Skip to Content

How to Choose the Right Tech Recruiter

job applicantsjob applicants

Dear Annie: How do I go about finding a recruiter who will help me change jobs? I’ve been unhappy with my current company for a while now, and I’d like to negotiate for a better deal than I have here. I have 11 years of experience as a software developer, and for the past year or two I’ve gone out of my way to get familiar with languages — Scala, Apple Xcode, Ruby on Rails — that I know are “hot” right now.

Like every other developer I know, I’m getting 50 spams a day from “recruiters” who claim to have job offers and, while some of them might be legit, it’s hard to tell, so I’m just deleting them. I tried contacting a couple of recruiting firms, but so far no one has gotten back to me. Any suggestions on locating a human being who will work with me on finding my next job? — Silicon Alleycat

Dear Alleycat: First of all, it seems you’re right to hit the “delete” button on those dubious job offers. “There are a myriad of offshore companies sending out broadcast emails to every developer in the world right now,” notes Anthony Curlo, CEO of tech headhunters DaVinciTek. Based in Morristown, N.J., the firm finds IT talent for clients like Disney, Accenture, EY, and Johnson & Johnson. “But if something looks like spam, it is spam.”

A bona fide recruiter is more likely to approach you initially by phone than via email, Curlo adds. If one does, “trust your gut, but do some checking. You can tell pretty quickly with a minimum of research on Google and LinkedIn whether this person, and their firm, has a solid reputation.”

Meanwhile, don’t count on hearing from those recruiters who haven’t gotten back to you. “If someone isn’t returning your calls, it’s because he doesn’t think he can help you,” says Ali Benham, head of Silicon Valley tech recruiters Riviera Partners. Headhunters are often highly specialized — Benham concentrates on clients seeking senior-level engineers, for instance — and it’s likely that, by cold calling, you’ve simply been barking up the wrong tree.

Instead, ask around for referrals. This is one situation where having a strong professional network really matters. “Go to your own ecosystem, including everyone you know in your field through chat rooms, MeetUp groups, and communities like GitHub,” Curlo suggests. “If you put it out there in, say, a LinkedIn group that you’re looking for a good tech recruiter, you’ll get plenty of comments and suggestions.”

Then, speak with more than one of the people your network recommends. “Try several, until you ‘click’ with someone who understands what you’re after in your next job, and who has interesting opportunities to suggest,” says Curlo. Ideally, you can find two or three but, Benham says, “not more than three. You want someone who understands what you’re looking for, including what size company you’d like to work for, and who will be honest with you.”

Benham likens tech recruiters to real estate agents, in that some are inclined to “happy talk. You don’t want someone who says he can sell your house for $1 million if it’s really only worth half that. Finding your next job is similar. Avoid people who over-promise.”

One way to do a reality check is by doing your own homework on what your skills and experience are worth, by looking at online job boards and sites like Salary.com and PayScale.com. Another clue, Benham adds, is “consistency. If you’re working with, say, three recruiters, they should all be telling you approximately the same thing” about your prospects.

Of course, any relationship is a two-way street and, once you’ve got a couple of headhunters in your corner, there are three big ways to make it easier for them to match you with the right job opening. First, make sure your resume is concise and that it matches up precisely with the credentials and experience that employers can find on social media.

“Narrow your resume down to two pages maximum,” says Curlo. “And, while you can certainly customize it for different employers, remember that they will be looking at LinkedIn too. I’ve seen hiring managers walk away from a talented candidate at the eleventh hour because of a slight discrepancy between a resume and a LinkedIn profile.” It should go without saying that a recruiter who loses out that way is a little less likely to bring his or her “A” game on your behalf next time.

In addition, make sure to highlight your “soft skills” on your resume and online. “Technical skills are essential, of course, but clients are looking for evidence of leadership ability too, including communication skills,” Curlo says. “Your personal brand now has to be more than just IT. It’s really important to take the time to write your resume so that it shows you as a well-rounded person.”

And third, remember to keep everyone up to date about “whether you’re also looking at job boards or anywhere else besides what the recruiter is doing for you, and where you are in that process,” Benham says. “There’s nothing worse for us than talking someone up at a company, and scheduling interviews — and then finding out at the last minute that the candidate has already decided to take an offer somewhere else.”

Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve ever gotten a better job through a recruiter, what did you learn from the experience? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.