Not everything is awesome

by Andrew Betts,

I am not awesome. I am not a rockstar, superstar, ninja, or guru either. The ‘cult of awesome’ that too frequently crops up in the technology industry is a problem and it breeds a culture of egos and aggrandising that can be self defeating.

I recently updated the FT Labs jobs page (go look at it, it’s nice!), and asked a number of people I respect for their opinion. Specifically I was concerned about the lack of diversity in our applicants, and I wanted a number of perspectives on how we might improve the wording to make it more appealing to a broader range of people. It wasn’t a quantity issue – plenty of people do apply to work at Labs, but we want to hire the best people for the job, and that means making sure we don’t put anyone off unintentionally.

Two people said the same thing in two different ways, and it resonated with me because I agreed with their principle wholeheartedly and was surprised to think that a job ad I wrote could suffer from this problem. Here’s the offending sentence:

Working at FT Labs is a commitment to drive yourself beyond your own expectations

It was pointed out that people who perhaps are nervous of their capabilities or their potential, might find it off-putting that we were potentially a boiler-house of pressure to constantly excel, which we’re not. As the first line of a page trying to sell jobs at the FT, it seems to prioritise performance above all else.

In fact, someone might be the very best engineer in the world, but I wouldn’t want to hire them if they have a lousy attitude to collaboration, a superiority complex or no interest in the product.

It reminded me of other ads I’ve seen that I instantly dislike, like this which also comes from an FT ad:

Requirements: You are a software development superstar, …

I know I will almost certainly dislike anyone who thinks this describes them. Unfortunately we often write job ads thinking about how we’d describe the person we want to hire, not how someone like that would describe themselves. So it’s understandable that you describe them in glowing terms, but it’s actually not helpful.

I thought about this, and reworded my ad:

Being part of the FT Labs team is a commitment to push yourself and those around you to do better, constantly adapt and learn new technologies, and be able to apply yourself to any challenge, whether you’re just starting out or a veteran of the industry.

Wordy. But I like it a lot more. We still want people to aspire to work hard and produce great results, but the focus has shifted from the individual to their place in the team, and includes a reminder that commitment and enthusiasm and talent does not necessarily require experience or even a lot of expertise.

Superstars are a pain

As much as it’s irritating to see these ‘performance superlatives’ used in job ads, it’s also just plain hilarious to imagine what it would be like to literally hire one.

  • Rockstar: Music would be too loud. And think of the tantrums. Would refer all pull request comments to their agent.
  • Guru: Code would probably be indecipherable. Solutions would work but no-one would understand how. For no apparent reason documentation would only make sense when incanted.
  • Ninja: Would you even know if you had hired a ninja? At least they probably wouldn’t use much desk space.
  • Superstar: The entourage would get in the way, and red carpet is hard to clean.

Everything is not awesome

If the above list are some of the most misused words in tech recruitment, awesome goes straight to the top. The LEGO movie demonstrates just how ridiculous its usage has become. There are very few things in everyday life that are deserving of true awe, and even fewer people. I think I’d say I’ve met no more than five people I would describe as awesome, though I’ve seen many more things that are. The opening ceremony of London 2012, for example, was awesome. The fact that I am willing to pick up a sandwich for you on my way past Sainsbury’s, is not.

Sweating the details

As well as re-orienting the main focus of our ads, there are lots of other, tiny things that help to make an ad more inclusive, and again it comes down to imagining how a candidate would describe themselves, not how you think of them or even how you think of yourself. In our flexible working section, we had an example of how you might want to adjust start and end times to accommodate a sports schedule. It now also includes the example of a nursery or school run.

It’s worth asking someone very different to you to try to find language that you’ve added without thinking about it that just reflects your own experience.

Surprise! It works.

I made these changes a couple of weeks ago, and since then we’ve had a noticeable uptick both in the number and diversity of applications, and many applicants are quoting the new bits of the job ad at me when I ask them what prompted them to apply.

If you’re looking for a new job as a web developer and you are not sure whether you’d be up to it, try us anyway. We can only say no (politely), and no-one ever gets anywhere without trying. If we find someone who really is awesome, they probably won’t think that of themselves. And if you had a chance to ask the person you most admire how they got to where they are, chances are the ultimate answer is, “I applied”.