Our industry needs specialist test recruiters

Everyone benefits from better recruitment, argues Gordon Baisley, CEO, Quast Ltd.

Quality assurance and testing are people‑based services. However successful the mantra that ‘everyone is responsible for quality’ it’s best achieved when there’s a role with clear accountability for assuring quality. Someone making sure that processes are well defined, that everyone is clear what is being delivered and that this stays consistent with requirements. In conducting testing, for all our focus on automation, you still need someone to introduce the automation, to extend the boundaries, and to apply judgement about where it’s focussed. You need exploratory testing constantly thinking about appropriate testing in light of product change. Companies need experienced, capable testers, who integrate well in to the company and are continuously learning and applying new ideas and approaches from the changing environment around them.

As individuals we are equally interested in getting the right opportunities at the right companies.

Think for a second about the question: Do you have the right work‑life balance?

Think not about your personal answer to the question but rather about when you’ve heard it asked. It’s not generally raised because you’re doing too much life. It’s used when there’s a suspicion work is taking over your life. We all give a massive percentage of our waking hours to work and so we want to get connected to the right opportunities as reliably as possible.

This can all be one big virtuous circle. Matching the right people with the right roles can offer individuals better quality of life and companies success. Recruitment is the process that is tasked with making the connections, so it’s worth us all being interested in recruitment processes working well.

What does ‘Good’ Look Like?

The two roles recruitment connects are the hiring manager and the candidate. You can see the hiring manager as the ‘customer’, representing the company, and responsible for the QA or test activities needing done. The candidate is the ‘supplier’, the potential recruit who offers skills and capability and seek a range of benefits in return. Good recruitment connects these two roles, matching each’s needs and requirements as efficiently as possible.

Perhaps the best recruitment comes when the hiring manager knows someone perfect for a role. It’s great when it happens but few companies can rely purely on their hiring managers’ contacts for all appointments and most will use a recruiter to help. There are a few different types of recruiter and I want to consider which works best.

Figure 1. Comparing strength of recruitment and testing knowledge of different types of recruiter.

Figure 1

Three Types of Recruiter

In‑house sourcing

There seems to be a real trend towards in‑company recruitment teams looking to find more candidates themselves. At an interesting intro meeting with the head of recruitment at a prior employer he told me that in two years they’d switched their balance from 80% agency : 20% in‑house recruitment to being 80% in‑house recruitment. The main enabler for this was LinkedIn. The team made heavy use of inmail to engage with candidates.

I think there’s real opportunity in social recruitment but have also found flaws.

The first is about penetration. When I was leaving I started going through our org chart looking to connect on LinkedIn as a way to stay in contact. I found no more than 40% of the team on there. Second is about engagement. A lot of profiles are quite sparse, job titles and dates rather than full CV. And while companies and individuals are ever more using it to share thought leadership or marketing, the site doesn’t achieve the regular usage of Facebook. Between a limited pool to start with, not all candidates having completed profiles and less regular usage, I’m not yet convinced LinkedIn is a one stop shop for recruitment. This approach definitely has a place in the process, if you can quickly find and contact a great candidate then terrific. But in absence of quick results you need to be able to use other means of finding candidates.

Having tried to rapidly grow a team relying on in-house recruitment I found the business case for the shift in-house to be flawed. Recruitment Agency costs were paid by the recruitment team and were a high proportion of their spend; switching from agency spend towards a larger in-house team and more spend with LinkedIn was seen as a reduction. However, costs for customers and stakeholder in the process weren’t considered. Recruitment was slower, I saw less candidates, I spent more time chasing, and this applied to all hiring managers in my team. More important was the impact on projects needing the recruits. Gaps in team meant delayed deliverables, time spend discussing mitigation, replanning of tasks, and undoubtedly compromises on quality. A small reduction in Recruitment Team costs caused significant knock on costs for other parts of the process.

Using a generalist recruitment agency

At all large companies I’ve worked at the recruitment team had a preferred supplier list (PSL) of recruitment agencies they used. Most companies on the PSL were generalist agencies, which would source roles across the whole business, or at least one large function, like IT.

There are definite arguments for this type of relationship. By recruiting for multiple companies agencies engage with a bigger pool of candidates than the recruitment team from a single company. There’s the general outsourcing argument, that if your company’s core business isn’t recruitment then it’s more efficient and less distracting to buy services from someone who’s business is about recruitment than trying to be expert yourself. The last is about what’s easiest for the recruitment manager who engages the agencies. It takes time to find, agree contract with and manage relationships with lots of specialist agencies. If you split IT into functions
– lets say Project Management, Business Analysis, Development, Test, Support
– and you want two specialist agencies for each, that’s 10 agencies. If two generalist agencies say they can do all roles it’s just two relationships.

The problem with generalist recruitment agencies, which also applies to in‑house recruitment, is that you’ve moved away from real subject matter expertise. You’ve focussed on applying repeatable recruitment practices rather than knowledge of the jobs. ‘Key word’ search becomes the main approach rather than real understanding of the roles being recruited or the experiences of the candidate.

My company works for one very big customer that takes submissions from lots of agencies but uses a generalist agency to shortlist from all CVs received. I’ve seen many examples of great candidates being lost because the shortlisting relied on exactly matching terms in job specs, not a real understanding of the roles.

