EP 2144 Applicant tracking systems. The ATS. Defeating it. Reverse engineering it for results. That’s what my interview is about with Eleanor Meegoda from JobStep http://www.jobstep.co

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So, my guest today is Eleanor Meegoda the CEO and co-founder of job step, the first resource for job seekers that guarantees five plus interviews to jobs you actually want in six weeks, you actually want well, job step does this by pairing the expertise in great job coaches other than me, by the way, with technology that finds and applies to great jobs on behalf of job seekers, , thanks for making time today. Appreciate it.

Thanks for having me. I'm so excited.

I'm glad you are and that means you're ready to give people lots of good stuff.

I hope that.

Folks, we're gonna be talking about reverse engineering the ATS in order to get results and I know there's software out there that's publicly available that you can order but you believe you do it better. So, how does someone start to reverse engineer the ATS into their resume in order to start getting results?

Yeah, it's a really good question. So, I think the first thing to understand is that an ATS, an applicant tracking system is fundamentally a tool. It is a tool that recruiters and hiring managers use to help them figure out which candidates they should bring in for an interview and ultimately hire and so, I think it's helpful when you're thinking about how do I game the ATS? How do I reverse engineering? you think about how this tool is being used and so, if you think about it, what the way that a recruiter or hiring manager is using the ATS, the ATS, is software where your resume sits until a recruiter or a hiring manager is ready to read your resume and the rest of your application materials and so, from there, they're going to do some things to pull up a resume and then search this doing some things. That's the part, the first step of what you want to gain. So, anything I should clarify before I keep going, ?

Don't you worry, I'm not bashful. So, I'm just gonna pause there for a second and say, so it's a software. It does the intake of the resumes; it parses into fields, amazing and a couple of things in here. It parses data into fields, so it's retrievable at a later date. So, one of the reasons I always make sure to tell people, make sure your zip code is on the resume is one of the search criteria zip code that people use on the search, no one wants to contact someone in Poland, if you're in New Jersey.

Exactly, those are exactly. That's a really good summary of what happens. So, when you submit your application, you've attached your resume, you've entered your information, the ATS now has your resume, depending on the type of applicant tracking system, there's a bunch of different filtering and parsing that happens. So, the first thing is the system takes your resume, and it says, okay, yes, this is a resume, we can store it. The second thing that's happening is, it's reading the resume so that it becomes searchable, depending on the ATS you're using and how the recruiter is using the ATS a couple things might happen. So, if you have applied to typically a bigger company that's using what I call a legacy applicant tracking system, these are older applications. If you look at the URL, you'll see something like iCIMS or Twilio, you'll notice because it often has lots of pages, the user experience feels like it's something out of the 90s, it's just like the nineties, it's just letting you know how you know you're on a legacy system, these ATSs as applicant tracking systems.

This is when people are saying, Oh, you know, the robots, the bots that I need to get through, the autofill during the fact that in my resume, these are the types of systems where there are hard coded pieces of logic, I personally think are pretty stupid pieces of logic that are going to try to read your resume and match on a Blackbox set of terms to match your resume to the job description and then it auto filters what the recruiter is seeing. So, when the recruiter comes in at 9am the next morning and goes through his or her list of resumes, it's already been auto filtered. So, that's a legacy system of what happens right, if you are applying to some of some other applicant tracking system.


Such as green house, or lover or workday or Jobvite, you'll notice again, you can look at the URL and a lot oftentimes you'll actually see it in the application URL. These systems often give recruiters a choice; they give recruiters and hiring managers a choice. Do I want as a recruiter want to be able to search all the resumes? Or do I want to set certain pieces of logic to auto filter for certain things? And most frequently, it's yes or no thing. So, as you said, zip code, right? There is a zip code matches zip codes that I'm matching. If in the application question you're answering yes or no questions. Oftentimes, there might be an easy lover, for the recruiter or a hiring manager say yes, I want only people who said yes or only people have said no and they might also pull in things like title or pieces of software that they want someone to have familiarity with and that says, Okay, I only want to see the resumes or only want to prioritize the resumes that match these filters. So, that's an option that recruiters can do and then what's most common, especially at smaller companies, because they want to review everyone and especially, I think. With this Zeitgeist of people saying, yes, we want more diversity in tech, I think recruiters have become a little bit more open.

