There will likely always be a talent shortage in tech, especially since only 15.2% of developers were actively looking for a new job in 2019. But that doesn’t mean happily employed tech professionals aren’t willing to talk about new opportunities. In fact, almost three-fourths are.
So where are the nearly 60% of developers who make up this passive candidate pool? With 50M+ unique visitors every month, Stack Overflow is the online coding community where people of all skill levels go to solve coding problems, learn new tech skills and collaborate with fellow techies.
Unlike traditional sourcing on job boards, professional networking sites or even GitHub, uncovering (and wooing) the right candidates on Stack Overflow isn’t always straightforward. However, with a few simple strategies, you can find the tech candidates that other employers are missing out on.
Note: While there are a couple of paid options for sourcing tech talent on Stack Overflow, we’ll be covering how to do it for free.
Is Stack Overflow better than a resume?
Resumes alone aren’t always the best indicator of a person’s experience and skills (particularly soft skills). A Stack Overflow profile, however, can give you a better idea of what a candidate can actually do, instead of what they want recruiters to see. This can help alleviate the burden of trying to spot exaggerations or false claims on a resume, which 40% of employers say is their biggest hiring challenge.
As a popular Q&A site for developers to find, ask and answer programming questions (similar to Quora, but for tech-related questions only), Stack Overflow shows off a person’s open source projects, favorite technologies, personal blog posts, peer-reviewed answers to complex programming questions, the communities they’re involved in and much more.
And since coders here aren’t necessarily looking for a job, it’s also a great place to source candidates who don’t already have an inbox overflowing with recruiter messages.
How to source tech candidates on Stack Overflow
Unlike GitHub and other alternative sourcing channels, Stack Overflow’s internal search is very limited. You can’t search for candidates by location and even Boolean “X-ray” searches on Google don’t return results like they did a few years ago. This is good news, though, since by using the techniques below, you’d be one of the few recruiters sourcing on the platform (or at least doing it effectively).
Search by questions and answers
Since location isn’t a valid search parameter, this first method works best if you’re sourcing remote workers, if your company offers relocation packages or if you’re based in a popular tech hub.
Start by going to https://stackoverflow.com/. In the search bar, type in the programming language(s) you want a candidate to know in brackets. These are known as “tags” and you can search by one, or as many as you’d like. For example, if you’re looking for a candidate who knows SQL, Python and pandas, you’d type “[sql] [python] [pandas]” into the search bar. This returns questions that contain those tags (604 in total for this particular search), which you can whittle down by adding more detail to your search query.
Adding “answers:4” to your search query, for instance, will return only the questions that have at least four answers, which narrows our results down to 18 questions. You can also add “score:3” for questions with a score of at least three. (Question scores are calculated based on the number of upvotes minus the number of downvotes.)
Your search query should now look like this: “[sql] [python] [pandas] answers:4 score:3”. This gets us down to a much more manageable eight results. You can then filter to see the questions with the most votes.
If you’re searching by just one tag, you can also click on “Top users” to see the top answerers and askers for that tag, both in the last 30 days and of all time. On the right-hand side, you’ll also see related tags (i.e., people who know this skill might also know these skills), which you can use to expand your search.
You’ve found some questions, so now it’s time to find potential candidates. Click on a question and navigate to a user’s profile—either the person who asked the question, or someone who answered it. We’ll talk about what you should be looking for in a user’s profile in the next section.
Write a custom SQL query
While Stack Overflow’s search function can be tricky to customize, all of the site’s data is available on the Stack Exchange Data Explorer, which offers a query tool for analyzing that data. But don’t worry. You won’t need to hire a SQL developer to try this method.
Shane Gryzko, a UX designer with a background in software development, created a SQL query you can use to find candidates based on both location and skill. All you need to do is type in a location and any tag in the search menu and you’ll get a list of the top users for that skill in the location where you’re hiring.
You can also create your own SQL query for Stack Overflow using a query generator. All you have to do is enter what you’re looking for (e.g., location, skill, experience level) and it will create a SQL query for you. Then, copy/paste the query into Stack Exchange Data Explorer and run it to get a list of candidates that match your requirements—no actual coding required.
What to look for on a Stack Overflow user’s profile
When you find a few prospective candidates you like, qualify them for your open role(s) by looking through their profile. You’ll often find a short bio that describes what they do and what their job title is, their location, social media handles, etc., but here’s what else you should be paying attention to in order to make sure a candidate is a match.
