What to Know About Applicant Tracking Systems, with James Hu

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 123: What You Need to Know About Applicant Tracking Systems, with James Hu

Airdate: January 24, 2018

Mac Prichard:

Hi, this is Mac, of Mac’s List. Find Your Dream Job is presented by Mac’s List, an online community where you can find free resources for your job search, plus online courses and books that help you advance your career. My latest book is called Land Your Dream Job Anywhere. It’s a reference guide for your career that covers all aspects of the job search, including expert advice in every chapter. You can get the first chapter for free by visiting macslist.org/anywhere.

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life. I’m Mac Prichard, your host, and publisher of Mac’s List.

I’m joined by my co-hosts, Ben Forstag, Becky Thomas, and Jessica Black, from the Mac’s List team.

This week we’re talking about what you need to know about applicant tracking systems.

Automation is everywhere today, including in the hiring process. Many employers now use applicant  tracking systems to review and rank resumes. It’s essential for candidates to understand how these systems work, says James Hu, who’s this week guest expert. Later in the show, James and I talk about his best hacks for navigating these systems.

Many job seekers treat the application process as a numbers game. The more places I apply, this thinking goes, the better my chances of getting interviews and offers. Ben has found an article in Fast Company by someone who put this idea into practice. In a moment, Ben tells us what the author learned.

What’s the difference between an informational interview and networking? That’s our question of the week. It comes from listener Daniel Zimmerman of Eugene, Oregon. Becky shares her advice shortly.

As always, let’s first check in with the Mac’s List team.

Ben is here, because he’s out there every week poking around the nooks and crannies of the Internet looking for websites, books, and tools you can use in your job search and your career. Ben, what have you uncovered for listeners this week?

Ben Forstag:

You know the robots are coming for all of our jobs, right, Mac?

Mac Prichard:

Ah, I’ve heard that and it’s a message we’ve heard in decades past as well.

Ben Forstag:

Today I bring you the story of someone who’s trying to make the robots work for him to find a job. It’s an interesting article I came across in Fast Company.

Mac Prichard:

So the robots are our friends?

Ben Forstag:

The robot is this guy’s friend, or he’s trying to make a robot that’s his friend.

You mentioned this in the introduction, a lot of folks are trying to treat their job search like it’s a numbers game with the idea that, “If I can apply to a hundred jobs, I might get ten interviews. If I can have ten interviews I might land one job.” The secret to a job search is just to throw out as many job applications as you can and something’s going to stick. What I would call the spaghetti on the wall model. Throw a lot there and see what sticks. We know this is not a winning approach, right?

Mac Prichard:

Well it requires a lot of effort. I mean, certainly people who do direct marketing deal in large numbers of messages and they get conversions but if you’re a job seeker, you’re doing this all by yourself, aren’t you?

Ben Forstag:

Yes, you’re a one-man shop and what I tell people is that what you’re really setting yourself up for is a whole lot of disappointment. Because we know the most common result of a job application is hearing no; either they don’t get back to you or you’re not the right candidate. If you turn it into a numbers game, you’re setting yourself up for a situation where you’re just going to hear a bunch of nos.

Well this one guy put it to a test and he decided he was going to build a robot that would automate the entire application process from the job seeker side. His name was Robert Coombs and what he basically did is he created a program that would search through the internet and find specific jobs that he was interested in based around some key words.

Then this system would go out and find the hiring manager’s name, or what it thought would be the hiring manager’s name, and then it would take his resume and cover letter and customize them around the job description and email the hiring manager with this customized resume and cover letter.

He created this program and ran it a couple times and refined it. One time he sent out 1,300 applications in less than 10 minutes. So he was just maximizing the numbers game here, out the wazoo. More than any human being could ever do.

Anyone want to guess what happened?

Mac Prichard:

I’m guessing the results weren’t particularly good.

Ben Forstag:

Becky, do you want to?

Becky Thomas:

I get a sense that if the bot was good enough and was really customizing its cover letters and sending them to the right people, it probably had some good results.

Ben Forstag:

That was my thinking too. That if you get a good enough bot, that it could solve all your problems.

His experience was that the robot didn’t work.

