Resume Keyword Matching: Why ATS is Dishonest

In 1991 I was working in the Microsoft SQL Server group. I was given a project; it was the very first version of what is now known as the Microsoft SQL Server Management Console, but it was called GUIDE, GUI Database Environment. Heretofore administration of SQL Server was by a command line interface, so the fact that it was GUI based made its very title. It was my first project in C++, which at the time was still new.

Two years later I was looking for new work and for some reason I started getting responses for a database administrator job in Phoenix. I had never been a DBA, I wasn’t looking for a DBA job, my resume stated clearly that I was a software engineer. I eventually figured out that my mention of writing a tool for DBAs was being interpreted by a recruiter as meaning I was one.

Oh, how naïve I was!

This was my first exposure to the jaw-dropping laziness of software recruiters; they ran resumes through a keyword search and emailed every single match, probably without ever reading a word of any of them.

Four years later I was still being contacted for the same job, hundreds of miles away, until finally I removed the reference to stop the false positives.

A few years later I taught job hunting at a community college. I researched the topic in a multitude of sources and had very little reconciliation to do, they all agreed with each other fairly broadly. And one thing they all adamantly agreed on: a resume does not change from one job application to another, the only reason to have two different resumes is if you are looking for two very different jobs. The cover letter is what changes from one job to another, tailored to the required skills and experience. I’ve written hundreds of resumes for others, both professionally and as favors, and given the same advice. One resume, many cover letters.

But this isn’t how I usually looked for work. I usually got new jobs when the companies contacted me, having seen my writing or been referred. I’ve found applying for jobs by responding to postings to be a waste of time; recruiters and hiring managers are so swamped with applications that they winnow down the list for a series of superficial reasons. Not that I cared; I was swamped too, albeit with job offers. Oh, grand bygone days!

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try again. I have a lot of new skills and experience and went to the remote-work sites. What I’ve learned about the new standards of job search has horrified me.

Keyword search is now the entire operation. Using a tool called ATS, Applicant Tracking System (only the last word is remotely honest) has a plastic hopper on top into which recruiters pour digital CVs. Then they turn the crank on the side and a few emerge, those that had a lot of the same words as the job description. Say you drink a cuppa java in the morning and expect to be called to Angular jobs. You saw as asp in the reptile house, come write servers.

OK, this stinks on ice. What stinks most is that people are paid more than minimum wage to do this. They don’t deserve it. Trained to operate a mouse a chimpanzee could do this job, and would probably do it better.

But that’s only the beginning. What I have recently learned, and confirmed for me by people I trust, is that the new expectation is to rewrite one’s CV for every job application so more of those magic keywords match the job. Even aside from what I learned and taught a quarter century ago this strikes me as hideously dishonest. Our backgrounds, our experience, these are in the immutable past. Yet we are expected to recast ourselves on every submission.

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You’ve worked on medical devices, but the job description uses “healthcare,” not “medical,” so alter it. Except healthcare means something else. Where does this stop? Why not just invent your own fictitious past to match the job description? You can always take a tutorial the night before the interview and wing it. Why not?

To be fair, there are some good recruiters out there. I worked with one who actually kept up with goings-on in IT and actually read the CVs that crossed his desk. He owned a mansion a block away from Bill Gates’. But most recruiters seem to be unsurpassably incompetent and lazy and nothing buttresses this opinion better than the universality of ATS.

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