Risky Business: Why You Should Own Your Own Recruiting Data
Sep 24, 2015
Over the years, I’ve often written about my experiences as a lifetime recruiter. It’s a life that’s taught me some valuable lessons, to say the very least. Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the key to good recruiting is having a good database1. I know, that’s not the sexiest thing in the world, and I’m not trying to seduce you here, but there’s gold in them thar hills.
If your company has a database, whether in an ATS or another centralized repository where you’ve been storing resumes, you’re likely sitting on one of the biggest assets – and best data source – any talent acquisition function has at its disposal.
Trust me, if you’ve got anything even remotely resembling a resume database, there are plenty of people out there willing to pay a pretty penny to be able to access that information.
Even the most rudimentary legacy systems unilaterally have the ability to instantaneously retrieve a candidate’s resume, application history and contact information.
Having that kind of useful information at your fingertips can be a killer competitive advantage for recruiters, even though, I know, databases aren’t the sexiest or shiniest recruiting tool out there. Don’t believe me? Well, I suppose, per my usual style, I might as well tell you a story from back in the day, when I was first starting out on my recruiting journey.
Cue the chimes and the fog machine…
The Curious Case of The Great Magellan Database.
When I started out at my very first agency, part of my training was having to learn simple search strings that I could use to uncover candidates from within our existing database. When we couldn’t find a candidate, when we didn’t know where to turn or our normal sources of hire uncovered no potential hires, we knew better than to complain.
The answer to everything, according to my manager was, “IT’S ALL IN MAGELLAN!” He’d continuously scream this mantra at the top of his lungs so loud that we’d all cringe and want to kick the crap out of whoever the hell Magellan was for being such a useless know it all. Asshole.
There was actually a heavy metal recording studio a couple floors down from the agency, and the dude was so loud they used to complain about the noise. Stranger than fiction, I shit you not. But I digress.
Not only was Magellan an awesome Portuguese explorer, cartographer and navigator, but his legacy lived on as the namesake for a DOS based database that was the first ATS I ever actually used.
Our actual system of record was actually the old ACT platform – not to get too pedantic – but the owner had purchased Magellan as an add on so that he could somehow store and search across all the resumes he’d collected over the years. Like Magellan, he was a man ahead of his time.
Now, this tool was effective for searches, but as a scanning technology, it proved cumbersome; this was far before anyone had ever even heard the word “parsing,” much less figured out a way to mass upload a bunch of resumes from different sources.
That’s why the owner was forced to pay a handful of interns, who shared a storage closet in the back of the agency and were constantly hunched over their computer screens, manually entering resume data into this system. Talk about shitty jobs.
But while it wasn’t the silver bullet that he was looking for, my boss still maintained that Magellan was the greatest recruiting tool ever created, and that if we needed a candidate, all we needed to do was search the system.
Seriously. He constantly regaled me with tales of how he built this database up from scratch, coding and configuring it with his own two hands, sharpening the system on the cutting edge. Over multiple lunches, he’d tell me how he used to stand in the parking lots of local companies like Motorola, handing out flyers to employees coming out of their buildings into the company parking lot.
It was a prime location, and an even more prime source of targeted talent. These flyers, you see, had detailed job descriptions, as well as a fax number where any interested parties could discreetly drop a resume or letter of interest. This, folks, was what social recruiting was like in the 1980s, and somehow it worked. Now, I know many of you out there are asking, “What’s a fax machine.” I hate all of you, you know. Deep sigh.
That’s not to say Magellan was perfect, though. That system had a ton of persistent and pervasive problems plaguing this purported once and future database. First off, it was slow. Painfully slow. I’m talking about entering a search string and then grabbing a cup of coffee over at the 7-11, taking a crap, and then killing another 20 minutes gossiping with your coworkers before actually getting any results. That thing was not fast. In fact, it was slower than Corky on Life Goes On, or Sophia from the Golden Girls. Sigh. I know. Youth really is wasted on the young, you know.
When the search results finally appeared, I remember the keywords I entered would show up on the matching resumes in a weird yellowish hue, kind of like a digitized, Technicolor highlighter proving I’d succeeded in putting together a decent search term. Thank goodness, because that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.
