Monday, October 30, 2006

Why is IT recruitment so bad?

My current contract is coming towards its natural conclusion which means I’m about to be blessed with that most joyous of experiences – dealing with recruitment agencies. I’m not a huge fan of recruitment agencies but I don’t have a huge amount of choice. For whatever reason, the Australian IT market seems to regard recruiters as necessary; about 75% of permanent placements are found through agencies and about 95% of contracts are placed through agencies.

So we’re in “necessary evil” territory here, especially given that I’m looking for another contract role. On the plus side, when you take into account that recruitment agencies are so central to the IT job market you can rest assured that they’re good at what they do, right? Yeah, right. One of the enduring mysteries of life for me is: why is IT recruitment handled so badly so often?

The first question I’d like to see answered is why use agencies at all. The idea that they’re professionals who are the best at this sort of thing simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. They’re more often than not poorly paid, poorly motivated and with a limited (at best) understanding of what qualifies someone to work in IT. After all, if they knew anything about IT they’d be earning decent money working in IT rather than being in a dead-end recruiting job. The only honest answer I can come up with is nobody at the company who hires the agency can be bothered putting in the work of finding suitable candidates themselves.

So recruitment agencies are a time-saver for HR departments. And I had this crazy idea that who you actually employ might be one of the most important decisions a company could make. I don’t know what else HR departments do to justify their existence. Even the “time saver” response is giving HR departments too much credibility in my book.

I’ve had enough experience to form an alternate theory: recruitment agencies exist to give HR departments plausible deniability. Nobody want to take responsibility for decisions – on the off chance a hire doesn’t work out, the HR department doesn’t want to take the blame. The involvement of an agency gives them the ability to say “it isn’t our fault, the agency said s/he was the best available candidate.” Yeah, god forbid the HR department would actually do their job.

The second question I’d like to see answered is: why are candidates so often measured against some cookie cutter template of requirements? Yes, there has to be some sort of baseline for competence but setting a series of arbitrary measures (x years experience in discipline y) is again replacing actually doing your job with a “plausible deniability” safety net. Anyone with any significant experience in IT who's willing to be honest knows that a checklist approach is often no help at all in identifying suitable candidates and if you enforce the "ticks in boxes" approach arbitrarily you're in very real danger of excluding some very good potential recruits.

So why does this approach persist? Again, my cynical mind tell me that it's to allow an escape route for an HR department that doesn't want to take responsibility for their job. "But he had 10 years experience with Ruby on Rails - that was heaps more than anyone else, he should have been great." Using a wishlist of attributes as a starting point is fine but refusing to think beyond the boundaries it sets is a recipe for disaster. Occasionally when I end up in an interview where they are obsessing over experience in a particular area (especially if it's something as nebulous as a methodology) I try to point out the shortcomings in their thinking. Not in the hope of changing their minds, I do it for fun.

I am a strong believer in many of the hiring principles espoused by Joel Spolsky (he's just published version 3.0 of his Guerilla Guide to Interviewing) which can be summarised as "hire someone who's intelligent and knows how to get things done." When I try to illustrate the benefits of this approach to someone insisting on five years experience with use case methodology, I do it by pointing out where their strict requirement could turn around and bite them. It goes a little like this...

"Say you are down to two people, one with five years use case experience and one without the requisite experience but they're smart, flexible and know how to get things done. It seems like you should go with 'Ms. Five Years' but the problem is use cases are done in very different ways in different workplaces and she may be totally locked into her version of use case methodology which conflicts with yours. You end up wasting a huge amount of time arguing on the right way to execute. On the other hand, Mr Smart and Flexible is far more open to working with you to get the results you want without obsessing over how the methodology is executed. So, many years experience doesn't necessarily mean the best result for you."

Another obvious (to me) point that these obsessive types don't seem to think of is you can have ten years "experience" with something and still suck. Experience alone is not a measurement of competence, let alone excellence. Someone might be a better programmer straight out of university than someone who's spent half their lifetime coasting along. Pointing out these flaws in the recruiting approach can be a lot of fun. Not because you get to achieve some breakthrough that turns the whole recruiting process on its head but because you get to watch as the drone's eyes glaze over because you've introduced enough cognitive dissonance to make their brains shut down.

Life would be much simpler if the recruitment pitch went: "We're going to need you to successfully complete this sort of task in this sort of timeframe to this level of competence. We'll check with your references about your previous performance and what sort of person you are. In the interview we're going to ask you to complete the following tasks to try and get a handle on your competence. If that all goes well and we think we could stand working with you then you might just have yourself a job."

But I don't expect a massive turnaround in this area any time soon. I'm occasionally guilty of being an optimist but I'm not stupid.

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