16 August 2022
19 Mins Read
Design, Talent and Recruitment; Life as a Tech Recruiter
Catherine, Let’s meet you.
My name is Catherine and I’m a tech recruiter. We call it “talent specialist” at Toptal but it’s pretty much tech recruiting.
I hold a bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management. I always knew I wanted to be in HR but I also found it very boring and monotonous because it was the same thing they were doing every day and I was largely interested in tech. However, tech was not something I wanted to do, I was just very curious about it.
I started my career originally at Ernst and Young, one of the big four firms. I was in the people advisory service and that was my first exposure to industry full-time work. My previous experiences had been in NYSC and internship roles. From there, I started to learn how to interface with clients, and how to help organizations with recruitment. I worked with enterprise organisations primarily in Nigeria and Africa where I helped recruit for C-Level executives and middle-level roles.
So I did a lot of research and people recommended developer advocate roles but I thought that I still needed to be a developer. Someone told me I could venture into technical writing, But I’m not the best at expressing my words in writing.
One day, I stumbled on tech recruiting, read it well and found that I had something most tech recruiters do not have which was a very good knowledge of coding and knew very intricate details that only people who are involved in the technical side of the ecosystem would know, and I also have HR experience.
So I started applying for tech recruiting jobs. I got so many rejections because I didn’t have any tech recruiting experience. It was just that I had tech knowledge and recruiting experience but no experience combined them.
Toptal was the only company that gave me a chance to fly. When I finished the process, my manager told me they were sold on my ability to converse in technical terms with my superior manager, as he was also a developer before he became the VP of talent. They felt that I would be able to converse with candidates more and get more details from them. So I joined Toptal in July 2021.
Do you work with Toptal or do you freelance for Toptal?
I work with Toptal, I’m part of the core team. The only freelance work we do is for technical talents. If you’re not a developer, a designer, or someone in tech generally, you can’t exactly freelance at Toptal.
Toptal is your first full-time role, that’s huge! What part of your background influenced or prepared you for this role?
I just think I’m a great people person. I like to interface and speak with people and I know how to make people feel comfortable. I chose human resources because that’s the only job I know that fits this trait. My aunt suggested human resources to me because she felt it would be a great fit for my personality and interests.
What other talents do you work with apart from designers and developers?
We have five verticals at Toptal; developers, designers, project managers, product managers, and finance experts. As a talent specialist, you do not focus on one vertical, If one client says they want a product manager today and tomorrow another client needs a developer, you’ll have to work on everything.
Doing that has helped me broaden my expertise because I have had to work on all five verticals.
In detail, what does your work entail from start to finish?
First, LinkedIn is pretty much my home. We have clients we are assigned to, especially people we call enterprise clients and these clients are huge like Shopify, Duolingo, or HP. These clients may be in dire need of people and because they are larger companies, we tend to prioritize them.
We set up calls with the client and their team where we ask a lot of questions about the skills, experience level and any other specifics they need. Sometimes, they have peculiar conditions, I simply ensure to get these specifics.
Then next, I make my research on LinkedIn and any other platform I can, to find a general number of people that fit the needed requirements and that are open to work.
So you start with people who are open to work first?
Yes, I do. This is because most times, these are the people most receptive to your messages. On LinkedIn, you can make yourself “open to work” for only people using recruiter profiles. It makes it easy for me to get information on people that are only open to work.
Then I start to reach out to people, I just formulate a very catchy message that sells Toptal and that also sells the opportunity.
So, we simply reach out to candidates to tell them a brief overview of the project and then allow them to schedule a call with me to hear more about it. During the call, I may mention the client’s name, although we do have some clients that ask us not to mention their names until the screening process is over due to confidentiality issues.
Most of my day is spent just having calls and sourcing for talents. Every day, I have dedicated 3-4 hours solely to Linkedin, sourcing for people. I do have a strong tech community around me, so I sometimes tell my community about these opportunities and they’re always open to help.
Interesting. So, does it mean that everybody goes through the Toptal screening process?
Yes. You can’t work with Toptal if you don’t pass that process. We even have people who have passed Toptal’s hackathons, and still, come back and do the screening process. Just because you passed the hackathon doesn’t mean you’re proficient enough. So, you still have to participate in the screening process.
You’ve worked with developers, designers, project managers, product managers, and finance experts. What’s the percentage of designers you cover?
I work hand in hand with developers and designers, it’s difficult to choose which one I cover most. I rarely ever work with project managers and product managers, I think I’ve done them two or three times. But developers and designers are possibly above 15 times.
