How to get past the job application gatekeepers and land an interview

Ever feel like there’s a bouncer blocking you out of getting a job interview? Image by Pheonix2011 at Bitstrips.com.

When you knock on a company’s door, it’s unlikely that your future boss will answer. Instead, companies have human resources departments, the gatekeepers, who decide who gets in. These are not normally people who understand your technological skills on a deep level, so your first goal is not to tell them about your intimate knowledge of C#, HTML5 or expertise in network penetration testing.

Your goal is to make the best possible first impression. The HR manager you’re speaking to may have dealt with thousands of candidates for a myriad of positions within the company, and for now, your technical skills are merely check boxes. He or she is really looking at the big picture: will you fit in there?

It’s a fair question, and this is your opportunity to imagine yourself on the other side of the table. You may have a specialty and a passion for your work, but how will the company benefit from having you around? Can you work as part of a large team? Can you adapt to changing working conditions? How quickly can you learn new skills?

On paper, your technical skills may look virtually identical to other candidates. That’s why in person, you’ve got to stand out.

The soft skills rule

It’s safe to say that despite a few quibbles about which ones are the most important, virtually everyone agrees that soft skills are important for IT job seekers.

Still, you might get the impression that in rare cases, a person could have such extraordinary intelligence or unique talent in one area that an organization will overlook many of their shortcomings. In other words, if you’re a true genius and know a company wants you badly enough, you might as well show up to your interview dressed for the beach, mumble a few words about your own brilliance, and write your own ticket.

Leaving aside the question of whether you’re lucky enough to be one of these people, I’m not even sure this happens in the real world.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Industry analyst firm Gartner has cited big data as the most pressing challenge facing enterprises right now. Companies see the enormous amount of data they’re sitting on as a potential gold mine, and not surprisingly, people with advanced degrees in statistics combined with superb computer skills are in very high demand.

These kinds of people are few and far between. And they’re being aggressively recruited by headhunters from competing companies. During a panel session at a conference in Orlando last year, I had a chance to learn a bit about how far companies will go to hold on to them.

Two of the panelists were Cameron Davies, director of management science and integration at the Walt Disney Company and Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins. Both of them gave recommendations on setting up a team of data scientists, one of which was essentially to treat them very well.

Davies, for example, said they should be paid handsomely and be given the freedom to move out of IT into other branches of the organization if they wished. Pretty sweet deal.

Were these technological and mathematical geniuses graded on their soft skills before they got their jobs? I don’t know. But what I do know is that both companies have just three each (that’s actually considered a fairly substantial data science team, believe it or not). And I have no doubt that there are more than a half dozen qualified data scientists in the U.S. who could have done the job.

The bottom line: even when you’re the part of the technological elite, you still need to compete for your dream job. And everything else being equal, superior soft skills make you a winner.

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