Jag Venugopal's Blog

September 28, 2010

IT contract hiring is harder in a down economy

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 1:00 am

 A friend  who wishes to remain anonymous shared his difficulties in hiring contract programmers in a down economy (and you thought there should be plenty of them!) I’ll let him speak in his own words:

 “We’re looking for a contract programmer to enhance a decade-old system that runs on a potpourri of Microsoft technologies. We need someone who can work with C#, WCF, ASPX.NET, and AJAX to help us produce the next version of the system, and to fix any defects discovered along the way. We’re a fairly easy-going firm, and are willing to pay the asking price for contract programmers. Our department has excellent working conditions, and the jobs are as close to 9-5 as you can get.

 One would assume that in this economy, we’re in a buyer’s market and would be able to get the cream of the crop. However, reality is harshly different. Finding the right person is immensely difficult — perhaps more so than if unemployment was in the 4-5% range.

 Our first problem is that for Microsoft .NET programmers, there’s one resume. Yes, no matter which contract programmer’s resume we come across, they are virtually identical. My guess is that in a bad economy, contractors are desperate to get hired, and to get the best chance, they gold-plate their resume with every development technology Microsoft has ever invented.  It doesn’t matter if the candidate has never actually coded in the technology ; current practice seems to dictate that if he has read a book or MSDN article on the technology, it is included in the resume. To the person performing the hiring, resumes have completely lost their relevance, because they don’t state the truth. The hiring manager has to make a decision call on whether to interview a candidate or not, based on a very subjective “gut-feel”.

 A close second problem we face with resume embellishment is that most candidates do not restrict themselves to stating what they did on their projects. Instead, the resume turns into an eight-page monstrosity that tediously enumerates every feature of every application they worked on, and then goes on to describe every technology implemented on each project, regardless of whether the candidate actually used the technology or not. Often, candidates for contracting positions, especially if they’re foreign, work through multiple levels of body shops (the hiring company talks to Body Shop 1, which subcontracts to Body Shop 2, that actually does the visa paperwork and the hiring). With all these levels of body shops, each recruiter feels the need to embellish the resume with changes they think will make their horse win the race. Thus, a candidate with one year’s experience in technology suddenly has a couple years’ experience after Body Shop 2 has edited his resume. Those two years then get incremented to somewhere between three and four after Body Shop 1’s recruiter has had his say in the matter. By the time it reaches the hiring manager, four or more years’ experience is stated, while the reality is that the candidate is a novice in the technology.

 Assuming that we’ve moved past the resume review page and gone on to a phone screen, further gotchas await us:  the helper, Google, and the prepared speech. Often, we can discern the presence of a “helper” in the interview room together with the candidate. The helper assists the candidate in reciting answers to technical questions. The dead giveaway to the presence of a helper is a 2-5 second time lag between questions and answers. A candidate who is honest about his knowledge can immediately respond to questions about technologies on his resume. Those with a helper in the room need to give the helper time to understand the question and furiously scratch out the response on paper or a white board. Sometimes the helper is a human being, and at other times the candidate himself is furiously googling away for the answer. One interesting candidate neither googled nor did he have a helper. What he had was a prepared speech. No matter what the question was, he insisted on reading his complete sermon out to us.

 Our recruiting woes are not at an end even when we have found the right person, and we have found them to be honest at the interview. In a job market in flux, candidates are desperate for a job. They often end up accepting positions where they don’t quite like the project, or the commute is long, just so they can tide things over until they get a more suitable position. Thus, they accept a six-month contract in bad faith, fully intending to bail out within three months, or as soon as a better gig becomes available.  While I don’t grudge them the desire to make a living, it plays havoc with us. Our system is complex enough that it takes close to a three-month ramp-up period before a contractor becomes productive. When a contractor leaves after a few months on the job, we’ve lost the money, time and opportunity invested in the person, and are forced to start the cycle all over again.

 As a result, each resume review and interview becomes an adversarial process. We’ve been burned so many times that we start out assuming a person is guilty of all the above sins until proven innocent. Not the best way to start a relationship where we entrust mission critical applications to someone, but that’s the reality.”

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