Can anyone design a job application platform that doesn't suck?
Collaborate | Posted March 26, 2014

Why does it take a half hour and triplicate-input-redundancy to apply for a job online? Why can't these online application platforms just pull in LinkedIn data and be done with it? Isn't it easier for these job application systems to just read our resumes and cover letters? Read on for answers to these questions, hypotheses, and more!

Senior Editor, Yahoo Technology. Okay, that's not terribly unlikely, I think. I'll apply for the job.

Yahoo's career center, which is powered by Oracle's Taleo application tracking system (ATS), gives me a choice: I can apply via LinkedIn or submit a resume.

Well, that's a no-brainer. I'll just click on the LinkedIn button and, given that everything is all automated and, well, supposedly Linked In, the online job application will painlessly populate the fields for my would-be employer's hiring system, right?

Right. Which it does, for the most part. Thank you, LinkedIn.

But why does Taleo then tell me to upload my resume?

And then why does it tell me to copy and paste my resume/CV again, even though that's exactly what I just did by uploading it?

Taleo tells me the resume information will be visible to recruiters, hiring managers and interviewers. That will jump-start my candidate profile and get my information to Yahoo even more quickly, it promises. Well, yes, isn't that the point? Get it there pronto, you betcha.

But half an hour later, I'm still fiddling with the thing, tweaking and correcting improperly filled-in fields as my life slowly drains away. I'm not even given a chance to see how the ATS translated my resume to populate its fields. Vaya con dios and fare thee well, Yahoo Tech Sr. Editor job application.

Just from a user experience viewpoint, it's irritating. (For someone serious about a job search, it’s even more frustrating. I am, after all, just applying to do research for this article.) Why can't these online application platforms pull in LinkedIn data and be done with it? Is all this really necessary to apply for a job? Or is it a Darwinian endurance test to winnow out the impatient and those lacking the ability to put up with horrific user interfaces?

A few questions come to mind: Why can't somebody just create an ATS that doesn't suck? Also, Wouldn't it be easier for them to just read my cover letter and resume?

The answer to the first question is that we job seekers don't pay the bills, that's why. It's the companies that buy the software, not the job seekers. Who cares if job seekers detest the patience-corroding interfaces?

But there's more to it than that. I talked to a few human resources consultants and a handful of user interface designers/software engineers to get a grip on why our would-be employers torture us in this manner. And no, it turns out: Humans reading reams of paper don't actually do a better job at the selection process. Read on, fellow sufferers, for a look behind the scenes of automated online ATSs.

There was no golden age of humans gazing lovingly at your job application.

Many of us like to think that, back in the old days, before all these soulless machines took over, we had it made. Human resources professionals would thoughtfully read our carefully crafted cover letters and resumes. They would lovingly finger the heavy, creamy, high-quality paper stock, perhaps a touch bedazzled by our tasteful graphics and professional choice of typefaces, as they mulled over the quality of our experiences and our ability to spell and string together intelligible sentences (or lack thereof).

Why can't we just go back to those days? Isn't it easier than the hoops that ATSs make us jump through?

O, snap out of it, bunky; those times sucked too.

Susan Hosage, a human resources consultant and executive coach, has been recruiting since the days of paper resumes. You want to know how much time people typically fawned over that old-fashioned resume? A big, fat 30 seconds.

"The screening, even though folks want to be believe it was more personal, often it would get a 30-second look," she tells me. "Now ATSs are screening for words. That used to be done by humans, probably a lot less effectively. If a given skill or experience wasn’t on your summary or your cover letter, you got put in the 'No' pile pretty quickly."

Bear in mind that hiring people get deluged by job applications. It's not uncommon for Hosage to receive 100 or more resumes when she lists a job opening for a specialized technical position.

Imagine going through all of those paper resumes by hand. As it is, Hosage says, typically more than half of the job applicants for specific technology jobs possess "absolutely no qualifications" for a given position. Another 25% have technical experience, but not the specialized skill the employer seeks. (And yes, companies can train new hires, but not all companies have the luxury of ramping up new hires slowly.) Another 15% of the resumes Hosage has dealt with were applicants who closely met the qualifications but who would need H1-B visa sponsorship.

The remaining applicants were generally the individuals who had skills that matched the job requirements. Thus, a handful of applicants would make it through into the screening processes for review by the hiring managers.

Imagine being a frazzled HR staffer who has to go through 100 resumes for one job opening. How likely are you to pick up on a specialized skill, encapsulated in one or more keywords, which might show up in a skills summary, or then again might be embedded deep within a job description or in some other spot?

Part of the problem, especially recently with the economic downturn, is a rise in the ratio of resumes sent in by completely unqualified people. That means there's more noise in the room, making it tougher than ever to spot a truly well-qualified applicant.

"It's really just hurting folks who do possess qualifications," Hosage says.

Automated keyword searches can help, of course. ATSs don't get sleepy like humans do, and they don't miss words that are tucked away under the cozy, thick word blankets that are job descriptions.

But even keywords have their problems, Hosage notes. Let's say you want to let an employer know what a whiz you are with Excel. How do you describe it? Do you use a keyword such as "Excel?" What if you use the generic term, "spreadsheet?" Would "presentation software" be a better match than “PowerPoint”?

It's a headache for the people who have to code in keyword searches, for sure; they have to spread their nets fairly wide to ensure that likely candidates are not skipped over. But once the laundry list of possible keywords is programmed into an ATS, it's done. The platform can chew through voluminous amounts of applicants to get to the job seekers who are pretty decent matches.