Asked (and answered) questions
Toggle to the Activity tab on a user’s profile to find out what questions they’re interacting with, including how many questions they’ve asked and answered. You can sort by number of votes to see their most popular questions and answers, or by date to see their most recent activity.
This can give you an idea of the depth and breadth of their tech expertise. If they’ve only answered two questions, for instance, they may not be as experienced as someone who’s answered 50. If they’ve been active for several years, they might be more experienced than someone who’s only been answering questions for the past few months.
Looking at a potential candidate’s questions and answers can also give you insight into their communication skills and style, including how they explain complex concepts, address others and ask for advice. In the example answer below, you can tell right away that the person has a deep understanding of the subject matter just by the way it’s written. The best part? You don’t have to understand any of the tech concepts yourself.
Not only that, but reviewing questions and answers can give you something to talk about in your initial outreach message. If you notice that a user has answered several questions about parsers, for instance, you could say something like:
“I can tell from your Stack Overflow profile that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to parser libraries and grammars. That’s exactly what we’re looking for in our Principal Software Engineer role that just opened up at Company ABC.”
Within the Activity tab, you can also see a user’s top skills and technologies, which are reflected by the top tags in their profile. Click on each to see the questions they’ve asked and answered with those tags.
To get an understanding of their level of expertise with each skill, look at the numbers to the left and right of each tag. The small number to the left is the number of votes the user has received for questions and answers with that tag. To the right is how many questions they’ve asked or answered with that tag.
Stack Overflow users can earn bronze, silver and gold badges for answering questions, asking questions and more. Here’s a list of all the badges available on Stack Overflow, along with how many have been awarded to give you an idea of a badge’s rarity. For example, the Great Question badge (a question score of 100 or more) has been awarded 36.2k times. Since stack Overflow has 11M+ registered users, it’s a pretty rare badge.
You can find a user’s badges within the Activity tab under Badges.
Users can earn (or lose) reputation points when fellow coders upvote or downvote their questions, answers and edits. That means people with high reputation scores ask good questions and provide valuable answers, as reviewed by their peers.
You can use reputation points to measure a candidate’s knowledge, as well as how trusted they are within the tech community. For reference, reputations range from 1 to 25,000+ (one person on Stack Overflow has a reputation of over one million). An “established user” who’s been participating on the site for a good amount of time has around 1,000 points.
You might even see a label next to someone’s name that indicates their reputation ranking (over the past year or all time)—i.e., “top x% this year” or “top x% overall.” This can give you an idea of how they rank against others.
Keep in mind that while users with five- or six-digit reputation scores typically have industry-leading expertise, their high visibility might also mean they’re being inundated with recruiter messages on a daily basis. In contrast, those with reputation scores in the lower thousands will probably have less experience, but be more receptive to your outreach.
Reaching out to Stack Overflow users
Stack Overflow explicitly tells its users that they won’t get “recruiter spam.” So to avoid being flagged, contact potential candidates outside the Stack Overflow platform (e.g., Seen, LinkedIn, GitHub, email) and never leave job solicitations in the comments section of a question.
Before reaching out, you might also notice that a lot of Stack Overflow users don’t use their full name or choose to go by a screen name. All you have to do is look on the far right side of a user’s profile to find their Twitter, GitHub and/or personal website, which you can cross-reference to find their full name and contact info
Once you’ve found a way to contact them, it’s time to craft an outreach message. Since no one wants to feel like they’re part of an email blast that’s been sent to hundreds of people, follow the basics of effective cold outreach. It could mean the difference between a candidate responding to your message, or ignoring it.
Disclose the company you’re recruiting for, make sure the role is relevant to the candidate’s interests and write like a human. Be sure to personalize your message to immediately set a rapport with the candidate (e.g., “I saw your answer on Stack Overflow…”). You could also add links to members of the dev team’s Stack Overflow profiles.
A sourcing channel overflowing with tech talent
Tech candidates are in such high demand that you can’t rely solely on traditional sourcing methods to find the talent you need. The key? Source passive tech pros who aren’t visiting job boards or actively applying for roles by meeting them where they are: Stack Overflow.
The good news is that many tech candidates on Stack Overflow are highly receptive to recruiters for two main reasons: (1) Most haven’t already been inundated with recruiter emails and (2) They’ll appreciate more personalized outreach from you thanks to unique insights you gathered from their user profile.
You can also find the candidates you’re looking for with Seen, which provides a way to source both active and passive candidates by skills, experience, location and more.