Table of contents
- Why do job descriptions matter?
- Breaking down the job description
- How should you read a job description?
- How do you find keywords and important phrases in the job description?
- