How to identify top tech talent when you’re not technical

by Carmen Hudson


Carmen Hudson draws from over 15 years of recruiting experience, with a strong focus on helping organizations attract, source and recruit top talent. Carmen’s expertise is in helping clients build the right sourcing and recruiting strategies, and then implementing them in the real world of limited budgets, competing priorities, and highly competitive recruiting environments. She consults and trains companies to help them leverage high ROI solutions for big sourcing, social media, and technology implementation initiatives.

Carmen is a self-described “recruiting geek” who has spent years learning, creating, and sharing best practices around sourcing. She gets that technology – for all of its hype – is still a means to an end, not an end in itself. Her corporate experience includes Yahoo!, where she was Senior Manager, Talent Acquisition. At Yahoo! she led the strategic sourcing team, revitalizing the employee referral program and Yahoo’s employer brand. The team was awarded a coveted Yahoo! Superstar Award, an ERE Excellence award and various recruiting and advertising industry awards. Prior to joining Yahoo!, she was manager, Global Strategic Sourcing for Starbucks Coffee Corporation, where she developed sourcing strategies and recommended resources and tactics to support U.S. retail management hiring. She has also held senior talent acquisition roles at Microsoft, and Capital One and founded a social recruiting technology company.

Webinar Transcript

Male: Next up, we have Carmen Hudson. She is the Principal Consultant with Recruiting Toolbox, and draws from over 15 years of recruiting experience with a strong focus on helping organizations attract, source and recruit top talent. Carmen's expertise is in helping clients build the right sourcing and recruiting strategies and then implementing them in a real world of limited budget, competing priorities and highly competitive recruiting environments. Welcome, Carmen.

Carmen: Thanks for that introduction. So my name is Carmen Hudson, and I’m a Principal Consultant at Recruiting Toolbox. Today, we’re going to talk about how to understand technology and how to identify great tech talent when you’re not technical like me. So I started in this business so many years ago and I was never technical but found myself in tech recruiting positions. I am working for tech companies. So it became imperative that I actually learn to speak the language of the folks that I hired and the folks that I worked with. So we are going to share some examples of how I do that.

I wanted to start off with an example of what happens when you are not able to speak directly to the folks that you are trying to recruit. Why, sometimes I think, some of the engineers and developers that we recruit actually think we are a bit silly and don't often respect this or even return our calls. So this is a funny example that was actually shared via Twitter by an engineer of a call that he received from a recruiter, and I hope you can hear this well. If not, the link to the SoundCloud will be shared in the presentation.

Female: Hi. This is [Inaudible 0:02:03]. I have the opportunity in… what am I saying, this the worst beginning to a voicemail ever. I’m so sorry. I have an opportunity and it’s for a DevOps in here. I can’t even speak. It's a really cutting-edge like bleeding edge company like… anyway, I can explain a lot more. They have great work [inaudible 0:02:29]. Their offices, there are all kinds of cool stuff. They have a lot of coffee, some ping-pong tables, which I really love ping-pong. I personally [inaudible 00:02:40] ping-pong but if I had a ping-pong table here then I’d probably be really good at ping-pong. Do you feel me? They have Guitar Hero hooked up and just some really extra cool stuff. But anyway, you should call me so I can tell you all about the technology they use and a lot more, and explain how they are the coolest client that I work with, yeah. Anyway, give me a shout back. My number is...  And I apologize for this horrid and awesome voicemail. Bye.

Carmen: So I hope you were able to hear that. If so, you’re probably on the floor laughing, if you haven't heard that call. She obviously knew a lot about the ping-pong and she talked about the culture but it's pretty clear that she didn't know what a DevOps engineer does. She led her call by talking about things that probably wouldn't be important to a top performing engineer who is going to be much more interested in what's happening at the company in terms of the skills that are needed as well as the projects that he or she would be working on. So what I hope to accomplish in the next few minutes is actually helping you get a little bit better at describing your technical position, at understanding what it is that you’re recruiting for and being able to have very solid conversations and intake meetings or strategy meetings with your hiring managers.

I’m not a developer, but I’ve spent quite a bit of time really getting to understand technology. I’m a little bit of a nerd myself. So that's probably why I am a little bit passionate about this. I have found myself attending tech events and in my introduction, you heard that I actually created a website myself. It was not a developer but I did work very closely with the developer and architect to build a site. So that helped me gain some knowledge around technology.

But even before that, as a recruiter, I know that it's important to understand technology, first of all, from the sourcing standpoint. With a deeper understanding of technology, you’re definitely going to be able to target your candidates and save a lot of time by weeding out inappropriate candidates, candidates that may match in terms of the keywords that are being used but don't match in terms of the work that they have done in the past or don't match in terms of the type of technology that's being built. Really important when it comes to sourcing, help sourcing go much faster and just be a lot more accurate.

Secondly or perhaps even more importantly, I think it's building credibility with both hiring managers and with candidates. So just being able to understand very broadly what it is that the engineers are working on is actually quite impressive to them. Most developers and engineers are very aware that what they do is arcane and they have difficulty explaining it to everyone including their family members. So they’re actually quite flattered and surprised when we approach them with some level of knowledge. And I will tell you the relationships that you’re able to build when you have that kind of respect [inaudible 00:06:03] exceeds the kind of relationship that perhaps the recruiter that we just heard is able to build.

By understanding technology, you’re able to make more placements faster and improve your submittal rates. What I mean by submittal rates, I think this is an important measurement; probably the most important measurement for sourcers and certainly critical for recruiters, full cycle recruiters as well. What I mean by submittal rates is the number of resumes that you present to hiring managers that are accepted for interviews. So what we should be doing as recruiters and as sourcers is always  striving to improve that number. I strive to get a 100%. I want my managers to trust me so to the extent that every single candidate that I present, they want to interview. Once you’ve built that level of trust, the relationship, the process goes much faster, you become that proxy for the hiring manager and that's really important.

So if you can actually understand the resumes that you’re reading and submit more accurate profiles, you’re going to actually improve that submittal rate. And as I mentioned, that leads to a speedier, more efficient process. I think this bullet point highlights at least my approach to recruiting. If I have a better understanding of what I am doing, great relationship with my hiring managers and having success and my candidates are moving forward in the process, I’m just going to have a greater level of job satisfaction. It makes it so much more fun. When I worked for tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon and Yahoo and I worked on technical positions or worked alongside technical professionals, I really enjoyed learning about what it is that they actually did. And it's not as easy as understanding what someone perhaps does in marketing which we can relate to, or finance which we can relate to. It's very hard to relate to developing code or understanding servers or complex applications.

However once you gain that understanding, once you understand how your contribution in terms of recruiting helps the company succeed or helps the application become more secure, then for me, I have a greater connection to the work that I’m doing and a greater level of job satisfaction. The other point, in terms of career mobility, is something I don't think we discuss often enough as recruiters and as sourcers and that is getting better at our jobs and advancing our careers. And so tech recruiters are in high demand. Great tech recruiters who understand technology are in even greater demand. And so if you are someone who is very concerned about your career and you’re looking to earn the maximum amount, I highly recommend knowing your stuff when it comes to technology.

And then lastly, for those of you who are in management roles or who are looking at this at a meta level, understanding technology, understanding what is happening within your businesses, what kinds of applications are being built, what kinds of technology challenges you’re facing will help you align your recruiting strategy with the business strategies so that you’re always prioritizing, working on the right types of positions and that the folks that you’re bringing in will help propel your organization to the next level. So that's why I think it's really important to do this.

So one of the first things that I often challenge tech recruiters when I am training them or training recruiters on sourcing is to ensure that you understand what you’re recruiting for and eliminating the jargon, eliminating all of the keywords that we use in place of really understanding the position. So if I ask someone, “What are you working on,” and they tell me, “I’m trying to hire a Java developer,” I’ll ask them, what is that? In fact sometimes, I jokingly cover my ears and say I don't know what that is. I’m not interested in that.

What I’m interested in is what is the position? What are they building? How will this position or this application earn money for the company or help the company become more profitable? What does the CTO think of this position? Is it a high level position? Is it really going to take them to the next level in terms of their technology that they’re building or is it something that's broken and needs to be fixed, or something that needs to be maintained with a high level of scalability or accountability? What are the latest in innovations in this function? Is everyone doing it or just within your organization?

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a couple of large retailers recently. And what's happening in retail now is something called omnichannel and within omnichannel, what that means is that consumers or shoppers expect to be able to buy things whenever they want to, however they want to, wherever they want to. So they may want to order it online but pick it up in the store or order it online from the store, have it delivered to their work address or perhaps to a location to which they’re traveling. They’re expecting to use their phones, their tablets, their PCs, as well as perhaps even kiosks in the store. All of this requires brand-new technology.

And understanding this, what's happening within this industry and what kinds of positions will help organizations or retail organizations move to that ability to attract the types of developers and engineers that will help them get to this retail nirvana, it’s very critical. You can't just say, we’re looking for Java developers when in fact you’re looking for people with shopping cart expertise, and really understanding that we want to build a shopping cart experience that's three times faster than any current shopping cart experience. That's A, a very different way of understanding the position that you’re recruiting for and B, it's also a much better pitch to any engineer or developer that you’re talking to on the phone. They’re going to be intrigued by a project like that; certainly not very intrigued by the title Java developer.

So how do you do this? You practice, and you practice articulating it. This is a sentence structure. I am not technical, I’m not mathematical, I’m very visual and I excelled at English. We will see a couple of examples throughout this where you see me using communication tactics that are based in either visual or communications tactics that don't look very technical but these tactics actually help me understand how to do this better.

So this sentence, if you can practice building out a sentence like this: “Our team needs an engineer who will help the DevOps team optimize our code base. This will help our internal developers code more efficiently or quickly. This job requires knowledge of,” and this is where you add the skills and the keywords and the jargon. “And this job is cool because,” and then this is the hook, right? If you and your hiring manager can't come up with a conclusion to this sentence: “This job is cool. It's interesting, it's unique, it's challenging because X, Y and Z,” then you don't have your pitch for your candidates.

So just by understanding what it is that you’re looking for, “Our team needs developer who will help the checkout team develop shopping cart software that is three times faster than the existing software. This job requires knowledge of Java and Ruby and X, Y and Z. This job is cool because no one has done this before and we want to be the first people to do this.” That's a much better pitch. It also gives you a much better picture of what it is that you’re recruiting for as well as it gives your candidate that improved picture.

So how do you get better at understanding what is DevOps? What is retail technology? What is omnichannel? I’ve got some tricks that I like to use and so that's what we’ll spend most of the rest of our time going through. I’m a big believer in doing your homework. I’m also a big fan of Mad Money and so for those of you who match Mad Money, you’ll recognize Don Draper. This quote, "You are good, get better, stop asking for things," comes from a statement that was made by Don to support his secretary who became a lead copywriter, Peggy. What he was saying to Peggy who wanted to improve and she was ambitious and she wanted a promotion, what Don was saying to Peggy is, it's great to be ambitious. What's important is that you go out and you learn more about your craft and instead of always asking for the answers, search for the answer and in searching for the answer, you will learn a lot more. I really, really admire that.

And the idea here is that you don't have conversations and ask people but don't expect the answer to be handed to you especially in recruiting, especially in tech recruiting. Only after years and years of actually study and homework and learning and reading do you actually become proficient and know enough to be considered good at your job. It’s, I think, the journey of learning that’s as important as getting to the answers.

