it a lot easier.

For example, the client that I’m working with at the moment… I don’t only have to look in Johannesburg, I’m actually sourcing throughout the whole of South Africa.

It opens up a bigger ‘fishing pond’ for me to go and find the right talent to fill these positions. But what I’m hearing from the industry is: “Don’t bring me someone who’s used to being micromanaged in a team”, because the remote worker is very self-managed and very independent.

They are not going to just sit back and say, “Oh, I can’t get this code to run, I give up.” That’s not the profile. What I’m hearing from a lot of these companies — and this is a global thing — don’t bring me someone who’s been sitting in a corporate. They want people who’ve been working in young, Agile startups… or close to a startup, where everyone had to get their hands dirty, move quickly, pivot quickly.

What I just want to mention here, on the flip side for the South African industry: There are hiring managers who are looking to hire talent, and I believe this whole remote working thing is going to make their lives a whole lot more difficult.

The reason being is: Tech talent can now pick and choose who they want to work for from all over the world. That’s going to add to an existing issue which we have in South Africa, which is the scarce skills issue.

How to ‘sell’ your company story remotely

Jomiro: To pull on a thread you just mentioned Vanessa… If you’re now hiring remotely, it opens up a huge ‘pond’ of talent that you can reach out to. How do you approach that challenge of finding someone if you’ve got basically the entire world as your oyster for candidates?

Vanessa: For me, you’ve got to have a really compelling reason as to why the person should join your company.

The company that I’m recruiting for is fully remote, 100%, for the foreseeable future. What they do is rely heavily on their values — and this is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, which is to ask: What are we actually doing? We wake up every day to go and sit in traffic to go sit on a hamster wheel… Are we making a difference? Are we adding value to society?

That’s what a lot of companies should do. Sit down, and think about: Why would people want to work for them? In my opinion, companies are not concerned enough about the brand and the messaging that they’re putting out there.

Jomiro: Sjamilla, do you want to add something to that, about how companies position themselves to candidates when they’re hiring remotely?

Sjamilla: I have a lot to say about that…!

What I always feel is a shame, is that recruiters — and, in general, whole companies — don’t think about how they position themselves in a market… and that reflects on the messages that recruiters and sourcers mainly send to candidates.

I feel that we often forget that we are probably the first contact from a company that’s getting in touch with a candidate. If you’re Nike, or a small startup someone never heard of — it’s the same. It might even hurt your brand a bit more if you are a famous company, a bigger company name.

The thing is: If I get a message from a recruiter — or anyone hiring — that is really bad, I don’t want to buy stuff from that company anymore.

I work at a company right now that is creating physical products, bikes. And if we do bad branding, people don’t want to buy our bike.

As recruiters or hiring managers, you should think about every candidate that you reach out to as potential clients, or a potential customer, and — even if you don’t want to hire this person in the end — make every touchpoint that you have special: Make people feel heard, and make people feel like they’re the only one in the world that’s going to fix your problems.

Jomiro: As someone who reaches out to a developer, to actually be able to understand and communicate the brand a company wants to convey is perhaps even more critical now that you can’t invite someone into your office. That one chance is your first message, or your first interaction.

Vanessa: Look at a big South African company, who is working with 50 different recruitment agencies, who are all tapping into the same role in the market… They haven’t taken the time to get to know the business. The damage that does is so much more than going after, for example, a freelance sourcer who will get to know the company, and will go and reach out to the best of the best — because top talent is not sitting on a job portal. Top tech talent doesn’t sit on Linkedin. This is where you need someone who’s got specialist skills in order to be able to track down those good players.

Sjamilla: And having a mature conversation with them — that’s important. That sets a great recruiter apart from an average recruiter: They actually handle a hiring manager conversation, and quickly pick up what it is that they need.

Vanessa: Absolutely. Companies need to realise that your recruitment team are not the ugly, redheaded stepchild of the HR industry. They have such an impact, and can affect your brand negatively or positively.

Jomiro: Whether it’s a hiring manager or a CTO, what is one tip that you think is incredibly important for what to communicate about a company?

Sjamilla: I don’t give a beep about someone’s pool table. For me, personally, it’s about highlighting the impact that someone’s going to have:

A company has a mission and they have values. A candidate has their own values and interests — and something that they want to accomplish — and you’re looking for that point in the middle where the company’s motivators align with the candidates motivators… And that is so much more than money.

That’s something like saving the environment, or it could be, “We’re building more bikes” — in this example — or “We are connecting people with their friends.” As a recruiter, you step into figuring out: What is important to the people that we want to hire for this role?

Vanessa: I completely and utterly agree with that. Let me give you a real-life analogy:

Say, for example, your company makes running shoes, but you’re a tech company with an IT department. You don’t go and choose a developer who maybe walks 400 steps a day between his TV and the fridge. You’ve got to go and find someone who has the technical ability, but is also a keen runner — they need to have that passion.