One role emphasised a long list of technical requirements, but centred around BDD, Cucumber, .Net and Selenium experience. All in‑demand skills, and rate wasn’t high, yet we found a great candidate, a really experienced tester with lots of experience in a BDD environment. Automation experience was desired and the candidate had established frameworks from scratch. He had lots of experience of .Net and his CV repeatedly referenced all the constituents of Visual Studio – .Net, TFS, MS Test Manager – but didn’t use the umbrella term. The CV was rejected as “lacks required experience: visual studio”.

Two weeks ago we were asked to find a programme support officer. On the job spec, the ‘title’ and ‘experience required’ shortened this to PSO, but the wider spec used ‘programme support officer’ so there was no ambiguity about the acronym. We found a great candidate with 6 years as a PSO in the same sector. The feedback came back “lacks PSO experience”. Looking back at her CV we realised her CV used programme support office for both roles and didn’t include ‘(PSO)’. The hiring manager reviewed the CVs that were put forward and decided none fitted the brief and the role was relisted. We resubmitted the same candidate doing nothing but adding ‘(PSO)’ to their latest roles. This time the candidate was shortlisted and the hiring manager immediately asked for interview.

My main argument with a reliance on general recruitment is similar to in‑house recruitment. The approach is prioritising recruitment team costs and preferences, not what is best for the end‑to‑end process. There’s less relationships for the company’s recruitment team to establish, contract and manage but this comes at a cost of more effort by the hiring manager on each role. Candidate match is less good, the hiring manager spends more time reviewing CVs, rejects more, has to give more feedback. The candidates need to apply to more roles as there is more of a lottery in the middle.

Specialist agency

Like a good financial journalist it’s right that, before I go on, I declare an interest. At Quast we offer a specialist QA and test recruitment service. But I really believe my conclusion comes from experience rather than business interests. It’s the other way around, that I wanted to offer this service because I’d felt recruitment was much more difficult that it needs to be, and there aren’t enough good specialist agencies out there.

I believe the most efficient approach for a good recruitment is to use specialist recruiters, who understand the roles they recruit. This might not be optimal for the recruitment team but it is for the process as a whole.

Thinking back to what ‘good’ looked like. The hiring manager and candidate come from the same or similar profession. They can and do have detailed discussion in interview to check their needs match. If we accept that the hiring manager can’t go and find all candidates themselves, the next best thing is that someone who can closely represent them goes out and finds candidates on their behalf. You’d ideally provide a spec, give a verbal briefing, and in a few days have the recruiter present three great candidates, all of whom could do the job and you’d be happy to recruit, it just being a matter of deciding who’s best. From the candidate side, you’d like to speak to someone really knowledgeable about roles they recruit for, who understands your experience and will represent it well, and who aims to help you be successful through the process.

Hopefully you agree that this seems a pretty good picture. Next, ask yourself if this is more likely to happen with someone looking for different roles every day or someone who only recruits in your profession.

I believe it’s the latter for some of these reasons:

By being constantly immersed in one professional they stay current with practices and tooling.

They will build a larger network of both managers and candidates in QA and test.

They will be constantly in contact with their network, knowing who is recruiting and who is looking, rather than starting fresh each time on occasional roles.

They’ll better recognise the essence of the requirement, rather than treat every key word as equal.

Overall, I believe the experience will be better for all involved. Better conversations, better shortlists, easier recruitment. This can then lead to virtuous circles of further improvement. If both hiring managers and candidates become used to dealing with knowledgeable middlemen they’ll invest more in the process. If hiring managers know their job specs are used they are encouraged to make them good; candidates feel greater potential of getting specific roles and invest more effort tailoring their CVs to bring out relevant experience; the hiring manager then feels more confident about the candidate, etc. With less knowledgeable recruiters the whole process is more scatter gun and feels more of a lottery. In the same process I described earlier I found that for a single role recently 86 CVs were submitted. Conversely, that implies that to be successfully getting one role you might expect to have to submit 86 applications. I think both sides would prefer something closer the 3:1 ratio I suggested as ideal.

A Self Assessment

If you’re reading this you’ve patiently listened to my argument. Let me turn it around and see if this resonates with your experience. A couple of areas to consider:

If you’re on LinkedIn and accept connections to recruiters, have you noticed a few examples of people with hundreds of shared connections with you?

If you go to QA or test forums, conferences or meetups do you find it’s generally the same recruiters you see?

If you can recognise one or both of these things I’d suggest it means the recruiter is networking well in your field. If you’ve interacted with them, have you found the conversation better than the average recruiter?

A Call to Arms

If you answered ‘yes’ to my question, or just buy the argument, hopefully you’ll agree it’s worth encouraging specialists in QA or test recruitment. I want to conclude by suggesting action is needed to move us this way.

As I’ve described, its rational that company recruitment teams are most conscious of their own effort and costs and will tend towards generalist recruitment – whether internal or supplier – unless encouraged to think more widely. The real benefit of specialist recruiters is to the hiring manager and candidates who both see a higher success rate and better journey. For specialist recruiters to survive and thrive they need these two groups to be asking for them, and highlighting the benefits to the process as a whole.

The fact that there’s only a small number of test specialist recruiters suggests it’s difficult to break in to the existing status quo. So here’s my suggestion to help change things:

  1. If you’re a hiring manager:

Engage with a QA/test specialist recruiter and find one you think you’d trust.

Ask your recruitment team to use them next time you have a vacancy.

  1. If you’re a candidate:

Recommend test focussed agencies you’ve had good experience with to your manager and the recruitment team.

Let the agency know next time you’re searching for a role.

I believe everyone will see the benefits.


This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of TEST Magazine. Edited for web by Jordan Platt.