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The Dark Matter of Applicants

There is a gigantic pool of talented engineers that nobody has figured how to tap into. They’re the people who don’t apply to jobs. If you can find these people, you can build an incredible team.

It’s a pretty obvious statement to say that you only get candidates who apply, but that belies a major truth: A lot of people really really really hate applications. They will do anything to avoid filling a form. Some of the most talented people I’ve known, people who will dive into massive technical problems with no hesitation, they struggle with filling out a simple form.

And really, what incentive do people have to apply to jobs if they already have one? More money? What if the person doesn’t care about money? A lot of good programmers aren’t exactly materialistic. And even those who are, may not have such a burning need that they’ll apply to a job. Remember, applications are scary. They’re tedious, require writing, and can lead to rejection. Anxiety and avoidance are powerful preventative forces.

This is the value of outbound recruiting. You can get to the people who don’t apply.

I don’t think people internalize this because the people who become hiring managers and startup founders tend to be ambitious. Ambitious people apply to jobs.

You may be thinking, hey, this is what a recruiter does, no? Reach out to people and ask them to apply. And sure, that is true. But recruiters reach out to specific kinds of people. They reach out to people with notable big tech companies on their resume. They reach out to people who have a LinkedIn or an active GitHub account. These are the obvious candidates. What you need to find are the less obvious candidates. There’s a lot of them.

Take government contracting. There’s a whole industry of software developers working in old technologies, getting underpaid with worse benefits. A lot of them don’t keep an active GitHub or LinkedIn presence. Why would they when they can’t talk about the work? And yes, it’s a stable job, but when the “unstable” job pays twice the salary, I think you could convince some to leave. You could probably get a solid bunch of people simply by poaching government contractors.

Some of you may be sneering that the government contractors are clearly the lesser programmers and that’s why they’re in contracting. I don’t know about that. For one, tech interviews are not these magical mysterious processes that only the talented can pass. They’re quite literally a test that you can study and pass. Second, it’s not like these people are applying to big tech every year and getting rejected. They’re probably not applying in the first place.

Of course, there are other reasons why people don’t apply. I’ve talked to people who assume the jobs can’t pay as well as they do. Dan Luu has mentioned that he didn’t think big tech salaries were real until he got a big tech job. Others may not be aligned with the company’s values. But these issues are rarely total blockers. Usually they’re just enough of an impedance to prevent someone from applying. If you reach out to them, they may think differently. After all, a recruiter from a big tech company reaching out is flattering. Even the most cynical enjoy flattery.

Really inertia is what we’re discussing. People have a lot of inertia in their lives that they rarely fight. It’s why some of the best CS schools are state schools. Talented students hate applying to college, so they pick the easiest, simplest option, i.e. their local state school. Those same talented students hate applying to jobs, so they take the first job that a friend offers, or that they see at a career fair.

I’m not exactly sure how to find these candidates. Maybe it involves some amount of snooping in public spaces like GitHub or reddit. Maybe it requires reaching out to professors. Maybe you need to keep an ear to the ground for companies that are doing more interesting work than they should be. But if you can find them, you’ll get some damn good engineers.