Rethinking job ads - Part 2

Towards more useful job ads

Uwe Friedrichsen

12 minute read

Berries on a twig

Rethinking job-ads - Part 2

In the first part of this two-part blog post, I explained why I think most job ads today are rather pointless and are not particularly helpful in finding the people you need. Then I discussed some pointers that lead the way towards better criteria for job ads and mapped them against the typical job ad of today.

In this second post, we will go a step further and look at how job ads could look like that reflect the actual needs of today better. We will also discuss what it means for the interview process because you cannot really separate the ads and the interview process. Finally, we will sum it all up.

Better criteria for better job ads

If we take what we have learned in the first part, it leaves us with the question:

What are the skills, we need to look for? How would a better job ad look like?

As so often, I do not think there is a panacea. But let us look at the things, we have discussed before. This gives us a good idea about some of the traits and skills that are valuable in the working world of today:

  • First of all, it is more important how quickly a person can adapt to an ever-changing environment than what they know at the moment of hiring. While knowing something right now has a value for quick productivity, the advantage wears off very soon and adaptation skills become a lot more valuable. Thus, it is fine to list some desired knowledge, but it should only be of secondary relevance in the selection process. It is far more important how fast applicants can develop than where they are. In short: Development potential is more important than the status quo.
  • As mentioned before, it is extremely relevant that people can adapt to changing situations. This includes the ability to quickly comprehend complex situations and make sense of (still) incomplete information – which are the prerequisites to act and navigate under uncertainty.
  • A bit of empathy is needed. I write “a bit” because I do not mean empathy in its encompassing definition. What I mean is the ability to change perspective, to be able (or at least be willing) to see a situation with the eyes of your collaboration peer. This is a vital prerequisite for successful collaboration. If all parties are stuck in their areas of expertise, not able or not willing to look at things from a different perspective, collaboration will not work.
  • The empathy as I described it before also requires the openness and curiosity to leave one’s area of expertise and learn new things in areas that are unfamiliar once in a while. This does not mean learning .net as a Java Developer. This means that a software engineer is willing to learn something about, e.g., the business domain, about finance, about sales, about marketing, about customer needs, and so on – really leaving the comfort zone. It is not necessary to become an expert in these other domains. But without understanding a collaboration peer’s domain good enough to be able to understand the peer’s drivers, pain points, etc., the required change of perspective will not work because the other perspective will always remain a mystery.
  • Another useful trait in this context is the ability to communicate complicated topics in an understandable way. This does not mean to oversimplify it. But it means to start from where the communication peers are, what they know about the topic and take them on a journey from there.
  • Additionally, it is desirable that a person is able to think in systems, to understand that different aspects of a given setting affect each other in complex ways and to accept inherent complexity. Seeing the systems, one is dealing with and living in helps to successfully “think global and act local”, i.e., to know how a local action can create the highest overall value. This massively boosts one’s effectiveness (and value).
  • Finally, it would be nice if a person is able to think from first principles. This helps massively in creating valuable and powerful solutions because they are not based on the widespread “this is how we always did it” attitude. Instead, those persons start with the problem and try to find the most effective way to tackle it, often resulting in outside-the-box ideas and approaches that can help the company to leap ahead.

These were some traits and skills that based on what I have learned over time are a lot more relevant than the ones typically listed in today’s job ads. Of course, the list is not complete and I am sure I missed some relevant aspects. Still, I think it is a good starting point for rethinking job ads.

You might now want to turn one of my arguments from the beginning of the first post against me and say no applicant would ever say not to have these traits and thus these traits were insignificant, either.

And I cannot completely wipe the argument away.

While the argument that no applicant would ever say they do not have the desired traits is not completely wrong, I still think asking for the aforementioned different traits has a lot of value.

First of all, you are asking for traits and skills you really need, not for vague placeholders of uncertain value. You also appeal more to people who have these skills and traits, and those people usually belong to the top performers in any post-industrial setting.

Consequences for the interview process

Of course, saying you have a trait does not mean you have it. Hence, we should try to figure out during the interview process if the person actually has the desired traits and skills. Based on my experience, it is possible to get such an idea during the interviews. It even is easier than finding out if a person has the placeholder skills typically used in most job ads (“team-minded”, “persuasive”, etc.).

Of course, it makes the interview process harder. Just taking your applicants and letting them work on some arbitrary coding challenges as it was – and often still is – very popular in the domain of software engineering will not reveal any of those traits and properties.

On the other hand, such a coding challenge also does not reveal anything about “team spirit”, “persuasiveness”, “leadership qualities” or “independence”. It will only show how good an applicant can solve an arbitrary test under stress. It is like a math test in school – just worse. It does not reveal anything about the skills, qualities, potential or the other traits that would be of real value for a company. It just reveals if the person has the knowledge of an average coding monkey that can easily be outwitted by modern AI solutions soon. 1

And how do you figure out in the interview process if an applicant is “team-minded”, “persuasive”, “independent” or has “leadership qualities”? Well, usually you don’t.

