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Killer Keywords

Forget about fancy fonts and foo-foo prose--the inhuman resources department just wants to see the phrase 'C++ programmer."

By Michael Learmonth

There is little to rival the soul-splitting agony of putting together a résumé and cover letter. Of trying, on paper, to strike that perfect balance between competence and desire, humility and charm. And doing it to the tastes of a powerful and unfamiliar reader, who will sift through piles of similarly wrought missives in the same week or even the same day.

So what happens when it turns out that the human resources recipient at the other end isn't human after all? That the crisp, recycled, lavender silk-threaded paper chosen for the right résumé impression will not be handled, but sucked into a giant, unfeeling scanner? What does it mean when computers--not people--decide whose résumé gets forwarded to the big cheese and whose gets the standard kiss-off?

CLARA HORVATH, a career consultant who teaches at the Career Action Center in Cupertino, proffers new advice to the job-seekers of the digital age. Her video, called "Will a Computer Ignore Your Résumé?," assumes that increasingly popular software such as Resumix and Restrac--which allow incoming résumés to be scanned, stored on disk and later searched by keyword--"have become a fact of life in Silicon Valley."

These programs, in addition to résumé databases on the Internet such as Intellimatch, résuméxpress and the Monster Board, are changing the way people write and think about the most important--and stressful--document of the white-collar world.

First, the basics on impressing a computer. Remember all those desktop publishing gimmicks like italics, fancy fonts and the can't-be-too-sophisticated bullet? Forget it. They'll trip up the software when scanned and sprinkle unsightly numbers and symbols in the text. Then, it might be sent to a monkey in the HR department for reformatting. Levi Strauss Company, which has over 35,000 résumés in its system, has four formatters working full-time to delete the screw-ups. The cutoff at Levi Strauss is 250 errors. Otherwise, said Alix Henderson of the staffing department, "We might as well retype the whole thing." What's more, she warned, "We don't correct spelling errors."

The second rule for digital résumés is even more painful. Long a mainstay of the impressive résumé is the authoritative verb: managed, produced, supervised, oversaw, co-authored, analyzed, recruited. Forget about them. Those four years of "managerial" experience? The computer really doesn't give a damn. Nowadays, you're nothing without the killer keyword. In fact, many digital résumés begin not with the standard career objective, but with a list of keywords to increase the likelihood of being plucked in a typical keyword search. This is where the job-seeker's ingenuity comes in. "It behooves you to know the language of the company," said Horvath. "The language in the want-ad is what the company is using as keywords."

Companies that automate this level of their human resources department read like a corporate who's who of the Bay Area. Adobe Systems, Levi Strauss, Sun Microsystems, Raychem, Cisco Systems, Bank of America, Kaiser Permanente and Intel all use résumé-scanning technology. This shouldn't surprise anyone, said Mary-Ellen Mort, director of JobSmart, an online career-searching service sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library. "You can't blame the company for being big," Mort said. "The problem from the large employer's perspective is they are just overwhelmed with a flood of paper."

Companies love the scanning technology because it saves personnel in HR. The computer may even give résumés a closer look than its human counterparts of years past. "Studies showed the first scan of a batch of résumés would take three to eight seconds," said Mort.

What computers have wrought, however, is an increased emphasis on specific skills. Especially since the systems have premiered in the so-called "hot" Silicon Valley high-tech firms. "The job search is Darwinian," said Mort, adding: "Now C++ programmers are most in demand."

What does all this automation mean? It means it's less likely for the obviously under-qualified to get an interview. So stop fantasizing about wowing Gil Amelio with your winning people skills, Italian fluency and command of Drucker.

If any technology is to blame for this additional level of job-search anguish, it's probably more the photocopier than the computer. Horvath says too many job-seekers have indiscriminately spammed Fortune 500 companies with an ill-placed letter and résumé. Mort thinks increasing societal isolation--exacerbated by the telecommuting trend--is also to blame. "Most people find jobs through other people. We need to get back to the days when we really had friends. And not just email friends."

Meanwhile, I'm preparing for my next job search by including my middle initial, Michael C++ Learmonth, and some of my high school grades: Honors English: C++, on my résumé.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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