Becky Thomas:

Not at all?

Ben Forstag:

Not at all. He came up with some interesting findings here.

It’s not just that creating a volume of applications didn’t work. He found out some interesting things.

He found out that it doesn’t even matter sometimes if he was sending a cover that said, “A robot generated this cover letter”. Sometimes he got better results by something like that, very generic, than by a super-customized cover letter and resume. Part of this could be, “Oh this is interesting, I got a letter from a robot. This guy has created his own algorithm.” That might be why he got a response. But I would guess that a lot of the issues that he had was that his algorithm wasn’t refined enough. That it wasn’t finding the right hiring manager or it wasn’t customizing the resume and the cover letter to the extent that maybe a human would be able to do it.

I’m still leaving room for the future of robots here; maybe the robots will be the solution, but right now it doesn’t appear to be that way.

He sent out thousands and thousands and thousands of applications. He was also able to track who was actually clicking his application or looking. He kept all these records. But basically he came around to the idea that the way ATS systems “read” cover letters: keywords more important than specific language. But at the end of the day you need to have a cover letter and resume that are customized by a human being rather than a robot. You need to get through that ATS but just getting through the ATS is not enough, because it has to be something a human actually wants to read and process.

So after all this work he did, he basically turned it all off and reverted back to a networking model. He said that has been more successful for him than volume.

Becky Thomas:

So he’s proving our point for us, basically.

Ben Forstag:

That’s right.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, and I have to ask, because the principles that he’s applying here, identify the hiring manager, customize your cover letter and your resume, make it unique to the application, are things that we encourage our  listeners to do. What’s the flaw here, Ben? Is it that the customization isn’t good enough? That he’s not finding the right managers?

Ben Forstag:

Yes, I mean it didn’t go into great depths about the methodology of all the search queries he was running. I think that in principle all the right things were being done here. Finding specific types of jobs that appealed to his needs, customizing resumes and cover letters, sending them to specific people. My guess is that these things that we all know take a lot of time when you and I do it one at a time…they’re labor intensive…you really have to put a lot of thought into that kind of customization. At this point you can’t just automate that, there’s no computer, or no computer that we have access to that is good enough right now to customize to the level that’s equivalent to what we could do the slow, old way.

Again, in the future, maybe the robots will solve all of our problems. I’m doing a little dance as I say that. But right now the robots aren’t and just carpet bombing the internet with your resume is not a solution either.

Jessica Black:

I guess what I got from this is that doing both is the key. Still customize your resume for each job but also go out and make the connections that help you get your foot in the door better and more efficiently and more effectively. Is that the key?

Ben Forstag:

Yeah. I think one of the nuance lessons here was, to get through an ATS system, maybe being super-customized around certain keywords, which is all an ATS system is really looking for at the first level of screening. That’s going to help you. But when it comes to…eventually a human being gets involved and decides whether or not they want to speak to you about a job. Then you can’t just have some customized cover letter, or keyword optimized cover letter, it has to be built around humans and human interaction.

I think that’s part of the value he’s added here about that’s why networking is important, because you basically have that human element to back up the keyword optimization that the computer provides.

Jessica Black:

Right, so both.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, and to Jessica’s point, I know from reading his blog posts, that James is going to tell us that applicant tracking systems… You can’t automate the hiring process. There are pieces of it, yes, that can be turned over to tracking systems but human involvement is still crucial and whether it comes in the form of writing custom cover letters and resumes or going out and actually talking to people at networking events. We’re going to hear more about that in a moment.

Ben Forstag:

But Mac…

Mac Prichard:

Yes?

Ben Forstag:

In the future…

Mac Prichard:

Yes?

Ben Forstag:

In the future… maybe my algorithm could talk to the employer’s algorithm and they’ll just figure out all the stuff themselves. Me and the hiring manager could just kick back and relax in the Bahamas or something.

Mac Prichard:

Well in a world where Google has created an algorithm that does simultaneous language translations, maybe that is coming one day. But right now, human involvement still makes a difference, as the article says and as I think James will say as well.

Well thanks, Ben, and if you’ve got a suggestion for Ben, please write him. We’d love to share your idea on the show. His address is ben@macslist.org.

