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Technical recruiters have an extraordinarily difficult job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2020 there were about two million people working in programming jobs across a few different categories. They also project that software developer employment will grow 22% by 2030, nearly three times the average rate for all occupations. And in 2019, IT trade group CompTIA reported a staggering 918,000 unfilled IT jobs over a period of three months. Although it’s hard to find high-quality research on the subject, estimates of the software developer shortage specifically have ranged from just over 200,000 to a head-scratching 1 million in 2020. It’s easy to find programmers on social media who are skeptical of these numbers, even going so far as to deny that a shortage exists at all—and the shortage almost certainly isn’t as severe as some contracting agencies make it out to be—but most software engineers would tell you that unemployment isn’t a prospect they lose sleep over. On the contrary, attention from prospective employers and their recruiters is constant, a fact of life.

In short, technical recruiters are tasked with drawing water from a stone. Experienced programmers are in such high demand that they can practically write their own employment contracts. If they aren’t happy at work, a competing job offer is trivially available. And with remote work becoming the norm in the software industry, commutes and cross-country moves are no longer a concern. How do you persuade someone with that kind of power to join a company they’ve likely never heard of?

I’ve written before about low-cost lifestyle benefits companies can offer to more easily attract high-quality developers. But recruiters generally aren’t in charge of their employer’s benefits package and work schedule, so that may not be helpful here. Today I want to take a different approach: analyzing the cold email outreach strategies of five recruiters I’ve heard from this month and explaining, from a developer’s perspective, what they’re getting right and what they’re getting wrong.

1 - The responsibility describer

Original email:


Hi Isaac,

My name is () I’m reaching out from (). We’re a 100-person software company in building () technology specifically for large (). You can learn more about us here: ().com and more about what it’s like to work at () here: ().com

We’re currently looking for a Senior Full Stack Web Developer to work in various languages and lead projects including:

  • Expanding our user-facing web applications (PHP 7 and various JavaScript front-end frameworks)
  • Building software applications to help internal teams across () work more effectively and efficiently (Golang and Vue.js)
  • Enhancing development process and creating technical pathways to upgrade existing technologies

I came across your experience at Health Catalyst and thought it could make a tremendous fit for what we’re looking to do on our engineering team.

If you’re interested in learning more I’d love to connect over a quick call. Would you be open to discuss further?

If you want to see some more info or (if it’s not for you) share with someone you think would be interested, you can find the Job Posting here: https://()

Hope to hear from you and thanks for giving it some thought.

Be well,

RD


The first paragraph here isn’t bad. Some developers may prefer to work at companies of certain sizes or in certain industries. Bonus points for designing a website to advertise what it’s like to work there—that’s always a nice touch, although in this case the website provides little more than a few group photos and links to open jobs. I couldn’t find any information about pay, equity, benefits, parental leave, work/life balance, turnover, engineering culture, literally anything that would influence my decision to work there.

The email goes on to list some extremely boring job responsibilities. Expanding web applications, both internal-facing and user-facing, is what all developers do. And the last bullet point is fluff. “Enhancing development process and creating technical pathways to upgrade existing technologies” is a profoundly empty thing to include in a job description. The only good thing about this list is that it calls out the technologies used at the company, actually a very reasonable thing to mention up front. There are some technologies I really enjoy working with and others I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

The rest of the email is perfunctory. The recruiter copy-pastes the name of my last employer from LinkedIn, asks me to accept a phone call, and links to the job description. None of these are bad things to do, but it’s abundantly clear that something is missing.

What’s in it for me?

Remember that question because it’s going to come up again.

The recruiter’s explained what’s in it for them. They want to hire a web developer. I am one of those. But like most software engineers, I already have a job I like. The chance to be hired is not compelling, and that’s all that’s been offered. I don’t even know for sure (I only suspect) that this job offers a paycheck.

Now, maybe I misunderstand what recruiters are after. Maybe they only want to interview developers who are unhappy at work and desperate to get out. Maybe there’s a substantial bloc of developers who apply for every job they hear about (sounds exhausting). Maybe outreach strategies like this get enough of a response to satisfy their employer. But I wager most recruiters really want developers to reply more often and with more enthusiasm—case in point, this recruiter sent me two follow-up emails within a week.

2 - The information void

Original email:


Hi Isaac,

I am contacting you from the corporate office of Amazon.com regarding a back-end Software Developer position with our company. Upon reviewing your profile, I believe that you may be a good fit for some bleeding-edge projects that we are implementing, so we would like to discuss possible consideration with Amazon.

Please confirm your interest & review the criteria below & I will send you more information on the consideration process along with some guidance & advice on how to successfully interview with our company.

