External recruiters, also referred to as third party, contingency, or agency recruiters, differ from internal recruiters as they work for a placement firm rather than a tech company directly. They still want well qualified candidates to put in front of an interview panel, but lacking the direct integration, they instead maintain a network of companies that are looking for candidates. They’re the intermediary that makes the connection between you as the candidate and the hiring team.
The goal of agencies is to get you hired, which can be a win-win scenario: you get a job, they get a commission. There’s a placement guarantee period, typically ninety days, where after a new hire is officially considered “on board”, a company will pay out the agency. There’s no cost to you here – the hiring company is footing the bill. Similar to an internal recruiter, they’re going to want to maximize their efforts by putting you in interviews quickly and getting the thumbs up. The longer it takes for you to get hired, the longer it will be until they get paid. That pay can range between 20-30% of your first year’s salary which may seem steep, but is cheaper than retaining a salaried recruiter to hire only a few folks a year, or worse, waiting months for a candidate they want while the business suffers.
Why might you work with a third party recruiter? With a network they’ll have a number of companies they’ve developed relationships with. This means having an advocate for you, one who may have lots of options to choose from. Since it’s in their interest to place you, they can review your resume or CV and walk you through what a given interview process looks like. If you’re rejected, the cost is lower, as you’re not starting over without any connections. They also get paid more if you get paid more, so everyone wins when you get a higher salary! This may or may not be reflective of total compensation, though, so be aware of base salary vs other benefits. If you’re having trouble searching on your own, third party recruiters can be a source of help.
The quality of agencies will vary greatly, so there’s a judgment to be made on your part of who you should work with. Getting paid for placement also means they may push you into applying for roles you’re not ready for, such as an entry level engineer looking at a senior role or encouraging you to leave a job to look elsewhere. When you hear about headhunters, it’s often third party recruiters cold emailing you to move you or wanting to connect on social job sites. If you’re happy at a job, they’re not making any money. The best agencies will find good matches and that means listening to your needs as a candidate. The worst ones treat you as an object to be shuffled about as they get paid on each shift.
Recruiting is a numbers game. Third party agencies don’t want to burn bridges with companies they build relationships with, so if something is problematic or you’re not getting bites early, they may decide to cut ties to focus their efforts on other candidates. Similarly, they may try to get you in front of every hiring manager they can, which is great until you’re burned out from too many rounds of interviews. There’s also a tendency to skip entry level engineers with a proportionate level salary and a smaller resume, considering it not worth their time.
Note that when working with agencies, you may still work with internal recruiters too. Plenty of external recruiters pass along roles at large companies that have their own recruiting team with the hopes of making a commission on big tech that offers top tier compensation. This means you may have to juggle multiple conversations – the external agency, a team of recruiters, and one or more hiring managers – before getting to the interview. This is another instance where note taking through the process can be a huge help.
If you’re unsure if a recruiter is external or not, feel free to ask about their connection with a tech company they pitch. When they answer they’re “working with” or “partnering on” a role, it’s a hint that they’re not directly affiliated, similarly if their email doesn’t match that of the tech company. You’re not going to offend anyone by stating your boundaries clearly up front. Avoid the agencies that spam and find the quality ones that are willing to chat with you to understand your needs. That will give you the best rate of success to get to the interview stage. The top tier agencies will avoid flooding you with emails anyways, as hiring for “warm bodies” will leave everyone unhappy and poor connections for the agency in the future.
The relationship is a business transaction, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just as a recruiter may end things if it’s not the right match, so too should you feel empowered to make that decision. Talk to multiple recruiters if you have the resources and availability. Your time is yours to invest, knowing there’s a chance it may not pay off and avoiding the sunk cost fallacy. State your goals directly, giving a detailed background about what you’re looking for and what you bring to a team, as the more you can provide a third party recruiter, the better you can improve your chances of placement.
This post is the current version of a section in my book on interviewing for technical roles. I’m trying to help out with any advice I can while I’m putting all of this together. As part of that, I’m looking for constructive criticism and feedback. My experiences as an engineer are also not universal and so my own biases will creep up in my writing.
Recruiters come in many different styles and from a wide variety of backgrounds. It’s challenging to synthesize all the interactions you may have. Understanding their motivations, for good or bad, will help inform your approach as you interact.
For more information about recruiting, see Connecting with Recruiters, pt 1: Internal Recruiters.
Many thanks to Jill Wohlner on sharing her thoughtful input and deep experience as a recruiter in the software industry throughout several conversations with me to help inform this post.