Advice for Hiring Managers on Running a Good Resume Screening Process

The below sections are part of The Tech Resume Inside Out book.

This chapter is for all fellow current or future hiring managers. I realize most people reading the book are not hiring managers, but one day you might become a lead or a manager, and have a say, or design a hiring process. By that time, you might have forgotten how difficult it was to put your foot in the door, and how much depended on having a really strong resume.

As a hiring manager, invest time and energy to create a better and more fair screening process. I’ve seen many hiring managers assume they have little to do with how resumes are screened. Many of them were often unaware of how recruiters and sourcers filtered the incoming resumes, and how they ended up rejecting very promising candidates before even a recruiter call—because they had no support from the hiring manager. Don’t be this person. Here are a few things you can—and should—do for a better recruitment process.

Know that your screening process is broken

People who read this book and apply the advice to their resume will likely fare better in their job search process, and progress through more resume screens. You might end up hiring one of these people, who turn out to be a great hire. And you would have missed out on them if they had a poor resume that you or your recruiter would have rejected.

In the book Smart and Gets Things Done, Joel Spolsky says the same:

The standard job application, a cover letter and a resume, is a phenomenally weak way to introduce a candidate. It gives you only the faintest clue as to the quality of an applicant. Sometimes, though a resume gives pretty strong negative clues as to the quality of an applicant (...) Other than that, though, it can be extremely hard to tell much about a candidate from a resume

As long as you have resume screening in place, you will always reject good people with poor resumes. This is a fact that you won’t be able to change—unless you relax, or drop the resume screening requirement.

However, the resume filter has a good reason to be in place: it reduces the number of applicants, filtering out people who are likely not a fit. As you are doing resume screening, make conscious choices on whether the resume is in the “Yes”, “Maybe” or “No” piles. Following this approach, you can avoid early rejection. As Johanna Rothman explains in her book Hiring Geeks That Fit:

Because I deal primarily with hiring technical people who may not know how to best present themselves in a resume, I read resumes with an eye to giving each person a benefit of the doubt—which leads to the Maybe pile. I re-read the Maybe resumes after I’ve phone-screened the Yes candidates but still have not filled the opening, to see if I’ve missed a diamond in the rough.

This observation is what is fueling several startups to switch from a resume-based first screen to an assessment-based first screen. Triplebyte, Hackerrank and Woven are good examples of each, and you should consider if you want to invest in a similar approach.

Solutions to reduce false negative screens in your hiring pipeline like Woven offer to take all your rejected resume screens and assess them with an hour-long, hands-on exercise. They find people you would have rejected, and who have applied for your position. Companies like Woven are proof that resume screening is broken, and they offer a pragmatic, hybrid approach. They find the “hidden gems” who are not represented fairly by their resumes, and claim to find a third of hires made this way—who otherwise would have been rejected. You progress with people with strong resumes, while Woven looks much closer at people who would have been rejected, spending more time and effort, but resulting in rejecting fewer people who would thrive in your team.

Engineer job search platforms like Triplebyte attract developers with the promise that if they pass the assessment done by the platform, they will go directly to onsites for various companies. Triplebyte focuses little on the resume, and gathers signals from assessments tailored for specific domains and technologies. Partnering with Triplebyte or a similar company means you could get access to talent who either would have not applied to you, or you might have rejected them at the resume screen.

Coding challenge platforms like Hackerrank offer coding challenges that you can configure as your primary screening method—often replacing resume screening. When using Hackerrank, I suggest taking care in setting up exercises that mimic the type of skills you’ll need to use day-to-day. Don’t go overboard with algorithms that people won’t ever need to use. Consider investing engineering time, both to build the challenges and to evaluate them. If you take one off the shelf, and have your recruitment team evaluate it based on the automated score that Hackerrank gives, you might miss out on people who wrote good code, but missed one small edge case.

Even when you don’t have additional budget to invest, you still should aim to minimize rejecting otherwise great applicants purely based on their resume. A few things that you can implement to help with this are the following.

