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Sourcing Engineering Candidates in a Remote World

with Kah Seng Tay, Shauna Geraghty & Mike Pinkowish

July 20, 2021
Sourcing Engineering Candidates in a Remote World
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Kah Seng Tay - GM & Engineering @ Airtable

Kah Seng Tay is Airtable’s GM, South Bay and senior engineering leader at Airtable. He currently oversees the newly formed Cloud and Developer Infrastructure group. Kah Seng joined Airtable in 2019 as the Head of Platform where he built and scaled the team.

Prior to joining Airtable, Kah Seng worked at Quora, leaving as a Director of Engineering followed by a role at drive.ai, a self-driving car startup as the VP of Engineering.

Kah Seng is also an advisor and mentor at First Round Capital and Plato. During his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, thinking about AI, SaaS, and consumer startups.

Shauna Geraghty - SVP, Head of People & Operations @ Talkdesk

As the first U.S. employee at Talkdesk, Shauna initially helped scale Talkdesk’s Marketing team, infrastructure and activities from the ground up. In 2016 she was tapped to build Talkdesk’s Talent Acquisition function and since then has helped to scale Talkdesk to over 1,600 employees and to achieve $3B+ valuation. Shauna now runs Talkdesk’s global Talent Acquisition, HR, IT, Facilities and Executive Operations functions. Shauna has a doctorate in clinical psychology and has applied foundational knowledge from the field of psychology to help propel Talkdesk along its hypergrowth trajectory.

Mike Pinkowish - Head of Engineering @ Gem

Mike Pinkowish is the Head of Engineering at Gem and has scaled the team from before Series A to where it is today. Prior to Gem, Mike served in various engineering and engineering leadership roles at Facebook beginning in 2010.

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Show Notes

  • Sourcing Trends (2:26)
  • Shauna, Kah Seng & Mike’s most effective sourcing tactics (5:37)
  • How to change your outreach to get attention and increase response rates (10:11)
  • Where are you sourcing candidates from? (17:59)
  • Strategies to source senior engineers (22:29)


So let's get into our next session on sourcing candidates in a remote world. We have joining us Kah Seng Tay, Shawna Garrity, and Mike Pinkoski Kah Seng, Mike, Shauna welcome! It is so great to see you all. How is everybody doing?

Kah Seng Tay: It's been great. Yeah.

Mike Pinkowish: Yeah, it's great to be here.

Shauna Geraghty: Thanks.

Patrick Gallagher: Awesome. The last session sourcing was by far one of the challenges that came up the most. And so we'd ask people to share a little bit about what's been going on, what are they facing? What are they looking for for help? So, so you three are gonna be helping solve a really critical problem for people right now.

Sourcing Trends

I think that to start because all three of you have I think such interesting, or unique and different perspectives on what's going on with this emerging world of hiring, I would love to start off by getting a sense of what are some of the trends or challenges that you're seeing with sourcing right now that you are most interested in.

And so Shauna, what are the trends or challenges that you're paying attention to most right now?

Shauna Geraghty: Sure. And I'll answer that question in context of the audience and what they care about the most. Our R and D population is primarily based out of Portugal. And historically Portugal was a relatively untapped market, right. Of competition for talent within the R and D sector.

With COVID that's changed completely. And so some of the challenges we're facing now is our competitors for talent can be anywhere. They can be located anywhere. Our talent is amazing and now our talent can also work anywhere. And so competition is fierce. We've seen from a sourcing perspective, our conversion rates significantly declined. And we're also seeing for the first time ever a leaky funnel. And so part of what we've done is we've thought really quickly about how we can be agile in optimizing our EVP and also shifting from more of a gating model. Historically, we deployed a gating model throughout our, process and shifted to a selling model.

So in a word I will say, or in a phrase, I will say, it's now a candidate's market.

Kah Seng Tay: Yeah. I suddenly see that. Okay. Especially because Airtable isn't necessarily fully remote yet. It has led to certain candidate preferences being like highly amplified in this kind of remote type of world. For me, the most recent challenge really has been the fact that. not everyone is aware, like what the timescales of when things would reopen across the whole last year.