So you mentioned you’re a senior recruiter at Toptal. How did you get to be a senior in less than a year?
The day my manager told me ‘Oh, we’ve promoted you,’ I was shocked.
I’m Nigerian and I came from an environment where I had to work extremely hard for my work to be noticed.. So my default setting has always been to work overtime. So I did the same at Toptal.
I was always going over and beyond to surpass my KPIs. I started with 3 rolesand we have to bring in a certain amount of talents every month. From my first month, I brought in double the amount e of talents who completed the screening process and joined Toptal. I spoke to probably more than 10 people per day.
I was the only core team full-time employed Nigerian living in Nigeria at that time. So I was just scared that they’d taken a chance on me and I didn’t want to disappoint. Every month, I consistently surpassed my KPIs. I was also always helping with other development projects at the same time.
Within 6 months, I looked like I had been there for 1 year because my presence was noticed. So I got promoted from Talent Specialist 1 to Senior Talent Specialist, skipping the Talent Specialists 2 and 3 positions.
What do you think about Design in Nigeria currently?
Based on my experience interacting with designers all over the world, I think Nigerian designers are incredible! But they can be a bit more intentional about the way they document their processes. People in US, Europe or even Indians are so meticulous in their documentation, that every single thing you need is detailed out, there’s barely any question that isn’t already answered in the case study. In Toptal’s process, a portfolio review is the first major stage—your research, case study, and even details on why you chose a particular approach.
But some Nigerian designers don’t do that, they just put the design there and put one summary and one tiny case study which doesn’t explain every thought process. I think Nigerians need to put more effort into articulating their design process and showing what steps they took and why they took those steps.
The Nigerian designers that have gotten into Toptal are nothing short of amazing. I look at their portfolios and I’m in awe because it’s just so good. And they can testify to the many questions they are being asked about their past projects
Why does Toptal ask for a PDF Document?
I don’t think it’s 100% important because I’ve had experiences where people don’t have PDFs but they have a detailed portfolio. I have had many non – nigerian designers send me portfolios in both pdf and an actual website.
I’m not so sure why it’s that important but I think it doesn’t hurt to have it and take these extra steps to be very meticulous in your process.
So If you apply for a job on Toptal, what determines who is called in for an interview?
The first thing we look out for is that you have at least a minimum of 2 years of experience in digital design and a minimum number of professional digital design projects in your portfolio.
We factor in freelance projects as well. This is why I mentioned the importance of your design process because if you put a design that looks like it was for a professional company, but it was something you did to enhance your skills, nobody will know. We just want to see a certain number of digital design projects, the way you manoeuvre your case study, your user research, and your thought process behind your designs.
Another thing we also look out for is English competency. You need to be able to communicate in English.
We also look out for designers with extensive experience with cross-platform products. If you have a product that was used for the web, for android, iOS, etc. It shows versatility in your portfolio which goes a long way for you.
So, those are the things we look out for before we start assessing your actual skill, and what you know. Each designer type has specific skills that they require.
So, can you differentiate each role based on Toptal standards? Tell us what each person does.
I’ll start with UX designers. A UX designer could be someone who has a deep understanding of both user and business goals and they should be able to design to solve these business goals. So a UX designer is more research-driven.. This is why when you’re presenting your portfolio or pdf and you say you are a UX designer, they need to see a lot of data-led decisions. As a UX designer, your job must include a lot of research to understand why a project needs to look the way it looks.
For UI designers, we understand that some people do both UX and UI. It’s fine if you do both, as long as you can show that you can do both. But we have people who specifically focus on just UI. They use the software and the data that the UX designer has derived to solve problems visually.. They are more focused on doing the actual design than the UX designer, that’s why they have similar skills.
Then, there’s the visual designer. They work closely with the UX and UI designers to translate insights and design into finished artwork. This is where some branding comes in. This may fall under the brand designer role because their skills are often wider and broader. They are potentially working on branding, print design, and mobile design. Everything here includes brand design, but you have to at least have some technical knowledge.
We also have Interaction designers. These also work closely with the other three I mentioned above. They design specific points of interaction, using an already designed system. So if a UI designer has already designed an entire website but there’s one part of the design that involves the user interacting, this person will focus on just that aspect of the design to ensure that users are having the best interaction experience. Some key skills for this are interaction design and interactive prototyping.
The last one is the motion designer. These are the people that build games, 2D and 3D animation, app interfaces and interactions. Motion designers come in for clients that like to build websites that look like a movie. I think it’s an in demand skill currently. Most of them usually work with marketing, photography and filmmaking organizations because that is where their expertise is needed more.
