How to Approach Impossible Job Postings

Kitchen Sink

How many times have you seen a job posting that made you wonder what planet the employer was living on? You know, an ad that features an impossible mix of skills and experience like, say, a requirement for 10 years of iOS development work?

Navigating such postings is frustrating, at best. And at a time when employers lament the lack of available tech talent, why are they writing such job descriptions to begin with? There can be a variety of reasons—some good, some bad, some ugly.

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“I think the real issue is that many companies don’t realize that, more times than not, they are not going to be able to replace someone who left with a person who has an identical skill set,” says Trevor Simm, President of staffing firm OpalStaff in Millersville, Md. “Many companies lose sight of the fact that their employees, especially those with tenure, have evolved a great deal since their hire date, and have gained knowledge of technologies that are specific to that employer and their environment.”

The best response to these postings varies. Unfortunately, the correct approach often depends on what’s going on at the company… Something you can only guess at.

Reason No. 1: The Company’s Needs are Evolving

Often, a blue-sky job description is a sign of flux. For example, says Jennifer Goldin, a Senior Recruiter for technology at financial services company Moody’s, the employer may be moving to a new platform, system or programming language while keeping in place certain legacy systems.

In such cases,managers are telling me, ‘I need someone who can do our new process or new system, but he or she needs to be equally comfortable working on our legacy systems,’” she says. “So we’re looking for profiles that are everything but the kitchen sink.”

From her point of view, one solution is to hire a senior person who has the edge-type skills–knowledge of the technology the company has migrated to—and then find a junior resource who can take care of the legacy system. In terms of finding everything in one package, “We just can’t get all of that in one person.”

What you can do: If that’s the situation, talk specifics. Goldin appreciates it when candidates will talk about exact projects they’ve worked on. “If it correlates to a certain system we’re using, how did you use that system? How did you implement it? What challenges did you find?” she says, “Our managers here would be very interested to talk about how you overcame those challenges, especially if you’re dealing with a job description that asks for everything.”

If you can pique the employer’s interest about your actual experience rather than simply sharing a laundry list of things you’ve done in the past, your path could be a lot easier.

Reason No. 2: The Hiring Manager Wants a Short List of Applicants

Some managers throw in every experience or skill they can think of into their job description because they believe doing so will weed out less-qualified candidates, Simm says.If a candidate thinks they don’t match the description, goes the reasoning, they won’t apply for the opening.

What you can do: Be selective in the opportunities you pursue, and make sure your resume and qualifications are tailored specifically to each job, Simm advises. If you’ll need to gain additional skills to do the job, present a plan on how you’d do that.

Reason No. 3: The Company Doesn’t Know What It Wants

Sometimes an employer wants to get on board the latest trend–We need a mobile app! We need Hadoop!–without fully understanding all it entails.

That often happens in usability, where demand for experts is growing even though companies don’t always know what constitutes an expert in the first place. Indeed, the approach of some employers so frustrated Bennett Lauber, Chief Experience Officer for UX consulting firm the Usability People, that he admonishes them not to look for “a flying unicorn that can sing, write code, and do UX.”

In such cases, Lauber says, employers don’t realize that creating a user experience involves a number of disciplines and skills practiced by a team, not a single individual. “If they obviously don’t understand the job in their job posting, they obviously don’t understand the job,” he observes.

What you can do: If you confront this situation, Lauber’s advice is to run the other way. A company without a clear vision for a project is setting itself–and the candidate–up to fail, he says. It’s creating unrealistic or vague expectations that you’ll make yourself crazy trying to fulfill. Alternatively, you can try to determine if it’s possible to educate the bosses about what’s truly needed to make the project successful, but it’s essential to make that assessment before you get too far along in pursuing the job.

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6 Responses to “How to Approach Impossible Job Postings”

  1. Darian Dunn

    There is of course option #4. The hiring manager already has someone picked out for the spot and they don’t want anyone else to get it.

    I have seen #3 and #4. I can’t say I have seen #1 or #2.

    • Nightcrawler

      Yep, this happens a lot, and not just in tech. Companies routinely run ads for jobs that are already slotted for the boss’ son-in-law or someone else in their Good Old Boy Network (although the candidate may not necessarily be male). They do this for Affirmative Action purposes, so that if they are accused of racism/sexism/etc., their defense is, “But we tried to hire an outside candidate, and nobody was qualified!”

  2. Mary Townsend

    Ok, then reason #5. The situation is that users and user management are critical of IT and IT management. IT’s problem is that technology is now more complex than ever, while user customers now expect it to be fast and easy due to their experiences on the internet and mobile.

    Hiring broad super-experts on everything, especially those with good communication skills, will help management’s credibility: they will train IT management on complex technology issues so management can make better arguments for funding projects; they will be good at project planning meetings with an ability to impress users; they will help train offshore and onshore development staff as well as junior local staff; they will help encourage user management to work with IT instead of going outside for consulting/development resources on their own.

  3. Jason Bussey

    I’m trying to transition to the IT industry and I’m finding very hard to get at least an entry level position. I currently have an Associate’s degree, Network+, and Security+ certifications. I’m studying A+ currently but just need some advice on what I should do to gain experience? any advice would be great….

    • Darian Dunn, CISSP, CISA, CRISC

      Mary, I don’t consider #5 an impossible job. That is my normal day. 🙂

      Jason, location, location, location and maybe something else. If you are in a big city like Washington DC with multiple new positions posted every day, then there is something else wrong. I don’t know if it is attitude, your previous job history, starting salary, key words on the resume or even just looking the part, but you look qualified for an entry position here in DC. On the other hand, I have a friend who moved from here to Atlanta, GA. He was doing OK here, but can’t find a job to save his life in Atlanta. There just isn’t that much turn over and there is higher unemployment of qualified candidates.

      My only suggestion is, find somewhere to volunteer to do computer tech work. This way you can show that you can do the job.

      • Or could it be that Atlanta has been a magnet for H1b visa workers? Then there is #6 – the ad is for a position that the posting company wants to use for an H1b worker who only has those skills on paper and will not look at an American’s resume. Once you’ve been in an area for a while you recognize these and the recruiters who do this.