But while the results were easy to see thanks to the bright yellow glow emanating from the resumes, actually looking at each and every resume returned proved to be extremely time consuming, due to both the overwhelming volume of resumes returned as well as the glacial speed of the system itself. Forget candidate experience. Let me tell you, this recruiter experience was frustrating as hell. So I get it.
Not only was it slow, but furthermore, Magellan didn’t actually indicate when the candidate had entered the system, and searching this database returned every relevant resume regardless of how recent the candidates activity actually was. Sure, they applied for something at some point, but in most cases, we discovered that was years ago (that is, if they remembered applying in the first place. Few did).
Consequently, most of the contact information contained in the system was normally obsolete and outdated; precious few of the resumes in there even had an email address, as that technology was just becoming a mainstream recruiting tool. Hey, hang with me until the tar pit sucks me in. Deal?
The final problem with Magellan was that if, by some act of God, the stars aligned and I not only found the right candidate, but somehow the system had accurate contact information for them, I found that reaching candidates wasn’t the same as actually engaging them. Most dismissed me like a redheaded stepchild or a job board sales rep. This was just part of the process, though, and I wasn’t about to argue with my boss.
I knew that pointing out what a piece of shit tool Magellan really was was one battle that wasn’t worth losing. See, my boss friggin’ loved this tool. That thing was his baby, and the dude truly believed that with a little bit of elbow grease, we could use Magellan to rule the recruiting world. Turns out there was only one problem with this genius plan: the internet.
As hard as my boss tried to build his own database, when Monster.com and other online resume repositories came onto the scene, they not only were able to scale to a size that far surpassed the database he was trying to build. Not only that, but with these new job boards, we were able to only see candidates who were looking right now, instead of chasing another cold lead with another cold call.
Say what you will, but job board candidates were the best; it was literally like being a kid in a candy store when online recruiting first entered the picture. These sites had a ton of great candidates who were willing to post their resume and contact information out there for the world of work to find in the hopes that some other employer might bite at the bait. I remember the first time I saw Monster, I thought, “This is going to change everything.”
And it did. For better or for worse.
The Rise of the Online Resume.
As I mentioned, the game changing technology that really altered business as usual in this business was Monster.com. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, and no, it wasn’t always the dustbin of the underemployed and unqualified that it’s become today.
Although we normally think of Monster for being a place to advertise jobs, the real evolution in recruiting came, in my opinion, when they were the first to launch an online resume database in which any job seeker could upload their resume to be found by any recruiter willing to pay the price of admission.
It seems really basic today, but when this functionality first came out, it was a new concept that was widely met with skepticism and disdain by most recruiters. Or at least, that seemed to be the consensus of everyone I talked to in my office.
The owner in particular scoffed at the idea of paying for Monster, insisting that he didn’t believe that any candidate who’d upload their resume into such a tool wasn’t worth hiring, and that achieving any sort of ROI would prove more or less impossible.
Let’s face it, back in those days we were still putting classified ads in print publications and receiving resumes through certified mail or, at best, via fax. While we’d occasionally come across a candidate who was qualified, the time and effort required to actually enter the resume into the database proved prohibitive, and most of our candidates never even made it into the system. It was a pain in the ass, pure and simple. Not worth it.
At that time, we were just starting to have clients who wanted us to email our resume submissions as opposed to faxing (or occasionally mailing) them over. Our largest client back then was American Express, and I remember, for whatever reason, they were very insistent that we only submit candidates via fax, and affix each and every submission with a signed letter of exclusivity (or LOE, as the cool kids called it).
It sucked major balls.
But, they were paying our salaries, more or less, so we shut up and put up. That is, until one day, when all of the sudden, a miracle happened. I remember opening an e-mail from the gatekeeper over at AMEX informing us that e-mail was required for all future resume submissions. That message was like the sun parting the skies with light, and I swear I could hear the voice of angels singing somewhere in my office.
I always found it a little funny they chose e-mail to communicate this communications policy. This also meant, of course, the owner found out about all this second hand and more or less freaked out at the thought of his cash cow going dry. So, he ran to the fax machine, pulled out the plug and forcefully warned that if anyone went near that damned thing, there would be hell to pay. Finally. We had entered the golden age of online recruiting.
