By Brian Roche (VP of Products - Cognizant Digital Engineering) & Sam Harrison (Managing Director)

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 in this article we’ll share an approach that’s working for us. That is, you can become more of a destination company in today’s “seller’s market” by applying a DevOps mindset to the way you recruit, hire, onboard and retain talent.

 1 - Begin by imagining the end state 

DevOps teams define success criteria up front so that everyone shares the same goals. Knowing the end state when you start is just as important for becoming a destination company. So begin by imagining what your talent acquisition organization would look like if it were the world’s best. (Even if you fall short of our goals, you’ll still be better than before.)

To help seed your list, here are some of our ideas:

  • Knowing the best places to find people with the right skills—or the right aptitude.
  • Creating a concierge-like experience for candidates from the first contact. The idea is to make them feel welcome, valued and in the loop. More about this later in the paper.
  • Making an offer no more than two weeks after first contact. Talented people don’t stay available for very long. A swift offer gives you a hiring advantage—and sends a message to the person that you value them.
  • Fostering 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—and want to stay.

 2 – Create a concierge-like hiring experience 

The key is to make the hiring process so welcoming at every step that it sways top candidates to work for you rather than their other suitors. Just as you do when developing software, focus on the experience. For example, since some engineers don’t like social interviews and questions that start, “Tell me about a time…,” don’t do it. 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 requirements from stakeholders and users.
  • 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. The description doesn’t have to be highly technical.
  • Propose release milestones (minimum viable products) that reflect a logical build-measure-learn cycle. For example, MVP 1 might not include a login.

In our experience, candidates either love this process—or hate it. In the latter case, we have a good clue that they wouldn’t have much fun 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 right next steps. That takes a combination of speed, aptitude and empathy.

How can you assess whether a person has empathy? Good question. Our view is that if they have empathy for their teammates, they’ll most likely have empathy for our end users as well.

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 candidate pairs with other engineers to deliver real customer value (stories from a backlog). This gives team members an opportunity to assess the candidate’s skills and work style in an actual work setting—and observe whether the candidate is loving it. At the same time, candidates can 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. We’re looking for individuals who raise the bar for the team as a whole. Rock stars. If the team is willing to fight for a candidate, that’s a good indication the person is a great fit and a bar raiser.

 4 - Recruiting: learn from the numbers 

Cast a wide net initially, including talent channels like tech meetups, college outreach and internships. Remember that you’re connecting with real people and the goal is to build relationships. Phony ads and mass-marketing strategies send the wrong signals. We’ve seen good results from hosting meetups—a great way to start informal conversations where you and the candidate can learn something about each other.

To identify the best talent sources, measure:

  • Resumes submitted
  • Percent of applicants that went to the second round (testing)
  • Percent 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 cities it’s the opposite.

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 of the data about sourcing and onboarding with your DevOps teams to get their input. The goal is continuous improvement.

 5 – Break down organizational boundaries 

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

Organizational change is never easy. We’re approaching it in 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. Everyone has an incentive to do what’s right for the company and the candidates rather than just their team. And 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 go fast. That takes great communication and transparency. To help teams share data about what’s effective and what’s not, Cognizant created a tool to track sourcing, recruiting, onboarding and project assignments throughout the person’s career.


6 - Don’t try to boil the ocean: start small

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 for the first teams to model DevOps-style talent acquisition for their peers 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 we described isn’t easy. It takes new processes, cross-functional teams, data collection and analysis and transparent communications. The payoff: becoming more of a destination company for the rock stars who create great software—and earning their loyalty by making them feel valued.