Moneyball, nerd sniping, and other unorthodox recruitment hacks

Always be recruiting.
Always be recruiting.
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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If you asked 10 executives about the importance of talent acquisition for their organizations, more than eight of them would say it’s important—if not very important. At the same time, almost half of employers would admit that they can’t find the skills they need, with the global talent shortage at a 12-year high.

Employers with deep pockets are solving their talent problems by throwing enticing sums of money at the most qualified people for the job. But for others, the same option simply isn’t in the cards (or in the budget), forcing most businesses to get creative with how they find and recruit new, talented employees.

Having faced these exact challenges myself as a bootstrapped startup hiring artificial intelligence developers and salespeople, I’ve developed creative strategies that have succeeded in helping recruit top talent for even the most in-demand roles. Here are some of the most effective.

Learn from Moneyball and search for undervalued talent

Anyone who’s ever read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball—or seen the Hollywood interpretation starring Brad Pitt—knows that being competitive doesn’t always mean having the best players or the most money. The book tells the story of how the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team was able to recruit undervalued athletes on a $40 million budget and ultimately stay competitive against the likes of the New York Yankees, which spent more than $125 million in the same season.

As Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen put it in Grantland, “The Moneyball thesis is simple: Using statistical analysis, small-market teams can compete by buying assets that are undervalued by other teams and selling ones that are overvalued by other teams.”

The same logic applies to recruiting for developers, salespeople, or for other roles that are hard to fill, with the difference being that you don’t need to bother with statistical analysis to find the best talent. You just need to focus on what really matters—that candidates have the fundamental skills to get the job done—not which schools they attended or how many years of experience they have.

This idea is one that Dharmesh Shah, co-founder and CTO of HubSpot, describes as one of the many startup lessons he learned from Moneyball. “When recruiting engineers, find brilliant people that write code that solves the problem simply, effectively and can be maintained without brain damage,” he writes. “Figure out what success looks like for a given role, and ignore the irrelevant details.”

Design job applications using “litmus tests”

How can you find and capture undervalued talent? Start by using certain types of questions to test and verify candidates’ abilities during the job application process.

One useful type of question is a “litmus test.” It is a simple question that quickly determines whether or not a candidate possesses a skill necessary to succeed in a given role. Normally, these tests are applied to political nominations, but as my friend Mike Moran recently shared with me, they also work exceptionally well for hiring employees—particularly developers.

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In his role as a Manager for IBM’s website architecture, Moran was tasked with the challenge of hiring 50 developers in one month. In order to determine whether or not candidates were actually qualified for the role—and do so quickly—he came up with a technical programming question that only a professional developer, not a hobbyist, could answer:

If the candidate had the right type of experience, he or she would be able to answer the question quickly and easily.

The same idea applies when hiring for other roles. For a quick litmus test when hiring a technical writer, for instance, perhaps you could ask the candidate to identify a hard-to-detect grammar error in the job application.

Adding questions like these to job advertisements quickly filters out the bad candidates and helps you identify the good ones. Make sure the answers aren’t easy to Google, and would take little time for an expert, and a lot of time for a novice. These types of difficult questions have the added perk of attracted the right sort of applicants, those who are looking for challenges that push them outside of their comfort zones.

Use “nerd sniping” to engage a candidate’s curiosity

“Nerd sniping,” a concept stolen from this sarcastic comic, is the idea that a certain type of person exists that, upon seeing an interesting problem, “involuntarily drops everything else to work on it.” In other words, it’s a way of identifying applicants who are not just technical, but equally as curious.

As such, job advertisements for a given position should contain interesting and challenging questions in addition to the technical litmus tests. For example, in our own job advertisements for AI positions, we typically ask candidates to solve a variation of the “missionaries and cannibals problem,” which, despite engaging their curiosity, actually tests their qualifications for the position. The best answers usually come in the form of code snippets that solve the problem in a generalized way.

Nerd-sniping questions can help identify candidates who not only have the functional skills required for the job, but also the curiosity and drive to solve problems. The best candidates are those who, even if they aren’t looking for a job, will feel compelled to answer the questions. With this approach, you can find talented people without having to vet them for less meaningful qualifications such as what school they attended.

In our experience, this approach has attracted a very high quality of candidates. After we’ve figured out which candidates have both the necessary expertise and a hunger to learn, we hire at least two of them for a trial task that will take a day or two to complete in their spare time. Candidates are paid for the project, but, ultimately, only the one who performed best is hired full-time.

The best part? If you’re focusing on candidates’ functional skills and not their paper-based qualifications, you can probably snap them up at a lower cost compared to those with more years of experience or an Ivy League.

Make recruiting part of your day-to-day operations

Designing an engaging job application using the strategies described above is a great way to identify quality talent. However, such an approach only attracts those who are already looking for a job. When looking to fill roles that are in high demand with a low supply, such as salespeople, the strategy is slightly different, as the people you’re looking to recruit most likely already have jobs—and good ones, at that.

The key to winning talent that’s in low supply is to make recruiting part of your day-to-day operations and find ways to recruit even when you’re not explicitly recruiting. In other words, think about where you’re most likely to find the talent you want, what motivates these people, and how you can come up with a way to engage in a meaningful and relevant conversation with them. Some examples include:

Vetting the vendor and the salesperson 

If a client asks for a recommendation or help with a complementary service that your company doesn’t offer, take the opportunity to find out what options are available on her behalf. This legitimate referral opportunity also awards you an excuse to engage with the best sales talent at companies selling similar services to your own. So, as you reach out to providers with the goal of finding several solid options for your client, you can simultaneously vet those salespeople as potential employees.

This conversation, in which they’re pitching their product, is a fantastic way to interview top talent without the pressure of an interview. And more importantly, the sales rep that really convinces you to rank his offering highest is likely to be the best one from the group. You can start by asking the most impressive salespeople if they would be open to consulting work on the side, and if the consulting work is successful, move on to bigger commitments.

Regardless of whether or not they accept your offer, you’re helping salespeople by bringing them solid referrals—and helping your client by finding them quality vendors—and they’ll be more than happy to return the favor by answering questions and sharing sales tips you can use in your own business.

Recruiting at trade shows

A second way to engage in meaningful and relevant conversation with potential employees involves attending trade shows and using them as an opportunity to recruit. As you learn more about products or services that could help your business grow, you can also view passing through exhibit after exhibit as an opportunity to “interview” the people that are pitching you, in the same way as described above.

Most companies only send their best salespeople to trade shows because they want to impress potential customers. As you’re learning more about the vendors at the trade show, keep note of the ones who impress you the most, and follow up with them. This is exactly how I recruited our head of sales: I met him at a trade show in Boston when he was selling for his previous company.

You can beat the talent shortage

Finding the right talent for your organization is a major challenge, especially given today’s shortage of qualified individuals. Nevertheless, there are ways to both identify and actively recruit people who can get the job done—without inflating salaries.

Hamlet Batista is the CEO and founder of RankSense.