Creating A Monster.
After much forceful coercion, we finally broke my boss down and got him to agree to shell out for a license for Monster, pointing out that not only were there awesome candidates there who were actually open to communication from recruiters, but they were basically sitting around waiting to be called!
It’s something we take for granted now, but imagine how badass this was to recruiters who had never before used the internet for recruiting or hiring.
We were busy dialing for dollars and getting the occasional faxed resume for our efforts, but suddenly all we had to do was post a freaking position and boom – there were dozens of resumes.
If we wanted a candidate, all we had to do was enter a few keywords, and the resumes appeared, ready to be cut and pasted from a Word Doc directly into Magellan.
Their database fed ours, and both seemed to have a fairly insatiable appetite for fresh candidates. This online recruiting thing, I remember thinking, was obviously the future. Forget Magellan – with all these resumes available to us all the time, there was no longer a need for that clunky search technology, slow ass operating system and dusty, outdated resumes clogging its archaic bowels. Building your own database, I pointed out, seemed to be as obsolete as that shitty software we were using.
My boss shot me a scowl, but I had a case use, having placed my very first candidate through building my first few clunky Boolean strings, pointing out the potential power of online recruiting enough so that I could finally get Monster and become one of the cool kids. I know. Times have changed. But I’ve got to tell you, back in the day, that job board kicked some serious ass, believe it or not.
A few weeks after launching our Monster license, things seemed to be going great. We were producing some great candidates for our newer tech positions, and uncovered some strong software candidates for some of our harder to fill roles. I was flying high.
Until I flew too close to the sun.
The Rescue Voyage of Magellan.
I remember it happening like it were yesterday. I had just opened a very high level, very lucrative requisition for a full time, exempt Cobol on a VAX/VMS platform for one of our largest clients. If you have no idea what the hell that means, well, now you know how I felt.
But I was determined to close this deal, finally proving once and for all that all I needed to find the right talent at the right time was the right tool, and Monster was that tool we’d all been waiting for. It was going to be case closed.
So, I opened up Internet Explorer and pulled up Monster; I was off and running. In the few months before this, I had never had a single problem finding qualified candidates on Monster who were open to discussing employment opportunities, no matter how niche or specialized that opportunity might be. That is, until now.
I remember entering in what seemed like dozens of searches, from different keyword variations to related skill sets, but I couldn’t find a single, solitary soul online with this skillset. And when I mean no one, I mean there was no one who was even remotely close. I was striking out, and while I’m rarely frustrated, I have to admit in this moment, I wanted to punch Trump, the Monster mascot and Philly Phanatic lookalike, in his stupid ass face.
The only people who even matched any of these keywords on Monster were college students and recent grads at the beginning of their career; the job, however, called for a senior level professional to replace a departmental leader who was retiring after years with the company. While I was new to recruiting, I quickly realized, as I beat my head against the firewall, that I had a flawed hypothesis – and flawed expectations – when it came to the limitations of online recruiting.
I was still in the nascent years of my career, a wet nosed newbie, and I had failed to understand that even though there were new tools and technologies for engaging candidates, most of the executive level talent I was looking for continued to look for jobs through more traditional channels, and largely shied away from publicly posting their resumes. These candidates had been indoctrinated with a certain approach to their job search and interacting with recruiters, and no technology in the world could fix that conservative mindset and traditionalist world view.
These senior level candidates, like so many of their peers (as I’d later discover), were still trying to figure out how the hell to send a fax machine and reconciling themselves with the fact that there were options outside of snail mail. Seriously, this was hard for many of them, who still insisted on sending everything through verified mail. Guess they wanted that stamp of approval (literally).
Case in point, I actually had one of my hiring managers threaten to scold one of my mainframe coders for sending her messages written in ALL CAPS. The issue, it turns out, was that the codebase for the mainframe itself only supported all caps, forcing coders to literally remove the all caps button after they’d finished setting the format.
The point here is that tech professionals, or people in general for that matter, don’t like change. In fact, most friggin’ hate it, frankly. Early adopters are almost always outliers, and in the mid 90s, email was as cutting edge as it got. We’re still trying to figure it out, even after all these years, but while we’ve adopted many new tools and technologies, many candidates continue to resist this change.
