IT Agencies and the Devil

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Phil Factor on the nefarious deeds of IT agencies

Dante was being shown around Purgatory by the Devil, who was explaining the various fates awaiting the souls of the sinful who had failed to atone. After viewing a range of horrendous ways of punishing the wicked, they came to a large pool filled with liquid manure in which a host of people were floating. “Ah”, said the Devil, noting Dante’s curiosity, “the IT pool is a new feature. The level of immersion of each IT professional is proportional to the extent of their sinning during their lives.”

Dante recognised many prominent executives and senior managers, some up to their waists, some up to their necks. There were a host of spammers, salesmen and plagiarisers, up to their ears. Various development teams floated disconsolately around along with technical authors, business analysts, trainers, engineers and so on. In fact, it was pretty crowded. Dante couldn’t help noticing, however, a large group of IT Agents apparently standing on the pool surface with hardly their polished shoes immersed in the mire, chatting imperturbably amongst themselves or taking calls on their mobiles.

Dante drew the Devil’s attention to this group, and expressed his surprise that they weren’t up to their eyebrows in the mire. “Ah, yes”, said the Devil, “a bit of a problem, I’ll admit, but even here they are standing on the heads of the contract programmers.”

How to start your own IT agency

Whenever I worry about how I shall earn a crust when my mental powers start failing, I always console myself with the thought that I can go and start an IT employment agency. Many before me have done so. It is remarkably easy, as the profession of “Employment Agent” seems to be almost free of regulation.

There are only really two steps involved:

1. Gather CVs

The best way of accumulating CVs used to be to advertise entirely fictitious jobs in the IT press, something like this:

A Developer with good interpersonal skills is required. No qualifications necessary – all training provided. Highly competitive salary. An excellent employer with offices throughout the South East of England.

I’ve never met anyone who doubted the quality of his own interpersonal skills, so the agency should be swamped with CVs from hopefuls. Nowadays, of course, you can get as many CVs as you want just by buying them from one of the major job sites. Nevertheless, it is always best to do a few “fishing trips” so as to build up a pool of fresh potential candidates.

These adverts are a nuisance because the people who don’t realise that they are fake subsequently acquire completely unrealistic expectations about potential salaries in the industry, and of the effort required to find a decent job. Unfortunately, this practice still goes on; the same bland adverts promising employment nirvana keep reappearing, with the wording changed only slightly.

2. Find and contact companies that are recruiting

One might assume that the easiest method is to poach the client list of other agencies by poaching their agents. Agents seem to regard the contacts they make during their salaried employment as their own personal property. To expect otherwise would be like expecting crocodiles to be vegetarian. The worst problem with this approach is that an agent who would do that to their previous employer is likely to pull the same stunt on you. Also it is unnecessarily expensive.

There are much easier and cheaper ways of building the client list. The “Employment History” sections of the CVs garnered from your spoof adverts provide you with a directory of potential employers. Now all you need is some contacts within these companies. The “Referees” sections on the same CVs are a joy in this regard: a ready made list of people (usually managers) to whom you can sell your services! (If you think I’m being wicked and cynical, then plant a CV on one of the major job sites quoting, as a referee, a spoof person with a real contact phone number in a registered company. Then sit back and see how many phone calls that number gets from agents touting for custom).

Still need more contacts? Then, once again, your potential job candidate will often prove an excellent, if unwitting, accomplice. The technique goes as follows: you phone up each candidate and tell them what magnificent CVs they have and how hopeful you are at getting them one of the splendid jobs you have in the offing. You then go through each candidate’s recent jobs saying something like “Ah, I see you worked for the Kamikaze Laxative Company. I used to know the head of IT there….Bob… what’s his name? Err, Bob Weasel. Is he still there?” The candidate, soothed into a state of placidity by the unexpected compliments about his CV, generally lets slip “No, it is Arthur Stoat now”. He may even provide you with a phone number although failing that there’s always the company switchboard…

The nefarious deeds of IT agencies

To anyone who has not experienced IT agencies, my antagonism towards them might seem unreasonable. Ask any agency and they will tell you, with tears rolling down their cheeks, of the beastliness and duplicity of IT staff. However, the perfidiousness and greed of agencies is a topic of conversation that seems to unite all experienced programmers. I once worked for six years as an on-site contractor. The agency took 22% of my salary. They contacted me once in all that time, and that was to complain that I hadn’t sent my time-sheets in quickly enough. When I left the job it was as though I had never existed. I never heard from them again.

