How to Get Developers to Respond to Your Cold Emails

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I’ve noticed that most of my IT recruiting colleagues rely on the funnel approach to attracting candidates, which involves collecting a number of candidates and then reaching out to them about vacancies via a mailing list.

Generally the task is completed, people are found, and the HR lead is happy. But there are two significant problems with this approach. First, template-based email outreach is mostly answered by those who are actively looking for work. Those people only account for about 15 percent of developer candidates, according to Stack Overflow. Meanwhile, also according to Stack Overflow, almost 60 percent of candidates are not actively looking for work but are still interested in new opportunities. However, because they generally ignore standard template emails, it is not possible to reach them using the typical funnel approach.

The second problem is that the funnel approach overloads the developers themselves. The best programmers get dozens of emails from recruiters every week. Some are polite and personalized, but many are just a link to a job. Sometimes, the jobs are completely irrelevant to the skills of the candidate. This leads to justifiable irritation on the part of developers. No wonder a quick Google search for “Why do programmers hate recruiters?” turns up a few dozen negative articles!

I see this as a strategic problem for IT recruiters. Candidates who are approached via template emails often lose confidence in the recruiter — and in the company they work for. This kind of ineffective outreach may even drive a negative perception of recruiters as a whole among developers.

I believe it is time to rethink the funnel. You don’t need a large database of candidates to solicit — you need to take a more targeted approach to analyzing candidates’ profiles. When you do that, you can write 10 emails instead of 100 and get an 80 percent response rate instead of just 10 percent, based on my experience.

Don’t Cast a Wide Net — Curate Your Target Audience

Let’s look at the Stack Overflow statistics again. After salary and location, one of the most important factors for developers when evaluating employers is the tech stack used by a company. Developers are more interested in projects that use a stack they already know or one they would like to explore in the near future.

It is important to know where you can find this kind of information about the candidate. We are all used to searching for candidates through LinkedIn and on job sites, where you can usually find basic information about where candidates have studied and worked. But how do you find out what they’ve been doing for the past six months at work? How do you find out about the specific projects they’ve done and the technologies they’ve used?

When it comes to developers, the answer is to look at more specialized social networks like GitHub, Kaggle, GitLab, and Stack Overflow. GitHub alone has more than 50 million users and counting. For recruiters, such platforms are storehouses of vital information.

I don’t believe it when my colleagues say they have looked at everyone in their target talent pool and there are no candidates left. These colleagues just aren’t looking where developers actually spend their time.

How to Get in Touch

Of course, once you know where to find developers — and the information you really want to know about them — you need to figure out how to reach out effectively.

In this regard, I like the way Google recruiters structure their emails. Here’s an example of one I’ve seen before:

Hi Alex,

I work on the tech hiring team here at Google, and I wanted to reach out to you about potentially joining our business.

Now, I completely realize this may not be an ideal time to change roles, with the coronavirus shutting down large parts of the world, and I hope you and your family are well at this uncertain time. I found your details through your GitHub profile, and I wanted to at least start a conversation with you about a potential career with Google, even if it means waiting a few months before acting on it.

Communication with candidates should be considered as a process of lead generation, as in sales. Contact is established gradually through several emails.

In the first email, you don’t have to send the candidate a description of your job or request their resume. The purpose of the first message is merely to get acquainted and to let the candidate know why you are interested in them.

This approach will typically increase the candidate’s motivation to apply. Consider their point of view: If the recruiter clearly demonstrates that they know what I do and what I can do, then they probably have something genuinely relevant for me. Once the candidate expresses interest, the vacancy itself can be discussed in subsequent emails.

Here is an important point that many people miss: If you want to write great emails to candidates, you need to be more friendly with your technical lead. You need to peruse GitHub, Kaggle, and Stack Overflow with them and select candidates together.

Usually, tech leads just mark interesting candidates, and recruiters write the emails. But if you work closely with your tech lead, you can better understand why a particular candidate seemed interesting to them. This knowledge will help you more accurately communicate the tech lead’s vision in your first email to a developer. The more tightly you work with the lead, the better your emails will be — and the more developers will actually respond to you.

How It’s Worked for Us

This is the approach we’ve taken, usually writing about 10-15 emails per job and getting 8-10 candidates in for interviews within a couple weeks.

Here is an example of an email exchange we’ve had:

Good day, Alexey!

My name is Alina, and my team wanted to meet you :).

I saw that you have a lot of experience in Java EE development (since 2003). I also looked at your GitHub, found several projects (for example, a passenger transport simulator) on the Spring / Hibernate / PostgreSQL stack, and noticed that you are currently practicing HackerRank. So I decided to write to you :).

I am writing to ask if you would consider joining the team. We are currently developing a virtual robot, Elena, and a unified customer service platform. Your Kend part is just written in Java; we use Spring / PostgreSQL Ignite. Now, we are looking for an experienced Java developer to join the team (in Samara).

I know that you are currently working for the Intelligent team. But in any case, I’d love to meet you :).

And here’s the response we got:

Good afternoon,

Hurray! You are the first person to view my code! Thank you for this! Yes, I practice on HackerRank and LeetCode, so there is a little bit to see there.

Slightly surprised that Samara has a development team. I haven’t heard about this before. I’m currently looking to relocate. I’m looking for the ability to work remotely. As for the Samara office, I have some doubts about the benefits of a new place.

At the same time, I am always happy to get to know you and hear about your opportunities. If you are still interested in talking to me, then let’s make an appointment for the next week. I am free from 9:00 Moscow time on any day of the week.

Why It Works

We find people on GitHub whose projects have similar purposes and tech stacks to our own. We read about the projects, look at the technologies they are built on, and write to developers based on this information. It’s as simple as that.

So, if you want to get maximum responses from developer candidates, all you need to do is:

  1. Use sites such as GitHub to find candidates.
  2. Write emails according to lead-generation rules.
  3. Closely associate with your tech lead to better understand and communicate their vision for each candidate.

Do these things, and you will improve your long-term relationships with developers, improve your employer brand in the eyes of candidates, and do your part to relieve the overall stress of recruiters across the IT industry.

Peter Belousov is CEO and cofounder of CandyJar.

By Petr Belousov