For example, many older coders have not yet reconciled themselves with publishing their personally identifiable details on sites like social networks, which many still see as some sort of passing fad. I remember at the dawn of the internet, when job boards were supposed to burn bright and fade away – they’re still here, and they still work. There was no Facebook or LinkedIn, and social media wasn’t even on our recruiting radar. Instead, we actually spoke to one another, but that’s another post entirely.
Back to our story. After striking out on Monster, I reluctantly clicked out of IE and double clicked that gross GUI icon that said Magellan – then sat back as the ancient DOS based program slowly whirred into action. I felt a little bit like I was opening some mothballed attic full of books that had been collecting dust for decades – I could almost smell the digital mothballs.
I honestly think I choked back tears staring at that god awful interface, which compared to Monster seemed like going back in time and trading my muscle car for a mule. But I had no choice. So my fingers danced across the keyboard as I entered a search string, hoping the keywords would somehow return some resume, any resume, really. I hit enter, and waited. Big money, no whammies.
While the processor slowly worked its magic, I chatted with an account manager for a minute, then grabbed a cup of coffee and went downstairs to grab a snack out of the vending machine. I had forgotten I’d even started the search when I returned to my desk, where I made a startling discovery.
The most unbelievable thing had happened. There, right in front of my eyes, were resumes. Over 100 of them. All with green shade highlighting matches for the keywords I had inputted earlier with a foregone sense of utter futility. What was more, most of them had full contact information that was mostly up to date – email addresses and phone numbers galore.
It was like hitting the damn jackpot as I stared at that screen. Sure, I had to wait 10 minutes. But somehow, someway, I had my leads. And these weren’t just good leads, these were Glenn Gary leads that were waiting for a closer to step in and claim his cup of coffee. As I stared at my screen with the same look Scrooge has as he plunges into his pool of gold, I realized my boss was standing behind me. He cleared his throat. I turned, looking up.
My boss had a big, shit eating grin on his face, and as I waited, he simply smiled and said:
“Like I told you before, Derek, it’s all in Magellan.”
Around the Recruiting World.
He then turned, and as he left, called out over his shoulder, “Now, get on the phone and fill this thing.” I had already finished dialing the first result as he slammed his office door shut. I looked up and realized the entire office was staring at me. I don’t know if they felt bad for me, or what, but I know I learned a pretty important lesson that day.
By the end of the week, Magellan had found me three viable candidates, and within a few more days, one of them actually turned into a placement. I would never have found that candidate on Monster, but there he was, sitting in my own rickety, rusty old database.
I learned that day that new isn’t necessarily better. It’s just new. Sometimes, the old ways still work, and even though I hate justifying things by saying “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” it’s often done that way for a reason. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.3
Even though I long ago left that agency gig, to this day I still go to my own resume database first before looking online for candidates. See, every resume in there means that at some point, these candidates were actually interested in your company, or at least exploring opportunities. That means there’s a good chance they might be willing to at least consider returning your recruiting related messages.
I am also anal about keeping notes on candidates within the system; this additional information, whether it’s from my own previous experiences or one of my colleagues prior interactions with a particular candidate, often are the primary information informing whether or not a candidate is actually worth calling.
While every ATS out there, by definition, has some sort of resume database, looking at your candidate database as simply a tracking system misses the point. No matter how much your system sucks, there are almost always a ton of great leads and recruiting data simply waiting to be found. And it’s your job as a recruiter not only to continuously grow this database, but continue to mine it, too. These aren’t cold calls – they’re warm leads.
Sure, not every resume sitting there in your database is going to be an amazing candidate or even placeable. Most are probably no longer actively looking for a new job or considering careers with your company. That’s cool. The more candidates you interact with, the more relationships you can build, the more notes you can take, the better. That’s the kind of networking that’s truly worth something. By shining a light on the black hole, you’ll never forget a candidate, and always have a pipeline of interested candidates worth engaging.
Hey, let’s face it. We all have to live with our applicant tracking systems, and we’re all building our own databases, anyways. We might as well make the most of it.