So what follows are just a series of tools that I like to use to become a geek. I love to learn about what's happening in the industry. Even though I’m no longer recruiting, I spend a good portion of everyday really just reading about the technology industry and learning about what's going on, keeping up with certain companies. I do that through sites like Hacker News. So here’s an example of Hacker News and I’ll remind you that with the presentation, I will ensure that all of the URLs are available to you or you know what, if someone talked to me about Hacker News and I didn't have the URL, I would just go out and Google it. I would make a mental note and Google it.

I hear things all throughout the day and I don't know about them. I just make sure that I follow up on them and I figure out what they are. Hacker News is great. It's a great way to keep up on what's happening now. Most of it is tech related and the stories bubble up in terms of interest and so that helps me. Even if I just scan it for the top 5 or 10 stories, I have pretty much a good grip on what's happening in technology today. You can actually segment your reading and make sure that you’re getting articles that are important to you in your industry but it's a great resource. There are tons of great resources out there. When I find one that works for me, not all of them do but when I find one that works for me, I make sure that I integrate it into my daily routine, my daily activities.

I get out and I try to figure out what's happening in the world of technology. So in Seattle where I’m based, we have an annual conference called the GeekWire Summit. It’s just a place where most of the tech companies in the area, they send representatives there. So it's a great place for sourcing. The speakers are talking about a wide variety of topics and it just gets me a little bit closer to what's happening in the tech community in my area. That's me sitting on stage with another sourcer friend of mine. During the lunch hour, we decide to stage bomb and had some fun doing that.

Last year, you’ll recognize in the center there is John Legere who is the CEO of T-Mobile and that he is a hoot. I’m a big fan of his. But I show him here not just to brag about the fact that I was on the same stage as John Legere which I really wasn't, I just snuck on the stage. But I show him here because if you follow him on Twitter, or just follow his business career, he is very outspoken. He’s hilarious. He actually talks about how he spends the first hour of his day on Twitter learning about what's happening in the tech world and you’ll often find him tweeting about whatever is on his mind and he’s very funny.

I mention this because as a tech recruiter, I think it's pretty imperative that you get a Twitter account and even if you don't tweet, that you follow folks that are important to you and that you just get connected to the conversations that are going on there. I think it's one of the most robust and rich places to find out about technology, one of my favorite places to go. I do spend some time there every day following certain people just to learn about what's happening in the industry.

One of the coolest things about Twitter is that you can create lists. So one of the things that I think is most under used about Twitter is this ability to make sense of all the noise there by creating a list. If you noticed in this example, there’s a list that I’ve created of VC or venture capital people and start up people. And so this helps me if I want to quickly understand what's important today to the folks in the world of venture capital and startups. I can go to this list that I created and it's got over 500 folks but you can make them as large or as small as you like. And I can find out what they’re tweeting about, find out what's important to them. Often I will find articles that way and you can organize your list in whatever fashion you want.

If you are looking for Python developers, there are tons of Python developers on Twitter and they’re all talking about what's important to them. They’re all talking about the conferences they’re attending and it's a great place to learn. Even if you don't tweet, I think it's very important to be a lurker. And if you notice, in addition to my creating this list, you can also follow this list. So if you are indeed interested in venture capital and startups, you don't have to recreate the wheel; I’ve already created this list. You can come along and follow this list and then it's available to you when you log in to Twitter and you don't have to recreate the wheel. That goes for anything and everything. There are tons of lists that people have created. You can search for them and once you’ve search for them, you can follow them and then continue to learn more about what's happening in whatever vertical that you’re looking for.

The other thing that I want to mention is there are tons of sources. I mentioned Hacker News but there are plenty of other places that you can go to find great information about the tech industry, the news that's happening in your world and what's happening currently as well as to conduct research about your specific positions. So a great site for news, tech news is the Verge. Tech Crunch as well, most of you are probably familiar with that. I’m a big fan of the Wall Street Journal D or Wall Street Journal technology section. They do a great job of profiling companies, profiling individuals. They talk about larger issues such as security and sometimes even the workforce. So it's a great source for me as well.

