“Don’t move to that London” warned my northern grandfather once. “It’s full of spivs”.
The Oxford Dictionary (somewhat chauvinistically) defines a spiv as:
A man, typically a flashy dresser, who makes a living by disreputable dealings
“But I work in IT” I told him. “engineers aren’t like that”.
He gets the last laugh. Fifteen years on a plague of locusts is feeding off the UK tech scene. Recruitment agencies. A race of avaricious trolls who’ve installed themselves as gatekeepers to a whole industry. They’ll lie, cheat and spam their little hearts out to extract a cut from every hire.
A quick search on CWJobs reveals that of the first twenty matches for Linux, NINETEEN are being advertised by recruitment agencies. Think about that for a moment: literally 95% of these of these tech jobs will be lining the pockets of someone who has no talent whatsoever at IT.“Flash Harry”, a comedy spiv from the 1954 St Trinians movie. Recruiters are not as likeable as this.
Check a few out. In each the company’s name will have been search-n-replaced with “mah client”, all identifying information obscured. Is this job in an industry you’ll like? “Fucked if we care” think the recruiters, “now grovel and be exploited”.
Try calling one. You’ll find yourself talking to some feckless third-rate bullshitter who overuses your name and pretends to care about your weekend in a naff attempt to “build rapport”. Most are failed salesmen; too slimy for it to work on anyone but us social inepts in tech. They’ll force-feed you half an hour of sales patter before finally admitting who the client is.
Often it’s some vile company you wouldn’t dream of supporting. The Murdoch Empire, North Korea or the Ministry of Kitten-Slaying. “I don’t work for evil clients” I’d sometimes tell them. The astonishment at the other end of the line – that some baffling, alien creature might value integrity over money – was deafening. They are reptilian, greedy, amoral to the core.
People tell me that’s just how our industry is. To find work you must feed the parasites. So for years I’ve let their bullshit seep into my life: a dozen calls and emails a day, ill-targeted, arrogant, often breathtakingly incompetent. Loaded with weasel-words and mistranscribed acronyms. “Exciting premanent JAVER opportunity in Slough!” they’ll mouthfart. “ASP .net roll in Brussels!”. “ORACLE ninja wanted by Billion Dollar Unicorn in Funky Hackney, call now for details because we’re too slippery to put anything in writing”.
“I’m a DevOps consultant and I only take work in London” I’d reply. “Just like it says at the top of my CV and my LinkedIn and absolutely everywhere else and I’ve already told you, you personally, you cretin, three times. Why can’t you do even the briefest research – or at least check your email history – before wasting both our time?”.
I needn’t have wasted my breath. They brush it off, too thick-skinned to care that someone is annoyed. You’re meat to them, a resource to be packaged and sold and exploited. Others turn into petulant children. “Well I wouldn’t have given you the contract anyway” one screeched, “I’ve seen your LinkedIn picture and you’re ugly!”.
One piece of human sewage (whom I’d told off that day for spamming) even emailed – at 2am – to say he’d found out where I live. A veiled threat to come round and beat me up. I reported him to the police. “Have you spoken to his boss?” they asked. “Oh, wait, he’s the managing director”.
To improve the signal-to-noise ratio I dropped email from repeat offenders. Get abusive or waste my time and everything from your company starts to bounce. Automated message along the lines of “Your company has been blocked. Never contact me again”. I resisted the temptation to add “…and die in a fire you timewasting bottom-feeder”.
Except many don’t grok the “never contact me again”. Ravenous for the profit they’ll make from a choice DevOps role they try again from their personal email, or chase me down on LinkedIn. One recruiter – behind on her pissing-everyone-off quota for the month – tried pathos. “But it’s my colleague who spammed and insulted you” she whined, “why stop me doing my job?”. “Because the sooner your festering shitheap of a company goes bust the better” I [mostly] told her. The response was pure recruiter genius:
“What if I get him fired, can I put you forward then?”
Awful, backstabby, no-honour-among-thieves, very-bad people.
There’s a skills shortage in IT. High demand and limited supply means experienced people don’t come cheap. Trouble is, when you advertise that well-remunerated job you get a deluge of hopeless applications. Some are from unqualified types who saw the salary and figured they’d chance it. More I suspect are pushed into applying for fear of losing their unemployment benefit.
Once I talked a client into advertising a position themselves. The signal-to-noise ratio was appalling and sorting through the flood of applicants took days. Some cover letters were tragic, begging in broken English “I fast learner, my family starving, England less shooty, pliz you help us move?”.
Another effect of the limited pool is that its fish already have jobs. They aren’t looking for another. You need to go headhunting, waggling your job-fins seductively and beckoning your quarry into the nest. Reaching them is difficult and when you do most aren’t interested.
Contract tech workers sometimes believe agencies insulate them from a defaulting client. Their contract is with the agent (so he can cream off his daily fee) with services sold on to the end user. The agent is duty-bound to pay his contractors then chase the client for unpaid invoices.