  • Involve at least one other person in screening resumes, and screen the same set of resumes independently. What is the overlap between your and the other person’s “Yes” pile? This exercise can be useful both to calibrate expectations, as well as to reduce bias.
  • Budget dedicated time for hiring—either for you or for someone else. When you don’t have dedicated time for hiring activities, you’ll be rushed and have poor results. Have dedicated time from resume reviews, to building the interview loop, all the way to preparing for interviews. If you don’t have this time, delegate the process to someone who does have it.
  • Adjust the time allocated for hiring relative to the number and importance of open roles. You’ll want to spend far more time with hiring when you are about to double the team than when hiring one junior developer. Be mindful of creating the attention the hiring process should have—including screening of resumes.
  • Be aware of your cultural biases. You will most likely have a self-selection bias, subconsciously favoring people who are similar to yourself. Acknowledge this bias, and aim to select profiles that don’t resemble your background and experience.

Consider implementing the advice in the rest of the chapter for an even better recruitment process, starting with partnering with your recruitment function.

Treat recruitment as a partner function

Build a strong relationship with recruiters, sourcers and inbound sourcers and treat them as true partners from when you start hiring. Sit with them, and understand how they move candidates between stages. Explain what types of traits you are looking for in your team, and what makes peoples successful. Have regular check-ins with this group, where you both share details.

If you don’t reach out proactively, your HR or recruitment function might assume you’re not interested in their work. I’ve often seen hiring managers assuming they are not welcome to help. Whenever I see hiring managers and HR/recruitment work in silos, it’s a huge missed opportunity for making the recruitment process better.

Be curious: talk about sourcing strategies, key signals your recruitment team looks for, as well on the diversity of traits people on your team have. The more your recruitment team and you have mutual understanding of how you each work, the better your results will be.

Empower recruiters and sourcers to experiment with bringing promising people to technical interviews. Over time, recruiters and sourcers learn the type of people who make it to an onsite and get an offer, and ones that don’t. Recruiters try to not waste engineering resources for candidates who don’t meet all requirements set by the hiring manager. Don’t be the hiring manager who does not negotiate on having 5 years’ Java experience and 2 years’ JavaScript. Come up with sensible guidelines, but also encourage your recruitment team to take the initiative, and champion people they feel stand out for one reason or another.

Make yourself available to review resumes. Some of the best hiring managers I know get their hands dirty and review resumes together with their recruitment team. Hiring managers can often read more into resumes that aren’t written that well, but for example, have good code or challenging projects linked. Try to be this hiring manager. Even if you don’t do it full-time, take the time to look through some of the rejected resumes, and see if there are people worth investing in moving to the next round.

From the inside out: great hires who did not meet the standard hiring criteria

Hiring managers who don’t go with strict hiring guidelines, and who empower their recruiters to think outside the box, almost always end up hiring hidden gems. Here are a few stories.

James Stanier, SVP Engineering at Brandwatch shares a great hire he’s made:

I remember one person I once employed had a year's career gap because they were a semi-professional bass player and went touring with a band. Initially that got looked down upon, but that's actually really freaking awesome! He was a great engineer.

Blake Stockman, who has been a tech recruiter at Google, Facebook, Uber and other tech companies, shares on the most unlikely hire he’s made:

There was one individual who reached out to everyone on the recruiting team, for weeks. They kept sending messages asking to talk about an internship. They persisted. Finally, I said: okay, okay, fine. Like, let's have a conversation. I hopped on a call with them. It turned out to be a really enthusiastic person who was really hungry for an opportunity. They were preparing for this for some months already and were really keen to see how they would measure up.

We were just kickstarting our internship program. I decided to take a chance on this person, and put them through the interview process. They just blew everyone out of the water. They ended up coming on as an intern, then converting full time, and are still with the company today.

