An Open Letter to IT Recruiters

Over the last couple of months I have found myself fielding phone calls and emails from job agencies and recruiters who knew that my current contract was coming to a close. A certain amount of attention is a very pleasant thing. It indicates that the job market is reasonably buoyant and that I have the skills required for these jobs – sweet! Of course getting no attention would mean that something is seriously wrong. Either the economy is sliding further down the pan and I should take up those carpentry classes, or I need to polish up the old CV and get it up on the all important job boards like or

The one thing I have become aware of from this attention is the way that recruitment agencies currently approach candidates.  The modus operandi appears to consist of making as many phone calls as possible whilst making noises not dissimilar to a flock of starlings taking off and being about as meaningful.

I had recently rewritten my CV, adding in my most recent contract and making it all nice and shiny and had then put it up on some job boards. I applied for a couple of positions that caught my eye and thought that I might get a few phone calls.  The result? Holy Hell! Fifty phone calls on the first day and 45 on the second! Now if every one of these calls was about a real contract, I would have been ecstatic but the signal to noise ratio (or more accurately, real job to bullshit ratio) was appalling. Only a couple of the calls were about contracts of any sort of interest and the rest were just rubbish. The 5 minutes that each agent wanted would have taken up over 4 hours each day if I hadn’t interrupted them. Not only were most of the calls a waste of time, but the agent on the other end seemed to have no idea on what was appropriate and what wasn’t:

No, I would not like a permanent position at a fifth of my current day rate.

No, I would not like to move to Ulan Bator.

No, if my CV does not say that I have used a particular language, I am not hiding it just to tease you; I really have not used that language.

No, the fact that I have used one particular and ancient language or skill once on a project 10 years ago does not mean that I am a guru capable of rewriting the world in it.

Emails can be even more extreme. An email from an agent is the best way to find out that the agent is either a) a serious professional with a deep understanding of their client’s requirements and is working hard to find the right developer with the right skills, or b) an inept tosspot who couldn’t find their own arse with both hands and a map. The lazy data mining query rears its head again as agents compete as to who can send the most misdirected email. Starting the email “Sehr geehrter Herr Anderson” is a bad start considering that I have never spoken or even claimed to have spoken German. Better yet is to demonstrate your complete inability to understand you target audience by hoping that I would be interested in a junior level position at a two man company in a small village famous for its pasties using a skill set that a squirrel monkey would regard as too easy. There may have been a time when I would have been interested in a position like this but since I have spent the best part of a decade building enterprise systems for multi-nationals in London it does not have quite the allure that it once did.

What the hell is going on?!

The legion of agencies out there is a reflection of the fact that the IT market is still quite young. Parts of the IT industry are obviously older (did people seriously expect to be able to get by on punch cards all their life?)but the majority of IT is still less than 20 years old. Back in the dot-com boom, the preferred recruitment technique was to stun a passer-by with a well thrown half-brick, ask the groggy individual whether they had ever read an IT related book and put them forward as a senior developer if they said yes (if they said no, you put them forward for a role in IT management). The ensuing dot-com crash had the dual effect of getting rid of most, but unfortunately not all, of the lemons working in IT but it seems that it also got rid of many of the agents that figured out how to talk to IT contractors. In an industry awash with technical terms, agents have a nightmare keeping up with the technology and often resort to playing buzzword bingo. The recent recession seems to have done the same thing and with the recent uptick (in London at least) a new generation of recruiters have arrived.

The Rules for Contacting Contractors

Firstly and most importantly, read my CV. If you are phoning me because my name and telephone number popped up as the result of a lazily written data mining query and are unable to tell me from a bar of soap apart from the fact that I have skills “C# AND Java” and do not smell of Lilly of the Valley, I will probably tell you to bugger off. I expect a conversation based on the role in hand and not have to hold yours as you ask me bone headed questions, the answers to which are on my CV. Reading my CV applies double to emails.

Only contact me if you have a solid position to discuss or I already know who you are. If I don’t know you and you are just phoning up to find out my availability or chat about the weather, I may just hang up as frankly, I just don’t have the time. If you are introducing yourself and nothing else, send me an email. Unless you manage to come across as a drooling halfwit in 6 lines or less, and I have seen it done, I will be happy to reply when I have the time. And don’t try to pass off contact for Data Protection Act purposes as something else otherwise you get put in the cretin pile.

Contractors are rarely if ever interested in permanent positions. They will not turn to the dark side unless they have suffered a serious head injury or an illness like child-birth or marriage. If you phone me about a permanent position I will certainly, if gently, berate you for your lack of reading comprehension and will probably laugh at you too.