Now let’s turn to Becky Thomas and to hear from you, our listeners. Becky, what’s in the mailbag this week?

Becky Thomas:

This week our question is coming in from Eugene, Oregon, from Daniel Zimmerman. He emailed and asked:

“It seems like informational interviews are the same as networking. Am I missing something?”

I think that it’s a little bit tricky because informational interviews are a form of networking but networking is a big, huge umbrella that covers a lot of different tactics and actions you can take in your professional life. I know that when you think about networking, you think about shaking hands and handing out business cards at professional events. But networking is a lot larger than that. You’re networking every time you talk about your career, whether you’re talking to someone else about theirs or talking about yours. Whether you’re in a professional setting or a casual setting. Any time you’re attempting to learn and build professional relationships, that’s networking.

Informational interviews are a really powerful tool within networking. You do informational interviews to expand your professional network, get your foot in the door at companies you’re targeting in your job search, they help you learn about the job market.

I would say that a simple definition of an informational interview is, you as a job seeker or you as a professional, are trying to learn something new, start to look at companies you might want to work for, or people that you aspire to follow the same career path. Start reaching out to people that you think could help you achieve your goals and asking them to meet you for an informational interview, thirty minutes or so. Typically it’s good to meet in person; you schedule a meeting, sit down, talk about your career, usually have some clear goals about what you want to talk about and what you want to get out of it. Lay that out for the person you are targeting for an informational interview. Then you just sit down and have a conversation and usually at the end of it, you’re like, “Who else should I talk to?”, and they give you a couple other people that are up your alley in terms of what you talked about. Or they’re like, “Oh, just stalk my LinkedIn and ask for an email introduction or something.”

It just goes on from there. They introduce you to people, you can ask them for informational interviews, and you were referred by this person that both of you now know. It’s just a great way to expand your professional network.

I hope that helps.     

Ben Forstag:

I think you nailed it. I think the biggest addition I would make here is general networking. Going to the happy hour mixer in your industry. That’s like a mile wide and an inch deep where you meet a lot of people, you make generally, surface-level connections. You meet a lot of folks. Whereas the informational interview is the mile deep, inch wide, where you’re really spending a significant amount of time, twenty to thirty minutes is a lot of time in the grand scheme of things. Really getting to know someone and mining them for contacts, knowledge, references, all kinds of stuff like that.

Becky Thomas:

Yeah, and that one-on-one, no distractions of being at an event, you’re having a meeting with that person. I think you’ll have a much better opportunity to dive deep and create a relationship which is really the value that you’re going to get in your career when you have those more robust relationships than just like all of the LinkedIn acquaintances that you have.

Jessica Black:

Absolutely. I was just going to say, I’m reiterating what everyone said, about how the informational interviews are more of that interpersonal connection. The deeper conversations, the way to really talk about how you’re hoping to get where you want to go. I think the crucial component of that is being very focused, knowing what you want to get out of those conversations, because both are very beneficial. The networking, I think that’s how you eventually meet the people that you have informational interviews with. That part, I think they go hand-in-hand. You need both of those to be able to do it but you need to know which one’s which. You’re not going to have a twenty minute one-on-one conversation at a networking event but you can make those connections to set that up for later to help you out. I think that’s great.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, I love your description, Becky, of an informational interview. It’s a meeting, it’s a business meeting, and it has a purpose. I think your emphasis on setting goals for that conversation and having specific calls to action at the end of the meeting is very good. A lot of people, when they think about these conversations, they use phrases like, “pick your brain,” or “go out for coffee.” The problem with that, and we’ve talked about this on earlier shows is, people don’t know what you want from the conversation. They’re worried it could go on for a long time. So often they might say no but if you’re clear about what you want, you’re much more likely to get the appointment and get the results that you want from that conversation.

Becky Thomas:

Yeah, definitely. Cool, thanks.

Mac Prichard:

Good, well thank you, Daniel, for asking that question. As you can tell, we’ve all got a lot of energy and enthusiasm about information interviews. It’s certainly one of my favorite topics. Terrific response, Becky. If you’ve got a question for Becky, she would love to hear from you too. Send her an email; her email address is: becky@macslist.org. Or call the listener line, that’s area-code: 716-JOB-TALK. Or post a message on our Facebook page.

