December 14, 2021

Day 14 - What's in a job description (and who does it keep away)?

By: Daniel Medina
Edited by: James Turnbull (@kartar)

A colleague supporting our recruitment efforts asked hiring managers if their "job descriptions are still partying like it's 1999?" The point was to revisit old postings that had been copy-and-pasted down the years and create something that would increase engagement with candidates. But reading the title made me think about a job I applied for (and got) circa 1999. It was a systems administrator role and included language like

The associate must regularly lift and/or move 20-35 pounds and occasionally lift or pull 35-80 pounds.

No joke, those Sun Microsystems monitors were heavy. Checking a fact sheet confirms the "flat screen" (non-curved) 21-inch CRT from around that time was ~80 pounds.

Large network switches in the Cisco Catalyst 6500 family were easily twice that weight and were definitely a two-person job. Best practice for racking servers in the datacenter was to use a Genie Lift.

To this day, if I hear someone talking about a strong developer I might wonder "but how much can they deadlift?" Most job descriptions for roles outside physical datacenter management don't include this language anymore. This all got me thinking, what might be in job descriptions these days that could be turning off candidates?

"Education Level" might be one of those things we should re-think. Many postings require a "Bachelor's Degree". Granted, we don't describe what that degree is in and I've had colleagues with degrees in History, Library Sciences, Geology, Economics, and more (even Computer Science!)

Sometimes the phrase "or equivalent experience" is added to these requirements. It's unclear if this means something akin to a college experience, for example, thirteen weeks reading The Illiad in your teenage years. I've had colleagues who are Managing Directors and Distinguished Engineers with no college degrees; so why bother asking for this in our requirements? Maybe it's cloned from an existing description, or it's a required field in the system used to post the description and the option "None" isn't pre-filled. At best it's a proxy that means we're really looking for someone older than 21. At worst, we've dissuaded some candidates from considering us.

Sometimes the HR systems used for creating job descriptions can add unexpected data to your job descriptions. One job description posted in Montreal automatically included "Knowledge of French and English is required". This wasn't a Language Requirement that came from us! We were at a global firm using English as a common language and would be happy to hire anyone who met Canadian work requirements and had the skills we were looking for!

Other French-language oddities you may encounter are labels like "(H/F)" to indicate "Homme / Femme", that the job description is intended to be gender-neutral, despite pronouns and gendered language used throughout. This isn't as awkward as some of the "s/he will..." references used in English-language descriptions when the simpler "you", speaking directly to the candidate, seems so much more natural!

Speaking of strange language, some descriptions include language that doesn't make me think first of a technology role:

I'm hiring... a hacker that wants to work on the bleeding edge...
We spend a lot of time doing applied research...
You should be the type of person who likes to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.
Source: Wikipedia: _Dexter (season 2)

Your signal that you have an existing, tight-knit group:

You'll be part of a small team of like-minded individuals.

might run counter to your efforts to advertise your goals of building a diverse and inclusive environment, one where the candidate-turned-new-joiner might not be able to provide their valuable external input if it will run counter to the current thinking.

We found that we were having trouble filling a "DevOps" role. Without suggesting that "DevOps isn't a job title", candidates wanted clarification on what that might mean in our environment. Reviewing some of the many open roles across different teams showed they varied widely, leaving candidates to try to figure out which of the DevOps Topologies they might be walking into (and was it a Pattern or Anti-Pattern?!)

These included:

  • Cloud SecDevOps (Cyber): This wins keyword bingo
  • Apply Now to The Wonderful World of DevOps: Points for creative use of the job title field
  • Devops Specialist - Private Cloud: "providing L3 support... including on-call"
  • DevOps Developer: "You are a developer who is not afraid of infrastructure. You identify with the 'Dev' in DevOps way more than the 'Ops'"
  • DevOps App Dev: A "release engineer" role that sounded more like DevOps in practice
  • DevOps Authentication Security L3 Engineer: Okay...

Much of this has been about job descriptions that can lose candidates. What should you include to gain credibility and interest? An honest declaration of the mission of the group they’re joining always helps. Don't shy away from describing a need to support existing legacy systems, even if the goal is to modernize and move to a new platform. Describe the lifecycle of the team; is it "newly formed", "fast-growing", or is this a chance to "join an established team" and learn from established experts?

What's the topology of the team, distributed (participation from a range of locations and timezones in an asynchronous arrangement), multi-site (people working from two or perhaps three sites passing of work between each other or operating in overlapping times), or fully co-located (in rough time or location)? This can affect travel, working hours, and collaboration styles.

Basic details of work-life balance should be included. These might include remote work arrangements (which will likely become a lasting legacy of the pandemic era), on-call staffing strategies, night and weekend work requirements, or travel requirements. We tend to advertise "flexible opportunities", which may have some constraints (we may want individuals to reside in a specific country but not care as much about sitting in an office).

Some of the most thoughtful job descriptions lay out a multi-month roadmap for the role and growth. "Within three months we expect you to join our on-call rotation in support of our production environment", "Within six months you will obtain certification in at least one of our hosting platforms", "Within nine months you will be doing my job and I will be riding off into the sunset", etc. Having such a timeline is important to set expectations for performance during any initial probation period that may be part of local labor law or new hire contract. This also sets a pace for someone to ramp up in your environment, ensuring enough time is set aside for required learning as opposed to "throwing them in the deep end".

I've made all the mistakes described here but can take some solace that I've created zero job postings seeking ninjas, rockstars, gurus, or wizards! Best of luck to all the hiring managers out there looking for their unicorns!

Source: Wikipedia: _Kiss (band)_

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