Eliminating the best along with the worst . . .

Screening Professionals by Keywords

by Conrad Weisert, November 8, 2008
© 2008 Information Disciplines, Inc.

This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.


Several years ago I offered some advice on screening and interviewing candidates for professional roles. Although that advice remains valid today, some organizations, overwhelmed by the volume of applicants, are retreating to some form of automation of the screening process. All too often such automation takes the form of computerized scanning of résumés for magic keywords, excluding from consideration any applicant whose résumé doesn't contain1 all the sought-after terms.

Such a practice is misguided in the extreme, and risks excluding not only unqualified beginners but also the very top professionals whose résumés emphasize the broadest background.

Skills: concepts, techniques, languages, tools, and products

Since the earliest days of computing experience has repeatedly shown that the most valuable performers are professionals who have a deep mastery of concepts and techniques. By "valuable" I mean the combination of their productivity and the quality of what they produce.

With just a few exceptions, learning to use a new tool or programming language is a routine part of a competent programmer's job and rarely imposes significant delay on a project. Yet the great majority of résumé keyword scans are looking for specific tools and products, sometimes down to the version number! Organizations explain that they need people who can "hit the ground running", meaning that they won't take valuable time to orient themselves to the technology being used on the project for which they're being hired.

Rarely, however, is a new member of a team, regardless of background, productive on the first day.2 The same organizations that insist on experience with some tool or programming language may overwhelm the newly-hired with information (written or just understood) about the project itself, such as:

It takes a while to get oriented to those aspects of a project, even if they're clearly written. It takes much longer when the project has failed to document its own infrastructure. Getting acquainted with a new tool, unless it's a radically different paradigm, is comparatively quick.

Generic concepts versus product knowledge

In many organizations the Personnel ("Human Resources") director is a prime instigator of automated keyword scanning. That's hardly surprising, since a typical H.R. manager has very little understanding of Information Technology, and finds it easy to seize upon magic terms. Given a choice between candidates whose résumés contain these phrases, which will the H.R. manager select for the I.T. manager's attention?

No flagged keywords Flagged keywords
Developed and deployed spreadsheet planning models used by all branch-offices Three years experience using Excel 2003
Designed and implemented object-oriented library classes, which served as foundation for three large financial applications. Completed a course in advanced Java 2 with Enterprise Java Beans.
Published a textbook on modular program design. Taught courses in advanced C++ programming.
Planned and managed successful implementation of decentralized point-of-sale systems for a national franchise organization. Fluent in the use of Microsoft Project.

Which one do you think would be the more valuable member of your staff both immediately and in the long term? Which candidate is worth calling in for a face-to-face interview?

Competent professionals know, of course, that there's no such skill as advanced C++. Indeed, we know that some people, even authors of popular textbooks, can become "experts" in the details of a programming language without mastering essential concepts of high-quality programming.3

The villains

Human Resources may be the main villain here, but not the only one. A weak I.T. Director can be tempted by a practice that relieves him or her of having to exercise judgment.

Perhaps most damaging of all are the professional recruiters or "search firms" who not only go along with automated résumé screening by their organizational clients, but also:

Such recruiters debase the profession they're supposed to be strengthening.


If you're an experienced professional seeking a new position, you should steer clear of prospective employers whose recruiting advertising calls for experience with extremely detailed tools and products. That employer or recruiter probably doesn't understand I.T. roles, and may not offer continued stable employment beyond the end of the project for which they're now hiring.

If you're an enlightened employer seeking highly-qualified (85th percentile or better) staff, you should look for people who have a deep grasp of concepts and a record of applying them to a variety of situations. Be prepared to invest time in screening, and settle for a few top performers rather than a horde of average ones. And don't rely on recruiting agencies that don't get it.

1—"Contain" seems to be the key, regardless of context. I've been tempted to submit a résumé with a sentence like: "I have no knowledge whatever of Websphere, C#, .net, Python, Ruby, and Rational Rose." That would trigger a bunch of matches, and they'd at least have to look at the document.
2—unless the project is in such deep trouble that just raising an alarm and stopping work is considered productive.
3—I could name (but won't do so here) some very well-known "experts" that I wouldn't consider hiring as applications programmers.
4—and the rest of the world. I recently attended a professional society presentation in which a recruiter urged the audience to load up their résumés with likely keywords.

Last modified November 22, 2008

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