The three biggest sources of candidates are referrals from your existing team,
inbound applicants who apply on your jobs page, and sourced candidates that
you proactively bring into your funnel.

Small companies tend to rely on referrals, and large companies tend to rely on sourcing candidates,
using dedicated recruiting sourcers for whom this is their full time job
(often the first rung on a recruiter career ladder), and medium sized companies
are somewhere on the continuum between those extremes.
(Slack in particular has done some interesting work to encourage inbound applicants,
and while they’re now getting to the size where most companies depend more heavily on
sourced and direct applicants, I suspect inbound applicants are not their largest source of
candidates.)

Hiring and recruiting teams tend to prefer referrals because they often have
higher pass and accept rates, and most early stage companies, especially those without
dedicated recruiting functions end up being primarily composed of referrals.
(An interesting caveat: lately I’m seeing more of a second
category of referral candidate, who are running their own extremely systematic interviewing process,
with the aim of
getting offers from three or more companies, and consequently tend to have much lower
acceptance rates.)

Drawing of small personal networks relative to total pool.

Referrals come with two major drawbacks.

The first is that your personal network will always
be quite small, especially when you consider the total candidate pool. This is especially true
early in your career, but it’s easy to work for a long time without building out a large
personal network if you work in a smaller market or at a series of small companies
(one of the side benefits of working at a large company early in your career, beyond name
recognition, is kickstarting your personal network).

The other issue is that folks tend to have relatively uniform networks composed
of the folks they went to school with or worked with. By hiring
within those circles, it’s easy to end up with a company that thinks, believes and
sometimes even looks similarly.

Moving beyond your personal networks

Many hiring managers freeze up when their referral network starts to dry up or as they
look to bring a wider set of backgrounds onto their teams, but the good news is that
there is a simple answer: cold sourcing. Cold sourcing, a technique that’s also common
in some kinds of sales, is reaching out directly to folks you don’t know.

If you’re introverted, this will probably be an extremely unsettling experience at
first, with questions like “What if they’re annoyed by my email? What if I’m wasting their time?”
ringing in your head. These are important questions, and we have an obligation to
be thoughtful about how we inject ourselves into others’ lives. I was personally paralyzed by
this concern initially, but ultimately I think it was unfounded: a concise, thoughtful
invitation to discuss a job opportunity is an opportunity, not an infringement, especially for folks who
are on career networking sites like LinkedIn.
Most folks will ignore you (which is great), others will politely demur (also great),
a few will actually respond (even greater), and a surprisingly amount will ignore you for six months
and then pop up mentioning that they’re starting a new job search: I’ve never had someone
respond unkindly.

The other great thing about cold sourcing is that it’s pretty straightforward,
and I’ll share the approach I’ve used, with the caveat that I believe there are
a tremendous number of different approaches that are probably more effective.
Take this as a good starting point, track your results, and then experiment!

Your first cold sourcing recipe

Drawing of a three degree network.

My standard approach to cold sourcing is:

  1. Join LinkedIn. I suspect variations of this technique
    would work on other networks (e.g. Github), but the challenge
    is that folks on other networks are generally not looking to engage
    about employment opportunities, and intent increases response rate
    significantly! (A good parallel here is search versus display advertising,
    where search advertising has an order of magnitude higher click-through rates
    as folks are actually searching for what they’re being advertised.)

  2. Build out your network by following folks you actually do know.
    Add everyone that you went to school with, have worked with,
    have interacted with on Twitter, etc. It’s important to seed your
    network with some people you know because it’ll increase the reach
    of your second degree network, and it’ll also reduce the rate at which
    folks mark you as someone they don’t know (which is an input to being
    penalized as a spammer).

  3. Be patient. If your initial network is small, it’s very likely that you’ll get throttled
    pretty frequently. Once you’re throttled (you’ll get a message along the lines of
    “you’ve exceeded your search capacity for this month”), you’ll have to wait for a few days,
    potentially until the next month, to unthrottle. (Alternatively, you could sign up
    for their premium products, which would accelerate this quite a bit.)
    It may take weeks or months of occasional effort (schedule
    an hour each week) to get your network large enough that you’re able to perform
    more than a few searches without ratelimiting. Anecdotally, the number of connections
    where things seem to get easier is around six hundred or so.

  4. Use the search function to identify second degree connections to connect to with.
    Start out by searching in your 2nd degree network by job title,
    software engineer or engineering manager,
    and as your network expands consider switching from title to company.
    (Consider the various lists of great companies
    to find companies to search by.)
    Build a broadchurch of connections! Even folks whom you end up not reaching out to now
    are folks who might reach out to you later, or that you might reach out to in a few months
    as your hiring priorities change. If you’re not sure, just go ahead and do it.