I think like even following the trends of vaccinations and understanding the market, understanding where trends are headed for where the companies would be fully remote, whether we would actually adopt something that's a hybrid model that has led to us not being offered candidates, the preference of their choice. Right.

Cared for fully remote or in hybrid kind environment. We are kind of like in this middle zone where we haven't yet figured things out. And so there's a lot of like essentially dynamism at play. We have to be very adaptable and try to, wade through all that kind of like ambiguity to try to offer what candidates would actually like.

Mike Pinkowish: In my conversations with a few counterparts at other companies, big and small, actually where these companies are transitioning to distributed workforces or going fully remote or hybrid the engineering leaders actually think that you know, by being able to source out of, outside of the traditional tech hubs, that it's going to be a massive windfall and they're going to have all of these candidates that they can go after.

And a lot of them are actually finding that the opposite is true. And so. It's actually not getting easier. And I think to build on Shauna's point it's getting more difficult. It's very competitive. And I think it actually underscores the importance of nurturing candidates and sourcing them and finding them before they're actively looking because when they do start actively engaging with companies, the competition is so fierce and you know, there's a leaky funnel out there. People are dropping out because companies are swooping in and it's very competative.

Shauna, Kah Seng & Mike’s most effective sourcing tactics

Patrick Gallagher: Mike the point you brought up, I think is really interesting about like it's underscoring, the necessity it to nurture relationships throughout the whole process. And so I wanted to kind of open up to you three to learn a bit more about interesting tactics you're seen to be effective. the reaction I typically get from different engineering leaders that we work with is that, that requires a lot of work. That seems really hard. And that requires a lot of time. Are there other tactics that make that more efficient or are there other interesting tactics that you're seeing be effective that kind of fall under that relationship building umbrella?

Shauna Geraghty: I can go first cause it kind of builds on Mike's response Personalization is key. Personalization and also creating velocity in your process or in the funnel, because if we can put a candidate through a process in under a week, that's a competitive advantage in a really aggressive market.

The way we've solved for that or attempted to solve for that is taking a very structured approach to not only selecting our target market or our candidates but also crafting messaging that's resonating with those individuals.

So just from a high level, we've created personas. And for each persona we think about our EVP and whether or not there's an opportunity to align that EVP a bit more with that persona and then create content that we believe will resonate with that persona.

And then we use tools like Gem and others to put that individual through a multi-touch multi cadence and multi-person process so that there are a number of different touch points on a number of different platforms. Most of those are out automated through Gem. And that to us has been the most effective way to drive traction at top of the funnel

Kah Seng Tay: okay. Yeah. for us, treat sourcing here has sort of a combination of both like a referral pipeline, as well as outreach by our recruiting teams. And since I do represent engineering leaders at the company, a lot of my efforts trying to direct like the engineers to figure out how they can best reach out to the network, right.

Both candidates that they are aware of and worked with before. But also those that are farther out and further removed. And you know, some things we've been trying are like organizing like virtual tech talks and this kind of promote world having a kind of topic and inviting guest speakers and effectively inviting friends, for particular topic in mind, really this used to be something you could do in the offices.

And this time it was just a lot easier to maybe do it remotely and by a lot more folks.

We also try to have higher engagement at the earliest stages of the funnel in terms of like hiring managers actually conducting pitch calls and outreach engineers, as well as recruiters showing like product demos of our company's product.

That's we're trying to make that early part of the funnel, like more personalized feel to what Shauna mentioned like, and highly engaging for the candidates.

So even if they don't necessarily like want the job, they can kind of walk away with something either a lesson that we've shared maybe in the tech talk or knowledge about Airrtable's product and how to use it.

Mike Pinkowish: Yeah I think When it comes to keeping potential candidates interested and engaged you know, once you sort of have that initial conversation, but they're not ready to interview yet, keeping them engaged is pretty important. And I think that companies that play to their strengths tend to do well when it comes to nurturing.

So Gem is a company that's returning to the office. We have a space opening up in a few weeks and we are going for that in person experience. And historically we've always been pretty strong with our in office culture, events that we do.

