Thursday, January 31, 2013

How do you write a job ad.

Wrapping up 2012 in preparation for Tet holiday brings back many cheerful memories. I had a chance to rewind things have gone by and numerous lessons the job has taught me, many in the hard way. I ran across this little job poster that we made back when there were 6 people in the team.
Cogini Vietnam first job ad 2011

The poster looks nice, but it fails all the current standard of us, mostly fails to envision the job and motivate potential applicants. But it was fun, crawling in the dark for a path. As we all grow up and get wiser, our approach becomes more methodical and less ad-hoc. Time goes by and there are a couple of things about job ad that I would like to share. To support my points, I crawled sample job ads from famous local and overseas tech firms.

Job ads

A well-written job ad helps a candidate screen him or herself in or out for the job. A job ad template typically consists of
  • Main attractor
  • Deliverables and activities
  • Essential quality, preferences, and skills
  • Contact information

Major attractor 

Major attractors define what will attract potential candidates. This is the most important pitch that sell candidates on the company. It is a common belief that this is the place to show off. I agree. Reading job ads, candidates are constantly asking themselves "What's in there for me?". Answer that one question right out of the gate will grab people's attention and keep them engaged. Skunkworks addresses itself as a Silicon Valley startup in the heart of Saigon and takes pride in the work environment it has to offer.
Our team is everything, so at we pay close attention to the work environment:
  • 100% product/innovation-focused startup company with experienced founders
  • Flat organization - don't come to work for us if you want minions working for you!
  • Open communication - we listen to our team
  • Friendly, flexible, and fun culture 

But I also agree that bullets are a very ineffective way to deliver information intended to be recalled and acted upon. Images and stories are way better communication means to deliver the sales pitch.

Each company is a unique combination of its people, fields of expertise and culture. Any passionated employee can go rampant about the story of his company's genuineness. However it is well established that we can only hold small amounts of information in short-term, or "active", memory. Among all the possible number of key message points one can make, three (3) emerges as a magic number. Studies showed that the number of items we can easily is between three and four. In reality, number three is more common than four. Every great movie, novel or play has a three-act structure. Comedians know that three is funnier than two. The rule of three is one of the most powerful concepts in communication theories. 

Google and Twitter follow the rule of three closely. Each provides candidate three key messages about careers, with the third point prompts for action.
Google's Job Page
And Twitter's

But as programmers are spoiled these days, firms are going all their way to attract top-notches, there are more to say about the offer than just main attractors. Other benefits and perks are developing upon money (present and future), career growth, work/life balance and working environment (Have you ever turned into a green-eye monster just by looking at Google's office? I have). This is one of a few areas where bullet points are proven to be useful in attracting people attention. Bullet points are specialized in paralyzing readers with information. But the list is filled with benefits and perks, it leaves the candidate with an overall impression of "many good things".

I find Dropbox's job ad delightful

Deliverables and activities 

Deliverables and activities effectively describe the kind of work the hire is expected to perform. I usually construct this part with the same strategy used on main attractors, start with a short paragraph and follow up with bullet points to cover more details. A short paragraph describing the nature of the work is not something common among local tech firms' job ads. But as jobs are getting more diverged from each other, the need for a story to enable candidates to envision themselves in the work is receiving more care. Bullet points are hard to avoid in this section, but make sure that you have someone scan the list to make sure it reflects the actual job.

KMS' job description is pretty lengthy, but after all doesn't reveal much about the work

Dropbox once again scores with nice combination of story telling and bullet points

The more high level the position is, the more sophisticated the preface paragraph should be and the fewer bullet points. This is simply to reflect the fact that a senior position requires a completely different set of skills and responsibility from a entry-level job. At some point, the criteria of evaluation is no longer doing what one is told well and on-time, but the ability to take on unassigned work and responsibility, and deliver what one's firm values. Even though I am not fond of Rocket Internet as a business model and a company, I am convinced that its job ad for CTO in Vietnam is a well-crafted piece of work.
As our CTO you are a well-rounded strategic thinker responsible for establishing, executing and communicating the technical vision across all aspects of software development. You will be leading a top-flight technology team while overseeing research, development and quality management. Furthermore, you will be responsible for the establishment of an appropriate architecture and technology for our innovative projects. By embracing a culture of continual improvement, passion for technology and cross functional collaboration and communication, you will play an integral role in the company's strategic direction and growth. At Rocket, you will help us develop fast growing Internet companies and benefit from the broad expertise of our high-energy IT team. In return, you can expect an attractive salary and various opportunities to grow on, both, a personal and professional level.

Essential qualities, preferences and skills

They define the company's interest in the candidate professionally and personally. Many hiring managers get too deep into describing their ideal employees here that I often find this section of job ads unclear and unrealistic. This part is best done by giving details about how the candidate with perform activities and deliverables. E.g instead of writing "Must have negotiation skills", try "You will negotiate with suppliers and with the project team about milestones and tradeoffs". The second approach brings a breath of reality to the ad.
Skunkworks' ideal employee sounds pretty much a workplace super hero
  • Open-minded and comfortable in an intense, high-growth startup
  • Innovative and love to find new ways to resolve problems
  • Able to adapt according to changing project schedules
  • Self-motivated and can work independently
  • Totally committed to quality
  • Professional and responsible
  • Able to communicate well in English (written and spoken)

In general, I try to avoid putting many soft skills here but the critical ones. This poses a similar problem as hypothetical questions in interview. Hypothetically, I am perfect.

Also unless I kept running into candidates with really bad cultural fits, I am not a big fan of explicitly points out desirable personal qualities. Again, many people have the tendency to idealize their personality. On the other hand, different personal qualities do not always need bad cultural fit (and diversity should always be embraced). Best personal qualities requirements I have read do not have their own section but are embedded into verbal descriptions in job ad, which in turn drive the way readers perceive the firm in the way it desires.

Similar to Dropbox's, Foursquare's job ad makes use of plenty verbal description to reflect the company cultural fits.
There isn't much to say about Contact Information so I am wrapping up my writing here. Hope you find it useful.

Note: By the time the post was finished, was going through a restructuring process and its website therefore was inaccessible.

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