‌‌Every one of the dozen or so job offers I’ve received in London in the last 10 years has been through a friend’s recommendation, or through recruiters.

If you have a friend who works for the company or knows someone senior, a strong recommendation is the best entrance you can get.

Why apply via recruiters?

The second best entrance, at least in London, is via a recruiter. For context, I have also applied to many jobs directly (through LinkedIn, job boards and employers’ websites), but the vast majority haven’t even replied to turn me down, and none have offered me an interview, let alone a job. (The only exceptions to this rule have been when there’s an external recruiter running the search - often they’ll get in touch, we’ll get to know one another, and sometimes those relationships have turned into different jobs.)

This experience has been corroborated by others applying for jobs in London, and to a lesser degree in the US. Most of all, I’ve watched how at least a few big companies tend to ignore direct applications and favour candidates forwarded by recruiters. They know that good recruiters will have screened the candidates carefully, and recruiters work hard to promote and chase on behalf of their candidates.

That said, it almost certainly works differently elsewhere. For instance, in San Francisco, say, the job market is so hot that people are much more responsive to candidates in general, and there’s more reliance on internal than external recruiters.

And of course, there are always special cases - for example, if you see someone give a great talk and get chatting to them afterwards, that can be a great entrance.‌‌Those caveats aside, I’d maintain that the best general approach in London at least is to develop long-term relationships with recruiters you trust.

Developing long-term relationships with recruiters you trust

To do that well, this is my approach as a candidate:

  • The best way to find good recruiters is to ask friends to recommend recruiters they’ve worked with in the past.
  • I don’t take cold calls (because they’re disruptive, have a low success rate, and I’d like to discourage the practice). Instead, I ask them to contact me in writing with details about the role. If the role looks interesting, that’s a sign that they understand the industry and have paid attention to my experience/interests, and then it’s worth a phone conversation.
  • When I first talk to a recruiter, I make a big effort to have a proper phone conversation and to get to know one another. I try to be as honest and clear about what I’m looking for, which requires some preparation beforehand. I’ve included the criteria I decided for myself for my last job search below, to serve as an example.
  • If a recruiter suggests appealing roles, that’s a very strong sign they listened and understood what you’re looking for. If they warn you that a role might not be a good fit with good reasons, that’s a great sign they’re prioritising the long-term relationship over pushing whatever role they have in front of them.
  • Ask for feedback and advice. Good recruiters will tell you how to improve your application, or about the wider market.
  • Be as respectful as you can be. If they’ve made the effort to do all of the above, you owe them a debt of gratitude for their efforts and for making your task a lot easier. And recruiters don’t have an easy time of it.
  • I usually feel a little reluctant to arrange to meet recruiters in person, because I tell myself that time is too precious. But it’s often proved to have been totally worth it. There’s something about meeting someone in person and breaking bread (or at least sipping a latte together) that makes all the difference to getting to know them.
  • When you do find a role, contact everyone else who helped you to thank them and let them know (so they don’t waste their time searching for roles when it’s too late).
  • If they’re great, recommend them to friends. I never take any kind of commission or referral fee for doing that because I want to be unbiased. The relationship always pays off in the end anyway.
  • Don’t ever work with recruiters that you’ve found untrustworthy or just instinctively don’t like.‌‌

Of course, there’s a lot more to make this work well. For example, it’s important to get your LinkedIn profile right (and marking it as open to opportunities) to make it more likely that you’ll receive inbound interest. But developing long-term relationships with recruiters you trust is a key step - and best of all, it means that job searching (and hiring!) gets easier each time, because you know who to call.

Appendix - example of knowing what you’re looking for

In my last job search, I spent a long time trying to think through what I was looking for. After a few evolutions, this is what I shared with the recruiters I knew:

  • A technology leadership role with a good deal of creativity & autonomy, in an organisation that's eager to make progress. I care a lot about having a boss that I trust and respect. I welcome the challenge of demanding goals.
  • I'm interested in AI/machine learning/data science, especially deep learning, but I would consider a pure/wider technology role (e.g. CTO, Chief Digital Officer). I have experience in a variety of programming languages and technology stacks, but I much prefer Python.
  • I won't work somewhere that's definitely making the world a worse place, e.g. gambling, payday loans, Cambridge Analytica. I would love to feel proud of what the organisation does & stands for.
  • I'm looking for £XXX+, but I'm willing to discuss going lower for the right role.
  • My current contract has an X-month notice period, so I’m available to start on XXX and I’m currently looking.
  • I'm open about sector.
  • I’m willing to travel for up to an hour from postcode XXX.