How to Become a Boolean Black Belt or E-Recruiting Expert

Nov 1, 2010
This article is part of a series called Boolean Black Belt.

I  wrote an article last year that definitively defined the “Boolean Black Belt” concept. In this post, I explain how to become one. The good news is that you don’t have to be born with the “Boolean gene” (no one is). The bad news (for some) is that it requires a great deal of what is known as “deliberate practice.”

The Talent Excuse

As I have worked with and trained many recruiters over the span of my career, I’ve often had people “explain away” my ability to leverage technology (ATS/CRM, Internet, Social Media, Job Board databases, etc.) for talent identification and acquisition with the excuse that I have a “talent” for it. In my first few years in recruiting, I accepted that at face value. I never really wondered where my ability came from – I assumed I actually did have a “talent” for talent mining.

Talent is Overrated

Over the years I’ve come to understand and appreciate that I don’t necessarily have an innate ”talent” for leveraging sources of human capital data – no one is born with an e-recruiting gene. What I actually have is two factors that I believe have contributed significantly to my skills and ability.

  1. I have a combination of personality traits that have likely facilitated my learning of the art and science of talent mining: I’m competitive (I hate to lose), analytical, detail oriented, don’t give up easily (okay, maybe not at all), and I really enjoy figuring things out. Nothing really special there – certainly not a rare combination of traits, and I’m sure many people share them. However, personality traits are not something most people have a choice in.
  2. Lots of “deliberate practice.” This is something anyone can choose to do, and it’s what really separates world-class performers from everyone else. 

Not All Practice is Created Equal

Back in October 2008, I read an article in Fortune magazine titled “Why Talent is Overrated,” by Geoff Colvin. It completely changed my understanding of my own so-called “talents” and how I came to achieve them. If you haven’t read the article or the book that Geoff wrote (Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else) – I strongly urge you to do so. They are fascinating reads that will give you significant insight as to exactly why some people are so much better than others at what they do.

In both the article and the book, Geoff Colvin articulates the concept of “deliberate practice” very well – it is a unique kind of activity, characterized by several elements that when combined, form a powerful whole greater than the sum of their parts. As I read Geoff’s content, I realized that I owe a great deal of my e-recruiting skill and ability to ”deliberate practice” and I firmly believe anyone for the most part can replicate the conditions under which I learned the art and science of e-recruiting.

I will only briefly summarize all of the critical elements that define and differentiate “deliberate practice” from what most people think of when it comes to practice, because Geoff Colvin does such a fantastic job of going into significant detail when explaining the concept. Trust me – at least read the article, if not the book.

#1 Deliberate Practice Improves Performance by Design

Deliberate practice is specifically designed to improve performance by continually stretching you just beyond your current ability. Unfortunately, when most people “practice,” they are just doing what they’ve always done – which does nothing to improve performance. Unlike many professional athletes, most business professionals (including sourcers and recruiters) do not go to work every day specifically trying to get better at what they do. It’s something many people may talk about, but very few people actually do.

Geoff Colvin cuts to the root of the matter, pointing out that “Most fundamentally, what we generally do at work is directly opposed to the first principle: It isn’t designed by anyone to make us better at anything. Usually it isn’t designed at all: We are just given an objective that’s necessary to meeting the employer’s goals and then expected to get on with it.”

If you are looking to master talent mining – you must specifically design your approach at work to improve your performance – not simply meet goals and objectives. You will need to specifically practice what you are not currently good at, always seeking that which is just beyond your ability. Do you passionately attack positions that you’ve never worked before, that you don’t have a pipeline for, that are difficult for you to understand, or that require a rare combination of skills that is difficult to find? Or do you post the job, hope for the right people to respond, and move on to something you’re more comfortable with? When you finally do find a candidate, are you relieved at your success and acheivement, or do you ask yourself whether or not this is the BEST candidate you could find?

#2 Deliberate Practice Requires High Repetition

Properly conducted, deliberate practice involves a high amount of repetition, and it is critical to choose an activity that is just beyond your current ability. When it comes to deliberate practice, Colvin points out that volume matters, explaining that ”Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.”

If you seek to become a Boolean Black Belt, you will need to practice the entire process of analyzing and interpreting job requirements, translating the requirements into Boolean search strings that are highly likely to find the right/best people, analyzing the results for relevance, and continuously refining the search strings based on the observed relevance and intel gained from each successive search – A LOT. When it comes to deliberate practice, volume of repetition is key.

#3 Deliberate Practice Involves Continuous Feedback

When performing deliberate practice, feedback on results is ideally continuously available. When applying this concept to practicing talent mining, the continuous feedback should be painfully obvious – with every search you run, you are either finding a large volume of highly relevant results (well matched/qualified candidates), or not (lots of results, many false positives, and few highly relevant results).

As Colvin points out, the aspect of continuous feedback may seem obvious, but not necessarily so when results require interpretation – in many cases a coach, teacher, or mentor is a critical factor in providing feedback. You may think your search results are highly relevant, or perhaps represent the best candidates a particular source you are searching can offer – but until a highly proficient mentor reviews and assesses the results objectively, you may actually be in a dangerous state of ignorant bliss. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t find what your Boolean search strings are incapable of returning.