If we use your question on the show, like Daniel, you’ll get a free copy of Land Your Dream Job Anywhere.

We’ll be back in a moment. When we return, I’ll chat with this week’s guest expert, James Hu, about What You Need to Know About Applicant Tracking Systems.

Now let’s turn to this week’s guest exert, James Hu.

James Hu was a job seeker in late 2013 and experienced the pain of the resume black hole first hand. He founded Jobscan, an online tool that optimizes resumes, to make the job search easier.

Before Jobscan, James co-founded an award-winning carpooling startup and worked as a product manager at Kabam Games, Groupon, and Microsoft.

He joins us today from Seattle, Washington.

James, thanks for being on the show.

James Hu:

Thanks for having me.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, it’s a pleasure. Now our topic this week is applicant tracking systems. Let’s start with the basics, James. What is an applicant tracking system?

James Hu:

Yeah, an applicant tracking system is basically a CRM. Just basically a tool that helps recruiters manage candidates. Imagine you’re a recruiter and you have a job opening at Microsoft, or at Google, or one of the top companies, or just any company. You’re getting applications, fifty, a hundred applications, and how do you manage that? Before software was around, it was all manually processed, it was a pain to manage. ATS helps companies or recruiters manage a candidate’s… It would help them through various parts of the hiring pipeline, from job postings, to resume submission, to interview process.

It’s a comprehensive tool to help recruiters recruit.

Mac Prichard:

Now you mentioned the acronym CRM. That stands for customer relations management, is that right?

James Hu:

Right, it’s just an analogy of the letters CRN.

Mac Prichard:

Right, and I bring that up because I think that many job seekers, when they think about applicant tracking systems, think it’s a way of screening people out. It’s not about managing applications but reducing the number of applicants. What would you say to job seekers who have that idea in mind?

James Hu:

Yeah, the ATS, it’s a comprehensive tool. The filtering part is just one module, one section of the ATS. Imagine Gmail, it’s very similar. You have a bunch of emails coming in, imagine emails are candidates. Within the Gmail system, you can send, you can archive, you can set auto-response, and you can send attachments with it as folders. You can search, and search is basically just one functionality of the system.

That’s a misconception and at the same time, search becomes a feature that’s not always being improved upon from a software builder’s perspective.

Mac Prichard:

Another perception, I think candidates have of applicant tracking systems is, it’s a tool that’s used by big employers, maybe large companies, public agencies. Some candidates will say to me, “Well if I’m applying for a small organization or a nonprofit job, I don’t really need to worry about that.” What would you say to those folks, James?

James Hu:

It’s actually not exactly true because there are many applicant tracking systems companies out there now. At least fifty to a hundred of them out there, and there are ones that target enterprises with thousands of people, then there are others that target small and medium sized businesses. For example, Jazz, Greenhouse, and some of the newer ones, they target smaller businesses. The big ATS’s like iCims, and Paleo, they target Fortune 500 companies.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s talk about how applicant tracking systems work. You mentioned that recruiters or other HR managers use them to manage applications. We talked a little bit about the review process. Should applicants worry about, say, a robot reading their resume and deciding if they’re going to get an interview? Or are there actual real people involved in these systems?

James Hu:

It’s both. Again, a good analogy, think of it again, as Google, or think of it as Gmail. You want your email or your website to be found by the person who’s searching for it. But usually, what happens is a recruiter gets, say, a hundred applications. The recruiter will log into the ATS and they will review the applications. There’s a lot of applications, if there’s a hundred, they’re not going to go through them one after another. They will conduct searches. They will do a keyword search, usually called a Boolean search, where they’ll type in a couple keywords. Usually a string of a long number of keywords.

For example, they’ll put in, “finance” and “financial reporting” or “accounting”. They’ll type in various keywords and see if anyone will match their keyword searches term.

Mac Prichard:

Applicant tracking systems let managers search for candidates by keywords. What’s the best way, if someone is applying for a job at a company or organization that uses one of these systems, to rank high in those searches? How can people pop to the top of the list?