The crazy thing is, almost all recruiters would have probably rejected them, if they had come through the resume pipeline. Their background did not stand out—at all. But because they were enthusiastic, eager, humble, willing to learn and persistent, they were able to get that opportunity. There are definitely more people like this, who shine when given the right opportunity. It has been very rewarding to see diamonds in the rough like them who are successful and grow—just because someone took a chance on them.

I also have several similar stories. One of the best engineering managers I’ve worked with was self-taught with no computer science degree. I was on the hiring committee for an engineer who was doing pizza deliveries two years before for a whole year—and the committee was trending towards not hiring him as this was “quite unusual”. They were a top hire that we made. I hired an Android engineer with only iOS experience, who was eager to learn. They aced the job.

And my story is similar: I was hired at Skyscanner to do iOS, without having built iOS apps full-time, though I had extensive Windows Phone experience. I picked up iOS in no time, on the job.

Write a Good Job Description

Be involved in writing and iterating on the job description. Some hiring managers end up copy-pasting existing job descriptions and calling it a day. This will be a poor experience for candidates, recruiters and interviewers.

Challenge yourself on what is really needed for the job. Before writing the job description, sit with your recruiters and hash out what you are really looking for. What would this person do in their first month, and their first year? What skills and experience are absolutely non-negotiable, and what can they pick up on the job?

For example, if you’re looking to hire for a tech lead on the ads team where the team uses Node.js, having led a small team in some capacity is probably a must-have, but having worked in the ads industry is probably not. And the language or framework might be negotiable, when talking about someone who is a fast learner, has backend experience and is motivated in picking up Node.js. By removing this constraint, you’ll also have a larger pool of qualified candidates to work with. This is the reason most of the big tech companies don’t specify a specific language: hiring someone who has done similar work on a different stack can work just as well as hiring someone with deep domain expertise.

Avoid bias and gendered phrasing in the job advert. If you have job descriptions with masculine wording, then you’ll have fewer female applicants, many of them being turned away just by the language. Aim to write inclusive and welcoming job adverts that use de-biased language. Accenture in the UK changed their job descriptions to be more inclusive, and saw an increase of female applicants from 34% to 50%, according to the HR Magazine article on de-biasing language in job adverts.

“There are two easy key ways to take the gender bias out of job ads. One, purge the gendered language. Two, limit the number of mandatory qualifications to apply for the job,” says Iris Bohnet, author of the book What Works: Gender Equality by Design in the Harvard Business Review article Simple ways to take gender bias out of your jobs. Following this advice, be mindful of how many things are truly a “must have” in your job description, versus mentioning things that the people will learn in the role.

You can use tools like the Gender decoder for job ads by Kat Matfield and get inspired by well-written advertisements like the Engineering manager opening at

Have a feedback loop

Monitor your hiring pipeline—and look behind the numbers. What percentage of people are progressing through the various stages? How is this number changing over time? Once you have the numbers, don’t fully rely on just these; keep your ears on the ground to see how hiring is progressing on a case-by-case basis as well.

Monitor how diverse your recruitment and your hiring pipeline is. Diverse teams have proven to deliver better results. As a hiring manager, your goal should be to hire in a diverse way. But are you getting a variety of people to apply? Do they make it through the resume screen? If you don’t have data on this, you won’t be able to act on it. So get involved in getting this data and pairing with your recruitment team.

Have retrospectives on how things are going. Assuming you are regularly talking with recruiters and sourcers, reflect on what each group is seeing. How is the response rate from sourcers? How have referrals been faring? What types of inbound applications are coming your way? What candidates are recruiters most excited about? How have the interviews gone, and is there any feedback that stands out? The more, and the more openly, you talk, the more you’ll spot problem areas that you can decide to address.

Short, informal retrospectives after successful and failed onsites are also a good idea. These are both great learning opportunities. When you hired, ask yourself how you could expand your funnel to have more people with similar characteristics apply? When a person doesn’t get an offer, reflect on whether there is anything that could have predicted this earlier. Did this person not get an offer due to not meeting an unwritten requirement? Should you make that part of the job description? Or was it a really close call, and should you encourage looking for more of this, and similar profiles?