#4 Deliberate Practice is Mentally Challenging

Deliberate practice requires a high degree of mental focus and concentration, differentiating it from simple and mindless repetition. Specifically focusing on the analysis of the relevance of your search results, questioning whether or not you in fact found all of the best candidates that a particular source has to offer, and continually seeking ways to not only improve the relevance of the results, but also to increase the quantity of high quality results requires significant focus and concentration. Talent mining is 90% thought process and strategy, 10% Boolean operators and syntax.

#5 Deliberate Practice is Hard Work

As Colvin so aptly points out, “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.” Deliberate practice requires you to specifically target what you’re not good at, which can be an uncomfortable and perhaps painful, if not enlightening, process – which explains why most people actually shy away from deliberate practice. If it were easy and fun to become truly great at something – everyone would be so. That explains why there are so few true top performers/masters in every endeavor.

Most sourcers and recruiters can run Boolean search strings to find candidates in ATS/CRM applications, on the Internet, social media sites, and job board resume datbases – so it seems easy. But just because you can do something, it doesn’t actually mean you’re actually any good at it, or that you’re getting ALL of the BEST results possible. This goes back to point #3 – many people are not capable of objectively judging the quantity and quality of their search results and also rarely have access to a basis of comparison. If you are not even aware that you could be getting more and better results more quickly, talent mining seems simple and the idea that you need perform hard work to practice to improve your skills and abilities may seem preposterous.

Being satisfied with your current level of ability at anything is a sure sign that either #1 you’re actually not as good as you think you are, or #2 you don’t prioritize or commit to improving your skills – or perhaps both!

#6 Deliberate Practice Focuses on the Process, Not the End Result

To become a top performer, you need to set goals that specifically focus on improving your skills and ability. Colvin explains that ”…the poorest performers don’t set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome – win the order; get the new project proposal done. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

When I read that, especially that last sentence, I literally had an epiphany – looking back at my career in recruiting, I was never really focused on achieving placements, which appears to be the obvious goal of recruiting. I was always specifically focused on finding the best possible candidates for the positions I focused on each day in the least amount of time. As a result, over time, I got really good at quickly finding a large volume of highly qualified and well matched candidates – which resulted in a record number of placements.

It is a deceptively simple difference – focusing on the process of achieving the outcome rather than the outcome itself – but it does define the vast majority of top performers in every field.

#7 Deliberate Practice Requires Metacognition

Research has shown that top performers monitor what is happening in their own minds and ask questions of themselves. This process is known as metacognition. John H. Flavell, an American developmental psychologist, explains that metacognition “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data.” Colvin points out that top performers perform metacognition ”much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.”

To become an expert at leveraging information systems for talent identification and acquisition, metacognition plays a critical role in the process of analyzing and interpreting job requirements and determining what terms to include in your Boolean search string as well as which ones to specifically exclude. This involves challenging your assumptions as well as the information in the job description and requirements, and pausing to reflect and observe your own thought processes: Do I really understand this position? How many different titles could candidates performing this role have? How many different ways can this type of experience be described in a resume, and how can I effectively search for all of them? Would ALL candidates with this type of experience ALWAYS explicitly mention the required technology and/or skills in their resume? Am I learning from every result/resume I review?

#8 Deliberate Practice Involves Continuous Improvement

Feedback on your e-recruiting efforts can come in many forms – from your phone screen and/or interview with the candidates you found through your searches (were they well qualified and interested in potential opportunities?), to the client’s/manager’s/team’s interview with the candidates you’ve sourced and screened (did both the candidate AND the hiring authorities feel it was a great match?), all the way to a successful hire that “sticks” (the ultimate feedback loop).

The final key to deliberate practice is how you respond after you’ve completed your work and evaluated the result. Average performers shy away from asking themselves the difficult questions. If some of the candidates you’ve sourced with your Boolean search strings ended up not being interested in your opportunity (regardless of whether or not they were actually available) – you should try and figure out how you can be more accurate with your searches the next time around. Don’t assume that it’s “normal” for some candidates to not be interested in your opportunity – if they’re not, your searches weren’t accurate and you’re calling the wrong people.

Even if your e-recruiting efforts have resulted in a hire – instead of congratulating yourself on a job well done, ask if you could have found an even better candidate more quickly. Top performers strive to figure out how to perform better the next time, regardless of the result, as they judge themselves differently than most people do – to a higher standard.


I have never received any formal (or informal, for that matter) training in secondary sourcing/Boolean searching, nor have I ever used a cheat sheet. While training and materials can certainly help get you going in the right direction, if you want to be world-class at leveraging information systems for talent identification and acquisition – quite simply it takes a lot of “deliberate practice.” You can’t pick and choose from the list of the core principles of deliberate practice detailed above – it requires all of them combined.

Many people say they want to be the best at what they do and to achieve great results, but most aren’t willing to commit to the time, effort, and deliberate practice it requires. Being great at anything is hard work – there is no substitute, and there is no “easy button.” And that’s precisely why there are so few top performers in every field.

This article is part of the Boolean Black Belt archives. You can view the original article here.

This article is part of a series called Boolean Black Belt.
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