Part I of the ATS Saga: The Real Gatekeepers

Search for the terms ATS and resume on the internet and you’ll discover a ton of blog entries and articles about Applicant Tracking Systems, how they work and potentially, how you can game them. The problem is that you can’t really game them. You are at the mercy of something beyond your control, like asteroids and taxes, but even less fun. Not only can the ATS get in the way of a potential opportunity, but it turns out that poorly trained hiring managers can too.

I found a job at a local company and despite having several contacts there, they directed me towards the Zuul-like company gatekeeper, the ATS. The job was for a manager of the team that runs the Identity Access and Management solution. I actually have this experience, having rolled out CA’s IdentityMinder solution, upgrading it, and expanding its role at my current company. I’ve also been running Directory Services for years, worked with different directory owners and trained IT staff on using IdentityMinder. Lastly, I have been a manager for a few years, so I thought I was a pretty good fit.

Knowing I was up against an unfeeling algorithm, possibly from another dimension, I checked online to see what to do. Surely, I could find a fault to exploit. After reading many, many articles, I took the following steps, which are not anywhere near as exciting as crossing the streams:

  • Reorganized my relevant skills up to the top
  • Used keywords from the posting in the resume
  • Removed all lines that spanned the length of the page
  • Changed “Professional Experience” to “Work Experience”
  • Put my old company names, the dates I worked and my job title each on their own lines
  • Moved the header into the resume for easier parsing

I submitted the resume through the ATS’ horrific re-format, which butchered it into oblivion, despite my planning. After an hour, I got my work experience redone and reviewed the summary. I shook my head at the plain text blob it showed me. I decided to start over and try HTML formatting. When I finished, I still had the same result, but with line break codes inserted everywhere. I tried again with plan text and carriage returns, cutting and pasting carefully into each section. Still no dice. I left it that way and hoped that the summary was for machine eyes only, sparing a real human the pain of reading it.

There was a little light at the end of the tunnel though. After all this time invested, I was able to check a box that would send me an email when the system matched me with future job postings. Maybe the ATS wasn’t so evil after all. It was going to save me time, instead of taking it away!

For a month, I didn’t hear anything about my application other than a confirmation of receipt. I followed up with my contacts, including one that was listed as my internal referral, but they weren’t the hiring manager, so their hands were tied. My attempt to game the ATS had apparently failed.

After a month later, lo and behold, the ATS found a job was a match for my skills! Click here! I was told! I thought this was odd because I had been checking the job page at regular intervals for jobs, but who could refute the Click here!? What match had the ATS system found?

It was for a Facilities Project Manager.

By this point, I realized the ATS was messing with me. Not only had it not understood that I was a potential match for the applied for job, but it thought I was a potential match for something I had zero experience in. Granted, there is a level of assumption here that the ATS ranked me poorly for the position, but after applying for several IT manager jobs there, I’m willing to make it. I set out to figure out what I had done wrong to warrant this result.

To start, I went out to Wordle and compared my resume to the Facilities Project Manager job. As you can see below, there does appear to be some overlap for some potentially huge generic key words, like project(s), management, team(s), manage/manager/management. That’s really about it though. The facilities job is the left, my resume is the right.

FacilitiesPM Resume

Wordle only goes so far though. I do think it shows the lack of diversity in terms on the part of the hiring manager though. Hopefully, project wasn’t considered a key word.

Next, I tried, which is an excellent site that compares your resume against the job description. It matched me to the facilities job at 36%. Budget, collaboration and disaster recovery were my top skill matches with no other skills really matching. I came away from this experience with two realizations.

First, the hiring manager who writes the job description has a critical role to play in the success of finding someone with matching skills. Focusing on the job description without an understanding of how their particular ATS works is a waste of time for the hiring manager and applicants. HR should train hiring managers or work with them when they have a new requisition to help ensure the matches will be more successful. An ATS can provide value in parsing out relevant candidates if the description is well written and the system is leveraged appropriately. I’m guessing that since the facilities job has been open for 3 months now, they have not written it correctly. Again, assumptions I’m willing to make.

Second, a hiring manager should not rely solely on the ATS to get results, especially when there are internal referrals available. While an ATS can sort relevant candidates, your employees can show you good ones. A well designed internal referral program can supplement the ATS. Trust that your employees aren’t wasting your time by getting these resumes to you. I have been internally referred at a great company that goes so far as to assign you a recruiter after referral. This experience has been phenomenal and bypasses the ATS headache altogether. Besides, wouldn’t you rather hire someone based on an existing employee’s recommendation versus a bot that can only evaluate their resume? If an employee is willing to put their reputation on the line for someone else, they are probably worth a look.

Needless to say, this experience has given me little hope for the job I was originally going for or really any job at the company. I continue to muddle through social networks and vendors to find folks that might have real influence there. This has left me with a question though – is this a sign that maybe this company isn’t really one that I would want to work for? And what’s to keep me from losing my mind? Nothing, it turns out (find out next week)!

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