liz writes stuff down

Recruitment is hard, part 2: goals and values

I spend a lot of time thinking about recruitment issues these days. This could be because I'm involved in a few student groups that have been spending a handful of time talking about it lately.

While a good portion of discussion about recruitment is (and should be) focused on "selling" your organization to newcomers, just as much of the discussion should center on clearly defining your organization and what it offers to potential members. A common line of questioning to many of my groups has been the following:

If we claim we are chosen based on values or work towards a set of goals, but we do not display these values or further these goals, then what were we chosen based on and what are we working for? Will others understand the purposes and goals of our organization? How will we "sell" our organization as something based on these values or working towards these goals?

People often don't like to think about this issue because it approaches the "recruitment problem" with "sticks" more than it approaches it with "carrots". I take issue with these concerns because I feel like they put organizations on pins and needles out of the fear that any misstep will ruin their image.

I suggest taking this line of questioning as a basis for discussion, instead of as something requiring the development of new policy.


Recruitment is hard.

Recruitment is one of those things that everyone does, but everyone seems to want to do better. It's also the kind of thing that is challenging: it's complicated, it's tiring, and it's personal.

Even if the {company, organization, student group} you're recruiting for has {well-defined, narrow} common goals or interests, the people you will want to recruit aren't likely to fit into any one "type." Primitive "typing" (computer pun not intended) can be based upon a two-axis plot of their interest and their compatibility.

The four basic types in recruitment based on compatibility and interest

To clarify, compatibility refers to their interest in what your organization does, while interest refers to how interested a person is in joining an organization surrounding those interests.

Last Thursday, I ran a discussion-based workshop on recruitment for SIPB, MIT's computing club. In the context of SIPB, "compatible'' refers to how interested in or knowledgeable about computing a given person is, and "interested'' refers to how interested they are in being a part of a computing organization. I introduced the types mentioned above as a foundation for what I hoped to be a very organic and free-flowing conversation about improving recruitment. Turned out my plot worked.

To start, we discussed some of the reasons that people walked into the SIPB office. They included:

  • Wanting to learn about SIPB,
  • Desiring use of a stapler, hole punch, or scanner,
  • Attending a hackathon,
  • Needing help to fix a computer problem,
  • Hanging out with friends who spend time in the SIPB office,
  • Tooling on a pset with SIPB members, and
  • Proving to a reasonable portion of zephyr that you exist outside of the terminal.

We then talked briefly about how likely some of these people were to fall into the various types and emphasized how SIPB's recruitment efforts needed to be tailored not only to the different types of people but the different reasons they came into the office. It's a bit strange to spontaneously sell someone on the organization who's just using the stapler, but it's almost logical to inform them of some of the organization's other services.

We found that there was a central theme to what we wanted to accomplish with any interested or compatible person: we primarily wanted to get them to come back to the office. Ultimately, this accomplished more than just keeping someone informed through a set of mailing lists (which they could then filter to an ignorable mail folder): the returning prospective member gets more personalized attention and another opportunity to see the awesome things the office is up to.

We let the conversation flow pretty organically, and some of the other suggestions to reach out to prospective members and to get them involved in the organization included:

  • Maintaining a running list of "smaller" tickets which don't require a lot of background knowledge but relate to SIPB projects,
  • Emailing prospective members about parts of projects or new project development that have low barriers to entry,
  • Updating the website to contain information relevant to prospective members in a clearer, more direct manner,
  • Making a point to introduce yourself to an unfamiliar face that sits down next to you,
  • Pointing people towards other members whose interests are better aligned to theirs, and
  • Following up with someone you talked to for a bit but haven't seen in the office for a week or so.

My observations of the SIPB office over the course of the weekend indicated that some of these are already well on their way to implementation.

The final topic of conversation revolved around how to get people who might be interested in an organization like SIPB but have never set foot in the office to learn more about SIPB. Of course, we mentioned inviting computing types to hackathons and other events. I suggested that subtler methods could be even more effective; I know that I've gone to the SIPB office many times simply because someone asked me where I was headed after class and mentioned they were headed that way.

We certainly didn't touch on everything which could be done to improve recruitment for SIPB; after all, recruitment is not just a hard problem, but one that changes over time as an organization, its members, and its prospective members change. But I also never expected to hold this workshop just this once.