It’s often said that the tech marketplace in South Africa has a demand for talent that outstrips its supply. However, Gavin Rossouw, CTO at Wealth Migrate, believes that companies actually make this problem more difficult for themselves: The problem, in his experience, is more a lack of access to tech talent, than tech talent itself. Here is what he’s learned about maxing-out your hiring process, and tapping into the tech talent that’s out there.
- Often, hiring is hard not because of ‘supply’, but because of a lack of access to tech talent.
- Gavin Rossouw (WealthMigrate) believes that you have more control than you think over that access.
- His ‘hacks for access’ are:
- Ditch the job ads, and just get out there
- Support (don’t rely on) your HR
- Interview a human, not a CV
- Understand who you want to hire
Over the years, Gavin has worked in various tech-related roles - a lot of which required him to hire for his teams. Combined with currently being a CTO at Wealth Migrate, he has gained a lot of experience in tech hiring over the years. Although he acknowledges that hiring is hard, he doesn’t think it’s only due to a lack of ‘supply’; rather, what’s difficult is getting the right access to the tech talent your company needs. This is because:
- The people you want to hire already have jobs: The really good people are often already working somewhere else, which either means you fight much harder for them than you normally would, or you spend a lot of your resources hunting for brand new talent. Selling the “grass is greener here!” narrative takes time and energy, and Gavin’s experience is that it doesn’t always end in a hire.
- Interviews generally suck: Gavin says that, in most cases, the people doing the interview don’t want to be in the interview, and the person being interviewed doesn’t want to be in the interview. “And even if someone gets through the generic HR interview,” he adds, “you’re stuck with a whiteboard interview. Very few people enjoy whiteboard interviews.” If the process itself feels tedious, then you immediately make it less likely to have the right person walking through the door.
- No one wants to make a hiring mistake: It’s really scary trusting yourself enough to not make the wrong decision, and that means people often fall back onto dated systems. In Gavin’s experience, “people want a system that allows them to include or exclude people without having to ‘make a call.’” In other words, getting a hire wrong is easier when you can blame something like a CV-screening or job spec. “Unfortunately,” he says, “a lot of the decisions need to be gut decisions.” And that’s hard.
But acknowledging those things are a first step to looking at the way you hire, and recognising what’s blocking you from the talented software developers out there. Gavin’s experience in hiring has helped him understand the ways in which he is in fact blocking himself from the talent he’s looking for. Over the years, he’s developed some hacks to avoid falling into those traps, as well as disproved some bad advice that he hears people using in their own hiring.
Hiring hacks for greater access
In Gavin’s own words, the only way you can really access the talent you need is to ‘pay’ for it: “And you’re paying for it one way or another, either in reputation, resources, or physically hiring someone else to give you that access.” That said, he has developed his approach to hiring in order to reach the talent he needs. These are some of the hacks he uses:
Ditch the job ads, and just get out there
The really great candidates aren’t hunting for jobs, because they’re being called by recruiters from all sides. In other words, they won’t respond to job ads because they don’t need to. “Plus, if they’re not in high demand,” Gavin says, “then you should actually have a good think about whether they’re the right person to have hired in the first place.” Job ads work if you’re Amazon or Google, he says, but otherwise you’re probably going to have sort through a lot of bad fits before you find the developer you need.
Rather, he focuses on putting himself out there and getting people talking about him: “A startup like mine, for example, doesn’t have the financial stuff. So, you need to know a lot of people. You need to go to meetups and speak to people. It’s literally the only way to find great people if you can’t physically pay for the access.” If people want to work for you, they’ll come to you. But that requires you to show them who you are.
Support your HR, but don’t rely on them
Gavin doesn’t have an HR department, simply because his company is too small to warrant having one. But in his experience with the HR departments he has worked with, he’s found that they are often hired out of varsity, or from other industries, and aren’t trained to hire for tech. They look at a CV they don’t understand, in a field they haven’t worked in, and default to what they know - which isn’t always what you need for your team. This is a blocker for getting the right people for the right job:
“HR often can’t speak the same ‘language’,” Gavin says. “So, what they do is revert to interviewing for company fit. And frankly, most really high-class tech guys don’t fit into, for example, large finance organisations. They just don’t. If their first five minutes is with HR, HR may have already made the decision to not hire someone. As a hiring manager, you’re then fighting HR to get anyone through the gate. It’s a totally broken system.”