If you say that you will call back to update me on the progress of a contract then make sure that you call back even if it’s just to say that nothing has changed. This is basic business practise and will distinguish you from the other bullshit artists and people who are afraid to say “sorry, you didn’t get it”. If you do not and don’t have a good excuse, why on earth would I want to deal with you again?

Don’t start the conversation by telling me that you have a “great position with a dynamic up-and-coming/large-and-established company”. I prefer you being to the point and telling me what you have. Do the sales part after we have established that I match the role’s requirement and that I may be interested. This is for your sake as much as mine. If I’m completely unsuitable, you need to know that as soon as possible, don’t you?

Do have an idea about the rates the role is paying. For a contractor (mercenary bastards that we are) this is one of the most important things to know. Asking me what I am looking for is fair enough (even if it is annoying because shouting out how much you earn in a crowded office does not make you any friends) but don’t be surprised if I just ask what the role is paying. If you don’t know because the job hasn’t been released to the open market yet, that’s fair enough but if it’s because you can’t find the spec, then you are a mouthbreather and I will suspect that in-between phonecalls you gently chew on your crayons and eat paint.

Don’t treat the name of your client like it’s a state secret. You must be insane if you think that I would let you submit my CV to some random company. At some point you are going to have to man up and tell me. If you don’t then I’m not interested and you come across like an insecure berk with one client who’s terrified that some other agent will steal it away. Or you are telling porkie pies and don’t have a real job to discuss. There is a special circle of hell for recruiters that do this where you (along with Estate Agents and Traffic Wardens) will be made to pay for your crimes.

Don’t ask me for my references. I know you will be unable to stop yourself from phoning them. This one simple act marks you out as a predatory moron trying to push an unwanted service and marks me as a naïve idiot for not seeing it coming. References come after I’ve talked to the client and we have established a little bit of trust.

And go steady with the referral scheme there Smiler, I am not here to do your job for you. This is not an episode of “Pimp My Friends”. If I genuinely think that I do have someone who might be suitable, I will ask you for a spec and forward it on to them. I will not give out an email addresses without their explicit say-so. If you aren’t prepared to send me the spec, I’m certainly not going to be bothered to send it on so don’t try to use it as leverage to get me to tell you anybody’s emails. Also, and this is important, this is not an excuse for you to spam me with emails in the hope that I will know someone who will know someone who might be suitable. And don’t imagine that the “huge” referral fee is all that impressive when we’ve figured out that you claw that back inside the first week of a 6 month contract.

Check List:

Tell me your first name, last name and what company you represent.

If it’s a phone call, check I can talk. If I give monosyllabic answers, offer to call back later or send an email as odds are my boss has just appeared at my desk.

Tell me what type of role you have. If it’s a permie role and I’m a contractor or it’s C++ and I’m Java only then we can save an awful lot of time and call it quits right here. The role description should be the level, main skill-set, the role and employment type like ‘a Junior PHP web developer contract’ or ‘a Senior C#/.NET programmer/lead vacancy’.

If you don’t know my situation, ask now. The fact that you have my CV in front of you does not necessarily mean that I am looking or am about to start looking. I have had agents with copies of my CV that are 3 or 4 years old phoning me up so a CV alone is not an indication that I am available.

Assuming that everything is copacetic, then and only then we can get into the details.

Agency behaviour is a top down issue. Grunts on the desks behave the way that their team leaders or bosses allow/expect and can only be expected to do what they have been trained to do. I love the fact that there are people out there desperate to get me a job, I really do, and I am very aware of the importance of agencies in the contractors ecosystem but at some point sanity must kick in and curb the flood of crap. When people refer to members of your industry as “pimps” this is not a good reflection of your industry and it’s not just the guys on the phones that need to pay attention.

The pendulum of power has swung back and forward from candidates to agents and back again over the last few years but with the recent tightening of belts caused by the credit crunch, it may well be moving back to the agents as the pool of candidates fight for fewer positions. Then again, it may stay as it is as fewer jobs needs less agents. Either way, contractors needs recruiters and recruiters need contractors but making it commoditised is selling everybody short. There are some fantastic people in recruitment and I’ve been lucky enough to deal with some of the best but recruiters need to fight their way back to a level of professionalism they haven’t had for quite a while.

1 thought on “An Open Letter to IT Recruiters

  1. Anna Richards

    Hi Martin,

    Ah this is a unique way to respond to recruiters. I hear where you are coming from. Unfortunately my role does not match your skills set close enough so I’m sorry to have troubled you. We’re hoping to upgrade our database search function which hopefully will ensure you get approached with relevant contracts.

    All the best, Anna


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