How to compete with tech ‘giants’ for top tech talent

Jomiro: Are there any other challenges that we haven’t touched on yet, that either of you still want to talk about?

Sjamilla: There is actually one that I’ve been seeing: A couple months ago, Twitter and Facebook and all these big tech companies, they announced that they were going fully remote. That actually makes it pretty difficult for the smaller companies, because their salaries are way bigger and way above what most normal companies offer to candidates.

That’s going to be a very interesting competition: If this is not limited to the offices, what is it going to mean for the top talent globally? Now they can work at these companies without going to the office

Vanessa: It’s true, because tech talent especially wants to work remotely. So, I’m with you on that Sjamilla, it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

What it’s going to do is give rise to more of this “gig economy”, more people being able to pick up, get involved, coming to work on a project, stay for six months.

And my advice to hiring managers is: Stop looking for people who’ve been at a tech company for five years, or eight years; those days are gone. Would you not rather have someone who’s been the fixer, gone in and done two years, and had a massive impact on a project?

We’ve got to change our mindsets in the tech industry about our definition of a job hopper. Someone who’s had more exposure is actually going to add more value at the end of the day, and then take them on as a contractor. I think permanent employment in certain sectors is going to start slowly falling by the wayside.

Jomiro: If contract work is more on the rise, doesn’t that impact how you think about culture fit with candidates? Someone doesn’t necessarily have to fit into a team the same way that they would with full time…

Vanessa: True, to a certain extent they do still need to fit, but maybe not as much — because this person is hired to do a piece of work. And, that’s their role they need to deliver. But, if we’re talking about more countries going remote now, the question is what’s going to happen to company culture? Is it going to be such a big factor going forward?

Sjamilla: I don’t know what will happen with that, it’s going to be interesting, but I don’t have an answer or a magic globe.

Jomiro: Just on what you said about Twitter going fully remote now: Competition is getting harder for smaller companies to compete with the likes of Twitter, but what are some of the opportunities within remote tech sourcing for tech companies?

Sjamilla: My opinion on this is:

The opportunity with hiring remotely is exactly the same opportunity that Twitter has: You can find anyone in the world, and add them to your team.

So, in terms of that: It is going to be way easier, and you might have some more competition. But if you are a company that has something to offer to your new colleague, and that knows how to sell that story… it’s going to be easier, because people want to work remotely.

One thing — sorry, Vanessa, I’m going to hijack this one — if we’re looking at a lot of the clients that I work with, they say “Hey, I want diversity.” Say we’re talking about male-female in this particular case, they want more female leadership and more female engineers. The thing is, with women, I can imagine that if you have kids and if you want to work remotely that doesn’t mean that you’re sitting around at home with the kids all day; it means that you have more time to be around them when you’re off instead of commuting. A lot of these companies want to hire more women, but they don’t want women to work remotely.

I think this is a huge opportunity to add more diversity into your company. It allows people who want to pray seven times a day to pray in their own environments. I think that’s a great thing.

Vanessa: I agree, absolutely 100%. That’s the wonderful thing about human beings. I’ve just been thinking as Sjamilla has been talking is that people are different. People are going to want different things, and you’re not going to have one size fits all.

You want to try and appeal to the majority because you want the majority to potentially work for you, but why does everybody need the same cookie cutter? If you’ve got someone that wants to work remote, and you’ve got someone who wants to do two days in the office — let them. If people are delivering, and they’re doing a good job, do everything in your power not to lose them, especially in the South African context where it’s so difficult to find developers.


Community submitted questions

Jomiro: I’d like to spend a little bit of time going through the community questions. First one here is: How are technical skills checked during a remote tech hiring process, and what sort of level of technical skills are normally expected? Or what do you look for?

Sjamilla: You can check it exactly the same way as you would do if you did an office interview, actually, because the process can be completely the same. There’s a lot of tools that you can use to do pair programming, that you can do the same technical exercises that you could send them and take at home.

You can do the same crazy whiteboarding stuff — I’m not a big fan of that — but it depends on your current process. And I don’t think you have to change a lot in terms of that.

Vanessa: I completely agree, and I just think that you can do exactly the same testing, even if it’s done remotely. I mean, most of the time, let’s admit it, it comes down to what the company thinks in a conversation with the person as to whether their tech skills are going to be the same… and it’s no different if you’re sitting across a table or if you’re on a Zoom call.

Jomiro: For people who need to think about hiring, but whose main role is not hiring: In terms of time management, how do you think about managing your time during the day as a sourcer when you have other things to do that are not sourcing?

Sjamilla: For me personally, I do time blocking. I am a productivity freak, and I just block everything in my agenda. I know exactly in the morning what my day is going to look like and what I work on and that helps me keep focused.

Vanessa: That’s probably where we’re similar — it’s probably why our birthdays are so close, we’re Leo’s. We’re good organisers.