Instead, managers should work with their HR teams during interviewing and hiring, rather than rely on them to make the call. When he still worked with an HR team, Gavin stopped them screening CVs altogether: “Everyone is really good at hiring someone - in a field they understand,” he says. Tech leads know what they need, so it makes sense for them to drive the hiring process and support HR. Working closely with tech hiring managers also means that HR becomes better equipped to hire tech talent in the future.
Interview a human, not a CV
“I actually barely read CVs, to be honest.” Gavin says that the CV might get someone into an interview, but after that he focuses on the person sitting in front of him. He wants to understand the person he’s talking to, and so leverages the interview to meet them as a human being. “After all,” he says, “they’re not just a resource.”
If you treat the interview like a CV reading, you won’t get through to the person in front of you. In terms of access to tech talent, making someone feel like a human being gives you a better idea of who they actually are, and what they’re actually capable of, more than a CV ever could: “If people clam up because they’re nervous,” Gavin says, “they might lie, because they don’t want to look stupid. Or they’ll forget to tell you about the cool things they actually do because they just can’t think straight.”
So, Gavin starts off by helping the person relax into the interview: “They need to be comfortable. It takes about 20 minutes to do that, but interviews are stressful.” His trick is to start by asking the right questions. Instead of going straight to asking about strengths and weaknesses, Gavin helps them warm-up: “Have that conversation that gets them out of their shell. Things like what they do, what makes them enjoy it, and what they’ve been meaning to start doing soon.”
Understand who you want to hire
If you don’t fully understand the person you’re interviewing, or the role you’re hiring for, you might make a bad judgement call. Just because a job spec and a CV don’t match one-for-one, doesn’t mean that the person is a bad fit. This is why, for Gavin, someone’s actual skill set is actually not a top priority.
In Gavin’s own words: “It’s looking at those words and knowing what they actually mean. Say the skill set you need is React and Mongodb, and someone comes with Vue.js and Couchbase. If someone learned Vue.js, they can learn React without much problem, and Couchbase is a standard NoSQL pattern, so they’ll flip from that into Mongodb pretty easily.”
This also comes down to really understanding someone in the interview. Gavin usually looks for where they’ve worked before, who they’ve worked for, and whether they’ve worked well in teams or not. This is to gauge where they’re at. Then, rather than checkbox a person’s skills to the job spec, he looks for attitude, aptitude, and ability: “If you’ve got those three things - the kind of person you are, what you can learn, and what you can do now - then flipping through skill sets will be easy.”
Turning someone away purely based on a face-value CV screening is one blocker that Gavin says is easy to remove right now.
Bad advice that turns tech talent away
Gavin’s heard a lot of bad advice in his career, but he thinks two in particular prevent companies from finding the people they’re looking for:
“Coding tests are a useful first step”
Unless you’re a company that people are desperate to work at, Gavin’s experience has been that the majority of really great developers don’t do coding tests before an interview. “If you put a coding test in front of someone before they even walk through the door, they won’t do it. Who wants to be forced to do work for someone when they don’t even know if they want to be involved with the company yet?”
Gavin uses coding tests once he’s actually had a conversation the person already. He sits them down, and uses the coding test as a way to get a better sense of how that person thinks and problem-solves: “I’d even do a paired programming thing, rather than an individual ‘sit in a room and type’ thing. You’re working with someone, explaining the problem and how you’d approach it, just like in real life. That’s useful.”
“Hire someone who fits your culture perfectly”
Gavin always wants his teams to be full of diverse thinkers. More often than not, he looks for people who are different from not only himself, but from his team as well: “Shake it up a bit. Get different thinking in there. Get guys that argue with each other in the right spirit.”
It’s normal for companies to hire for culture-fit, and while that’s important, hiring for “carbon-copy” fits is what Gavin says is a major blocker to access. “If you’re hiring six people that are the same,” he says, “you’ve now got a very specific way of thinking and way of doing your work. That shows.” In addition to that, finding six identical people is going to take more mindshare than finding six unique people.
“Sure, diversity may give more challenges,” he says, “but that comes with being a manager: You’re generally not managing the work, you’re managing the people. So, if you manage the people well, they’ll manage the work themselves.”
Hiring is easy, hiring well is what’s hard
Gavin uses these hacks in his own hiring, but he doesn’t think it takes a rocket scientist to get them right: “I don’t think this stuff is complicated. I really don’t. Anyone who says it is, is doing it the wrong way, in my view. And I’d be happy to be proven wrong.”
If you struggle with finding people you think will fit the role you need, it might be useful to look at the way you hire, rather than who you hire, and see if you’re still inadvertently blocking yourself from reaching the talented people out there. Gavin says it isn’t as hard as one might think, so why not? Iteration, after-all, is key!