Stop chasing the Search Unicorn when building a search team!

I’ve had several conversations with clients recently who are perfectly aware that to make a step change in their ability to deliver great search, they’re going to need some people who really know search & relevance. They need to build a search team. Once this realisation hits, the temptation is to have a conversation with HR and set them on the path to recruiting some great search people. HR put together a job specification something like this:

7 years or more search engine implementation experience
Have implemented Solr or Elasticsearch at scale
Fluent in Java and Python or PHP
Deep knowledge of information retrieval
Highly aware of best practices in search relevance tuning
Great communicator & expert developer

and send it out to some recruiters, who put the word out and start scouring LinkedIn…and then, tumbleweed. To be honest, they might as well have added “ability to fly” or “can quote all of War and Peace in Klingon from memory” or “has a feasible plan to solve world hunger”. Often, executives will make HR’s task even harder by asking for “someone who’s worked at Google” too, without realising that someone who has worked at Google may not be interested in working for a much smaller organisation with a lot less money (which is most of us). People may wonder:

“If only, if only this magical search unicorn will canter into view, then all our search problems will be solved!”

Unicorns don’t exist

The reality is of course that there are very few high-level, experienced search experts available and those that do exist are well-paid and often in positions they’re unlikely to leave. Anecdotally I know of someone (a Solr committer with long experience) who you couldn’t even talk to unless you as a client were paying his employers half a million or so annually in fees. Most presentations given at our London Solr Meetup end with a plaintive We’re Hiring slide. I’ve even had the recruiters above contact me for tips on how to find search engine experts (ironically, they often need help figuring out which terms to enter into the LinkedIn search engine).

There is a worldwide shortage of good search people (and if you reach the hallowed halls of Solr Committer you can basically write your own ticket, and if you’re great at Elasticsearch then Elastic will probably buy your little company outright using their large funding reserves, so it’s hard to compete sometimes).

So what to do if you’re not going to find your unicorn?

So let’s try and find a less mythical solution to this problem. To my mind there are three strategies to consider:

  • Give your existing team the skills to build great search
  • Recruit some clever people without search experience and give them the same skills
  • Find a partner to fill the gap in the meantime

Invest in training

The first two are very much of interest to us at OSC as our whole mission is about empowering the search team. If you can find some people within or outside your organisation who are bright, eager to learn and have some base skills (Java is probably one of these) you can teach them to be great at search. We run training courses to do just that, giving them a foundation in search & relevance from both a business and technical standpoint and then teaching them the more advanced topics when required. I’ve already written about how to help the non-technical members of the search team get up to speed, and we have lots of other resources such as exercises and self-study material to help.

We’ve even run recruiting workshops for some clients to help them understand where to find and retain great search people – we can’t act as your recruiters, but we do know the world of search and who is active within it.

It’s also important for everyone to join the various communities around search relevance, to get that peer support and to keep an eye on new developments, events and things to read – Relevance Slack is a great starting point, now with over 1000 members (and it even has a #jobs channel where you can find and advertise positions).

Filling the gap

During our consultancy engagements we focus on knowledge transfer and mentoring others – we want to pass on the skills so eventually, your search team can stand on their own. However there’s going to be a period where you’ll need our help to augment your search team – we’ve built great search many times before and we can stop you going down blind alleys and wasting time and money. Sadly we don’t speak Klingon but we do speak fluent Search! While your team gets up to speed, we can fill the gap, mentoring, advising and developing code.

Building a search team takes patience and commitment

Building your search team will take time and being patient and supportive of your team, allowing them the time to grow, is important. There’s no magic bullet – like unicorns, they don’t exist!

Do get in touch if you’d like our help building your search team.