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How many of you have written a web dev job description with a requirement like, “Must have a Comp. Sci degree or equivalent”?  How many times did you hire somebody who had the skills, but didn’t have the degree … because let’s be honest, how many web dev positions actually require a background in building compilers?  What are the chances that your job description just discouraged an otherwise great developer from applying because they have a History degree?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a Software Engineering Manager at  Safari is my role in recruiting for our various development teams.  I’ve enjoyed meeting some really great, smart, and helpful people, but it is, nonetheless, a challenge.  A particular hurdle that we’ve had to tackle is building diversity within Safari.

Specifically, when I joined Safari in 2013, we were recruiting for additional Python engineers to join our team, and our pipeline of candidates was filled with 100% male candidates, most of them also white.  And we had to ask ourselves, “Why aren’t women applying?  Why aren’t we drawing more minorities?  Why isn’t our pipeline at all close to the demographics of our industry?”

This isn’t to take anything away from the number of excellent hires that we have made at Safari.  I am pleased with and proud of the teams that we’ve created, but we can always be better.  It is in our interest to ensure that we’re casting a wide net for candidates, and our data was showing that our net could be bigger.

Understand the problem

I spent the next few months talking to several friends from underprivileged groups who’ve worked in technology, and I asked them about how they conducted their job search, and I also sat down with other colleagues who’ve done their own hiring and recruiting at various tech companies. While I can sometimes be skeptical of anecdata, a few consistent themes emerged in these conversations about diversity recruitment:

  1. Imposter syndrome is a thing, and it is more widespread than many of us realize.
  2. Job requirements are commonly implied by their authors as being negotiable, but when you say something is a requirement, don’t be surprised if someone believes you.
  3. It isn’t enough to just state that you’re being color-blind or gender-blind. You need to explicitly say that you’re looking to build a diverse team.  The former can imply that you’re being lazy and maintaining your structural biases, but hope to be surprised and delighted when you find a minority or female candidate who can overcome those biases, whereas the latter is a position of active engagement.

Require only required requirements

As a result of the combination of 1 & 2, it’s very easy for promising candidates to read through a job description that has six requirements, and then disqualify themselves because they only satisfy five out of the six. So the first thing that I did in revising our job descriptions was take a different approach to the idea of listing requirements.  If one thinks of the “requirements section” as the first real opportunity to give a candidate a chance to imagine themselves in the role, then write that section with an eye towards inclusivity.

screenshot with text highlighting that our tech stack is Django/Backbone/PostgreSQL/Solr.  For skills and requirements, we expect for you to have a background there, and we explicitly state that we welcome diversity and non-traditional paths into the developer position

“Are you bracing yourself with the expectation that we’re only looking for CS grads? Well, it’s a software development job, so it’s taken as a given that people trained in computer science will be welcome, but if you’re a self-taught developer who may have an unfinished degree, then you’d be welcome here too.”

“Are you expecting to have to score big on tech keyword bingo?  Well, I’ll just lay out a bunch of the components of our dev stack, and leave it to you to tell us if you’re interested in contributing to any of that.  And I’ll remind you that we’re looking for good people, not just keywords.”

Bias interruptus

Simple changes like these are referred to as bias interrupters; slight changes in behavior that are specifically intended to disrupt patterns that reinforce biased behavior. The results from those simple changes were relatively dramatic.  We went from a largely male-centric pipeline to one with a credible presence of women and some minority groups. Of our last ten hires, four have been women and they’ve all been fantastic additions to the team. We can, of course, always be better and we constantly ask ourselves how to be better.

When a new job posting was going up for a different department, the hiring manager asked the rest of us for advice on the job requirements section and I said, “if you have to have requirements, make them actual requirements. Like, you would legitimately throw away the application if any of these things are missing. If you have 5 requirements and you’d talk to a candidate who satisfied 4 of the 5, throw away the least important or rarest one.”

“But if you remove ‘must have a college degree’ then won’t you get pizza delivery people applying?”

“Some of those folks may apply even if you did put the college degree there as a requirement. It takes 5 seconds to delete an unsuitable resume. You’ll never know who you’ve just lost because your requirements list was too demanding.”

“But for those people who look at a list of requirements and don’t think they can negotiate, doesn’t that speak to an undesirable lack of confidence?”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s someone who’s applying to a broad range of companies and they’re looking at your ad, and seeing if applying is a good use of their time. It’s a competitive landscape and we’re all jockeying for a small pool of talent. Someone who may be otherwise great could pass on you because you seem petty. Don’t be that.”

Don’t optimize for discouraging undesirables. Optimize for encouraging the people who you do want.

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2 Responses to “On Recruiting, Inclusiveness, and Crafting Better Job Descriptions”

  1. Bobby

    I could not agree more Cris. Keeping the net large and then filtering out people yourself helps you create the culture and team you want. A diverse team comes up with diverse ideas for solving the challenges at hand.

    On the side note about required degrees:
    About a month ago I was told by an internal recruiter at a company that the manage was going to pass on me because ” the manager wants someone with a heavier engineering degree.” It was hilarious to me that after 10 years doing this professionally my degree was actually being questioned. That’s okay I likely would not have enjoyed working for that snobbish manager and potentially snooty company.

  2. R. Mullen

    Nice article. Kinda interested in this area, so let me add a few things. Thanks for the chance to engage.
    Thinking a bit out loud but…

    What kind of company do you have and why is it beneficial to bring diversity into the brain trust? A model can be hired for the corporate “about page,” so it has to be more than that. Is the team ready for ethnic, gender, ability diversity? “A great bunch of guys” may still have issues coping with significant change.

    Hiring retrospectives may reveal internal bias, so consider doing these after hiring rounds. If the team thinks of itself as super special (after all, foosball, right?), then there is a built-in bias against *anyone* not considered equally special. The bias is in believing that the skills the team has TODAY will drive what the team needs TOMORROW. There are probably many people who deliver pizza, who may also have participated in online communities for years, fixing code “for fun.” Someone who has managed a team that delivered pizza on time and within budget and never caused the company to defend litigation? Not a bad skill to have, but can you really figure that out in scanning a resume for 5 seconds?

    Second, team dispute resolution isn’t just a matter of negotiating team dynamics or thumb votes, but also in how you bring people on board. Only thing worse than diversity training is the feeling that one is a “diversity hire.” The platform for the team should include proactive measures for bringing on ANYONE new, not just women and minorities. This is about team resilience overall. Certainly, anyone hired brings “diversity,” so why is it that everyone…pretty much..despises “diversity training”? A resilient team will maximize the work relationship with WHOMEVER is brought in.

    Publishing the job descriptions to the team is a great way to build buy in, but you can also ask prospective employees for feedback about the job description itself: “What is it about this job description that made you want to work here? Do you have concerns? Seriously! We want to know!” Feedback loops within and without the organization will make it stronger AND show people who may be hesitant to apply that the team really means what what it says about finding a diverse group of applicants. Prospective employees can also extend the network of HR evangelists.

    Finally, working with existing organizations focused on women and minorities is a great way to find and create future team members and get informal feedback on hiring efforts!