12 August, 2007

How to work with IT recruiters

I occasionally spend time looking over the Google Analytics profile of this site. In general, there are three things people are interested in:
  • Futanari
  • Broken ribs
  • Recruiters ("rate my recruiter")
Now, I think the first one kind of goes without much explanation. The second one really surprised me. There are a lot of people out there with broken ribs from various accidents (usually automobile accidents from what I can tell) and they're not getting adequate treatment from their physicians. But that's not really what I want to get into today, as I discussed that at great length previously. No, today I am going to talk about recruiters, and specifically IT recruiters.

Let's start with the basics. I've been working as a consultant, largely through recruiters, for ten or fifteen years (fifteen years ago, recruiters weren't exactly the same sort of people they are today, so there's some ambiguity). I've worked with I think thirteen different "head hunters" (although I am surely forgetting some). More importantly, I have never (with two exceptions) gotten a job that I applied for. The recruiters come to me.

My first position with a recruiter, I drastically underbid myself. Instead of asking for money based upon what I was capable of doing, I asked for money based upon my pedigree. I'm not ashamed to say that I asked for $40,000 a year to hack perl for a defense organization. The hiring manager chuckled and offered me $48,000. I was ecstatic. However, this didn't work out because I was too young and my clearance didn't go through, so I was desperate when the next recruiter came along. They asked me what I wanted, and terrified, I said "35." They didn't even blink, and said okay. So we we went through the rest of the paperwork, W-4, I-9, and so on, and when it got down to how much I was making, they said, "so, we have you down as $35 an hour?"

Now, I choked, deep inside, as I had meant $35,000 a year. The difference between $35/hr and $35k is of corse a factor of 2,000: They had me making $70,000 a year. It took everything I had to not lose my composure, and I simply smiled and said that yes, that was fair.

Here's lesson number one when it comes to recruiters: always ask for more than you think you're worth. Chances are, they're willing to pay it. When I was making $35 an hour, that same headhunting company was charging the principal $60 an hour. Imagine if I'd just asked for $45/hr. I'd have been making $90,000 a year at 22 years old. So, if you have been making $50 an hour, or $75,000 a year, or whichever, take that number, and add a liberal increase to it. Pick a number that sounds just too high to be plausible, and almost without fail they will take it. I won't get into what I currently make, but for most people with solid skills, making $60-70 an hour shouldn't be hard.

The other thing you have to worry about with recruiters is the lying, slimy type of people they tend to have running the joint. If they want you to show up at their office, so they can show you their swanky view of the potomac or whichever, chances are there's not much to the business but lies and a trophy office. They'll promise you the world, tell you that they have five companies that want you, and you'll never hear from them again. So, lesson number two is trust a recruiter who sounds like he knows what he's talking about on the phone. The twenty-something chicks in low-cut halter tops in trophy offices are sure nice to look at, but they're so dense as to pronounce "BAE Systems" as "Bay Systems, what I like to call it." Run away. They are a complete waste of time. A good recruiter will take you out to lunch – of your choice – and ask you not only about your professional background, but also about your personal background, to make sure that you're a good fit for the team they're trying to put you in. If they're really good, they'll even tell you a bit about themselves, so you don't feel like you're being interrogated, and you can get a sense of who they are, and who their company are. These are real important things to know when it gets down to offer time and you're weighing numbers (salary/bene's) against perks (office, environment, challenges, etc). Meeting at their office is usually done, but if they're serious, they'll take you out somewhere informal so that you can interact more naturally.

Chances are if you are dealing with a lot of head hunters in email (because you're on dice/thingamajob/monster/etc), you will run across the email that looks like this:

Please list in number of years your experience with the following products:
Sun Solaris:
User Management:
Network File System version 3:
Active Directory:
Secure Shell:

This should set off red flags for a number of reasons. First, the recruiter who is asking these questions has no knowledge whatsoever about what these technologies actually are. What they're doing is taking up all the "scores" they get, ranking them by the sum of the number of years, and then the ones at the top get the first interviews. The problem is, you or I or kermit the frog can lie on any of these and get the interview. In fact, most people can lie their way through "solaris experience" or any of the above. This makes lesson number three of recruiters if they can't actually engage you in conversation about technology and require number lists like this, they won't get you a job (or if they do, you won't want it), they're going to be a pain in the ass to work with because they're retarded, and they're wasting your time by having you quantify the number of years you've worked with something rather than qualify the actual level of skill you have in a given discipline.

This next one bothers me because it feels racist. However, the experience is true enough. I get a lot of recruiters from India. They get VOIP lines in places like Boston and New York, so that while you're actually talking to Ranesh in Hyderabad, it looks like you're talking to RTH Consulting in New York. These guys generally have their hearts in the right place, and I think the generally want to connect people who are looking for jobs with people who are looking for consultants. The problem is, they don't know anything about the technology industry here in the states. You'll get people who will ask you if you have worked with LAMP, and then subsequently ask you if you've worked with Linux or Apache. I can see how there might be some subtlety there, but it's not the only time they'll do that. So unfortunately, lesson four of working with recruiters is if the guy's name is Ranjesh, or his accent is so thick you can't distinguish SQL from "perl," you need to just tell him that it's not going to work out and move on. I wish there were a better way for those guys to get paid, but I think the industry is screwing them, and our playing along with them is wasting their time and screwing them even harder.

Lesson five of working with recruiters is that they will almost always want you to have a clearance of some sort. Frequently, having had a clearance, and recently, is good enough. Don't just assume that because they want TS/SCI with a Lifestyle Poly and Umbra that they won't hire you. It never hurts to ask.

And lastly, the last rule of working with recruiters is they will always try to screw you. They're going to skim anywhere from 20% to 65% on top of what you take home, and they work on commission.

I have worked with recruiters I like, and I'll list them here, as a) they'll like a reference from me (no I don't get paid) and b) they're always looking for good people.

There are a couple I'd avoid. In particular, The Computer Merchant, LTD, of Boston actually requested that I bill the client for hours in which I was not in the office. This sounds like a sweet deal initially, until you realize the enormous liability you have when the customer is the federal government.

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