A recent article in The Register caught my eye and inspired me to share some of my past experiences as a corporate recruiter for two tech firms. (I also asked a few of my colleagues who are currently working in recruiting to take a look and share their thoughts.) Titled “Why women won’t apply for IT jobs,” the article cites findings from the Australian Computer Society Foundation Trust Fund, with their executive director noting, “Women won’t apply for IT jobs unless they are certain they meet every single criterion for the gig.”
Readers of Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women will recognize similar points made in this Register article, and no doubt many a useful article and research paper has been written on this same topic. (In fact, I’d like to read them—please share in the comments on this post.) I’m not here to explore this field of study, rather to give folks an inside look at corporate hiring processes with a view to helping women feel more confidence in their searches for tech jobs, regardless of whether their skills exactly match those in a particular job description.
Please note that this is a summary of some of my experiences, experiences I’ve heard about from friends, and general hiring horror stories shared by colleagues over cocktails at HR functions. Your mileage may vary. Greatly.
Hiring Managers Do Not Know Exactly What They are Looking For
Anyone who has ever managed people will tell you that hiring well is challenging at best, particularly when many managers in the technical field are engineers first, social creatures second. Just because someone is gifted technically does not somehow make them equally gifted with the power to recognize exactly what skill set is required in a new hire to make their team most successful. In fact, managers often know that their team requires many disparate skills, and they create job descriptions that are a laundry list of these many different attributes, knowing full well that such a candidate likely does not exist. Worse yet, that laundry list of skills is usually a list of every possible skill a future employee might need over a period of several years, rather than a reasonable assessment of what any given individual would do on a day-to-day basis.
The reason this approach persists is simple: cast the widest possible net, catch more fish, and hope that one of them is the closest possible approximation of the person you need. Another reason is the bare facts of being at any rapidly moving organization: what you need today, you may not need in a week, a month or a year, so you ask for someone who can do every possible thing in the hope that they can be agile enough to switch their focus more or less seamlessly. It’s a nice thought, but it’s never going to happen that way in real life; no matter how talented someone may be, there’s always going to be a context switch cost when changing priorities, product line, or programming language.
Recruiters Are Often Trying to Channel What a Hiring Manager Wants
Speaking from experience, the creation of most job descriptions goes a little bit something like this:
Recruiter: Hello, Hiring Manager, so great I could get a meeting with you this week!
Hiring Manager: Yes, great to see you. I was due in the War Room 15 minutes ago, so we need to make this quick.
Recruiter: You got it. I know you have three open reqs to fill. How can I help?
Hiring Manager: I need a senior [programming language] person, a senior [application type] developer, and a junior [programming language] person.
Recruiter: Ok, great. We hired a senior [programming language] person last year, will the same job description work?
Hiring Manager: No, I need to update that text—can you send it to me?
Chances that the hiring manager will get around to updating the job description are 50/50 at best. The manager is oversubscribed and short-staffed, so the outdated description will likely be posted in hopes that the right candidate will somehow be found in the pile of resumes that come in. Even if the job description is updated, see above: “Hiring Managers Don’t Know Exactly What They’re Looking For.”
Recruiter: Sure, will do. Now for the senior [application type] person….
Hiring Manager: I need someone really good for that role, I’m dying here.
Recruiter: Got it, got it. What skills do you need?
Hiring Manager: I don’t have time to think about this much right now, but I think So-and-So in recruiting put one together for me a little while ago. Can you track that down?
“So-and-So in recruiting” likely did not create one a little while ago, and the recruiter may simply look for a similar job description on the Internet to have something to present to the hiring manager. Chances that the oversubscribed hiring manager will critically read it are low, as they may be assuming this is the same thing they thought they created just a bit ago and, even if it isn’t perfect, they just need someone good, right now.
Recruiter: No problem. Now for your junior person…..
Hiring Manager: I really need to go. Can you crib the req for the entry level Java dev and just replace Java with Python? I’ll clean it up from there.
You get the general idea.
Many of the Figures in Job Descriptions Have Little to Nothing to Do with What is Required for the Role
Most of the “numbers” in these bullet point lists of job requirements are mapped to salary matrices for an organization, allowing folks in Human Resources to know what they ought to pay you and what job title you ought to be given. When reading a job description that asks for 10+ years of Android programming, what you’re seeing is someone having heard that their hiring manager needs a “senior Android application programmer,” and in this organization, “senior engineers” have 10+ years experience in their field. The fact that no one on this planet has 10+ years of Android application programming experience isn’t considered. You’ll often see job descriptions that ask for 7+ years of Java, etc., and, once again, you’re in the same boat; 7+ years of experience at that organization equates to a particular job grade, e.g. senior software engineer, with the requisite salary range. Many job descriptions are created by starting first from the headcount budget approved for a particular hiring manager for a particular job role, so if a senior software engineer gets paid 100K per annum, and that’s the headcount budget, the call goes out for a senior software engineer.
In reality, the hiring manager likely does not give two hoots about the number of years of experience someone has in a particular area, they just want someone really good, now. Since you can’t post a job description that says “Wanted: Highly Talented, Learns Quickly”—though some companies are doing that these days, largely start-ups—years of experience stands in as an “objective” metric for “highly talented.”
What this Means for Women Seeking Employment
Simply put, if you know that you have one-third to half of the skills listed as required for a particular role, you love the company and its products and are thrilled at the idea of working there, apply. I cannot stress this enough—the worst the organization can do is never contact you or send you a rejection email immediately. Not getting what you want hurts, but it’s more than worth trying for roles that you know you’d be wonderful at if they’d just give you a chance to prove yourself, to get up to speed on that one language out of five that you don’t know, or to take a training course or two to round out areas where you need a little more help.
Bottom line, ladies—we do ourselves a great disservice by assuming that we cannot instead of that we can. I know I do the same in many areas of my professional life, and it’s high time we all gave ourselves the kind of credit and encouragement we give to our friends, colleagues, and families. And even if a hundred pep talks won’t help our Impostor Syndrome, perhaps this inside look at how hiring gets done will help some women realize just how little they actually need to meet “every single criterion” to get the jobs of their dreams.
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If you found this post useful, I’m very pleased. If you have other general questions about the IT hiring process, e.g. regarding negotiating benefits, etc., please note them in the comments. If I cannot answer them, I’ll do my best to find someone who can.
Thank you to Ruth Suehle for her assistance with editing this post.