How to Avoid Buzzword Bingo

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Jun 9, 2020

Keywords are important. I do not deny that. Yet, it is just as important to understand what a candidate is actually doing, not just checking the boxes for each buzzword we gleaned from the job description.

If you aren’t familiar, “buzzword bingo” is quickly scanning for your keywords in a profile and moving on. It’s denounced because not only is it lazy, but it will also lead to you keeping a lot of profiles that are not a fit in the slightest. You’ll be eliminating some great candidates for your role as well.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to denounce buzzword bingo, not by far. Instead, I will take it a step further and show you exactly how to not play buzzword bingo, with examples to boot!

The first step to understand what a candidate is doing in their day to day, is to look at the verbs they use. Do they use “support” or “build” or “manage?” All of these verbs mean very different things.

Let’s take a look at an example.

This gentleman is using verbs like “designed”, “implemented”, and “mentored”, which are great to see for a software engineer. This means he isn’t overseeing as a manager, nor is he supporting development with pure administrative tasks. He is the one doing the hands-on work, and led the thought-process behind the design.

You can’t stop at the verbs though. It’s important to look at the verbs in context. What was he designing? Who was he mentoring? How was he doing it, and what was he doing it for? What did he use to do it?

These are the kinds of questions to ask. But all of this means nothing if we don’t impact it to how does this compare to the kind of candidate I’m looking for? In the example above he designed a “checkout, gift personalization engine for a new in-house e-commerce platform.” This answers our questions of what he designed and for what.

But how does this compare to the kind of candidate I’m looking for? If I was recruiting for an e-commerce company, this piece of his experience would match quite well. Whereas if I was sourcing for a space and defense company, that piece wouldn’t be as great of a fit.

It’s also important not just to look at one piece of a candidate’s experience. We have to look at a profile with a holistic point of view, while keeping the relevancy of our open position in mind. The difference between this approach and playing buzzword bingo is opening the profile asking, “What’s the story here?” versus asking, “Do they have these four things?”

Look at things like the candidate’s career path. A software engineer has 7 years of experience – the last three years focuses on data analytics, the first four were focused in the industrial automation field. If I’m looking for a software engineer to work on data analytics, those last three years are great. But what about the last four? What skills could he have learned in the industrial automation space that might be applicable to our open role? What comparisons can I make between PLC logic implementation and big data? Is this candidate still worth a message?

Those questions you will have to answer based on what the client has asked for. If a previous piece of a candidate’s experience doesn’t match up, take the opportunity to read into the verbs and other language the candidate is using like I discussed previously.

Note on promotions at one company: Many candidates don’t put each role at one company in their profile, they only keep the highest ranking one. Meaning if you see some consistent title progression at a company, it’s a good thing. But if you don’t see it, it’s not necessarily bad.

An important albeit subjective piece to look at is what a candidate refers to themselves as. Not their title, but what they call themselves in their summary or job description. For example, do they call themselves the “go-to developer”, “rocket propulsion SME”, or just “software engineer”?

In the example above this gentleman refers to himself as at one time being the “go-to developer.” As always though, take what they say in context. If they are the “go-to developer” at a 3 person company that doesn’t mean as much as it would if they were at Google. Context is often a key detail that some recruiters and sourcers miss out on if they take things only at face value.

Let’s take a step back now. All I’ve talked about is how to read a profile. The issue is that oftentimes buzzword bingo doesn’t start with how you read a profile, it starts with your search.

For example, I was tasked with finding a CPA in the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) space at a manager level. This was for a consulting firm. If I searched for “AEC Manager” for current titles, I would not have gotten the results I wanted. Even if I searched for relevant terms like “Accounting Manager” or “Tax Manager” or “Finance Manager”, I still would be missing out on an incredible amount of people.

That would be simply using the buzzwords on my intake form and plugging them into the search. I would have skipped the important process of learning about the industry I was searching for candidates in. So, I started broad. I started my search with just this in the title string. I also paired this with plenty of keywords related to finance and AEC.

("Manager" OR supervisor OR consultant OR sr OR senior OR lead)

I discovered that many of the ideal candidates had a title of simply, “Manager.” I also discovered that people with titles like “Senior Auditor” were actually managers and led teams of 5-10. I would have missed hundreds of great candidates if I had only plugged in some finance keywords in my title string.

Everything I’ve mentioned so far is a solid foundation of how you can learn to operate while maintaining efficiency. If you really want to, you can always go off the deep end and learn to read even deeper into a profile in a short amount of time. This of course will require a lot of intentionality and time, but I think you’ll find it to be worth it. You could become the Sherlock Holmes of TA if you really wanted to – with some uncanny powers of deduction!


Humor aside, I hope that the next time someone encourages moving away from buzzword bingo you’ll have a much clearer idea of what they mean. Perhaps you’ll be able to help your colleagues employ more critical thinking when reading candidate’s profiles as well. That way we can deliver better candidates to our clients and spend more time on the phone with the ones that are more likely to be a fit.

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