And so 15 months ago we would invite candidates to the office, different events that we had. And we're actually starting to do that again in safe settings, obviously primarily outdoors, but you know, if we're having small hangouts or lunches outdoors or in a park there are candidates who are really excited about that opportunity to come back into an office, interact with people. You know, There are a lot of companies going remote and distributed.

uh, Gem isn't one of those actually although I do work with a lot of companies that are taking that route, but we're sort of owning who we are and putting ourselves out there. And I think that sort of acts as a beacon for candidates, who do you want to come in person? But it also means that when we have events, like we are trying to play that up.

And so when it comes to companies that have built really strong remote cultures, thinking about what makes those cultures strong and interesting. Owning that in your outreach, if you're having events that candidates can come to get to know the people or the product better, I think those types of things are great.

Kah Seng Tay: That's so true. Like this sort of things reopen, like we are looking forward to that and hosting things in the office in a safe way would be awesome for future prospective candidates for sure.

How to change your outreach to get attention and increase response rates

Patrick Gallagher: So one thing I wanted to kind of connect the dots on. So Shawna and Mike you'd mentioned you know, some of the practices around reaching out to candidates and having different touch points. And then Mike, you were mentioning some of the methods for people to reach out. one insight I'm getting from different engineering leaders is that some of the sort of standard three touch campaigns, the response rates are dropping off pretty tremendously. And so the big question is like, how do you get people's attention? and where can you get their attention? And so what I was trying to think about is like, are there certain channels that you all are seeing to be more effective or are there certain subject lines or things that are actually catching people's attention and causing increased response?

Shauna Geraghty: I think that is that's where the science comes in for us. Right. And that's why we love platforms like Jen that are able to track conversion rates and allow us to test different subject lines at what might resonate differently with different markets.

For us, it also really goes back to honing in on our EVP. So what is compelling about this opportunity and how do we make sure that we can highlight that in not only the subject line, but the first few sentences of the outreach in a way that is compelling to the individuals that we're reaching out to.

I would say also something that sometimes folks will overlook is we spend a lot of time after developing the persona, we call it an ICP. So developing our ideal candidate profile... understand exactly what that is. Not only for the organization, but for the department and team.

And if you can be very granular about that, then the rest of the messaging usually can fall into place, right? Because we know exactly what we're looking for. We can create targeted messages that might be compelling for that individual. And we'll be able to include that information in the subject line or within the body. Some people are attracted to growth. Some people are attracted to stability. Some people are attracted to a complex challenge or product.

And so we want to know exactly what that is and they get very specific and granular their messaging and then continue to test it and iterate over time.

Mike Pinkowish: Yeah, I think having the tools that allow you to measure improve are essential here. And obviously I work at Gem and we help provide some of those functionalities, but you can't improve what you can't measure.

In my experience I think things that I've seen work when it comes to standing out from the crowd and those candidate outreaches first and foremost, if you're reaching out to an engineer keep the email short.

I think we see a lot more engineering leaders actually composing and sending these emails themselves. And I think if it sort of looks like it's a multi paragraph, a highly produced email with tons of hyperlinks and images, it might not pass the smell test for an engineer, but you know, if it's relatively short, I think that is going to stand out. And if it gets to the point, people are actually going to hear what you're saying.

When it comes to subject lines and trying to get people to open it, there's a lot of different things to try and again, I think the important thing is sort of look at what's working for you with the data that you have available to you.

But you know, if you're reaching out to let's say a referral or someone who is in network, Trying to find a you know, name that you can drop, I think really does help you stand out.

And so you know, if I've worked with someone and we share a mutual connection that I know to be pretty strong to both of us, if you can find a natural way to highlight that in the subject line. I think that is going to really help you stand out.

Kah Seng Tay: Yeah, that's a very interesting, yeah. For us the obviously I don't do too much of the direct sourcing myself in terms of using the tools and doing it at scale, but one thing that's interesting is that we we offer like credit to our customers for the product, right? Like the cost of customer acquisition, it's like easy for them to try the product before they pay for it.

