Just as brilliant drummers have their pick of bands, top cloud-native developers and project managers can be choosy about their employers. They’re the rock stars of business, and they know it. If you’re not a “destination company” like Amazon, Facebook or Google, how do you entice top talent to work for you? (And if you’re being wooed, what are the tip-offs that you’ll be valued?)

We’ve been asking ourselves the same questions, and our takeaway is that businesses can increase their chance of attracting top talent in today’s “seller’s market” by applying a DevOps mindset to the way they recruit, hire, onboard and retain talent. Here are some tips for doing that.

1. Begin by imagining the end state

Just as DevOps teams define success criteria upfront so that everyone shares the same goals, begin by imagining what your talent acquisition organization would look like if it were the world’s best. (Even if you fall short of your goals, you’ll still be better than before.)

Here are some key criteria:

  • Know the best places to find people with the right skills – or the right aptitude.
  • Make an offer no more than two weeks after first contact. Talented people don’t stay available for very long, and a swift offer sends a message to the applicant that you value them.
  • Foster a culture that makes it easy for new hires to integrate into their new team, adopt the DevOps work style and feel connected to your company’s big picture.

2. Create a concierge-like hiring experience

The hiring process should be so welcoming at every step that it sways top candidates to work for you rather than for other suitors. For example, since some engineers don’t like social interviews and questions that start with, “Tell me about a time …,” don’t include those. Instead, test candidates on the job they’ll perform. Ask developers to code so you can measure their speed, aptitude and empathy for users. Ask product managers to design a product that you’ve outlined in vague terms. Assess how well they:

  • Draw out stakeholder and user requirements.
  • Create a screen flow for the app – a good demonstration of empathy.
  • Describe the architecture at a high level so you can judge whether they understand what’s feasible.
  • Propose release milestones (minimum viable products) that reflect a logical build-measure-learn cycle.

In our experience, candidates either love this process, or hate it. If it’s the latter, it’s a good clue that they wouldn’t love working with us.

Look beyond skills. Technology is evolving quickly, so a candidate who can figure out the right path may be more valuable than one who knows a trendy programming language. We home in on candidates who can parachute into a situation, contextualize quickly and figure out the next steps. That takes a combination of speed, aptitude and empathy.

3. Schedule a pair day

A pair day is an awesome way for a candidate to experience how you work. Here’s how we do it: the candidate joins us for morning standup and chooses a team. During the course of the day, the applicant pairs with other engineers to deliver real customer value (stories from a backlog). Team members get an opportunity to assess the candidate’s skills and work style in an actual work setting, and candidates experience the team culture first hand.

Immediately after pair day, we hold a short meeting to decide on next steps. Typically we conduct a Roman vote: yes, let’s hire the candidate now; or no, not a good fit. If the team is willing to fight for a candidate, that’s a good indication the person will raise the bar for the team as a whole.

4. Recruiting: Learn from the numbers

When the data tells us that a recruiting activity doesn’t work in a particular market, we try something else. This, too, borrows a page from DevOps: Focus on data and the user need rather than clinging to subjective opinions about what works and what doesn’t. Openly share all the data about sourcing and onboarding with your DevOps teams to get their input. The goal is continuous improvement.

To identify the best talent sources, measure:

  • Resumes submitted.
  • Percent of applicants that went to the second round (testing).
  • Percent of tested candidates who had a pair-day interview.
  • Percent of pair-day interviews that resulted in an offer.
  • Offers accepted.

A note about full-stack developers: Finding them is difficult. The same goes for product managers who can work on a DevOps team. We know we’ll have to kiss a lot of frogs to find these unicorns (pardon the mixed metaphor). To increase our chances of finding rare talent, we measure our recruitment activities and conduct A/B tests every step of the way, from job descriptions to talent sources. For example, our data shows that in some cities, meetups work better than career fairs; in other areas, it’s the opposite.

5. Break down organizational boundaries

Creating an engine to attract and onboard talent requires breaking down organizational walls. For example, recruiters who are out in the field need a clear way to collaborate with team members who conduct technical interviews.

We approach organizational change the same way we get code into production. That is, we bring people together into cross-functional teams and ask them to work together toward a shared goal. Giving everyone a common goal avoids finger pointing and gives everyone an incentive to do what’s right for the company and the candidates rather than just their team. Gaining more empathy for the other functions’ challenges helps team members come up with better ideas for creating a world-class recruiting and onboarding experience.

The cross-functional team should include a technical recruiter, executive recruiter, someone who runs meetups, someone in charge of onboarding, a technical screener and other people involved in the interview process. As it is for DevOps, the goal for hiring and onboarding is to move quickly. This takes great communication and transparency. To help teams share data about what’s effective and what’s not, we’ve created a tool to track sourcing, recruiting, onboarding and project assignments throughout the person’s career.

6. Don’t boil the ocean

It’s not feasible to change the entire talent acquisition organization in one go. Better to start with a few teams and run mini experiments. When a new process improves hiring or onboarding speed or increases retention, scale it across the organization. And when a new process fails, do what DevOps teams do: Fail fast, share the failure so that everyone can learn from it and continuously improve.

Take care to select the right people to spearhead the transition. Look for people who are open-minded and have a good understanding of how the organization works today. If you’re into 16Personalities, you’re after Explorer types, who have “a self-reliant mix of enthusiasm, quick thinking and ingenuity.” In our view, the right people for the transformation should see it as a short-term experiment because transformation should take on a life of its own, not remain the pet project for a few.

Roll out the red carpet for the cross-functional teams that spearhead the transformation. Limit other work for these team members: This needs to become their entire job. Celebrate each team’s success. The goal is to ignite transformation throughout the company.

7. Don’t stop after you make the offer

Consider pairing new hires with a buddy to integrate them quickly into the team. And to retain top talent, be proactive about offering new opportunities and training. Developing a tool that tracks lifetime project assignments, as we did, will help you identify the people who would benefit from and appreciate these opportunities.

Adopting the DevOps style of talent acquisition takes new processes, cross-functional teams, data collection and analysis and transparent communications. The payoff: becoming a “destination company” for the rock stars who create great software – and earning their loyalty by making them feel valued.

Brian Roche

Brian Roche

Brian Roche is Vice-President of Products & Strategy at Cognizant Technology Solutions. In this role, he helps define and execute the company’s... Read more