  5. When someone accepts your connection request, grab their email address from their profile
    and send them a short, polite note inviting them to coffee or a phone call, and sharing with
    them a link to your job description. Experiment with varying degrees of customization.
    (If you’re having trouble finding their email, make sure you click “Show more” in their
    “Contact and Personal Info” section, and that they’re a first degree connection. A few folks
    don’t share their email at all, and I’d recommend moving on, alternatively you could send
    them a LinkedIn message directly.)
    I’ve personally found that customization matters less than I assumed, because folks mostly choose to
    respond based on their circumstances, not the quality of your note. (As a caveat, it’s possible
    to write bad notes that discourage folks from responding. Iterating on your reach out notes and
    getting a few other folks with different perspectives to review your note is a quick and high
    leverage thing to do.)

    Your reachout notes can be very straightforward:

     Hi $THEIR_NAME,
    
     I'm an engineering manager at $COMPANY, and think you would be a great fit for $ROLE (link to your job description). Would you be willing to grab a coffee or do a phone call to discuss sometime in the next week?
    
     Best,
     $YOUR_NAME
    

    Really, I think it can be that simple! If that seems too simple, then run an A/B test with something more
    personalized or sophisticated.

    It’s worth noting that you will end up connecting with some folks who you simply don’t have a great
    fit for right now. That’s ok. I recommend reviewing their profile pretty rigorously after they
    accept your connection, and making an honest assessment on fit. If you don’t have something, that’s
    ok, and it’s a better use of the candidate’s time to not reach out to them. (However, I also think
    we tend to over filter on qualities that don’t matter too much! Being respectful of the candidate’s
    time is, in my opinion, the most important to optimize for.)

  6. Schedule and enjoy your coffees and chats, and remember that even folks you aren’t able to work
    with now are still folks you’re likely to work with next year or next job. Especially in Silicon Valley,
    it’s a very small network, and interact with each person like they’ll be providing feedback on whether
    or not to hire you at your next job (they very well might!).
    You have two goals for each of these calls or coffees: figure out if there is good mutual fit between
    the candidate and the role, and there is a good fit, then try to get them to move forward with your process.
    The three things I find most useful to folks deciding to move forward with our process are
    explaining why I personally am excited about the company and role we’re discussing, explain how our process works
    from our current chat to them receiving an offer, and leaving ample time to ask questions.

  7. Keep spending an hour each week adding more connections and following up with folks who have connected.
    It’s a bit of a grind at times, but it’s definitely a practice that rewards consistency.
    I’ve found that this is a good activity to do together! Have a weekly meeting of folks who come together
    and source, chatting about how you’re evolving your search, and also to keep folks overcome their
    initial discomfort with cold reachouts. (It’s worth pointing out that this is much easier to
    with an applicant tracking system like Lever or Greenhouse,
    which allows you to have a single place to track if a candidate has already been contacted
    by someone else at your company. Having a bunch of folks from the same company reach out around the same time can
    paint a picture of chaos.)

If you’ve read through this, and are quite confident that this approach won’t work, I’m with you:
before I tried it, I was similarly certain it wouldn’t work for me, and that it was just a big
waste of time, but I’ve slowly been converted. It’s also important to recognize that very likely
this exact approach won’t perform well over time: try something simple, push through your concerns
that block you from starting, and then experiment with different approaches.

Is this high-leverage work?

Similarly, a frequent followup question is whether sourcing is a high leverage task for
engineering managers. I think it is: folks are more excited to chat with someone who’d be managing them
then they are to chat with a recruiter who they’ll mostly work with during the interview process,
likewise, I think it’s a valuable signal showing that managers care about hiring enough to invest their
personal energy and attention into it.

That said, I would be cautiously concerned if an engineering manager
was spending more than an hour a week on sourcing (not including follow up chats, those will take up a bunch more time),
there is a lot of important work to be done closing
and evaluating candidates as well, in addition to the numerous non-hiring related opportunities to
be helpful.

As a closing thought, the single clearest indicator of strong recruiting organizations
is a close, respectful partnership between the recruiting and engineering functions.
Spending some time cold sourcing is a great way to build empathy for the challenges that
face recruiters on a daily basis, and it’s also an awesome opportunity to learn from the
recruiters you partner with! We’ve been doing weekly cold sourcing meetings as a partnership
between our engineering managers and engineering recruiters, and it’s been a great forum for
learning, empathy building and, of course, hiring.


Thanks to Steve, TR and Malthe for reviewing versions of this post.



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