Recruiter's Advocate & Engineer Arbitrage

Recruiters have a reputation in the tech community for being annoying, overbearing, backstabbing, overly-forward, uninformed, loose-lipped, technically ignorant, spam-prone, conversationally dull, would-be pimps who would sell their own mothers into prostitution (or an equally debased QA position) if it meant an extra commission for a placement. The premature demise of many an engineer's LinkedIn account has oft been blamed on the overwhelming barrage of recruitment offers from these so-called parasites living off the wages of the people doing all the work. Not to mention that awkward moment at every tech MeetUp when the one sheepish engineer left in the room (the rest, being engineers, having gone to the bar) looks up to find themself surrounded exclusively by salivating recruiters ready to wolf down 20% of their next year's salary. This reputation is no doubt well deserved, but if I may play Devil's Advocate for a moment, the proliferation of recruiters in the tech community is due to an arbitrage situation we as employees and employers created.

Recruiters are a form of traditional merchant, sailing from the far east ports of expos and hackathons back to the eager bazaars of Jobvite and HR departments to hawk their wares in front of eager hiring managers. They buy low, finding underpaid, underappreciated, underrepresented talent hidden away in the windowless dungeons of the first companies to flash them a paycheck, and they sell high to new employers who have finally realized their dire need for the expertise required to try turning it on and off again, shave the yak, or [_____] all the things. The supply of people with expertise in this or any other STEM field is low, as anyone will tell you, and yet many engineers are still paid well below their potential salaries. With the market for hiring new engineers paying one price, and the market for employing existing engineers paying another, the arrival of arbitrageurs is inevitable; enter the Dread Recruiter.

Why are recruiters dreaded so? Someone out there is still hiring their next employee from a recruiter. It's like wondering aloud and with fearful disdain why the quality of beef in a McDonald's hamburger hasn't improved in the past decade of organic this and probiotic that, only to look down and find a double quarter pounder in your hand. It was there, and you were hungry! Even so, it's clear why employers dislike recruiters: recruiters capture a commission on top of a candidate's salary, and in performing this arbitrage function they are incentivized to raise the salary of the employee higher than any employer would otherwise volunteer to pay. Unless the recruiter is brokering a higher salary, the engineer has little incentive to switch jobs. Employers still need to find engineers, and they'd be happier not to pay recruiters on top of paying engineers more to switch, but at the end of the day they are still happy to get the engineer in their door at a higher price than their competitor was paying them given the limited supply. After all, employers are making even more money by selling the goods and services produced by this limited pool of engineers.

So then why do engineers dread recruiters? Engineers don't hate raises, and they are discerning enough not to take jobs they will hate if the tradeoffs aren't worthwhile, but they will mark a recruiter's LinkedIn invite as spam faster than they will a cold calling vendor offering free entry into an iPod raffle with every purchase. What engineers really don't like is wasting their time on extraneous conversations with people they don't know (or sometimes even with people they do know). They're the ones who listened when their parents told them not to talk to strangers, and maybe, as with many other things in their lives, took it a step farther than most. They've also taken Adam Smith's division of labor to heart, and become highly specialized in communication regarding their jobs. Can a recruiter help them solve the load balancer SSL problem they are working on? Can a recruiter tell them about a new development in motherboard bus speeds? What is the recruiter's opinion on the relative merits of Haskell vs Scala? These are conversations that interest engineers; this is efficient communication. Efficiency is priority number one, recruiters. Because waste is a thief.

Recruiters have at least one thing right though: engineers are underpaid. Engineers are not ones to actively seek out interviews or passively accept communication from recruiters that will help them increase their own market value. The market for engineers, to abuse an economist's term, is not clearing. This is largely due to the aforementioned lack of supply, but supply is forever linked to demand. Demand is expressed in this market by the employer's willingness to pay, and underpayment of engineers is potentially a root cause of the much lamented lack of STEM graduates and job applicants. As the Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager pointed out in N+1's Diary Of A Very Bad Year:
Finance started sucking people from all over. You'd walk around our trading floor and there were guys who were math Ph.D.s and physics PhD.s, ... The bubble in financial assets had a derivative bubble in people. There was a misallocation of financial resources and a misallocation of people resources. [The bubble bursting]'s a good thing, you know? Some of these physicists should be doing physics; some of these computer scientists should be doing computer science.
This misallocation of labor resources described by the Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager is even less efficient than engineers talking to recruiters, and at some level engineers know this as well. They know it when they see the proliferation of employees in their organization that don't appear to do anything. They know it when they see entire businesses that don't appear to produce any value. They know it when they read about an entire economy in the throes of an inflating or deflating economic bubble caused by the inefficient allocation of resources and labor at a mass scale. But what can just one engineer ever hope to do? What can they do to pull the world's economies away from the path of another bubble / burst recession? What can they do to solve the STEM education crisis? What can they do just to get recruiters to stop calling them?

They can ask for a raise.