I have encountered several agencies whose staff appear to have the morals of ferrets. Several times, I have had agents try to persuade me to alter my CV to incorporate skills and experience that I don’t possess. “It’s just to bring out those aspects of your CV that are important to the client”, they explain soothingly. In a couple of cases, they actually altered my CV themselves before passing it on to the client. Unfortunately, I only discovered this when the interviewer homed in on a golden nugget of my fictional IT experience.

However, it’s not all “mutual loathing”: on occasion, the relationship between agency and job seeker can be surprisingly synergistic. I once did a contract job for a company that involved building a complex SQL Server reporting system for a Telecomms Switch. After a year had passed, I’d done everything necessary, and arranged with the IT department to recruit a permanent member of staff to maintain the system. Although I favoured a rather boring candidate who had the required skills, an alternative candidate was suddenly presented by one of the agencies. He was bright, talked the talk, had polished shoes, a suit and good hair. He had everything, in essence, to attract the typical IT manager. To me, he seemed too good to be true. I couldn’t work out why the job would attract him. In real life one doesn’t get candidates like that. However, the suit and the good hair won the day and I was over-ruled.

Once this splendid fellow had settled in, I started the handover process. Although he was amiable, he showed no more than a polite interest in the technology or application. He would often sneak off to do deals on his mobile. It was all very hard work. Eventually, just before I left, I challenged him as to what he was really up to. Surprisingly, he offered to tell me on condition I was sworn to secrecy. For every candidate the agency placed, they got a percentage of his or her first year salary as a “finding fee”, on condition that the candidate stayed in the post for at least three months.

Having discovered this, along with his own talent for interviews and for impressing IT managers, he had negotiated an arrangement with the agency whereby, over and over again, they submitted him as a candidate. He stayed in each job for exactly three months, at which point the agency split the finding fee with him. I was amazed. I ran the calculations through a spreadsheet: it was a good living. Furthermore, the lack of communication between IT departments is such that he could happily go on working the scam for years and years without detection. Naturally, he left the company a month after I did.

I don’t know if there is a name within the industry for this agency trick, but I suspect it ought to be termed “the tethered goat”, were it not for the fact that the original goat was often sacrificed.

If you have to deal with the devil…

Many have tried to bypass the need for agencies, without great success. They seem to be a necessary evil, much like wasps in summer. However, I do have a couple of suggestions for how to make the best of a bad lot.

I stumbled over the following excellent way of at least ensuring a more even playing field: I designed and built a SQL Server Database that trawled the Internet job-sites on a daily basis, scraping off all the job adverts, and storing them all in a searchable form. It proved an entirely useless way of finding the ideal job, but an unexpectedly good way of freaking out agents. As I got better at doing complex aggregate reporting on the agencies, contact names at a given agency, job descriptions, locations and salaries etc, I was able to tell agents, when they phoned up, exactly who their staff were, where they were recruiting, what their spoof adverts were, when they published them, and so on. One could give them the names of the people at their agencies and even make a guess when they joined and left the company.

This technique offers a delightful way of frightening agents into being reasonable and amenable, particularly if you are the manager who is doing the recruiting. On several occasions, I managed to negotiate their rate downwards before they regained their emotional balance.

My second “getting even” technique is unlikely to change the behaviour or attitude of agencies in any appreciable way, but has brought much joy to many a bored IT department. The opportunity arises when you detect that an agent is phoning you up merely to determine who the IT manager was at your previous company, so he can phone him and tout for custom. A trick I have successfully worked in the past is to offer an invented character called Leonard Fuchs, or Harvey Fertz. It helps if one leads up to this with some convincing corroborative material, and to tantalise the caller with the extent of recruiting going on in the company. The effectiveness of this trick depends on warning the agent that Leonard (or Harvey) is sensitive to the way his name is pronounced. You must get the agent to pronounce it properly. Then, you simply wait for the agent to phone the company. The trick is always funniest when one can tip off the receptionist at the company concerned. The resulting recorded phone conversations, though probably illegal, can be highly entertaining.