Here's another good thing about ATSs, Hosage points out: Many employers are subject to audit, particularly federal contractors, and thus are required to maintain logs of job searches. ATSs make that process more manageable. They also facilitate the sharing of resumes with hiring managers spread around the country or the world. ATSs eliminate the need to fax and scan or however else HR departments once used to do it. In these days of centralized HR departments, she says, big companies have centralized HR departments, all supporting remote locations.

So that's why we're suffering at the automated hands of ATSs instead of having human eyes read the job applications we suffered over, and the painstakingly-written cover letters that few managers bother to look at.

Okay. But why does the experience have to reek as much as it does?

A software engineer's hypotheses on why the ATS experience reeks

James Turner is a contributing editor for O'Reilly Media. He has decades of experience as a software engineer. He got his 15 minutes of fame last year when he wrote about the user interface failures of (Not to mention occasionally writing for us here at SmartBear.)

Turner has never cooked up an ATS, per se. But based on his experience, he tells me, he suspects that ATSs suffer from the same evolution-via-sedimentary-accretion that causes other complicated software to rise like massive termite mounds. "My guess is they used to do it one way, then they added another system that does it another way," Turner says. "Instead of getting rid of the old system, they just stack the new one on the old one."

Let’s bring that back to the Sr. Tech Editor position at Yahoo, which asked me for my resume in triplicate forms, more or less. We might assume that a system that was set up to ask for resumes to be filled in by fields at some point had a LinkedIn layer slathered on top.

Turner thinks it's kind of silly. He's been through it himself. What sticks out for him are the portal sites, like Such job portals have rosters of clients, each of which has its own, preferred format.

One would-be employer might want a resume as a Word document, another might want plain text, a third wants candidates to fill in fields with some semantic value to the text. One field says "job title," for example. On the back end, they know it's okay, that yes, this input is absolutely the job title. Nobody has to parse the resume to figure out what's going on.

"Because they're feeding more than one consumer of data, they have to have it in different formats," Turner says. "If they were smart, they'd ask for it in a detailed way, in a form, and generate a resume format from it."

How could the ATS developers improve this mess?

With his development chops, Turner gets spammed to death when he puts his resume on Monster. We're not talking about Viagra pitches. The spam comes from recruiters who try to get him interested in gigs that are of absolutely no interest to a guy who's happy in New England and wants long-term assignments. He's offered a six-month contract to become a Visual Basic designer gig in Wyoming. Wrong on all counts. None of those things fit what he'd look for (if he were looking at all).

Spamming is the sign of a desperate recruiter, somebody who's under the gun to find warm bodies and who resorts to throwing a job at the wall to see if it sticks somewhere, anywhere.

They're desperate. Their tactics are understandable. But why is Monster allowing them to do what they do? Why is it that Turner's resume shows up in their searches?

"There's no qualifications Monster's making as to, 'Okay... Recruiters shouldn't be able to download everybody,'" Turner says. "You should have to go in and say, 'I'm looking for people who...' and check boxes.” For example, Turner wishes he could check a box to indicate that he's not interested in contract work. As it is, some of the recruiters seem to be able to access every resume on the site, regardless of whether those resumes match up with a given job opening.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Francis Wu, a lead user interface developer at a new recruiting platform, Qwalify. Like Turner, he's got a few ideas about how ATSs could be improved.

Qwalify is trying the white-glove treatment with candidates. It's setting up companies to get them engaged with passive job seekers—people who aren't actively seeking. The idea is to set up talent pools for companies by doing things like posting about company news, for example. Updating job applicants about the status of their applications is another way Qwalify is trying to create  a better template for employer/job candidate relationships. Other options include allowing companies to poll candidates about various things, so the would-be employers get an idea of which candidates, whether they're passive or active job seekers, are actively interested in them.

"At the end of the day, we talk about how candidates think they're being… left behind," Wu says. "Where we're failing candidates [in the hiring process] is not treating them like people. It's very, very different. It's pretty nuanced."

An employer that keeps you informed of where your application stands? Oh, yes. That's pretty different.

Why can't we just stick a fork in them like we did with cover letters?

I recently wrote about how cover letters are dead—long live LinkedIn. Can we say the same about resumes?

Not yet. As far as technology hiring goes, some companies aren't asking for CVs or resumes. Instead they look to a candidate's LinkedIn profile, and not  just at job experience. They also pay attention to recommendations from others in the field, as well as candidates' engagement with the industry. But that reliance on LinkedIn is, at this point, generally a sign of the very most advanced tech companies.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing. As Wu points out, lots of people don't bother to keep their LinkedIn profiles up to date.

But as far as ATSs go, one ATS user interface designer who asked for anonymity said that from a user experience standpoint, we could get still more magical and powerful than what Turner suggests. As it is, ATSs are "glorified Xcel spreadsheets," he says. "There's a lot of searching, a lot of trolling through a huge amount of data to find somebody, and I don't think that should be the case. Instead, I think people who are developing hiring tools are looking through this as a search problem instead of a recommendation problem."

We all expect more. Today, machines can understand what people are saying; in a world of Google and the like, when we type in "Web desgn" with a typo, Google understands that we mean "Web design," including the term's definition and its relationship to other occupations. A lot of intelligence could be offered through these modern systems, much like the innovation that Google introduced to search.

Is LinkedIn the mover-and-shaker that should be doing this? It has a lot of this data already. It can parse a current candidate's profile, and it's smart enough to know what's a skill and what isn't. LinkedIn’s purchase of the data analytics firm just re-enforces that.

Perhaps with LinkedIn on the brink of getting better algorithms and pulling structured data from unstructured data, we might be on the road to sticking a fork into other, dumber job application platforms—yes, that includes the soul-sucking, redundant, resume-chomping ATS.

One can hope.

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