But can you rely on that? What if the client goes bust? Your safety buffer is no larger than the agent’s bank balance (then he goes bust too) and besides, the agent will hardly be eager to take the hit for a client he knows is kaput. You may have to fight him for it. A more robust solution to delinquent clients is to use a factoring service and increase your rate a little to pass on the cost. Or simply learn to fire them.
One teflon-coated scumbag pushed me to sign a contract absolving him of the need to pay unless the client did. “So you bear no financial risk and get 15% of my rate for as long as I contract there” I observed. “It’s company policy” he burped, roughly translating to “we’ve decided to screw everyone this way and somehow, illogically, that makes it fine”.
Many organisations think themselves too busy to filter and headhunt. They don’t percieve the value of hiring well or the damage a few sleazebags can do to their reputation. Recruitment consultants promise to make hiring problem go away and companies – particularly lazy ones – soon grow dependent upon them.
In 2012 I created a project for filtering emails from recruiters. Since then it’s learned 527 domain names and that’s just for the UK. They breed like cockroaches.
I’ll illustrate the recruitment agency life cycle with a story: The Parable of Shithead.
Picture a wideboy from some Essex sink estate – all swagger and hairgel. Reptilian, devoid of all talent, a sociopathic disregard for others. Hungers for success, for fast cars and fit birds and gassy lager and awful nightclubs. He’s watched The Apprentice and finks he knows wot business is abaat. He’s got a shiny suit and practises his take-me-seriously-face in the mirror every day. His name could be Spencer or Kai, Nathan or Chardonnay, but I’m going to call him Shithead.
Shithead’s friend tells him about a job at his office. “It’s just like the telesales you’ve been doing since school. You just make these computer tossers take jobs they don’t want. The wages are crap and the boss is a bastard and you’ll get sacked if you miss the targets, but you make a packet on commission”. Shithead is bored with cold-calling people about comp-en-sation and this recruiting lark means he can get up later, so he takes the job.
Our protagonist rocks up for his first day at 24-7-Synergistic-Cyber-Resourcing-International Ltd. It’s a serviced office in Readingstoke, all plasticky and naff, full of berks like him who know nothing about IT. Presiding over this hive of villany is the company’s owner, Mr Bastard. “Old Bastard knows all the tricks” whispers the guy at the next desk, “learn from him and you’ll make a packet”. They give Shithead a crap PC, a phone, an account on LinkedIn and a database of IT professionals they scraped off a job site last week. After a few hours training he’s handed the spec for a terrible job they’ve been trying to fill for weeks and ordered to recruit his little heart out. “No pressure” they tell him, “but you’re sacked if you can’t find someone”.
All those funny IT words mean nothing to Shithead but he types a few into his database. He finds there are loads more matches if he leaves the “location” box blank. It spits out a list of all the experts in technologies like “L-U-N-I-X”, “Dogger” and “Curriculum Vitae”. Using some cool recruiter words the others taught him, he drafts an email. “L@@K! L.U.N.I.X ninja Dogger rockstar required for green-field migration project in London. Call for details!!!”.
He omits to mention that the role is a hundred miles outside London. On the seabed. In a burning submarine full of ebola and ravenous tigers. “Don’t want to discourage anyone” Shithead thinks.
At the click of a button he sends it to a thousand matches.
After half an hour no-one has responded. Worse, there’s a bounce message from some stuck-up arsehole saying he’s been blocked. He tries to argue with the bounce message, threatening to report it to the Internet Police for curtailing his Freedom of Expression. “We int doing nuffink wrong” Shithead mutters.
Disappointed that no-one appreciated his beautiful email he clears every search field, selects all 50,000 of the IT professionals in the database and clicks “send” again.
The responses start to trickle in. “Get lost you berk” scold the IT professionals, “quit wasting my time”. But Shithead has been trained for this and he pastes in some canned responses. “Wouldn’t you commute for such a great opportunity?” he wheedles. “I wudn’t be doing my job proper if I didn’t tell you about all these great opportunities”. “Yeah I know you said you wusn’t interested but don’tcher want to know about our 50 finder’s fee?”
A couple of people send CV’s but their acronyms don’t match the list on the spec so he bins them. “Fucking timewasters” he mutters, “we’re looking for a ninja rockstar domain expert in L.U.N.I.X, not this Ubuntu crap”. When the applications dry up he starts calling people from the database. “That’s nothing to do with my skillset” people keep saying. “I’ve told you guys five times I’m not looking for a contract”. He harangues them anyway until they put the phone down or cave in and mail him a CV.
Eventually some poor soul wins the game of acronym bingo. He pastes their CV into the company template, ruining the formatting and obscuring their identity just like Mr Bastard taught him. “Don’t want them arseholes going behind our back” Bastard reminds him.
After dithering for ten days the client asks for an interview. Unfortunately the applicant found a job somewhere else. “Don’t worry” Mr Bastard tells him, “just pick another one at random and send them”. The guy is hired and Shithead gets a small commission. He’s hit his target and won’t be fired this month. “I’m sure you’ll love it there” he chuckles down the phone, proud of how clever he is.