And try and do something to, to offer this to candidates as well. Right? Like it's something that excites them. especially with the referrals. Yeah, engineer who's just started working at Airtable we want them to have a reason to go and talk to a colleague they haven't talked to you in a while, right.

So we want to offer this kind of interesting perk where as a, you know, an employee of airtable, I now have this special lifetime free plan to use that table. And I can only give it out to a few folks here and there. And would you would you like to be part of my plan, right. Or something like that? thing here is that obviously you know, one reason to do the outreach like it's engaging, right, free something's free, right. And but also like, I think it helps get as long candidates who are engaged for longterm. Right? So it is sorry, a long lead time kind of outreach.

We don't necessarily care for transaction, no hire right away, but for a candidate who can kind of understand the product eventually you know, fall in love with it understand the things that we're building over time and then decide to kind of apply or reach out to us later.

So I think that's something that's, we've found to be pretty successful.

We have time for a couple more quick questions.

But I want to talk about two things. One is where are the secret locations that you're sourcing candidates right now? Or are there interesting ways that like people we're finding candidates, you don't have to give up your secrets, but please there's a lot of people who would love to hear them.

But the other one, thing that's really interesting is a lot of people have been sharing they're struggling finding senior engineering talent. And that those types of candidates seem to be the most challenging to find and so wanting to understand, like, how are you sourcing those types of candidates? let's start first.

Where are you sourcing candidates from?

Are there certain locations or markets or sources that you found to be really effective and actually having that top of funnel sourcing?

Shauna Geraghty: For us it's referrals. And so what we've been able to do is typically we see anywhere between 30 to 45% of our new hires coming from our referral source. But also what we've noticed is that the highest quality talent is also coming from our referral source, which makes intuitive sense. Right? you're thriving within our organization, you're more likely to refer someone and if you're not doing well, or if you're not a top performer, you're less likely to.

So what we've done is we've created structured outbound referral syncs where we'll identify an individual is a top performer within the organization. We'll pull individuals from their LinkedIn connections that match our ICP. We'll come prepared, or our recruiters will come prepared to a meeting. And we'll let them know what the referral bonuses we'll share all of the outbound cadence with them and we'll ask them if they're interested in, participating. So that to us has been the best channel.

In terms of geo and location, we've been fairly geographically confined to certain areas within AMEA. And so we're typically looking for countries that have a similar cost of living as Portugal and that, that list is really finite.

My suggestion is if you are a company that that is in a remote capacity currently, or potentially in the future, if you have that ability to first look at your infrastructure to make sure you can support hiring talent in a new geo, because that's a challenge. But if you can, and you have that ability to start unlocking new geos outside of your core headquarters or base.

Kah Seng Tay: Yeah for us I think something that's traditionally an underlooked is essentially like startup founder profiles. So I think you know, over the last decade, there has been a lot of interest in startups and a lot of folks have decided to go ahead and take it out on their own, right? Maybe off to college or after a few years in the workforce and several of these startups do fail and ultimately there is a wide range of company names and experiences, et cetera.

But we've found that, that pool while it's pretty hard to find them on LinkedIn. But if you can actually like get to those candidates they tend to have a breadth of experience that, that actually do work at, at all kind of scaling and growth stage of our startup airtable

even though we are a series E stage, it's still needs a lot of like engineering talent that has that kind of breadth ability to ramp up quickly and multiple domains. And not necessarily like a specialist in any particular one role.

So if you can get to just like start-up founders, ex startup founders, of like, that seems to be a unique archetype that I think seems to be underlooked.

Mike Pinkowish: I think to sort of build on that too. I've I have noticed a decent number of folks who weren't necessarily founding a startup over the past year, but maybe spent a lot of time just working on side projects. And I think they were sort of underemployed, but now they're sort of coming back to the market.

And so if you can find out who those people were that maybe took the past year, a couple of months off. They are looking for jobs and they're ready. Some of them are seniors. Some of them are junior. There's a pretty good mix there, I would say.

