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The Demise of the Headhunter

15 replies on 2 pages. Most recent reply: Jan 26, 2009 1:29 PM by Michael Levin

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Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

The Demise of the Headhunter (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Oct 23, 2008 2:25 PM
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Summary
Headhunters are like travel agents, except that it's taking the web longer to make them go away.
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Of course, there are still a few travel agents around. These are the ones who always did more than just act as intermediaries to the airlines. And especially the ones who didn't take kickbacks for pushing you toward one airline or another. How many times did you find yourself transferring planes because a travel agent declared there were no nonstops, only to find out later there were?

Headhunting is a high-dollar business; a headhunter is often paid a significant percentage according to your first-year's salary. This is in exchange for connecting the right person to the right company.

But as in any business of this kind, people begin to see that the way to make more money is to spend less time with each client (another business is catering, where the caterer can make more money by buying cheaper food). So service goes down.

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky makes a very compelling case about the effects of organizational costs on the objectives and quality of the organizations. Because the internet can remove many of these costs, many organizations are changing, or new types of organizations are arising. For example, the airline industry has virtually reinvented itself around the web.

This is also true for hiring people. New organizations are arising that allow individuals as well as corporations to connect with talent and hire them as needed, on demand. The true value of outsourcing and offshoring may not be in big-business to big-business connections (where they haven't seemed to work out so well; Fast Company cited that about 50% of offshoring contracts are terminated before the project is done), but instead in small-business to individual connections.

A friend who runs a one-person programming company has recently been hiring people through ODesk and has been very happy with his results. He told me that ELance and RentACoder were two other companies he had looked at.

Have you worked with or become aware of other companies like this? What experiences have you had?


David Vydra

Posts: 60
Nickname: dvydra
Registered: Feb, 2004

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 23, 2008 7:58 PM
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As recently as a few months ago, many managers in the Bay Area told me they still use headhunters because the candidates they bring are often significantly better than found by other means. This may be changing with the current recession - I'll survey again in January.

One interesting twist on web-based recruiting is http://www.notchup.com. They pay you to interview.

Florin Jurcovici

Posts: 66
Nickname: a0flj0
Registered: Feb, 2005

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 24, 2008 3:37 AM
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:-S I don't know.

I don't think so. The Internet evidently changes the way business is being done - many things you can do with information but were not feasible before the Internet become feasible. It was the same with steam engines and electricity. It also took a few hundreds of years until these technologies were properly integrated, and the process continues to this day - we still work at how to use electricity and fossil fuel efficiently and sustainably.

Off topic: it may be argued that the Internet is a change of a different nature, more complex than replacing human work with work performed by machines. But this only means that integrating it properly into society is an even more challenging process, which will probably take even longer.

Looking at electricity, and all the automation that came with it, it is obvious that even many crafts and arts were pushed back a lot, they managed to survive. Therefore, I think headhunters will survive too, only, their use will be a lot more limited than it is now. On the other hand, given the limits of humans in terms of bandwidth, in relation to the ever growing amount of knowledge, I think specialization will become increasingly important, possibly meaning that you will have many more narrow niches on the labor market. In such a labor market, it might be simply not efficient to try to hire all by yourself, instead of hiring somebody specialized in that niche to do the work for you.

We, a small software boutique, use a recruiting agency simply because it is cheaper. Since we don't do this all day long, it would be pretty much manual work to place ads, then review tens of candidates only to find out not one matches the requirements. They routinely place ads, and have a database of thousands or tens of thousands candidates. For them, it is a process as efficient as people putting together cars on an assembly line. For us, it's similarly efficient with what medieval manufacturers used to do.

Sean Landis

Posts: 129
Nickname: seanl
Registered: Mar, 2002

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 24, 2008 11:22 AM
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Headhunters are not like travel agents. They are like real estate agents; specifically agents that represent both buyer and seller. The significant difference is that that the value of an airline reservation is pretty much invariant (sans deals which used to be exclusive to agents but no longer are). One ticket is as good as another.

Real estate and job candidates, in contrast, are fundamentally unique entities, and furthermore, individuals have different value for different companies (buyers). The real estate agent and headhunter provide real value in locating appealing properties (candidates); a task that is difficult.

On-line systems for real estate and job candidate selection have not proven they can replace the value of human-in-the-loop, although they have proven helpful.

What is interesting, is that the consumer of placement and real estate agents has to keep an eye out for the same sorts of conflict-of-interest.

Furthermore, a bad headhunter feels an awful lot like a bad real estate agent to me. ;-)

I think drawing the analogy between travel agents and headhunters speaks to a fundamental issue in the industry: Developers are viewed more and more as commodity rather than skilled, individualized resources.

