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The Realities of the “Unicorn” Hunt

April 2018- by Chris O'Hare, Vice President, Principal

Principals and Reality
On the surface, the logic is sound, “don’t settle for good enough when hiring”, “you don’t accomplish extra ordinary things without the cream of the crop”, “never compromise your standards in hiring”. Practically any business success book discusses the topic of hiring the right people and never lowering your hiring standards as key factors to success. All things I would never disagree with. After all, what is any great company without its great people? Then there are the real world factors and constraints, such as a constant introduction of new technologies/versions that impacts technology professional “supply vs. demand”, that we have to consider, which often times is where the theoretical and real world often conflict.


What do I mean? If you are a CEO of say, Apple, your constraints are pretty minimal when compared with the constraints of a Manager in a smaller organization, where IT is more of a support function. If Tim Cook wants to offer a technical individual contributor a $200k salary, $50k in stock options and unlimited vacation, I do not think the Chairman of the board is going to call him and say “what are you doing? You can’t do that!” Frankly, he probably doesn’t have to anyway, he’s the CEO of Apple! The reality hits us, not everyone has the same luxury to do whatever they need to do to secure the best of the best technical professionals out there, which are often referred to as a “Purple Squirrel” or “Unicorn”.

For the last 14 years I have been in the IT staffing industry; serving various roles ranging from directly client facing, to responsible for large scale client relationships, to now being responsibility for multiple operations in several different cities. I’ve supported hundreds of clients (i.e. Technology Managers) with their IT staffing and also been responsible for the hiring for several internal teams, so I have the luxury of having an interesting perspective on this topic.

We often find ourselves in situations where our clients (i.e. Tech Managers) insist they need the “unicorn” or “purple squirrel” when hiring and they can’t and won’t consider anything less; this has come up more times than I can count. What is a Unicorn? Simply put, someone who has a very rare skill set, some expertise in a new or very complex or just not widely adopted technology and generally that person has to have a very strong set of soft skills since likely they are the key in a very important project or initiative. It could also be a clone of someone that the client already has on their team that is amazing, performs so far beyond expectations, and has an interesting mix of skills they have gained through the years. They know that you know if they had 2 or 3 more of that person their team could accomplish 10 fold. Often times because of the unique need, the manager has a unique pressure to find this Unicorn and won’t settle for anything less.

Before you start your “unicorn hunt” when you’re in the midst of hiring a new employee/contractor, there are some very important topics/questions that you need to assess.

The 4 Levers
In my experience, there are 4 levers that we as hiring managers have at our disposal. Many times we don’t have the authority or flexibility to pull all of those levers or we can in a limited capacity, but recognizing what they are and determining if you can pull at all for a hiring need can positively impact your overall hiring process and generate strong technology candidates you otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

  1. Salary/Benefits/PTO/Perks etc. – How much can you pay? Can you cover relocation costs? Offer sign on bonus, performance-based bonuses, etc.? Oftentimes money is not the most important factor for that Unicorn, but it needs to be competitive/market rate and it never hurts to “sweeten the deal” with a couple extra financial incentives.

  2. Work Location/Remote Work Option/s - Can you let that perfect person work across the country from their couch? Would that even be effective? Does your company have offices in locations where there is more of a particular talent and you have the capability to effectively work across locations? Can you allow a flexible schedule or even 20% remote work option? We’re at a point where people want flexibility in where, when and how they work, and the most talented and sought after individuals will get it, whether it's from you or others.

  3. Qualifications/Skill Requirements – this lever is most often the one that a hiring manager has the most control over, and is often the reason that creates the “Unicorn” status too. If you aren’t receiving candidates/applicants, it might be due to an unrealistic list of requirements or a list of requirements that is driving up the salary/rate. Evaluate what you’re asking for and determine which of the ‘Requirements’ you can move to the ‘Preferred Qualifications’ list, which will not only increase your candidate pool, but offer those candidates this next 4th lever.