Mr Bastard calls Shithead into his office. “Well done young Shithead, we’ve been trying to fill that job for weeks. How did you do it?”. Shithead thinks of the thousands of people he spammed. “Yeah, well, I’m just real good at charming the talent”. Mr Bastard promotes him to the contract team. “That’s where the real money is” explains Old Bastard, “them contractors make a packet. Best thing is we don’t do any more work after we’ve found them but those dumbfuck clients have to pay us 15% of the daily rate forever!”
Six months later Shithead has learned everything about IT recruitment. He’s “placed” dozens of contractors and 247SCRI Ltd (they rebranded after that business with the dead guy and the tigers) is raking in two grand a day from the fruits of his labour. He’s rented a BMW and throws his money around in shit bars. He’s learned how to swindle the clients, to harvest CV’s by advertising fake jobs, to manipulate applicants, to pretend he’s “representing” someone who’s never heard of him and how to silence criticism of his dubious practices by asserting, improbably, “no-one else has a problem wiv it”.
He’s also learned how to roll some of his commission into a tube and with it, hoover the rest up his nose. Thus fortified Shithead lives in total certainty that he’s God’s gift to the IT industry. “I wuz doin’ you a favour” he tells people who catch him fraudulently using their CV, “and kiss my arse because you’ll never get a job in this town wivvout my ‘elp”.
But Shithead’s not a complete moron. He’s been earning a fortune for 247SCRI and Old Bastard keeps most of it for himself. He calculates what the guy must be making. “Cor!” Shithead thinks, “I could do that. It’ll cost nufink to start and if I go bust it’s them IT arseholes who lose out.”
A few hours later Shithead has nicked the database, registered a new company of his own (“Shithead-E-Web-Interglobal-Talent-Solutions”) and got some offshore web designers to build him a website. “Make it look really official” he tells them, so they fill it with stock photos of city skylines and people-looking-serious-in-the-workplace.
By Monday morning Shithead is working his way through the stolen client list. He knows what his old agency charged so undercutting them is easy. He also cold-calls the employers of former applicants to probe for jobs he can advertise, ruining a few careers in the process. “Ha” he thinks, “more jobs for me to fill”.
Six months later business is booming and Shithead’s feeling very proud of himself. He swaps the BMW for an Aston Martin, pays a dodgy accountant to cook the books and fills a serviced office with little shitheads of his own. They learn from a pro and the most avaricious quickly fly the nest to start agencies of their own. A million new agencies bloom.
The UK tech industry is crawling with parasites like Shithead. We excuse their terrible behaviour by fancying it’s just isolated miscreants; that ones we’ve not caught red-handed must be squeaky clean. When my shitlist topped a hundred domains I came to realise tech recruitment is a wholly rotten industry. It’s a perfect storm of perverse incentives, low barriers to entry and minimal regulation with enough money sloshing round to attract a plague of unscrupulous middle-men.
I’m through with recruitment agencies. 90% of my work (and 100% of the work I liked) comes through word of mouth yet almost all my work-finding energy was wasted on these berks. Unless you’re starving (or enjoy being lied to and swindled) they’re not worth the endless weapons-grade aggrevation.
Their bullshit-filled emails go straight in the trash. My LinkedIn profile carries a huge “recruiters, go away!” sign. About half of them actually observe it. The rest arepro-thick, so certain of their own brilliance that the instructions don’t apply.
To employers – ask your staff to help find new hires. Offer a bounty – enough to get their attention, say a fortnight’s salary. It’s a lot less than Shithead would cost. And their incentives are all positive: no-one will hire an idiot if they have to work alongside them and new staff with social ties to your team are far more likely to stay. You’ll be amazed how effective this can be.
To my fellow IT workers – don’t fall for the idea that recruiters are a necessary evil. Block their emails. Block their calls. Stay in touch with old colleagues. Learn to network. Join groups, boards and mailing lists for your field and remember to post on them when trying to hire. Every time you fill a job through your social network a recruiter goes hungry. Remember, the more money you suck out of the recruitment ecosystem the fewer Shitheads it can support.
If you must deal with the agents, question everything they say. However nice they may seem remember they are not incentivised to act honestly. They’re not your friend. Get promises (and the job description) in writing. Check directly with clients whether the agent represents them. Before you’ve signed anything compare notes with the client to find out what the agent’s rate really is; often they’ll lie to you both to gouge out a larger cut. When you catch one behaving deceitfully publicise it so others will be wary. Reach out to the client (pro tip: go straight to HR) to tell them what’s going on. Odds are they’ll be appalled at how they’ve been represented. Have an expert read your contract (most recruiters are clueless about contract law) and question every onerous term. Walk away if they make excuses for not negotiating. If you’re a contractor and at the last moment they demand to see your ID (passport, driving license) refuse; they have no right to it.
Most importantly – have a backbone. When some sleazebag tries to get one over on you don’t let it slide. Don’t allow a swarm of rapacious middle-men to grow rich by ruining our industry.
Don’t feed the beast.