At some level, this is a valid way to think about problems. Bruce has posted before about how 5% of the IT industry does 95% of the work. It's a self-perpetuating cycle. Corporations treat developers as commodity and don't reward excellence; there is little demand for excellence; excellence evaporates. I suppose that begs the question: Is there a need for excellence?

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 24, 2008 4:48 PM
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> At some level, this is a valid way to think about
> problems. Bruce has posted before about how 5% of the IT
> industry does 95% of the work. It's a self-perpetuating
> cycle. Corporations treat developers as commodity and
> don't reward excellence; there is little demand for
> excellence; excellence evaporates. I suppose that begs the
> question: Is there a need for excellence?

I think the answer is "sometimes," which is why it's such a messy question. I think we don't have one industry here; we have many industries. They all happen to use the computer and so we mistakenly assume they are all the same industry.

Sometimes you have a job to fill and you need someone who just knows how to do that thing, and then programmers are replaceable commodities. Other times you need an unusual or unique set of skills to produce something very special, in which case programmers are like artists. And there's a (possibly quantized) spectrum in between those two extremes.

David Vydra

Posts: 60
Nickname: dvydra
Registered: Feb, 2004

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 24, 2008 5:14 PM
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Bruce,

I can't resist this one. Can you estimate what percentage of your readers are "replaceable commodities"?

David

>
> Sometimes you have a job to fill and you need someone who
> just knows how to do that thing, and then programmers are
> replaceable commodities. Other times you need an unusual
> or unique set of skills to produce something very special,
> in which case programmers are like artists. And there's a
> (possibly quantized) spectrum in between those two
> extremes.

Sean Landis

Posts: 129
Nickname: seanl
Registered: Mar, 2002

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 24, 2008 5:18 PM
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I am a cyborg and I replaced my human last year.

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 24, 2008 6:50 PM
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> Bruce,
>
> I can't resist this one. Can you estimate what percentage
> of your readers are "replaceable commodities"?
>
> David

I would guess zero or close to it. I think programmers who are "replaceable commodities" are ones who don't buy books or read about new developments in our profession, go to conferences, seminars, etc.. Basically, they repeat what they learned in school.

That said, there's definitely a market for people who have a needed skill, even if it means they are just repeating what they know. I would say such jobs are less certain, so I personally think that programmers in general are better off if they are constantly learning. The majority, apparently, don't do this. I'm comfortable saying this without worrying about pissing anyone off, because by definition if you're reading this you're trying to develop yourself in new ways.

However, I should also clarify. I probably should have said that some jobs actually need a programmer that can be thought of as a replaceable commodity -- the job is what defines the role, not the person in it. The job itself is rote and repeatable. Unfortunately, through miscommunication the wrong people can get slotted into inappropriate jobs, so you'll get someone who is always learning in a rote job, or someone who would prefer to repeat what they know in a job that requires constant learning.

Kay Schluehr

Posts: 302
Nickname: schluehk
Registered: Jan, 2005

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 25, 2008 3:40 AM
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> Sometimes you have a job to fill and you need someone who
> just knows how to do that thing, and then programmers are
> replaceable commodities. Other times you need an unusual
> or unique set of skills to produce something very special,
> in which case programmers are like artists. And there's a
> (possibly quantized) spectrum in between those two
> extremes.

You get an "artist" by screening a profile with some idiotic self ratings [1], some short curriculum vitae and keywords for bots like meta tags for HTML sites? What is even a "skill"? Would I ever hire someone who burnt his mind by spending the best years of the working life with PHP or J2EE or even with C++ & MFC unless I intend to maintain the crap which is actually the case in at least 4 of 5 job offerings?

Maybe there is something good about the way this web based flea market works. Since it sells everything like dirt cheap it is pushing egalitarism. Unless you are a human being with a face and a name people can remember who are at least remotely attached to programming ( like Bruce Eckel ) you are just some bunch of tags for bots.

[1] Years of "experience". I guess all of you in the US rate McCain much higher than Obama for this "must have" and key skill?

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 25, 2008 1:34 PM
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> You get an "artist" by screening a profile with some
> idiotic self ratings [1], some short curriculum vitae and
> keywords for bots like meta tags for HTML sites? What is
> even a "skill"? Would I ever hire someone who burnt his
> mind by spending the best years of the working life with
> PHP or J2EE or even with C++ & MFC unless I intend to
> maintain the crap which is actually the case in at least 4
> of 5 job offerings?

I think this is why it's so important to see work that someone has done. Open-source projects are ideal platforms for this.

> Maybe there is something good about the way this web based
> flea market works. Since it sells everything like dirt
> cheap it is pushing egalitarism. Unless you are a human
> being with a face and a name people can remember who are
> at least remotely attached to programming ( like Bruce
> Eckel ) you are just some bunch of tags for bots.

Seriously, I'm finding "Here Comes Everybody" by Clay Shirky to be extremely illuminating for these kinds of questions. The cost of doing certain types of things has dropped or shifted radically, and it changes what you can and can't do.

