RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Are applicants snickering over your want ads?

July 21, 2008

One of the biggest complaints techies have about employers is how their want ads are written. Some techies avoid certain jobs on the basis of their ads alone. It may come as a surprise to HR professionals, but in many cases their ads are received with mingled mirth and sarcasm.

There are many sins the want ads commit. One of the most common is just general cluelessness. I've seen want ads that request 10 years of experience with a product that's only been available for seven. Or the ad may mention the vendor or maker of a technology, but not what specific product is being discussed. Just saying "experience with Cisco," for example, is not informative, because Cisco Systems makes a wide variety of products.

Misspelling and misusing technical words is another source of hilarity. Ads that ask for "Linux programming language experience" for example, are silly because there is no such thing as a "Linux programming language." There are languages commonly found in a Linux environment, but none that can't be found anywhere else. Now granted, ads are often written by HR personnel who are taking their cues from others, but somebody internally should check these things, or risk being bypassed by the best applicants.

Another mistake is to specify too closely what you want, by focusing on tools instead of skills. Technical people are well aware that favored languages, hardware, databases and applications come and go over time, but basic skills endure. Yet many ads seem to have been written around a table in a meeting, with everyone chiming in to add some tool or another. It's referred to as "checklisting," because the ad is obviously drawn from somebody's job checklist.

Programmers are rightfully proud of their ability to break down real-world problems into manageable pieces that can be rendered as program code. A good programmer isn't a code-head so much as an analyst, a translator of the real world into the cyber-world. Most experienced programmers will know more than one language, although they generally specialize in one or two. The syntax changes from language to language, but the thinking patterns are the same.

Yet ads persist in asking for specific languages. This is understandable, I suppose; you want somebody ready to leap on your problems from day one. But that's not realistic, either. Programming demands that the programmer understand your problem, not just the language. A better ad would emphasize your industry and the business challenges more than the language itself.

Yet another flaw is to overemphasize the obvious. A support-job ad that makes a big deal of knowing Word, PowerPoint and Excel will be handed around as a bad example. Everybody knows those applications. And don't try to hide multiple jobs within one. Many jobs for support personnel mention Word, Excel, Power-Point and Access. Most computer-support employees will know those applications, but not to the point of being able to train people on them. If you need skills transferred, make that clear in the ad. Techies don't mind sharing their knowledge, but most of them aren't natural trainers. If you need a trainer, get a trainer.

Ads that feign excitement don't sit well, either. Only the rawest beginners are fooled by language promising unparalleled opportunity to excel and use their skills for the betterment of mankind. In the end, it's a job, and techies know it.

Ads should never be coy about money. People in the technical industries know within a hair's-breadth how much their jobs usually pull in salary. Just saying "compensation commensurate with experience" or some such is a sure sign that somebody's hiding the checkbook behind their back.

Emphasizing certifications is now a major faux pas companies make over and over again. It's more a business mistake than just a hiring one, but the plethora of certifications in technology has produced a horde of unqualified but certified job applicants.

Techies know very well that certifications are an entry point into a job interview, but the company that breathes more heavily when an application is certified is dismissed as being superficial. It's better to ask for a certification than to demand one. Many highly qualified techies have disdained certification over the years. It may be borderline foolish of them, but be aware that the lack isn't indicative of incompetence.

Make sure to mention any non-technical duties in the ad. This scores you points and saves you time. If the computer support person is also expected to keep the spare parts inventory, put it in the ad.

Before publishing, conduct a sniff test by passing the ad in front of your own techies and getting their reactions. Too few companies do this, relying instead entirely on managers to check them.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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