So that’s the design tree that we have at Toptal.
Thanks for that detailed answer. What are the recurring pitfalls for designers during the recruitment process at Toptal?
First, it’s communication skills.
The second major pitfall is the lack of enough information on their portfolio. You’re supposed to include a short description of your project, your direct contributions, and things that made you choose that approach. Not using this information shows you didn’t do any research for that product.
Another thing is to also understand how to estimate project completion time and deliverables. It’s important to show in your portfolio the initial estimation period and if you surpassed the estimation period and your reasons.
So, how do you reject people as a Recruiter?
It’s one of the hardest things about the job. Usually, for those who might have stopped at a technical interview stage, I try to get feedback from their interviewers so I can highlight the things that you did well so you can know it wasn’t all bad and the low points so that you can do better for the next interview.
If it’s someone that the call pretty much ended with me, I would try to tell them the things they felt were not a good fit for them. Most times, It’s usually their communication style. I usually don’t reject people during my calls a lot because if I reject you, It means your spoken English was probably so bad that I couldn’t comprehend what you were saying. I would tell you I rejected you because of your communication skills, and I would even suggest site links that you can go to better improve your English and tell you to feel free to apply in three months.
It’s best to tell candidates so they don’t apply again without any change. You want them to come back with some improvement and while it may cost them at that point, It’s good to tell them.
It’s the same thing for technical skills if we feel like your technical skills are not up to par. We can give you a month or more and tell you these are specific skills we think you can improve on before proceeding with your application.
What do you have to say about the ‘technical on the call’ test vs Design ‘Take-home’ test?
I’m of the school of thought that sometimes a small test project is important. At Toptal, everyone must complete a sample design project at the final stage. It’s usually a random case study. This is just proof to show that you can do what you are being hired for. Toptal frowns at copied projects—it will get the candidate banned permanently.
I think it only becomes very foul when the test project is based on the company’s product and it’s not paid for.
How do you think people should take rejections from jobs?
I just feel like some people need to be more open-minded with rejection. Firstly, thank them for the experience and then you may ask for them to be more specific as to the reasons why you weren’t a great fit for the role, so it would better help you prepare yourself for the future. I even suggest calls, if you want to know more details please tell me and I will schedule a call and tell you more details on what I think you need to do better.
I won’t lie, even I still get a bit hurt when I get rejected but I know it’s not something I can avoid in my career.
What is next for you and what is your dream role?
I want to diversify my industry experience. I’ve also not abandoned coding. I’ve also been delving toward Web3 lately, I’ve been doing some freelancing and contract roles with some Web3 startups. I think I want to work at a startup at some point in my career, probably to help them start their recruitment and manage their recruiting team.
With Toptal, we have so many processes. It’s so marvelling to see that everything has a system, process, and platform. So working in a company where I get to contribute this knowledge I’ve gathered at Toptal in terms of how to formulate processes, procedures, and systems and to put it to work in a growing startup is my next career goal, which is in about 3-4 years from now.
So, what do you do for fun?
I like to eat. Food is very important in my life. I like to be around my friends, and also travel when I can.
Are you leaving Nigeria any time soon?
There is a chance that I may leave the country soon, but for now, I’m just trying to gather experience to become an “OG” in the tech recruiting space before thinking of relocation. But then again, if the opportunity comes to relocate, I’ll definitely take it. Asides from the insecurity happening in the country, I’m quite comfortable. If I feel like I want to move, I may decide to move to Ghana because I have family there.
Finally, how do you think people can get into your profession?
I won’t lie, I’ve been very lucky in my career. I’ve had rejections and tough times but overall, I’ve been very lucky in terms of the companies I’ve worked with. I’ve worked with big companies that have pushed my career.
Also, with recruiting, you can’t learn the skill without actually practising it. It’s not like coding that you can’t just practice on your own. So it can be hard to get in because you need to have some experience, and you need to get in to get that experience.
However, for anyone who has recruiting experience and is looking to go into tech recruiting, just follow the same path. Try to get some tech knowledge. It can be in design or coding or product management. It’ll set you miles ahead.
If you don’t have any recruiting experience, I know it may be hard but just get a little recruiting experience with internships or volunteer roles. Without the experience, it’s going to be hard to convince someone you can do the job.
It’s important to note that this interview was documented while Catherine worked at Toptal, however she switched roles and now works with the team at Booking.com.