I want to also say that. I think referrals are also huge.

can't emphasize it enough, especially at an early stage. You know, If your company doesn't have the name recognition of like a Facebook or even you know, Airtable or Notion or Clubhouse, all these companies that have that household name recognition you need that support from referrals or from communities or networks that you're a part of to have some social proof for your company. Otherwise, who are you?

And so I think trying to find a way to bridge that connection and find a connection with the candidate you're trying to reach out to, especially if they're senior really helps a lot.

Kah Seng Tay: That's true. And actually for senior candidates, one thing I'd like to add is that oftentimes it can seem as if you have this role that you're looking to fill and you go through all kinds of vendors and try to place that role.

But and for senior candidates, you need to be a bit more flexible about adapting that the hole you have or the gap that you're trying to fill to the candidate profile.

And I think we've definitely found that for senior candidates, it's not not willing to move or anything. Like it's often a, a dialogue, right? Like understanding this kind of the strengths, maybe shifting what we're looking for to kind of fit that profile.

We see that for senior leadership. Senior ICS, as well as like know manager roles that we kind of need to do this.

Strategies to source senior engineers

Patrick Gallagher: There's one interesting trend that got mentioned in the previous session that was noted by Maya Joe's Bakili, who was the former head of people at Stripe.

And she was mentioning that right now with some of the people she's interviewed, there's a lower barrier to having like quick 15 minute meetings with folks. And so the ability to like do direct outreach and have shorter meetings into tent relationships over the long-term seems to be something that it's easier to do now than beforehand.

I'm bringing this up because I want to ask like about how do you find sourcing senior engineers? Because I think the challenge a lot of people are facing is where do I find them? And I think a lot of folks are falling into the trap of nobody's applying to our role versus actively doing outreach to find and target people.

And so I was wondering if there were any active tactics that you've observed or found to be effective yourself to find those more senior engineering candidates?

Shauna Geraghty: I can share... I think Mike touched on this but I'll expand upon it.

So we do a number of different virtual events where we're showcasing our internal talent, but also meetups. And there are two strategies that we run in parallel. Well, we will identify individuals that we're interested in hiring and ask them to join the panel.

So as a panelist as an expert and we'll also reach out to individuals that we want to take a long tail strategy to nurture and invite them to be a guest. Because that is a soft ask, right?

That's it. That's an easy ask. We're giving them, we're adding value. We're thinking about a topic that might educate them that might help them create a bigger community.

We're not asking them, do you want to work for us? And then during the event our recruiters are there to provide structure and scaffolding and support, but we're not actively recruiting and the, that. So the recruiters are running the infrastructure, they're sending the outreach messaging and the reminders and the follow-up messaging.

But they're not, they're kind of actively recruiting those candidates. But the one thing that's really important is that we set targets for ourselves. Number of responses, number of attendees and number of conversions.

And so the goal everyone's goal really truly is to create a nice rich community. But the ultimate goal is to be able to see some conversion to active candidates after the event.

Mike Pinkowish: I was going to say, I think as far as well finding the senior candidates. There isn't some secret social network out there that were going on and like all of the senior engineers are hanging out.

But you know, LinkedIn recruiter is tried and true. I think it's a great source, especially if you know how to work some of the search filters on there.

I would say as far as like sort of just entering into conversation and getting some of these senior engineers interested. You could even just pitch your initial outreach as more of a conversation and less of an outright. "Hey, we're recruiting."

I think one thing that I found to be effective is saying " Hey you know, you just want to have a chat about..." let's say for an engineering leader, engineering, leadership chat, or do you want to have like a senior engineering type of chat just to sort of pick their brain a little bit, to see what's important to them.

But then I think a lot of these more senior folks that are open to having conversations You know, they also want to feel out the market. And if you sort of put it in front of them in a low pressure type of way, where it's just a conversation, I think that works. Compared with a year and a half ago, I'm doing a lot more zoom calls.

I think the barrier to entry is a lot lower. People are more comfortable sort of getting on camera with some of they've never talked with before, but I think it also helps build the connection with that individual because you can get a lot more over Zoom than on the phones.

And then finally I think another way just to lower the barrier to entry, a lot of people use Calendly can definitely recommend including that in any sort of outreach you do in Gem or otherwise.