When I want to go a little bit more micro, I love digging into Quora. So tons of engineers like to use sites like Quora or Stack Overflow as a Q&A destination so that they can have their specific questions about how they might use something technically. I do try to tune into channels on sites like that.

Quibb is another industry newsletter. So it's an e-newsletter that I subscribe to, I’ve been subscribing to that really keeps me on top of what's happening in the startup world. I’m extremely interested and excited by what's happening with some of the newer companies, what kinds of technologies they are using, what's happening in the talent world there. And Quibb does a really good job of curating the very best articles in that arena. I don't have to do the work of going out and finding them. This newsletter does that for me.

Over the years, I’ve subscribed to and tried hundreds of email newsletters. I don't have time to read them all. So I’m always looking for the best and I’m always trying new things. When they work, it's great and when they don't, I quickly unsubscribe. I don't want all that clutter. I’m always looking for the best source. And there are tons of tools out there as well that will allow you to self-curate. I just don't ever spend all of the time, I think, to do that if I can find a source that will do it for me. And I’m probably getting 80% of what I would like to read and from Quibb on that topic. Maybe I’m getting the other 20% from other sources.

And the last thing I wanted to mention was Google Alerts. So if you are following a specific technology or a specific set of companies, even specific individuals in the tech arena, you definitely want to set up some Google alerts and very easy to do. I think it's but again I will share the URL. And you plug in a search. You can even plug in a complex Boolean search to find candidates as they surface. You can do a combination of Boolean searches and perhaps news searches. You can do X-ray searches and look at specific resources or sites. And have those results emailed to you on a daily or weekly basis.

This is how you get the exact contents that you’re looking for. And I would definitely recommend that if you have a set of companies that you like to target for tech talent to build some relevant searches and set up your Google alerts. Again this helps you in your conversations with your hiring managers. You start to begin to have a not only knowledge of, but some perspective and expertise around what's happening in the industry, what's happening at competitor companies and this helps you build your credibility incredibly.

Again, I’m a big believer in homework. Researching what you need, visualizing it, talking to people, understanding more deeply about what it is that you’re looking for. In terms of understanding the entire talent market, I almost always recommend checking out the Bureau Of Labor Statistics which is the government's website that collects all information about what's happening in the world of employment and they are doing I think over the last five years, they have really improved their approach and their databases in terms of tracking what's happening in the labor market. You can use some of their databases to find very specific information. For example if you are interested in the number of network engineers in your specific geographic area you can find it to the letter or to the number at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The caveat is that the information can sometimes be a little dated but it's the best source of information out there. Almost any tool that quotes these kinds of numbers is actually drawing much of their data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So I would suggest becoming familiar with that, figuring out how to leverage that data. They even have reports that you can have delivered to you monthly when the statistics are updated. So quite a useful site for recruiters, 100% free. Hopefully, I think everything that I will talk about today is free. I’m pretty frugal so I try not to pay for things that I don't have to. LinkedIn and job boards and your applicant tracking system are an excellent source of competitor information. So when you’re conducting your research on target companies or candidates or positions definitely leverage those tools that you already have in your bag of tricks. I think sometimes the applicant tracking system is very much overlooked. You have tons of candidates probably from your competitor companies sitting inside your applicant tracking system.

If you want to have some fun with data, spend an afternoon pulling the types of candidates that you are looking for from your competitor companies out of your ATS system. You will be doing a couple of things if you start to study what's happening there. You can look at trends in terms of job titles and what people are working on and what technologies are being used. And then on top of that, you probably have some candidates in there that you could actually source for some of your current open positions. But definitely worth the time.

The same with job boards. If you’re interested in learning the job titles and the responsibilities of some of your competitor companies, you want to spend some time reading the job descriptions that exist there and even looking at some of the candidates that some of the databases have their.

Another site that's important to me is and if you use the connect, it's free. What you won't get there is contact information, but what you will get are the names and titles of thousands and thousands of folks who work for many different companies. It's just one of my favorite sources when I want to understand maybe build out an org chart, understand departments, understand titles, understand locations. It's a very useful site.

