5 min read

How tech hiring really works

If you knew how the tech hiring system really works, you would never apply to another public job listing.
How tech hiring really works
How the hiring system really works...

Show Notes

If you've been in the professional world for any length of time, you'll have noticed that there are actually two hiring systems. There's the hiring system that everyone sees. But there's another system that takes place behind the scenes. We'll get to the hidden hiring system a little later. But first, let's talk about the first system, the conventional hiring system. How does this system work? Well, the essential feature of conventional hiring is the process of elimination. Process of elimination hiring works by comparing resumes to job descriptions. In this system, if your resume doesn't have a lot of keyword matches to a given job description, well, you're probably going to be eliminated from consideration. Think about that. In the prevailing system of hiring, the person who ultimately gets the job offer is probably not the strongest candidate. She was just the last person to be eliminated.

Well, fortunately, the process of elimination system is not the only game in town. Check this out. Have you ever wondered why people move from company to company in clumps? Yeah, clumps. Usually, it starts with one executive. Imagine a VP of engineering. Let's call her Sally. Sally gets a great job at a new company and pretty soon she starts to bring over her trusted lieutenants from the old company. Soon those new teammates will begin to recruit the people that they trust. And at that point, people begin to move over from the old company to the new company in clumps. And it all started with Sally. Here's the important thing. HR is not involved in this system. As a matter of fact, when hiring happens via this backchannel, job descriptions and job openings are created as a formality...after an offer has been tendered and accepted. The candidate has already been selected, but managers just go through the song and dance with public job listings to satisfy internal HR regulations. Think about that the next time you apply for a public job listing. Do you have any assurance the job hasn't already been filled? Is the company just harvesting resumes? That's pretty lame. The idea that companies would harvest resumes by posting a job that is already filled feels rather unsavory. And yet, it happens every day. That's the norm actually.

Well, the prevalent hiring system is the subject of another episode. Let's get back to Sally. Why wouldn't Sally just rely on the HR department to bring in the talent she needs? Isn't that what they're for? Why would Sally intentionally circumvent the established hiring process? Why would she try to assemble her team via back-channel hiring? Let's look at the situation from Sally's perspective. From Sally's standpoint, any new hire represents a risk to her status. If Sally knows what she's doing, she's not going to stake her career on the process of the elimination hiring system. That's like depending on the lottery for your retirement plan. You wouldn't do that. Why would you hire someone who's good at not being eliminated? You really want to hire someone you actually know and trust. When it comes to building a team, better the devil you know.

There's actually a little bit more to it than that. Put yourself in Sally's shoes again. You could have the best resume and qualifications in the world. But if your resume lands on Sally's desk, by way of Indeed or Dice or a body shop somewhere, what assumptions do you think Sally is going to make about you? Well, Sally's going to look at your resume and think, is there something wrong with him that he needs to look for work via the open hiring market? If he's so great, why hasn't he been recruited yet? Why isn't his former manager trying to poach him? Is his referral network shutting him out? Why would that be? Is there something wrong with him?

In other words, the act of applying for a public job listing signals that you are undesirable as an employee. Because if you were desirable, someone would have scooped you up already. That's so crazy. Can this system really be so broken? Yes, it can, and it is. To drive this home, indulge me in an analogy. When I was little, we would play kickball at recess, and here's how it worked. The teacher would designate two team captains and everyone else would line up on the wall. The team captains would then take turns picking people from the lineup. Who does the team captain pick first? That's the question. Who gets picked first? It's the kid who can be trusted to play hard and help the team. That's the kid who's going to get picked first. If the team wins, the captain accrues status. And whether you're 4 or 40, that's what the game is about: status. It's always about status.

Now, an interesting dynamic takes place. As more and more kids are selected, the kids who are leftover become more and more stigmatized. You could know nothing about a kid. But the very fact that the other Captain passed on him is a data point that influences your decisions. It has to. So by the time you get to the end of the line, there are always one or two kids who nobody wants to pick. They're the ones who are picked last. They are the dregs. And at that point, the calculus becomes very different. The team captain isn't thinking about a player in terms of a specific role on the team. The team captain is thinking about how to marginalize the kid to reduce exposure and mitigate risk. The kid who was picked last is going to be relegated to the outfield where he can't do much harm.

So when you apply for a public job listing, and voluntarily enter the process of elimination hiring system, you are telling the world that you are the kid who is picked last. If by some miracle you get a job that way, well, then you're already starting from a deficit. You were picked last. Remember, you're the dregs. How do you overcome that stigma? For all of you job seekers out there, I'll leave you with this: Whether fair or not, potential employers will make assumptions about you when you apply for a blind job listing. But it cuts both ways. What assumptions can you make about an employer from their public job listings? Do you want to work for a manager who hires warm bodies off the street? How will that benefit your career in the long run? And with that, I'm going to sign off for today, follow me on Twitter, my handle is @TeddyKim.