James Hu:

Right. A very common misconception is… We’re all very used to using Google and Google is smart enough to tell the difference or even recognize synonyms. When you type in MBA, it also knows that it is Masters of Business Administration. But the problem with ATS is that it’s not as smart. It’s very basic, it’s definitely not as smart as Google, and part of the reason is because the ATS is a comprehensive solution, so the builders of ATS are focused on building the entire solution instead of making search smarter.

Therefore, the way to be found, is you have to match the exact spelling of that keyword. If the recruiter is searching for “analysis” for example, you have to make sure that you do have the word analysis in there, in the resume. It does not know the difference or the similarity between analyze and analysis. It does not even sometimes recognize plurals. You have to make sure that it’s exactly the same as what you see in the job description.

Mac Prichard:

If I found a position I’m excited about, say in a job board and I’ve gotten a copy of the position description, and I’m putting together my application, how do I, in my application materials, the cover letter, the resume, make sure I use and find the words that a recruiter or manager’s going to search by? What are your best tips about how to do that, James?

James Hu:

The most obvious place is the job description itself. There’s actually no other information out there that you could use to try to guess what kind of keywords they might be looking for. There’s some resources, I guess you could look up the website, but the most telling part is the job description. You could always read through the whole job description yourself and try to figure out what skills and what keywords might matter to the recruiter most. That’s kind of an educated guess. Yeah, that would be the place to look for it.

Mac Prichard:

What’s striking as you talk is, I’m reminded of advice I got way back in the early 1990’s when I was applying for a job with state government in Oregon. I wasn’t getting interviews and someone encouraged me to do exactly what you’re recommending, which is: get the job posting, highlight the keywords you see repeated again and again, and make sure that in your resume and the state job application form, you parroted back those words, even if the text you wrote wasn’t elegant. What I was told was, somebody had highlighted keywords in a position description, then they would look at candidates’ application materials, and look for those words, and they would highlight them. The more matches you got, the higher your score and the more likely you were to get an interview.

All that was done manually and what I’m hearing you say is, the process hasn’t changed that much in 20+ years but it’s automated now.

James Hu:

Yes. It is a very manual process, so I had to do this myself when I was applying to jobs. I would read through every job description and I would highlight them myself in Word, of course, to print them out and use a real highlighter as well. But it would take a while, where I could know, with each description, what are the top keywords and how many times do I even have that keyword mentioned? I would look at my resume and try to figure out what’s matching and what’s not. We built a tool for that, that would help you through this process, automatically in seconds.

Mac Prichard:

What are any other tips you have about finding those keywords as people are preparing their applications? What kind of research do you recommend people do apart from using tools?

James Hu:

I guess they can look at similar positions. Say the large company that’s hiring, an account manager. You can maybe look at other account managers and see if there’s similar skill sets that’s been repeating across the company. That might be the common important skills that the company values but at the same time, each division and each team has its own requirement, it’s specific skill set that it wants. I would still try to focus on the job description in hand and use other resources as references.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, and are applicant tracking systems, many of them looking at more than our resumes? Will a candidate’s online accounts, for example, pop up?

James Hu:

Are you asking if they are also looking through the database for other candidates?

Mac Prichard:

I’m thinking about a candidate’s online presence.

James Hu:

Okay.

Mac Prichard:

Do applicant tracking systems broaden their search beyond just the application materials and look at other content that may be available online about a candidate?

James Hu:

Yeah, applicant tracking systems, the majority of them don’t really pull in data from other online presence. But they will, for example, I think Jobvite that would have a link for Google or Bing, with a name in it. So it provides a shortcut for recruiters to do a search in Google for this person.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well great. Any other hacks or tips you recommend our listeners keep in mind as they think about how to navigate applicant tracking systems?

James Hu:

Yeah, I would really recommend you focus on matching the right hard skills because hard skills are what recruiters are looking for when they do a search. For example, technical writing, test cases, Java script, or any tools that you’ve used before. Any soft skills, you can leave those off, or just mention a couple of them. Don’t stuff your resume with words like, “team player”, or “problem solving”, or “excellent communication skills”. These are just overused and everyone has them.

