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Back to Work

Author: Michael E. Duffy
April, 2016 Issue

My number-one complaint with the online job process is that rarely do you hear much from the companies you apply to.

Last month I wrote about my experience with the 21st century job search process, submitting résumés and cover letters online in response to open positions posted by employers on a variety of web sites. I’d like to say that this process paid off for me—but, in fact, it didn’t. I had three in-person interviews, and each of them was the result of knowing someone who helped grease the skids (and bypass the “applicant tracking systems,” which weed out a lot of résumés before any human eyes look at them). At least for someone like me, the brave new world of online job search hasn’t worked very well.

There are lots of programming jobs out there. I was quickly astounded, that even if I only looked at jobs posted in the past 24 hours, there were lots of them within 100 miles of my home (most of them in San Francisco, of course). The closest to my home in Sebastopol, though, were at two companies: Calix and Ciena in Petaluma. Although I applied for senior technical positions at both companies, I never heard a peep from them. My number-one complaint with the online job process is that rarely do you hear much from the companies you apply to. The best you can hope for is a generic “We received your application” email, and even that isn’t guaranteed. Sometimes it’s just radio silence.

As a former job applicant, here’s what I’d like to see: First, an email response when the application is received. Second, if the applicant tracking system rejects your application after scanning your résumé, at least let the applicant know. If you make it past that point, then it would be nice to receive some notification if you fail to make the next cut (usually a phone interview). Basically, when an application goes into the reject pile, you should let the applicant know. You’d think that automated systems would make this easy, but it doesn’t seem to have made much improvement.

I spent a fair amount of effort writing a cover letter for each application I submitted. The idea is that a cover letter lets you pitch your particular strengths for a specific position (even though I already had two separate résumés, one for programming and one for management). That effort is wasted if human eyes never see it. The postings where there wasn’t even an opportunity to provide a cover letter seemed more honest—they really just care about the keywords you represent and not about the person (and experience) behind them.

The fact is, employers don’t care what happens to the rejects (and, from a strictly economic point of view, that’s probably the best approach: Why spend any effort on communicating with rejects?). They also don’t care if they miss good—possibly excellent—hires due to their application process, as long as they don’t hire people who don’t work out. Most companies (at least from their postings) try to fill a slot (“you must have three years of experience with X, and five years with Y”), rather than search for people who can drive their business forward, as more than just cogs in the machine. Sure, specific skills are important, but candidly, most software development tasks are remarkably similar, and a strong performer will learn quickly.

I guess I’m just irritated that job applicants (including me) never find out why they didn’t make the cut and get an interview. And again, it’s not in the employer’s best interest to say. Perhaps they (or the screening software) just look at my 1978 college graduation date and say, “too old,” or “too expensive” (although I never even mentioned what I made or what my salary expectations might be). In fact, I just read that putting your year of graduation on your résumé is a bad idea, for exactly this reason. Next time, I’ll know better.

Maybe it’s all just sour grapes on my part: You kids get off my lawn! I like to think that I still have a lot to contribute to an organization. I’d love to work for a startup again: Even though it’s a great way to get burned when options turn to dust, there’s little to match the exhilaration of knowing that each day the work you do has a real impact. To my mind, there has to be a better way of matching people and jobs. It’s a complicated calculus for employers—make the job seem too attractive, or easy to get hired, and you’re overwhelmed with applicants. But if you don’t get enough applicants, you may not fill the position. Either way, both employers and job seekers lose.

The good news (for me, at least) is that one of my interviews led to a job offer, and I’m once again gainfully employed, now as a senior programmer for a company which develops “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” or MMORPGs. I spent 10 years in the gaming business between 1986 and 1997; 30 years later, I’ve come full circle. And the guy I now work for used to work for me (and got me the interview). It’s a small world after all.

How do you hire technical people? What are your frustrations with the process? Drop me a line




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