> [1] Years of "experience". I guess all of you in the US
> rate McCain much higher than Obama for this "must have"
> and key skill?

I hope not. The article about him in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone is downright scary. Not for what they say about him, but actual quotes from him.
http://www.rollingstone.com/news/coverstory/make_believe_maverick_the_real_john_mccain

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Oct 27, 2008 10:13 AM
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I am writing a program that will periodically announce the death various jobs and technologies. This should result in the 'death' of many blogs.

Robert Dzikowski

Posts: 4
Nickname: rdzikowski
Registered: Jan, 2006

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Dec 4, 2008 11:21 AM
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Here is my experience from the freelance programmer point of view.

1. elance - forget about it. In order to get hired one must pass elance test with 90% correct answers! The test is about elance practices, and many questions are simply ads for elance.

2. rentacoder - ugly designed website, 15% fee

3. odesk - the best website from those three. 10% fee, nice design, responsive tech support, free tests which can show employers candidate's knowledge. Although they too require test on odesk practices, but it's practical and easy.

Nathan Smack

Posts: 2
Nickname: nsmack
Registered: Aug, 2008

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Dec 18, 2008 2:15 PM
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Being new to the Industry (my first programming job started in July) I do not have much personal experience with headhunters. My wife is an attorney, 5 years experience, on her 4th job which she really is happy with. She has about a half dozen headhunters that call her throughout the year offering her interviews with other companies in the region. She has turned the tables on these folks to find out how they operate, and apparently in the legal field if two or more headhunters suggest the same candidate for a position, a bidding war ensues. No, the bidding war is not to pare down the salary of the candidate, but in how much the headhunters are willing to cut their finders fee. It is an interesting dichotomy in that they are almost cutting their own throat to get someone a newer / better / higher paying job.

Off topic, but I wanted to thank you for your book (TIJ 4th ed) Bruce! It is a well worn companion.

Jeroen Wenting

Posts: 88
Nickname: jwenting
Registered: Mar, 2004

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Dec 19, 2008 4:42 AM
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> > Bruce,
> >
> > I can't resist this one. Can you estimate what
> percentage
> > of your readers are "replaceable commodities"?
> >
> > David
>
> I would guess zero or close to it. I think programmers who
> are "replaceable commodities" are ones who don't buy books
> or read about new developments in our profession, go to
> conferences, seminars, etc.. Basically, they repeat what
> they learned in school.
>
I'd say that that makes a large percentage of your readers "replaceable commodities", given that a large part of your books (in sales/readers rather maybe than number of publications) as aimed at students and other beginning learners rather than serious professionals aiming to expand and deepen their skills.

I don't think I'm far off the mark when I assume that your "Thinking in X" series probably are good for over 75% of your turnover (again, in volume, you're not getting paid for free PDFs being passed around among schoolkids and students after all).
Most of those readers won't ever be interested in learning more than that one book will teach them and end up either outside the industry (and thus not part of the equation) or working as replaceable machine parts whose only value is the volume of code they produce, not the quality.

> I personally think that programmers in general are better
> off if they are constantly learning. The majority,
> apparently, don't do this. I'm comfortable saying this
> without worrying about pissing anyone off, because by
> definition if you're reading this you're trying to develop
> yourself in new ways.
>
That's my experience too, from over a decade in the industry.
In more than one company I worked I was looked at weird for reading (and worse, buying) technical books and keeping up to date with technical publications.
Apparently many in the industry (even seasoned professionals who've been there for decades) are quite content to be one-trick horses.
Many of the older ones will have quite comfortable job security of course, as their skills are getting lost in the cycle of old people with those skills retiring and youngsters not being interested in them because they're not "modern" or "kewl", but for the younger ones who chose a technology that fails after a few years it's a bitter pill to swallow when they find they are unemployable.

Florin Jurcovici

Posts: 66
Nickname: a0flj0
Registered: Feb, 2005

Re: The Demise of the Headhunter Posted: Dec 19, 2008 11:23 AM
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> Many of the older ones will have quite comfortable job
> security of course, as their skills are getting lost in
> the cycle of old people with those skills retiring and
> youngsters not being interested in them because they're
> not "modern" or "kewl", but for the younger ones who chose
> a technology that fails after a few years it's a bitter
> pill to swallow when they find they are unemployable.

A programmer knowing only technology doesn't qualify as a good programmer for me. Programmers knowing more than just technology should IMO switch easily between languages and environments, and produce good quality code in any language.

There's both good coding habits to producing good code (speaking names, well-structured code, constant refactoring, comments very much like salt in food - just enough, but not too much), but also more abstract knowledge - algorithms, data structures, patterns come to mind. Either of these things are IMO reusable across technologies. If you don't have any such knowledge, you qualify as a bad programmer in any language, IMO.

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