The most common way that recruiters are using these tools is actually just typing in a search, whenever they get to their day, 9am or noon, during your lunch break, they type in a search, just like you would type in a search on Google and they're typing in the requirements that they want to see in the resume. So, most commonly, again, title or pieces of software that you�re familiar with, and then they�re going to pull the resume, that one have been parsed. So, that the ETS can read it and see, okay, is there a search term that matches and then with this newer software, it's oftentimes not just a simple dumb matchup, oh, it needs to be troubleshot. It can be troubleshot, troubleshooted, right? And then it'll pull up all the resumes. So, that's kind of the system as a whole as you're thinking, Okay, my resume when I'm applying, it needs to one be parsable by the software.

They are parsable cause it uses what type that�s not historically on the older systems, the older systems never like frames on the resume.

Exactly, so, the legacy systems, if you have colour, if you have fancy formatting, if you're using a font that isn't Times New Roman, or Arial, most likely because these things are old and have not been updated in some time, it might not get parsed. An easy way to know whether your resume is getting parsed across all ATSs is when you're submitting your application and you notice that okay, it also asked like, Hey, tell me your work history and it's not automatically parsing your name and work history on the application itself, that's a good indication that your resume is not possible on the form. It's not always one for one that the software that's person in the front end is what's parsing on the backend. But it's a pretty good proxy.

So, the safe approach is to think that you're working with the old ATS all the time. So, this way, you have parsable fonts, you're not doing things that will guarantee rejection by those systems, even though the newer ones can handle them much better?

Newer ones can definitely handle things a little bit better. But I would I agree, I think generally being safe, making sure your resume is a PDF, making sure your resume is just black and white, minimizing the fancy fonts or fancy boxes, or the fancy frames or extra lines that you don't need just to be on the safe side, right? For every additional thing, every fancy thing that you add on your resume, some engineer needed to think about, oh, how am I going to parse this right? And so, if it hasn't been parsed or if someone hasn't thought, how would I parse this, it probably isn't getting parsed.

So, let's assume that all works very well. The common belief people have about the ATS is that it's the black hole. Things go in, they never come out, at least come out with interviews. So, what I heard you say is that for many people, they walk in on Monday morning, and are running the search rather than the system doing the evaluation.

Yep, exactly, this metaphor of the black hole, I think is a good one, because emotionally it captures just how painful this process is from the job seeker perspective. But if you go to the system perspective, your resume is going through first and needs to be parsed by the ATS and then a recruiter walks in Monday, 9am, right? Back when we used to commute to work every single day, they're haggard, no one likes Monday and then they go into their ATS and most commonly, they're typing in a search term they're typing in. For example, if you're looking for a customer success rate, they might be typing in customer success because they prefer people who have some experience in customer service whether that's a course or a title or so forth, right. Or if you're engineer and they're looking for someone who does Python, they're going to type in Python, they might type in the stacks that are most common to what they need in that engineer and then that's going to help them filter. Do that first filter to pull up what they think are hopefully, the most relevant resume.

So, now they get their stack that they're actually going to review. So, they've done the search, they see, okay, maybe the top 50, top 100 however, many resumes, and then they will go through, and then they'll skim it and read it and every recruiter is a little different, right? Some of them will get it printed, but someone might have them on the screen. But typically, it's about six to twenty seconds per resume, and your resume is one of over a dozen, if not two, or three dozen, that a recruiter is going through all at the same time.

The common belief, I'm going to come back to the common beliefs here, you can knock them down or agree with. The common belief is one of the ways the systems evaluate people is that they're programmed to look for keywords within a certain space, or a certain positioning in the document and repetition of the key words as well, in order to demonstrate, number one, this person really uses, I'm gonna use Python as the example. They're really Python developer and mentioned Python three times in the first half of page one.