We would like to confirm the following criteria with you:

  • You are seeking a back-end coding position
  • You have at least 3-years of development experience
  • If you have interviewed with Amazon previously:
    • 6-months has passed a completed assessment or a phone interview or;
    • 1-year has passed since the last ‘onsite’ interview (virtual or physical)

Please note that I am seeking candidates with a specific years of experience: Amazon also has more junior or senior roles available which are listed below:

https://()

https://()

I look forward to discussing this opportunity with you further & thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

P.S - I support of hiring for all lines of business with Amazon, including our e-comm platform, corporate location, Alexa, Prime, Kindle, Whole Foods, Audible, Amazon Go, Twitch, Zappos, Ring, IMDb, AbeBooks, Fresh, ComiXology, Robotics, Double Helix Games, Fire TV & Fire Stick, e-commerce & physical stores, Pill Pack, etc.

Regards,

IV


I didn’t anonymize the company name here; Amazon has oodles of recruiters so there’s no risk of compromising this one’s identity.

This email contains very little information. The first few paragraphs just say “I’m recruiting software engineers for Amazon” in an embarrassingly long-winded way. The recruiter probably feels that the low information density is justified since Amazon is a household name. In that light, an appropriate tone for this email could be “You probably already know how you feel about Amazon, and if you want to work here I’m happy to help.” Instead, it comes across as “I know you’d give your eyeteeth to work at Amazon, but before you get too excited let me remind you of the minimum requirements.” This email, by the way, is typical of the emails I get from Amazon recruiters.

Here’s what I’ve heard about Amazon engineering jobs through the grapevine: they pay twice as much as everyone else, but they also work you twice as hard as everyone else. Let’s find out if that’s accurate. Although neither this email nor the links provided offer salary information, a quick Glassdoor search indicates that salaries are moderately higher than the median. And Glassdoor reviews theme around long hours and poor work-life balance.

In my opinion, a moderate increase in salary is not worth my evenings and weekends. So if the recruiter was interested in a response from me, their first and most important job would be to convince me that Amazon’s engineering culture has changed and they now focus on sustainability rather than a vanity culture of overtime and late nights.

3 - The nothing-in-particular

Original email:


Hey Isaac,

I hope you are doing well! Not sure how things are going at Health Catalyst right now, but if you’re ready to take a peek around let me know.

I am working with some very innovative companies who I think might interest you! They are currently hiring senior, staff, and principal engineers. These companies are open to local or 100% remote candidates.

Three of the companies I find particularly interesting are (), () and ().

Are you interested in hearing more about these opportunities? If not, what would interest you? Let me know your thoughts either way. Happy to set up a quick intro call and email you more details!

Cheers,

NP, Technical Recruiter


This recruiter gets one thing right: they mention that they’re hiring for remote jobs. This is a must. I don’t see myself ever working in an office again. Remote work is too good for my mental health, my family and my productivity.

The rest of the email contains practically no information. The three companies the recruiter lists are not ones I’ve heard of, nor can I guess how much they’d pay me based on their names alone.

The lack of detail here may be due to the fact that the recruiter works for an outside firm hiring for multiple companies, so their available jobs vary greatly in terms of compensation, culture, benefits and so forth. But I’d guess that if the recruiter spent a moment on my LinkedIn profile they’d be able to rule out a large number of those jobs, and probably even pick a couple of the most appealing ones to share details about.

Why should a recruiter put in the time to research each lead before contacting them, rather than simply casting the widest net possible and hoping for results? This is a valid question. And perhaps there are recruiters who are rewarded on extremely gameable metrics like “number of candidates contacted” and “number of interviews arranged,” so sending impersonal email spam is incentivized. But whether the recruiter or the incentive structure is at fault it’s hard to imagine the response rate being very good on an email like this, even if it’s sent to thousands of developers per day. There’s just nothing interesting in it. Happily-employed senior developers in particular are unlikely to respond.

Again, maybe I’m missing the whole game here. Maybe wide-net recruiters are hiring for companies that pay below-market salaries and don’t really understand tech, so they write low-quality emails because they’re looking for low-quality candidates. In that case, I can’t really criticize the strategy. I just wish I could unsubscribe.

4 - The financial analyst

Original email:


Hi Isaac,

I’m recruiting Software Engineers for one of the most exciting early startups we’ve ever come across (()-Tech scale-up that just raised $() @ $() valuation with strong Unicorn potential). The role will report directly to the CTO.

The Founders include a co-Forbes 30 under 30 and co-founder of a company that raised over $() from Google Ventures et al - looks like this is going further.

I’ve seen your profile on LinkedIn and it looks like your skills could be a good fit for us. Would you be interested in having a chat about the opportunity soon?

Please let me know.

Thanks

FA


I’ve seen a hundred recruiter emails like this one: they drop a bunch of numbers, sprinkle in some superlatives and buzzwords, and peace out.

This is one of my pet peeves. The email gives me every reason to think someone I’ve never met is gonna be rich. They’ve raised a billion dollars! They were in Forbes magazine! They’ve founded 87 successful startups! Good for them, I say, but how is this relevant to me? I’ve been in the presence of rich people before. Frankly, I don’t understand the appeal.