There’s even some ATS that would count how many words you have in your resume. So the longer your resume is compared to the number of relevant keywords, the lower the score you will have. It’s pretty much going to be a noise ratio that they calculate for the resume.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so be concise, use plain simple language that matches actual hard skills, and avoid jargon, particularly professional jargon that recruiters aren’t looking for.

James Hu:

Yes, exactly. Make sure your job title matches as well. Job titles, ideally, will match exactly to the job you’re applying to, somewhere on your resume. If your recent experience is very similar to the job title that you’re applying to, let’s say for example, the position you’re applying to is development manager and your previous position was a sales manager. Then yes, you could probably update that title to match the new position because it’s similar enough. But if it’s a completely different industry, or new position, or career change, you can always add that job title into the summary statement, or objective statement if you have one, or the headline. That would still catch when someone does a search on you.

Mac Prichard:

Excellent advice. Thank you, James. Now tell us, what’s coming up next for you and your teammates at Jobscan?

James Hu:

Yeah, so we just launched the LinkedIn optimization feature, where we can actually scan your LinkedIn profile and compare your LinkedIn profile against not just one job, but multiple jobs of your choice. So imagine we’re helping you figure out how to build a master LinkedIn profile for you trade jobs. That’s pretty new and we’ve had pretty good responses so far.

We are also launching a coach plan, if there’s any career counselors, career coaches listening, where you can actually help your clients use Jobscan and look at their stats. Have they been using it recently? How many jobs are they applying to? What kind of interviews they got? Even help them scan their reports and their resumes for them and look at jobs for them. That’s something new.

Mac Prichard:

Good, well I know people can learn more about you, and your teammates, and  your work at Jobscan by visiting jobscan.co/promo/macslist. You’ve actually got a special offer for our listeners don’t you, James?

James Hu:

Yes. We have a free plan and a premium plan. The free plan gives you five free scans you can use for free. If you use the promo code, you’ll get an additional five as a Mac’s List listener.

The premium plan gives you unlimited scans; that’s only if you find the service useful, then you are welcome to join our trial for one month free before you have to pay.

Mac Prichard:

Great. James, thanks for joining us this week.

James Hu:

Alright, thanks, Mac.

Mac Prichard:

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. What were people’s reactions to my conversation with James about applicant tracking systems?

Jessica Black:

It was really interesting to hear a little bit more about how the whole process works because I’ve never been on the behind the scenes side of things, so it was a good walk through to understand exactly what’s happening when you put your resume or your experience into one of those things. I think we’ve all experienced that side of things, of typing it in and you know that’s what’s going on, but to get that whole run down of the keywords optimization.

I liked how you mentioned that it used to be done manually, now it’s the same thing, it’s just automated and electronic. It was interesting to see that this seems like a new thing but it’s been going on for ages. The process isn’t new, it’s just the technology is new.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah and the hacks that you can use to get through the process haven’t changed.

Jessica Black:

Right.

Ben Forstag:

But see, I also think it was super frustrating. Because they’ve introduced this technology twenty years ago for keyword scanning, but it’s not smart at all. So “project manager” does not equal “project management”. I wonder how many people miss out on opportunities because the recruiter misspelled something in their search query. It’s like a system you have to be so literal about. I’ve even wondered, what if I just took the job description and copied it over into my cover letter and submitted it to an ATS? Would that somehow ring up at the top of the heap? That’s obviously hyperbole but it’s just that we’ve created these systems that are not intuitive and not smart enough to do what we really want them to do.

Jessica Black:

Yeah. It was frustrating to me, and I’m curious to hear what you think Becky, but it was frustrating for me when he mentioned, “Just change your job title to be the job title that you’re applying for”, sales manager to development manager. I was like, “No you don’t, you can’t do that.”

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, I share your frustration.

Jessica Black:

I understand what he’s saying.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah.

Jessica Black:

I understand what he was saying, you want to optimize it that way, and he mentioned putting it in your headline instead or your summary and I agree with that. But changing your title in general, I don’t agree with at all.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah. I would say that I don’t want to speak for James, but I’m not sure he would defend the system as the smartest or best approach, but I think what he’s explaining for us is, “Here’s how it works, and here’s how you can manage to get through that system.”

