Anatomy of a Job Ad

Wanted: Senior DBA!

  • Minimum 10 years experience managing SQL Server 2015 or newer

It’s a classic joke – the job ad which wants you to have experience in a specific technology for longer than it’s existed. Sadly, it’s funny because there’s a grain of truth in it: job ads are terrible.

pexels-photo-52608 (Small)Wanted: Junior Developer

  • 1-2 years experience writing software
  • Strong knowledge of SQL, git, Python, Haskell, and Perl
  • Good UI skills, excellent API design skills, knowledge of ESBs and other distributed software patterns
  • Excellent grounding in the principles of good software design and Agile project delivery
  • Experience with [you usually find a list of specific platforms and libraries here]
  • Go-getter, always-be-learning attitude
  • Highly regarded: strong maths and stats skills, C++ experience
  • Highly regarded: exposure to data science, experience with Big Data platforms such as Hadoop
  • Excellent communication skills are a must!

I hate seeing job ads like this one. You want someone with 1-2 years’ experience to know all of that – and be confident enough to tell a recruiter that, and back it up in an interview? You’re not selecting for capability here. You’re selecting for over-confidence, and the coincidence of having a first job which involved just the right mix of technologies.

Technology Leadership Position!

Are you a dynamic leader with top-notch management skills and brilliant technical ability? Do you have world-class knowledge of big data platforms and machine learning? Are you just as comfortable writing a PhD dissertation as you are selling a group of executives on a new company strategy? Do you have a passion for creating a dynamic company culture and mentoring a team of brilliant engineers, all while maintaining an unwavering focus on creating an unmatched user experience? Do we have a job for you!

If you’re posting a job ad like this one, you’d better have a remuneration package to match; but you probably don’t. The technology industry is full of people with imposter syndrome – and if the perfect applicant (who would have been great for your team) didn’t have it before they read this job ad, they will afterward. If the candidate who does meet that brief exists, they’re definitely not reading job ads on Seek, anyway.

These are, of course, caricatures, but they’re not so different from real job ads I’ve seen. How about a real example from my own life?

Checkbox Syndrome

Many years ago, I landed a job in the United States (I’m based in Australia, so this would have been a big move for me). The recruiter explained that the job had been open for nearly two years, and they were thrilled to have found me! I was their first suitable candidate, and they were keen to rush me through the hiring process.

This puzzled me, because I’m not that special. How was I the first suitable candidate in two years?

Well, it turns out that they’d written a very specific candidate description, and someone in HR had been handed the job of finding someone that matched. They were after someone who listed optimising high-throughput transactional systems on their LinkedIn profile, and who had completed at least two years of tertiary study in Latin or Ancient Greek.

They were building some language-processing software, and someone had decided that an engineer with a background in linguistics would be good to have on the team. That was somehow translated to requiring some tertiary education in a classical language – and bam! Two years of turning down candidates who probably would have been highly successful in the role. All they actually wanted me to do was to come up with a way to load-test the system, and then find hot-spots in the code and optimise them.

I never did end up moving to Houston: my visa application fell through (thanks, Global Financial Crisis). It was probably for the best: I wouldn’t have been a person to this company, or even an engineer; just a series of checkboxes.

What is a job ad for, anyway?

When you’re writing a job ad, please don’t forget what the ad is for. Your goal is to attract suitable applicants to apply, and discourage unsuitable applicants. Anything which doesn’t accomplish one of those two things is wasteful. Anything which discourages suitable applicants is a net loss.

As a specific example of this, please leave “Good Communication Skills” out of your ad. You might think that poor communication skills will disqualify a candidate – but putting that in the ad isn’t going to stop unsuitable candidates from applying, and it’s not going to encourage suitable candidates to apply. It’s noise. Leave it out.

Sell the job – genuinely

It all starts with empathy. Try to imagine yourself as your target engineer, tester, analyst, or whoever you’re trying to hire. Your goal is to sell them on the job, but also keep enough important criteria in there to discourage unsuitable applicants. The selling part is important: if there aren’t many great candidates out there, you need a job ad which will attract them. Candidates are about to invest a significant amount of their own, personal, outside-work time in applying for and interviewing at your company, and then you’re going to ask them to resign from their current position, where they have friends and valued colleagues and know the system, to join your team. Give them good reasons.

Please don’t give them a sales pitch. Don’t spend most of the ad spruiking the company. Talking about how great you are is for your marketing material, or your annual shareholders’ report.

Just talk honestly about your culture, values, and benefits.

Anatomy of a Good job ad

Here it is. This is what your job ad should look like.

  • Talk about the role.
    Tell prospective candidates a little bit about the company and the role. This should be short. What does your company do? Who are you looking for? How will this position further the company’s mission?
  • Say who you’re looking for.
    Really cut it down. Don’t have 10 bullet points. Keep it to 3 or 4. Try to focus on higher-order skillsets, rather than specific technologies, unless that technology really is core to the role.
    If “Good Communication Skills” is making it to your short-list of 3 or 4 key skillsets, I hope you’re hiring a radio operator or air traffic controller. Otherwise, please, just leave it off.
  • Tell them what’s in it for them.
    Describe your benefits. Tell them about the great company culture. Talk about training and conference budgets and career opportunities. Once again, keep it short and to the point.
    If you can’t think of anything to put here, you might have bigger problems.
  • Tell them how to apply.

That’s it. Really. No nice-to-haves – those just give suitable candidates a reason not to apply. Don’t do that. If you get two suitable candidates, and one of them happens to have one of your nice-to-haves, you might still offer the role to the other based on the bigger picture. If it’s not necessarily a differentiator even at the end of the recruitment process, it definitely has no place at the beginning.

But I want to list a bunch of stuff!

Resist the temptation. Are you hiring a team lead? Just say you’re hiring a team lead. Don’t list out all the stuff that team leads need to do.

  • Lead a team of software experts to deliver innovative products.
  • Help to work with product owners to deliver real business value!
  • Mentor senior engineers, and help them to mentor juniors.
  • Engage with the business about technical challenges.
  • Foster a strong team culture.

Don’t do this! Team leads already know the day-to-day detail of the role, and they won’t be going back to the job ad to work out how to spend their time. Just say that you’re looking for an experienced team lead or a senior engineer looking to step up to a team lead role – and get on to covering the more important points! What kind of team is it? What is the team mission? Are you looking for someone to drive a major change, to keep an already-high-performing team pointed in the right direction, or to build a whole new team? That stuff is much more useful than saying things like “Ensuring the team is aligned with business priorities”.

Where do I put things like “Strong work ethic” and “Ability to work in a collaborative team environment”?

In the same place you put “Good Communication Skills”. People who don’t have a strong work ethic or the ability to work in teams are going to apply anyway, so all you’re doing is making the job ad longer and more boring.

This sounds like you’re a really cool person and I’d like to work with you.

Readify is always looking for great people.

Wait, was this secretly a job ad?

No. This doesn’t match my “Anatomy of a Good job ad” at all! But recruitment is bigger than just job ads, and this was, secretly, a bit of guerrilla recruitment. That’s another idea I’m hoping you’ll take away from this post: recruitment is about a lot more than just writing a good job ad. It’s about being a place people will want to work, and making sure the right people know it.

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