And we organize our lives well. I do exactly the same: I’ll block out time — you need time to source, I need a good three or four hours. At the moment, during the times of the pandemic, I do training in the morning, sourcing in the afternoon. It’s just being as organized as possible like any other job.

Sjamilla: And also knowing where your focus lies.

The best way to block time for sourcing in my experience has been to know when I am most productive.

Vanessa: Yes, 100%. I do the same, and mornings are generally better for me if I’m being honest.

Jomiro: How important is empathy in hiring? Or to what extent should it be employed in a hiring process? And the extension to that is are there kinds of technologies or integrations that can be used to help with empathy or human connection?

Vanessa: My answer to this is just don’t be an a***.

Jomiro: It seems like an obvious thing, but you don’t feel you can connect with someone as well over a Zoom call.

Sjamilla: It’s so important offline or online to show that we’re humans and to keep in mind as a hiring manager or a recruiter, that the candidate in front of you — interviewing and hiring is such a nerve-wracking experience.

And everyone is nervous. People really want the job most of the time, and so keep that in mind and show that you’re human by saying, “Oh yeah, my cats are running around.” Don’t place yourself above someone, but keep the conversation going. That’s what I would say.

Vanessa: For me, empathy is empathy, whether online or offline. What a lot of South African companies need to learn is that an interview is all about a sales pitch, where you are selling to a candidate that you want them to join your organisation — as opposed to pitching up to the interview, and being an a**, and trying to get a one-up on the candidate because you think you have better coding skills than they do. That’s never going to work, whether online or offline.

Sjamilla: There’s one thing that I would like to add, that I see happening, and a lot of recruiters do this: It’s kind of a habit while you’re interviewing with someone, to make notes. I think it’s good, but when you’re making notes on your laptop while doing a video call, people can see. It might come across as you not being interested.

What I do is I have a good old fashioned notebook, and when I do an interview, I write it down without looking at my notes… I sometimes have a hard time reading what I say, but it helps me remember the conversation. You can also just write down your feedback as soon as you end the call. That’s my advice.

Jomiro: Someone else asks: How should a non-technical founding team approach the remote hiring of a head of tech or a CTO who was also a first tech hire for a company?

Sjamilla: I’ve been in this position several times. The thing that we used to do — and what really works well — is to find someone in your network that would be kind of your ideal hire for the position, but that you know you’re never going to get, and ask them to help you.

In my experience, people in general are very willing to help out. We’ve had senior management from other companies help us out with hiring for roles, and actually do the interviews with us to teach us how to hire for that role.

And we sent them a cake or a bottle of wine afterwards, to thank them. People are willing to help and that’s something that I would do for a role that we don’t have in house expertise in.

Vanessa: I completely agree with Sjamilla on that one. I haven’t been in this situation myself, but, if you’re going to find somebody who’s top of their game, who’s trusted enough to be presenting at conferences, or running an IT community or something like that, reach out to them. They’re normally quite willing to help or assist.

And if they’re not interested, they might have somebody else who they know that’s interested . It’s all about talking to enough people in order to get the candidate.

Jomiro: And then a last question: How do companies approach hiring remotely in countries where they don’t have a presence? This sort of touches on storytelling, I think.

Vanessa: Completely agree. It touches on storytelling and it touches on the company’s online presence. You don’t need to be sitting in the country in order to drive past a billboard or a building that says the company name.

It’s all about what the company stands for and what they’re trying to achieve, and does the person buy into this. It has got to be an exciting role. It has got to be a better opportunity than what they’re doing at the moment.

And it’s having someone who can articulate to the person involved. It has to be a compelling story. That’s just the bottom line.

Sjamilla: What I’ve been doing at Zenly — my previous company — is we were actually looking to relocate people to Paris. They were actually looking for someone to build something from scratch, that’s what I say.

Sometimes a sentence like, “As a product manager, you would be building something from scratch”, triggers everyone to reply. Keep those kinds of things in mind. What is exciting about this role? And why?

If you ask that to the hiring manager, they probably know. And if a hiring manager doesn’t have an answer to that, then we have a problem. The hiring manager should be able to pitch the best. Otherwise, we should go back to the table and look at the role again.

Jomiro: Thanks so much for sharing all your insights and experiences, Sjamilla and Vanessa. It’s really cool to hear from both of you. This is a very interesting time for software and tech companies. And just from hearing about some of your experiences, the opportunities with remote hiring are there. You just have to get over the challenges and adapt to some of the things that make it uncomfortable. Discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing either.

I’m looking forward to seeing how things evolve! I’m sure we can chat in three months and things will be completely different again… But thanks so much for being here and for sharing your insights!

Sjamilla: Thanks for having us.

Vanessa: Awesome. It’s been great. It’s always good to catch up with my friend Sjamilla, thank you guys!

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