Jessica Black:

Sure.

Mac Prichard:

It is frustrating, because the common term I think the term,andI think James uses this himself in his bio is, “the black hole”, when you’re responding to these job postings, where there’s a large volume of these applications, and the tracking systems are automated, you’re trying to get through that. At least with James, he’s giving us some insights into how it works, and how you can navigate it.

Jessica Black:

Absolutely, and I thought it was really interesting to hear, I’m just a little bit old school in that way. I like having the human there to troubleshoot those types of things when you know what the person meant or you can infer development manager is the same as sales manager. Where you don’t have to be so literal.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, where you have to spell a word a certain way in order to make it through the gatekeepers.

Jessica Black:

Exactly.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah.

Becky Thomas:

Yeah, I mean, I feel like this whole discussion just makes me want to embrace networking first approaches so much more, because I don’t ever want to go into this whole “black hole” ATS, trying to copy and paste and figure out how many times they use the same keyword so I can put it in my resume…

Jessica Black:

Absolutely.

Becky Thomas:

And try to customize everything towards that specific job that I have no way of knowing whether I’ll hear back from it.

Jessica Black:

Right, it’s frustrating.

Becky Thomas:

I would much rather talk to people, and develop relationships, and understand what it’s really like to work for that company, and then see if I want to ever apply for a job there. Then you actually know somebody. It just seems like, ugh, pulling teeth.

Jessica Black:

Yeah, black hole is right.

Ben Forstag:

I think one interesting thing to point out here is that the history of the ATS was actually introduced to make the hiring process more fair. That’s one of the arguments, was that networking stuff was inherently who you know, good old boy networks, and the ATS system would put everyone on an equal footing.

Becky Thomas:

But all you’re proving is whether or not you can copy and paste keywords.

Ben Forstag:

Becky, I don’t run an ATS company. That is the argument, it just has not been applied.

Jessica Black:

I mean I like that idea of the level playing field, I like that idea, but like you said, Ben, there’s so many ways that it can’t be intuitive, it doesn’t function the way that’s it supposed to. It functions the way it’s supposed to but also isn’t optimized as well.

Becky Thomas:

It hasn’t developed at the same level that the rest of society has developed. We expect it to be smart and it’s not.

Ben Forstag:

We need better robots.

Becky Thomas:

We do. Full circle.

Mac Prichard:

Alright, well until we get that perfect algorithm, this is what we’ve got. I think you have a choice to make, to your point, Becky, do you want to apply for a position at companies that use this system, and maybe you don’t. That’s a choice. But if you are going to navigate these systems, I think James offers some good tips about it.

Becky Thomas:

Oh yeah, I didn’t want to stomp all over James’s advice. I thought it was really good and actionable for folks that are trying to navigate that system.

Mac Prichard:

Agreed. Okay, well there’s a lot of energy around this question and so I’m glad we were able to get these ideas out on the table. Well thank you all, and thank you our listeners, for downloading today’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.

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Expect the ATS! When you’re applying for jobs at large companies, your resume and cover letter are probably getting uploaded to an Applicant Tracking System. So how can you make sure your applications “get through” the ATS? You might already know to repeat key words from the job description in your application. But there’s more you can do to navigate an ATS successfully and hear back on more online applications.

About Our Guest: James Hu

James was a job seeker in late 2013 and experienced the pain of the resume black hole first hand. He founded Jobscan, an online tool that optimizes resumes to make the job search easier. Before Jobscan, James co-founded an award-winning carpooling startup and worked as a product manager at Kabam Games, Groupon, and Microsoft.

Resources in this Episode

  • Ben shared an article testing the carpet-bombing application method on an automated scale. Read the whole story on Fast Company: I Built A Bot To Apply To Thousands Of Jobs At Once–Here’s What I Learned
  • James offered free resume scans to our listeners! Visit www.jobscan.co and use promo code MACSLIST to redeem.
  • How are informational interviews different from networking? The team defines the difference and offers advice on making the most of informational interviews.