My experience is that there’s no correlation between a highly-funded company and a great place to work. And so far, all I know about the company and the job is that there was a funding round involved.

I still don’t know what’s in it for me.

5 - The … wait, this one’s actually pretty good

Original email:


Hi Isaac,

I’m writing to you specifically because I see that you’ve got experience with Angular. I’m () from (), a recruitment startup. I’m trying to hire for a front end role at a company that’s looking for experience in Angular and you’d really be a great fit.

The company’s called (). They’re a () platform.

Essentially, if you’re a () looking for customers, you list yourself on the platform and they ensure that you get your customers. They were founded in (), have () employees in all, and are looking for a frontend engineer with experience in Angular. They’ll pay $() for entry level and willing to go up to $() for the right person. There will also be an additional equity component.

They’re in (), but cool hiring remote.

Do write back if you’re interested.

Thanks,

WTOAPG


This recruiter’s getting a lot of things right. They picked a technology I’m experienced in and offered a specific opportunity. They summed up what the company does and how big they are. They included a salary range (well above market, I might add) and a benefit. And they used the word “remote.”

There is not a wasted sentence in this email. I’m impressed.

I expect emails like this have a decent response rate, including from high-performing devs. But it could still be better. We’ve covered the basics: salary, industry, technology. If I could persuade the recruiter to include a couple more sentences, I’d ask them to talk about culture—preferably without using red-flag terms like “fast-paced,” “rockstar,” or “exciting.” Give me some evidence of a healthy workplace. How often are people working overtime? How many days of PTO do employees average in a year? Is the company profitable? What’s their rate of turnover? If the company is a good place to work, put the proof front and center.

Honorable mention: the memelord

There are a number of gimmicks recruiters sometimes use to try to set themselves apart. For example, my friend John was recently targeted by a recruiting organization whose outreach strategy relies on vapid memes.

The email reads:


Hi there, John

Are you interested in learning more about the position I reached out for? Your background is a strong fit!

(A photo of a human skeleton sitting at a desk, hands on a computer keyboard and mouse.)

Waiting for you to respond…


This is blatantly unprofessional. But more importantly, it gives John no new information about the opportunity. If he wasn’t interested before, there’s nothing in this email that will change his mind. Essentially the recruiter is saying “I noticed you didn’t email back. That must be a mistake. Even though you don’t know me, I think I deserve your time and attention. So I’m using a mock-lighthearted meme to express that I really think this is your problem, not mine.”

Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Job-seekers don’t need much. Most of them are just looking for a company that pays well, furthers their career, offers a fair benefits package, and doesn’t expect them to prioritize work over their own life. This shouldn’t be hard. Every company can do these things. But we have to be wary, because some companies choose not to.

If you don’t get a response from someone, it isn’t because you didn’t send enough memes. It’s either because they’re blissfully happy at their current job or because you haven’t convinced them that the opportunity you’re offering is safe, humane, and competitive. In the latter case, your best move is to do some research and communicate better next time.

Magic phrases for your next cold email

Here are some sentences that, in my opinion, are very likely to increase your developer response rate from email or LinkedIn outreach. They may require some research and/or advocacy on your part.

  • Our benefits and work/life balance are better than any other company that we know of. Paid family leave, PTO, medical insurance, life insurance, home office stipend, fitness stipend, the list goes on and on.
  • The last time any of our engineers worked overtime was in 2004. We gave them a week off immediately afterward.
  • After spending a few minutes with your LinkedIn profile, I think you’d rank as a Level II Engineer here. Our payscale for Level IIs ranges from $150,000 to $175,000 a year. Most of our engineers graduate to Level III within five years.
  • We work 30-hour weeks year-round. You can choose whether that’s three 10-hour days or four 7.5-hour days.
  • Our engineering department has extremely low turnover: most years it’s under 3%, and so far this year we haven’t lost anyone. The average tenure of our engineers is over 6 years.
  • We believe in slow and sustainable growth. This is not a “fast-paced” environment, there’s no venture capital involved, and we’re not looking for a rocket-ship trajectory. It’s important to us that our employees are living full and rich lives outside of work, every day.
  • We are a worker-owned cooperative. In addition to normal salary and benefits, all annual profits are split between our employees based on length of employment.
  • I’ve spent a few hours looking through your book, your work on GitHub, and the articles you’ve published. I’m particularly impressed by [project] for [specific reasons]. It’s clear you bring more to the table than our average candidate, so we’d be able to offer you more than we usually do.
  • Our median employee takes 30 days of PTO per year, including a two-week vacation in the summertime.
  • We use [third-party software] to track levels of stress and burnout through the company. I’m pleased to report that we’ve reduced these numbers to an average of 1 out of 10 during the last year.
  • I’m recruiting for several different opportunities. Let’s do this: reply with your resume, a salary range that you’d find compelling, and a few must-have benefits, and I’ll Venmo you ten bucks for your time. You won’t hear from me again until I find a job that I think fits you really well.
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