  4. Growth/Development Potential – Especially in the world of technology, the most talented individuals have a constant quest for knowledge and tech skills development.” What do you offer your employees/contractors in this area? What else can you offer? Do you provide a tech training license (i.e. Pluralsight, Safari, MSDN, O’Reilly, etc.)? Do you allow any work time, even 5-10%, to be spent on pet/passion projects? Do you offer tuition/certification reimbursement? Can you pay for one relevant conference a year? Could you pay for annual dues if they’re a member of an association like HDI, PMI, IIBA, etc.? Could you host user groups to have meetings at your location that could then be a convenient extra learning opportunity for your staff? Could you start putting together Lunch n Learn/brown bag learning sessions?

So, how many of these levers do you truly have the ability to pull and how far can you pull them?

Need vs. Want
In the modern world, the word “need” is quite over used in my opinion. Even according to Merriam-Webster, the definition of need “is a lack of something requisite, desirable, or useful”. I never heard my parents telling me that needs included something “desirable”, I was always taught that was called a “want”. I digress.. Do you really need this Unicorn, as in your company won’t survive if you don’t have them? If so, why? Does some VIP have their heart set on this amazing technology that’s so new, no one has the talent or that talent is going to cost $500/hr from the tech vendor? What good is that technology if you can’t implement it or it costs an enormous amount to do so? (We’ve all seen these miracle tech projects and a lot of times they crash and burn) Is there any way to broaden your search and find someone with a solid base of skills that you can build on? Is there someone on your team who is already a superstar Unicorn that can already learn and conquer anything? You know the one that you know if you put this challenge in front of them, you know they would find a way to do it better than anyone. Let me guess, you are probably thinking YES BUT! “I don’t want to because then who would do their job today?” Someone else. And guess what? Your Superstar Unicorn will likely teach that someone else to do it as good as they did and thank you for a great new challenge.

Opportunity Cost
What is suffering while you search for that perfect, has everything on a long wish list, “unicorn?” Are you willing to spend 100’s of hours interviewing people? Would that time be better spent on mentoring and growing a non-Unicorn into a Unicorn? Can you go 6 months, 12 months, 18 months without this position while you wait for the “perfect” candidate? What pressure is that gap putting on your current team, and could it cause your best people to leave while you wait (yes it can!)? If you can wait with no consequence, then at some point someone up the chain is going to ask “Well, if we have gone this long without that position then we must not need it?” Honestly, they are probably right.

Say you do find that unicorn. Are you going to be able to get them to accept your offer? How many levers do you have the ability to pull to make it happen? Or could your unicorn hunt scare off your perfect candidate?? Probably even more important to these very special people is the company’s reputation and culture. Is yours attractive to the talent you are after?

Check out an earlier blog on Why Candidates Don't Accept Your Offer

Most Unicorns Are Created, Not Found
All of this begs the question – are Unicorns Found or are they Created? If it’s generally accepted that humans are imperfect, how can we expect that we can hire someone that is “perfect”? Was that amazing person on your team just born amazing? Did they just come out of the womb and give the doctor a high five in the delivery room? I wasn’t there but I would venture to say that’s highly doubtful. I would guess it was probably a combination of lots of factors like their internal drive, aptitude and desire along with the right environment that allowed this person to blossom and become a Unicorn. Heck, you as their manager may have even had a major part in that! If you hired a high aptitude, high performer and invested those hours interviewing and months waiting into growing them through training and mentoring, you will likely be much better off than waiting for that Unicorn. Chances are that “perfect” person on your team was not “perfect” when they started with your company. Someone gave them an opportunity to shine, invested in their success and they did the rest.

Have I seen my teams and our clients land that Unicorn? A combination of hard work, creativity (on both sides), expectation adjustment, time and a healthy dose of some good old fashion luck has worked out that they found one or someone very close. More often, I have heard that the Unicorn hunt has been called off because that client lost the position or budget for taking too long. On the bright side, more often than both of those, I have heard stories from clients that were not on a Unicorn hunt who found someone that had an “it” factor and they took a chance. Then they came to discover it was the best decision they ever made, because in short time, they grew into their superstar Unicorn.

This blog areticle is not to discourage the quest but I would never call it an optimal hiring “strategy”. You should always hire the best possible person in your constraints but that means many times there are things you have to be flexible on, it’s just reality. There are too many factors out of your control, too much downside risk in waiting forever to bank your big project, perhaps your career on getting lucky and finding that superstar Unicorn that’s perfect day 1… if they even exist in the first place.

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