Monday, 16 June 2014

What Developers Want - A Data-Driven Approach to Writing Engaging Adverts

When writing job adverts recruiters are often left to rely on a brief chat with the hiring manager.  They sometimes get input from one of the friendlier engineers and pair this with an old job description that has been slowly rotting on their  careers site for the past year.  The output of these less than ideal circumstances is a rehashing of the old job spec.  Some added promises of an exciting "culture" and an oblique reference to some new technology you may or may not get to use.  The advert is posted in the normal places and with little fanfare proceeds to garner a lacklustre response from candidates. A talent pool that is already bombarded with competing offers.

There must be a better way.  What if we could write a job description using the same words and phrases that our target audience are looking for?  If we could ask a large enough group of people what they are looking for then we could pull themes and even individual words from this dataset to create and advert that was engaging. Better yet, we wouldn't have to resort to the cliches and stock phrases from all the other job descriptions.

Coming by this dataset isn't easy, few people have the time to go out and interview the hundreds of prospective candidates needed to make it representative.  Even if an employer did this the data would likely be skewed by experimenter bias.  If only there was a way of reliably collecting this data from developers who felt free to say whatever they wanted.  Recently I discovered a way to do exactly this. Better yet the data was already captured for me.  

Hire my Friend is a new sourcing tool aiming to address the need for talent in the world of startups. Aiming to not expose that talent to unscrupulous recruiters or the volumes of spam they would receive on other sites.  Additionally it has some cool recommendation features, which made "endorsement" meaningful again.  I care more if a developer rates another developer highly than if the same assurance of expertise came from a colleague in sales, a school friend or their mum.  

On looking at the tool I noticed that candidate profiles, though anonymous and containing all the usual information, also asked one important question.  "What are you looking for?".  Suddenly I had impartial answers to that question from 13,000 (and growing) Engineers, Marketers and UX Designers.  After running a search for Ruby developers in London I had the data I needed, I pasted the answers into one long document and made that into a word cloud.  The larger the word the more frequently it occurs in the responses.
What Developers are actually looking for...
So what does this tell us?  Firstly that Hire my Friend's users are very much on target.  The majority of users are looking for work in small, startup teams.  It's the the details here that are more interesting for me.  I have always said that offering a job that is both rewarding and challenging is attractive, i.e. referring to actual problems to solve.  This is borne out by the answers given, the words problem, challenging, learning, solving and knowledge feature heavily.  The second biggest takeaway for me is the importance in stressing the "why" of the role you're hiring for.  Why is the work important? How will it impact the larger team and the rest of the company?  In describing the work we should ensure that we stress those elements that are "creative", "fascinating", "exciting" and "cool".

So given these answers how can we measure a job description against the data?  The same process can be used to evaluate our own job descriptions - here's mine
From the advert
For me the obvious difference here is between the active and the passive.  The job description has some of the same elements but still has some scope to be a better match. In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than performing the action.  For a potential candidate this could mean that they are left with a sense of being used like a resource or that their individual importance in being downplayed.  What job seeker wants to be part of a massive swathe of hiring to become a cog in a machine? None I'd want to hire.  As William Zinsser says in his book On Writing Well, “active verbs push hard and passive verbs tug fitfully" a job advert should be a compelling call to action.

I'm going to use the Hire my Friend data to write different adverts and do my own A/B test.  It will be interesting to see if matching the word choice and elevation of individual over the companies own needs makes the difference I think it will.  I'll let you know how I get on.