Which leaves you with primarily asking questions about the “X years of experience with Y”. As we have discussed, unfortunately this is of little relevance for the future success of your company. In most situations, it does not make any difference anymore after a few months in into the applicant’s employment.

I attended a lot of interviews on the employer side in the past. We had applicants who had just basic knowledge regarding the stuff we do and need to know. Most companies would not have invited them because the personnel department would have sorted out their applications immediately (“does not have X years of experience with Y”).

But some of those applicants had a huge potential and satisfied many of the criteria I listed above. By presenting them some situations and asking them how they would tackle them, we learned a lot about them. We saw which questions they asked, what conclusions they drew, how they navigated under uncertainty and a lot more.

To reduce the stress level, we did not call it a “solving a case study” or alike. We organized it as a casual discussion and told the applicants upfront that we do not expect any “correct” answers but rather want to understand how they tackle such a situation. We did what we could to avoid the math-test-in-school setting because we wanted to understand a bit about how those applicants think and work – and this is not possible if they feel thrown back into school.

Doing so helped us to detect several “high potentials” who exceeded our expectations by far. It took them a few months to learn the other stuff they needed to know but very soon they became indispensable key players in our projects. We never regretted hiring any of them for a second.

If we had the opportunity, we also let the applicants explain something to us – ideally about a topic we did not know anything about. E.g., we once had an applicant who did his doctorate in a very uncommon research area, an area my interview partner and I had no idea about. We asked the applicant to explain to us what this research area and his thesis were about. And he was able to explain it in a way we understood! He explained it starting from where we were, knowing virtually nothing about his area of expertise. It was just “wow”!

A regular personnel department would have sorted him out upfront because he did not have strong software development skills at the time. But he fulfilled all the criteria I listed above, and he was a brilliant thinker who was also able to articulate his ideas in an understandable way. So, we hired him and we also never regretted it for a second. Very soon, he became a key player in our projects, also highly esteemed by our customers who felt understood by him and loved that he was able to explain even complicated topics in an understandable way.

BTW: He picked up the missing software development skills quickly along the way.

Using such an approach helps to get an idea if people actually have the required skills and traits, how they deal with complex situations, if they have the required empathy, if they think in systems, and alike. Of course, this is not a 100% guarantee that you always make the correct assessment, but at least for me it worked surprisingly well.

Also, how do you want to figure out if a person is “assertive” during the interview? If they bullied you into paying a higher salary than you wanted to? Or “team-minded”? Or having “leadership skills”? I think, it is much easier to get an idea regarding the skills and traits that really make a difference.

Of course, this means the interview process becomes more challenging and you need to have interviewers who have the desired skills and traits themselves. If you just send a bunch of “industrial-minded” people to interview an applicant, they will only look for quantity, not for quality. They will only try to check off the traditional “needs to have X years of experience with Y” checklists instead of understanding the potential of a person – no matter how much they try to conceal it behind nice recruiting jargon.

In the end, also in recruiting the old proverb “Birds of a feather gather together” holds true. You must send the people you want to find into the interview process to get the people you are looking for out of it.

But if you are willing to go the full nine yards, if you put the right people on the interview process, I am convinced you will end up with more valuable employees that make a real difference – and that you will not hire high performers only by accident because they somehow passed your average-focused application process.

Summing up

Most job ads I see leave me at a loss. I think they are evidence of a highly outdated recruitment process that can be useful only if your company lives in an industrial market. And even there, these ads and the accompanying recruiting process only help to find people that can act as a cog in your process machine. They do not help to find high performers that really make a difference for the company.

In a post-industrial setting, this whole recruitment practice is highly counter-productive as it completely ignores the skills that are needed to act and excel in such a setting.

I suggested a set of different skills and traits that based on my experience are much more important for today’s work market than the ones, job ads usually ask for. I also sketched how to check during an interview if an applicant actually has these skills and traits.

I do not think that anything will change overnight. But I am convinced that we as an industry need to rethink our recruiting approaches if we want to prepared for today and tomorrow. To find the rare top performers and those who have the potential to become top performers, we need to look for different skills and traits than we do today.

There is a lot more that needs to be discussed regarding this topic. But I will leave it here for now. Maybe it gave you a few ideas to ponder …

  1. Some people claim that coding challenges would also be great to learn how a person acts under stress as this would be a normal working life situation. I tend to respond to such a claim twofold: First, the stressful situations I experienced over the course of my career never were of the type that I came into a room, someone gave me an arbitrary task and prohibited me to use any supporting tools. This pointless kind of stress situations I only know from school tests and alike where people rate you on your ability to cram some arbitrary knowledge into your head and regurgitate it on command. Second, if your environment is one where people put other people arbitrarily under stress because they feel so, I rather prefer to not work for you – and I would strongly recommend the same to everyone else. Stressful situations happen, sure. But they happen in very different ways and by putting someone arbitrarily under stress you will not learn how they will respond to a normal working life stress situation. ↩︎