Have a clear policy on providing feedback at different stages of the process. What happens when someone is rejected at the resume stage? What about when it’s after the technical phone screen? Confirm what the process for feedback is with your recruitment team. You’ll want a policy that is sensible, and takes any legal and company constraints into account. While it would be amazing to give honest feedback on every single resume, as hiring managers, we know that this is not feasible for many reasons—legal and the resources needed being some of them. Still, you’ll want to ensure that candidates have a consistent experience, and you should also be clear when you encourage certain people to re-apply after a given time.

From the inside out: the story of BusyManager and MakeTimeManager

I observed two very different hiring managers in how they worked with in-house recruiters, and what their results were, over the course of a year.

BusyManager had a lot of things on their plate, and rarely had time for recruitment. They had a lot of fires to put out, shipping features, aligning with the business, and securing headcount. And they got a nice headcount grant, allowing their team to grow significantly. They did what most managers would do at this point: tasked recruitment to fill the headcount and let them run with it. They had more important things to do, and barely had time to put a short job description together. When they finally got around to checking in, things were not moving. They made it clear to recruitment that they needed results, and fast. However, the recruitment team just couldn’t get the right people on board: BusyManager rejected almost all candidates who were brought onsite. BusyManager changed recruiters a few times to get better results—but these results just did not come.

MakeTimeManager had a very small headcount to start with. Still, they wanted to make sure they hire right. The first thing they did was set up a weekly meeting with the recruitment team. They talked about expectations, opportunities and progress on this meeting. MakeTimeManager made it clear to the recruitment team that hiring comes first for them, and they are always free to interrupt.

They got lots of interruptions for resume screening, closing candidates and so on; but MakeTimeManager stood by their word. They were involved in all parts of the process, all the way to ensuring candidates had a great onsite experience. They advocated for all their team members to put recruitment first, always make time for interviews, prepare for them, and put the candidate experience above other tasks.

MakeTimeManager hired quickly, and hired well, surpassing all expectations. They were given more headcount after filling their original one. BusyManager failed to fill their headcount by a large gap. And to complete the picture: both managers worked with the exact same set of recruiters.

So how was it that only MakeTimeManager was getting results? It was because of the two, MakeTimeManager was the one who recognized that treating recruitment as a partner is key in growing any team, and doing it well. While recruiters loved working with MakeTimeManager, they found it hard to understand what BusyManager wanted to hire for, and the results reflected on this. When you're hiring, take the example from MakeTimeManager and catch yourself when you are starting to act like BusyManager.

Learn how others do it

This book is not about how to hire developers well, but several books cover this in detail. I recommend the following reading:

  • Smart and Gets Things Done by Joel Spolsky is a concise, opinionated and good guide on how to hire good developers. Though it was written in 2007, there are not many things that are dated about the book’s contents.
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit that Fit by Joanna Rothman. A must-read if you’re hiring for the first time, or if you don’t yet have an organized hiring strategy. The book guides you through defining a hiring strategy, analyzing the job and planning and executing all parts of the process. It ends with reference checks, making an offer and creating a great first day for the newly hired person.

There's more in the book...

Get The Tech Resume Inside Out and read the book, including the following chapters:

  • Applicant Tracking Systems: why you shouldn't "fear" these systems or worry optimizing your resume for them. We'll also bust ATS myths.
  • Resume structure: organizing your resume differenrly if you are a new grad, someone with work experience, or when you have lots of experience. Strategies to showcase the most important infomation, and your languages/technologies expertise.
  • Standing out: grabbing the attenton of the recruiter and hiring manager by being specific about the work you did, using numbers and examples. Tailoring your resume to the job description.
  • Different experience levels, different career paths: advice on what to focus on for students, bootcamp grads, career changers, senior and above engineers, tech leads, and engineering managers.
  • Beyond the resume: how to polish your LinkedIn, GitHub, technical blogs and cover letter to help your job search.

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