How to Write a Job Description That Stands Out

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If you are trying to fill a competitive position, then using a “me-too” job description that reads just like all the others won’t cut it.

Go to Dice.com or Monster.com, search for the position you’re hiring for in your city, and read five job descriptions.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Welcome back.

Notice how most sound the same?

If you’re trying to attract the right talent, being another beige, mid-sized sedan won’t help, and it won’t help you keep them when another organization comes calling.

This is my process for writing a job description to attract “A” talent. It’s geared for programmers but can easily be applied for other competitive roles.

Step 1 – Make a List of What You Want Someone to Accomplish in the First Year
Think one year into the future when you’re having a performance review with the candidate you hire.

What will someone have accomplished that will make them an A-player in your book?

Skip the buzzwords, gobbledygook, and technologies and focus on results.

Have they turned around a struggling project?

Helped build something new?

Helped the business team clarify its needs?

Found a way to get GPS to work across all 16 use cases?

Make a list of five to eight accomplishments.

Step 2 – Add Details to Each Accomplishment
For each accomplishment, write three to four sentences adding some details.

Who will be helped?

How will this accomplishment impact the organization?

What will be fun about solving that problem?

What are the unique challenges or opportunities for this problem area?

Step 3 — Make a Scorecard of Fit Criteria
Most people can be A-players somewhere, but very few will have the necessary mix of skills and competencies to be an A-player on your team or for your role.

For each accomplishment from your list, think about if it’s technically innovative or routine; if it’s a high-level or low-level problem; if it’s well-understood or needs clarity and planning.

Think about your department and team and note if this person will be joining a team or working alone; if they will have control of tools and techniques or will need to be flexible and adapt; if you’ll have growth opportunities and when those might be, etc.

Make a list of five to ten criteria an A-player for this role should possess. It should be in, “We need this, not that” format, i.e., “We need high-level thinking, not low-level thinking.”

Some of these you’ll want to make public in your job description because it will cut down on the number of resumes you have to sort through, but some you’ll want to keep private so candidates don’t try to artificially fit themselves to the role.

If you’re hiring programmers, look over my article 8 Factors That Reveal if a Programmer Will Fit Your Team and Organization for ideas on who might be a good fit for your team.

Step 4 — What is Your Organization’s Purpose?
Programmers change jobs every two years on average, and that turnover is rarely good for organizations and projects.

All jobs have problems and challenges and developers routinely jump around in hopes of finding someplace that does not.

The single easiest way to make in-demand candidates want to work for your organization — and then keep them around longer — is to show them how their work supports a broader purpose.

Why does your organization exist? Who does it help? How does it help them?

Get out of the weeds of what you do day-to-day and think about the bigger picture. Maybe you’re a bank that helps people buy homes or start businesses, or a distributed workforce company on a mission to create thousands of jobs.

Figure out who you help and talk about it every chance you get. You’ll attract people who want to fight for that cause and they will be more likely to stick around.

Step 5 — What are Your Values?
At the center of all cultures — whether nations, regions, organizations, departments, or teams — is a set of shared values.

A key way people know they fit or belong to a group is because of those shared values.

What are your values as a manager? What do you stand for? What do you routinely find yourself coaching your team to do? What “hero” stories do you tell in hopes to inspire or motivate your team and what are the values at the heart of those stories?

What about your department and your boss?

Become crystal clear about your core values and share them every chance you get. You’ll attract people who share those values and they will be more likely to stick around.

Step 6 — Put It All Together into a Job Description That Attracts A- Players
Write a job description based on the output of the first four steps. Here’s the format:

Title: Job Title plus a couple of character traits important to team.

Paragraph 1: Organization purpose from Step 4 including what it does and who it helps.

Paragraph 2: Who will this person help and how they will help them from Step 2.

Paragraph 3: Summarize the key accomplishments from Step 1 into two or three broad and compelling challenges.

Paragraph 4: What are some of the key fit criteria from Step 3 including self-selecting knock outs.

Paragraph 5: What are a few core values from Step 5 you want all team members to share?

Paragraph 6: An explicit call to action.

Your goal for the job description isn’t to explain everything or cover every point. It is merely to pique the interest of people who will be intrigued by the challenge and have a good chance of fitting in and being successful.

So keep it short.

Here’s an example mashed up from a few I’ve written in the past.

Senior Software Engineer for Smart and Fast-Moving Energy Sustainability Team

We believe data will change the world, and our customers do, too. SampleCo is a technology company that helps large industrial energy consumers use less energy and become more sustainable.

Our analysts and data scientists have a problem: They were hired for their ability to find clarity in chaos but currently spend most of their time gathering data instead of analyzing it.

We need an engineer who can work with our team to identify all data sources used, understand what the team currently does to gather and normalize the data for analysis, and build systems to do it for them. Once the hurdle of data collection is cleared, you’ll also lead the effort to build complex analysis tools, dashboards, and reports. You’ll have access to one-half of a business analyst and one-quarter of a data architect for the first six months. We expect to grow this team to five people over the next three years.

You’ll need to be great with people and be highly analytical. We are primarily a Microsoft shop and prefer to use C# and SQL Server, but we are open to other tools if it fits the problem and is widely used.

As a team, we believe we can add the most value by finding the simplest solution using the fewest technologies; being consistent in the technologies we use and how we use them; defaulting to clarity and discoverability over brevity, even it requires a bit more work; and actively studying to stay up-to-date with new technologies, but having the judgement to know when new tools add or detract value.

Sound interesting? Tell us why in a cover letter sent along with your resume to [email address].

You want people who are motivated by your mission and who will step up to challenges. Give them that opportunity and you’ll attract much better talent.

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