The trouble with IT job descriptions

You want how many years of what? Many companies create a laundry list of expectations that few candidates can match. Here are 5 tips for employers - and 5 for frustrated job seekers
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Employers often ask for the moon when crafting IT job descriptions, and it’s not hard to understand why. IT is often expected to deliver the moon: to work better, smarter, and faster; to deliver technology breakthroughs; to drive revenue; to transform process and organizations. These mandates require top talent with cutting edge skills.

But by setting unrealistic expectations, employers actually miss out on candidates who, despite lacking some of the “required skills” listed on the job description, might actually be the perfect fit.

"Your job description could be scaring them off."

“Talented technology professionals are hard to find and even more difficult to recruit in today’s competitive employment market, and your job description could be scaring them off – especially if you’re looking for a professional who can do it all,” says Ryan Sutton, district president for Robert Half Technology. “If you have a laundry list of responsibilities and skills needed for the position, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find a candidate who will fit the description. Plus, it may deter professionals from applying, since they may only have half or less of the requirements posted.”

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The problem isn’t confined to the tech sector. Most companies make mistakes with job descriptions – but tech companies face unique challenges in this area, says Jennifer Pitts, HR business partner, the Americas, TomTom. “The biggest challenge is that position requirements can change overnight to meet the project or company’s needs as new products or functionalities are introduced on a seemingly daily basis,” she says.

This leads hiring managers to take one of two approaches: “They either keep a description very broad in order to maintain flexibility for staffing or have so many requirements that no one person is qualified,” says Pitts. “Both present different issues, and as a result, companies miss out on talent and candidates miss out on opportunities.”

It’s time to bring IT job descriptions back down to Earth – for the good of both sides, recruiters say.

We talked to experts to gather five suggestions to help employers rethink their approach. For job seekers who have been burned by unrealistic job descriptions, read on for five tips for applying with this hurdle in mind.

How employers can write better IT job descriptions:

1. Consider the rule of fours

If your list of required skills is a mile long, it’s time to prioritize. What skills are truly essential for the role versus “nice-to-have” skills? Brandon Parezo, team lead of technology recruiting services at LaSalle Network, suggests thinking in fours.

"What we recommend is for job descriptions to start with an overview of the company, followed by an overview of the position – three to four sentences should be effective enough. Then list out the four bullets showcasing the responsibilities of the role (what the day-to-day tasks would be), four requirements of the role, followed by the four desired skills – those that are nice-to-have, but not necessary,” says Parezo.

2. Don’t write burnout into the job role

Your over-the-top requirements might speak volumes about work/life quality in your organization.

Your over-the-top requirements in a job description might speak volumes about work/life quality for individuals in your organization. Employers trying to attract top tech talent – especially developers – should ensure they are rewarding and compensating their employees well, and then make that clear in job descriptions, says Steve Burton, DevOps evangelist at Harness.

“Not only do companies miss out on developer talent due to over-the-top requirements (e.g. needing to be ‘on call’ day and night to address problems with deployed code), but those demands translate to an employee’s day-to-day work, creating burnout and high turnover,” says Burton.

“With modern software development tools, that shouldn’t be the case – yet I’ve seen engineer positions posted in the last six months that require ‘after hours/weekend work.’ As a result, the average DevOps engineer stays in a position for just two years, according to DevOps engineers' LinkedIn profiles. This means companies waste enormous resources on alleviating the ‘DevOps blackout,’ or making up for lost time from employee turnover and inconsistent development standards,” he says.

3. Focus on training opportunities

A recent survey by Robert Half Technology asked IT leaders what they’re willing to do when they face challenges hiring for a position. Forty-five percent of those IT leaders said they could be more flexible on skills requirements and provide training to new hires.

“Being flexible and realistic is a smart move when writing job descriptions,” says Sutton. “Focus on the key skills that are absolutely needed for the job and what core responsibilities the new hire will work on. It could be helpful to consult other employees in a similar role to determine which skills and responsibilities make the ‘Requirements’ section of the job description. If you’d like to mention other skills, certifications, or experience that aren’t necessarily a must but would be beneficial to the role, include those in a section titled ‘Preferred Qualifications.’”

From there, focus on training to get new employees up to speed, says Sutton. “Be open to training new hires if they don’t have all the specified skills and experience on your list. If a candidate is almost fully qualified for the role and seems to fit well with your organizational culture, offer professional development training that will help the new employee be successful on the job.”

4. Don’t overlook soft skills

Although most companies could stand to shave some desired skills from their job descriptions, they may also benefit from adding a few – specifically, soft skills.

"It’s about identifying passion and giving the right candidate the opportunity to develop."

"If you are looking for candidates with entry level to intermediate experience, the job description shouldn’t eliminate applicants that have the  core skills you are after. At that stage, it’s about identifying passion and giving the right candidate the opportunity to develop,” says Justin Donato, VP of IT at Nintex.

“Focus on the specific technical skills that are required to deliver the project or succeed at the role. These are your key success metrics. Then add some additional soft skills that relate to the culture and environment, like communication, analytics, or customer care. Keep it succinct and identify what is really important in this category,” suggests Donato.

5. Don’t forget hiring is a two-way street

Cutting down the list of required skills on a job description is certainly easier said than done. While some hiring managers are up for the task, others may actively resist it due to the perceived message they believe it sends.

“Some companies feel they are communicating to the world that they are comfortable with settling,” explains Mark Stagno, partner/manager of the software technology division at WinterWyman. “But I feel it’s a worthwhile exercise to go through. Particularly in a market like the current one that favors the job seeker, it’s important to not unnecessarily limit your already thin candidate pool by being too stringent in your job postings.”

Stagno urges companies to remember that hiring is a two-way street. “You’re looking for the proper qualifications in a candidate but also need to appear attractive enough to meet the job seeker’s criteria,” he says. “It’s a common story: I was recently in touch with a candidate who wanted to hold off on applying for a position because he felt as though he was underqualified. The reality is if he had the luxury of speaking to the hiring manager as I did, he would see it would be appropriate to apply for this position.”

For the best outcome, be inclusive, says Stagno. “Highlight the criteria that is most important to you and keep the bar high in that regard, but otherwise, think about being inclusive so that you don’t miss out on the right candidate,” he suggests.

[ Are you searching for a new job? We have expert advice from leading technology recruiters. Download our IT job interview cheat sheet. ] 

Now, let's dig into our tips for job seekers:

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.