It can be quite helpful just to make it easier for someone to book time on your calendar.

Kah Seng Tay: That's great. Yeah for us I think we do double down heavily on referrals for senior candidates. And I think the strategy that we do is sort of to start at the very top, like go for the very the most senior profiles and try to pay a lot of attention to that hire, right? Like put a lot of senior leadership time in closing higher outreaching.

But once you actually get like someone very senior, like I think what we've found is that they act as talent magnets. Right. A lot of people have known them there. Yeah. Know, yeah, well known in industry or the former companies. Maybe even multiple companies that I've worked at before. And they then act as like someone that other senior engineers will look up to and want to work with in the future.

And I think we've done that successfully with various folks from many different companies and it has led to this like kind of waterfall effect potentially, or a follow on effect. And. I that's possibly one approach.

I think another is to pitch the opportunity as a going back to the startup profile analogy of candidates that maybe underlooked. That I think, like trying to pitch to a botany or something like that.

Co-founding an opportunity within the company to work on this thing, right? Like ultimately I think senior engineers it's hard to engage if they don't know enough about the company or there isn't maybe super compelling opportunities for their expertise and experience and having a craft that messaging to be something impactful and meaningful within your company could potentially help. Obviously depends on the situation or company, but we found that they could actually help.

Patrick Gallagher: Really interesting comment about like the changing priorities, for senior leaders into really craft and personalize your response to, to address that. And I also really appreciate the thoughts around like approaching by, from a perspective of adding value, building a relationship, don't lead with the ask and also lower the friction include a Calendly link.

And it sounds like somebody needs to build the talent magnet network, so that it's really easy to find those talent magnets to create some of those waterfall effects. Really quickly Michael Heller from the chat had a quick follow up question for Kah Seng and Mike.

With company's making the decision to be person, do you find that people are, sort of, is it filtering candidates and that you're finding people that are more interested in office work and that's their like work style preference?

Is that something that's happening? Do you feel like it's filtering out candidates and is that having an impact? Or do you feel like you're still able to identify enough sourcing candidate?

Kah Seng Tay: Yeah, I guess I can go first. Going back to that first thing about how it's a, I guess, a new, recent challenge. I do think that I'll companies like Jenji has at the company today and their preferences it's pretty wide ranging like there are folks that want to be in an office and to folks that prefer not to be.

And so we're trying to find ways to ultimately trial out different models and see what works for us in the longterm. And we suspect to be something in between that. And possibly even like some teams being a bit more frequent in the office and other teams not.

So I think it's actually maybe a wash perhaps for the candidates in that there are going to be some that will be excited and attracted to the model that we have or the teams that, that fit, that kind of model that they're looking for. As well as kind of is that aren't.

And I think that's why it's like really trying to mix and match and, wade through the ambiguity, get them to fit to that team and that choice it works for them. But I think it's not necessarily been a complete, like loss or gain for us.

Mike Pinkowish: Yeah. I think as far as Gem is concerned we have no shortage of engineers to talk with. Our decision acts as a sort of magnet for people that are looking for that. There are plenty of candidates that do want that in person experience.

Ultimately, this saves us time. It helps us attract candidates that are excited about returning to an office environment. But also helps people that aren't looking for that, self-select out earlier.

Patrick Gallagher: I think that really stands out to me about that. you're really clear about that, like you said, Mike it saves time. So, so the takeaway sounds like no matter what the decision is, you just need to be really clear and upfront with the pathway that you're going. So that there's a S a sort of a clear expectation for candidates for those experiences.

Mike Pinkowish: Absolutely.

Patrick Gallagher: Well, Shauna, Kah Seng, Mike, thank you so much, your time. This was, I think an incredibly compressed in rapid fire here are some really interesting ways to source. And so I hope a lot of folks were able to immediately apply a lot of these things. I can imagine this to be a lot of really cool events being planned.

A lot of guests being asked to speak.

If you were planning an event and want guests take a look at the people in the community, I'm sure they would be incredible guests to have. But Shauna Kah Seng, Mike, Thank you three all so much. And we'll see you soon.

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