And then for looking up technology, for understanding technology, sites like Wikipedia, Technopedia and a recent addition called Wapolizer are some of my go to sites in terms of understanding technology. When I hear a term like DevOps, I don't assume I know what it means. It’s something about development operations but what I have to do in order to get more accurate and be more precise, the first thing I’m going to do is go to Wikipedia and look up DevOps and read through that entire definition to understand what it is. And doing so, what I understand is that it's not a technology. It's actually more of an approach or a way to build software in a responsible way. I’m sorry, I’m getting my alert. I just want to make sure I get through all of my material here.

So a site like Wikipedia or Technopedia, it's going to give you much more background about your positions and you’re going to be able to speak about them more intelligently. I love the site called Wapolizer. It helps put in perspective of various technologies. Here is an example of Javascript framework. So what you’ll notice here is there is a whole list of frameworks that work with JavaScript. What you want to do is be able to go to your hiring manager and if they are insisting on a specific framework, now you have the weapon to say, “I know that you’re looking for this framework but perhaps there is another that may be comparable,” or is it okay that if they don't have that framework, they have this other. And the answer is still maybe no, but even so, you get to have a much richer conversation with your hiring manager and you won't spend time on unnecessary activities. It also does a great job of capturing one of the most popular technologies and whether or not your hiring manager has you looking for a purple squirrel.

I think we talked about a lot of this in terms of asking intelligent questions. But you do that only by doing your homework and then taking in perhaps some resumes to calibrate with your hiring manager. What types of positions, or what types of technologies will be most successful? Are there technologies that can be swapped out? And understanding whether or not you’re looking for someone who is just a programmer or a coder or if you’re looking for someone who has those core computer science fundamentals and able to build something new or develop algorithms to build bigger and broader, more complex applications. I mentioned my fun with English class and here’s another example of how I understand positions.

If you remember diagramming sentences, here’s an example of a data warehouse developer that I diagrammed out. I think what most of us do when we’re understanding positions, we stop at the first level. We hear the term data modeling or business intelligence integration and we stop there instead of diving a little bit deeper. I would challenge you to diagram out your positions and in the second and third levels in the sort of green and purple boxes probably that's where you’re going to get really specific. I think if you bring a diagram like this to your hiring manager and you and he or she build this out together, you’re going to have a much deeper, broader understanding of the technologies that you’re looking for and you’re going to be able to build out those keywords that are going to get you the most targeted searches.

So once you’ve done that research, you will be able to better articulate your position. So from the beginning we talked about articulating your position. You can't do that without doing your homework.

We’re coming to the conclusion of the webinar but I wanted to just make sure that I recommend a couple of things for you. There is a book called The Non-Technologist Guide to Web Technologies — very helpful. It was actually written for recruiters and then there is an article out there these days on Bloomberg called What is Code. Again, the links will be shared with you but if you’ve got some time for some summer reading those are two excellent ways to go.

I am going to tell you that if you want to have some fun, real fun, learn to code or maybe not but at least… I actually started a blog some years ago simply because I wanted to understand the technology better. And so as you learned to use things like API as I was creating my blog, I became slightly more technical in my understanding of what's being created was a little bit deeper just from actually using some of the technologies. It's not at a very extensive level; at least on some level, I understood what was being done.

So that is it in terms of what I brought for you today in terms of how I learn about technologies. I love this stuff. I’m very passionate about it. If you want to learn more, actually at Recruiting Toolbox, we offer courses. We have a public tech sourcing web coming up on October 7th and 8th here in Seattle area at the T-Mobile headquarters. You’re welcome to check that out. You’re also welcome to check out the Recruiting Toolbox website. We have tons of resources including resources for tech recruiters on our website. And lastly, I definitely encourage you all to connect with me in some way. I can be found on Twitter @peopleshark or @recruittoolbox and I welcome you connecting with me on LinkedIn as well or emailing me if you’ve got a specific question. Really appreciate your tuning in and I hope this was helpful for you.