Yeah, there are so many applicant tracking systems out there. So, I can imagine that there might be an applicant tracking system out there that might have what I call this stupid logic, where it's matching on an exact keyword and it's now just counting this keyword showed up five times, so it must be most relevant. That's dumb logic. Now an employer pays an ATS, they played the company that builds the ATSs to say, Okay, I want you to filter and my guess is they'll look at the results and they'll go okay, so we are getting only resumes where engineers are putting Python 12 times on the resume as opposed to telling you about their accomplishments, telling me about the cool products that they shipped. Or if it's customer success, it has Salesforce 17 times; I don't want someone who puts Salesforce 17 times. I want this person who actually showed me that they had an impact, what types of customers they work with, what kind of revenue they were able to bring in from upselling and from renewals and so, they'll make the choice Oh, this ATS, this is not working for me, let me go choose one of the many other dozens, if not hundreds of other ATS options out there that either doesn't have this auto filter, or allows me to search a little smarter.

So, I would say going back to a job seeker, there probably are one or two that do this. My guess is one of these older legacy systems. But what's going to be more impactful again, because the black hole is not just the ATS, it is this whole system, it's getting your resume parsed and now getting it read by a real human, by a real person who is probably tired and has a million other things to do, getting it read by a real person and then having that person going, yes, I want to bring this person in, I want to bring in, I want to have a conversation. I want to figure out how I can advocate for this person and get them hired and work with them and so, it's those two steps so, my tip for how to get through the ATS. You want to get it readable enough that it's read by the ATS. But ultimately, you want it to be human readable. You want it to be impressive to a human being because it's a two-step process. So, if you want, we can talk about the types of keywords that we at job step that make sure we have and the types of tricks and tools and the guidance that I give to my job coaches to make sure that the resumes that they write and the cover letters they write are actually getting to the ATS and enabling our jobseekers get interviews if that's interesting.

Good idea.

So, we're thinking about keywords. You don't want to put Python 17 times; it's not helpful, right? Because, again, your recruiter is going to read this and go, well, what developer put Python 17 times I want to know about this app that you shipped, I want to know about this data structure and how you use that and how many customers this served. So, when you were thinking about your resume, there are two sets of keywords that a recruiter is most likely to search on. One is the software, the types of software that you use. So, what we like to do is put a section on the bottom of your skills and your interests and this is where you put the different types of software that you may have used.

So, Salesforce is good one if you're in customer support, Zendesk, intercom. If you are an engineer, obviously putting in the different types of stacks that you've worked with. If you're in sales, the different CRMs that you've worked with, because one, from a keyword standpoint, this is a keyword that will match no matter what tense because it doesn't change for past tense and present tense, obviously and then the second one is, this keyword is actually something a recruiter is going to read and go, okay, this person is going to learn this job very quickly, because they already have familiarity with the software we use. Or it's similar enough that I know they can learn and so you've passed the two phases. So, we like to have a skill section on the bottom, have the category of the skill in case someone's looking for the category and then have the actual software. The second keyword tip I would say is think about the title, right? So today, titles are morphing so fast. But if you think about customer success, which is one of the fastest growing job titles in this country, actually globally, customer success didn't exist before 2001 and so, a lot of companies have something like customer success, where you're doing actually the customer success role, or something very similar.

Then if you feel that you've done enough of this role in the past, maybe you've been an account manager, maybe you've been a solutions consultant, but you've helped out on the post sales relationship, put customer success manager as your title, put it in parentheses, if you feel you were mostly something else, but you have done that kind of work. Or if you feel yeah, I can defend that I can say that I was doing this while I look at the job description of the company that I'm applying to it says customer success, it looks very similar to what I've been doing, put customer success there as long as you can defend it. This is this is one of the things that recruiters are going to search for to see do you have experience, and then you get into the interview can defend it. That's an easy fix. So, I like to make sure you change the titles to make sure it's accurate and it's something you can defend. But it matches most closely to the job description that you're applying to.

And those folks who do very few things that make people think. Thinking is vastly overrated, spell it out for what you really do, and as said, it�s something that you can defend.


It's one thing to say I have live experience, whatever that means, with whatever the item is, but think in terms of what's defensible and don't BS people, people find that quickly enough. How many people do you know folks that get hired for all that bs that they put on their resume? It always comes back to the core stuff anyway.


JeffAltman, The Big Game Hunter
JeffAltman, The Big Game Hunter

Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching, and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 2100 episodes.

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Reverse Engineering the ATS for Results Part 1 | No BS Job Search Advice Radio


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