Further Reading:


Chronological Ethnocentrism

The ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. -James W. Loewen
A friend of mine often remarks that they are rarely captured by fiction writing, instead preferring nonfiction for its edifying properties. In these discussions I unfailingly counter with the argument that fiction offers a unique form of knowledge that comparatively dry books on math, science, or philosophy rarely do: information modeling in the form of illuminating metaphor and allegory. I'm known to recommend speculative fiction in particular for it's unique ability to smoothly integrate topics of interest like technology, politics, and metaphysics into these metaphorical models of potential outcomes. Stories that involve time travel, alternate dimensions, or a combination of the two are doubly (triply? infinitely?) suited to aid the learning process for their ability to observe a given model from as many different facets as their are wave functions to collapse into a narrative1.

The final season (spoiler alert) of the J. J. Abrams produced television series "Fringe" (which incorporates alternate dimensions and time travel to an above average degree of success) posits a far future in which humanity picks up where evolution leaves off and follows a course of self-directed genetic "progress" to a level of apex-predation that spans universes and timelines. Some might say humanity started this process the moment we grabbed up the femur and started smashing tapir skulls with any kind of self awareness, but that's a discussion for another time. What's relevant in the "Fringe" plot-arc is that the primitive, present-day human protagonists of the series resist invasion, subjugation, and replacement at the hands of their time-traveling, dimension-hopping, lebensraum-seeking descendants in spite of the apparent progress their own species has made. They reject the argument that simply because future versions of themselves exist and are vastly superior in many obvious ways that they should therefor roll over and accept these descendants as their betters. They reject a chronological form of ethnocentrism.

In the series the protagonists are rewarded for their pugnacious spirit with the discovery of an even more superior future version of humanity without all the patricidal tendencies that, with a just a bit more time travel, can take the place of the bad guys in The Darkest Timeline2 and save humanity from a nightmarish dystopia. What's interesting to imagine however, is if the villains had not expressed such obvious antagonisms (time-colonialism, failure to emote, head a'splodin') and were instead simply mild mannered future versions of all of us set on a collision course of no one's design. If looked at from another facet, this is in fact exactly what happens, but the collision course is the simple progress of time and the replacement of one second with the next, one life lived with another born, and the slow erosion of one era's morality with another's. How could any rag tag group of protagonists defend their ideals against the inevitable march of time?

The introductory quote suggests one answer: a reconsideration of the idea of progress. Explaining the implications of revisionist history in American textbooks, Mr. Loewen wrote in his work of popular anthropology "Lies My Teacher Told Me":
Besides fostering ignorance of past societies, belief in progress makes students oblivious to merit in present-day societies other than our own. ... Ethnocentric faith in progress in Western culture has had disastrous consequences. People who believed in their society as the vanguard of the future, the most progressive on earth, have been all too likely to indulge in such excessive cruelties as the Pequot massacre, Stalin's purges, the Holocaust, or the Great Leap Forward.
Much ink was spilled in the last decade lamenting an increase in partisanship, often ascribed to the loss of impartial writing in modern media. Journalists wrote as if a halcyon era that began with Woodward and Bernstein were coming to a close with the end of the network and print news oligarchies at the hands of the comparatively anarchic Internet. Other media observers heeded Mr. Loewen, hearkened back to journalism's yellow past and the brutal politics of prior eras, and pronounced the cycles of partisan and impartial media as entirely normal given a modicum of (accurate) historical perspective. Today, participants in the debate about the merits and degree of modern partisanship seem to agree on at least one thing: moral relativism is a thing of the past3. Ideological proponents may disagree bitterly about their vision of progress, but they agree that theirs should be the one to win out in the end.

Beware the End Of History!
The worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. -Francis Fukuyama
If any ethos ever truly wins out, it blankets not just some large area or volume of human space, but some long epoch of human time as well. We may not experience the boredom Fukuyama hoped might rekindle a lively debate, we may simply change our core selves to better suit the winning ideology. From the lens of multiple backstories (pasts), universes (presents), and plotlines (futures), each party's morality is another protagonist armed with a fighting chance to resist a tyrannical outcome. Today your ideological foe may drive you to froth at the mouth and flail at your radio dial, but tomorrow they are a potential ally against a grinding monoculture intent on snuffing the both of you out of the history books. Or against time traveling telekinetics. Can't rule them out either.
  1. Anathem, Neal Stephenson's incomparable novel on quantum mechanics and the clash of philosophies in and against the secular world, is perhaps the best example of this phenomena. It is the underlying source of this post as well, I simply did not feel qualified to write about it at length without at least a third read through.
  2. A satirical examination of short run moral decision making via multiple timelines can be found in an episode of the television show "Community" entitled "Remedial Chaos Theory".
  3. The final prompt in the writing of this post was the recent This American Life episode on gang violence in and around Harper High School in Chicago, where Officer Aaron Washington remarked: "There is no neutrons anymore. It used to be if you play sports, or you were academically better than the average kid, [gangs] didn't bother you. Now it's different. It doesn't matter. If you live here, you're part of them."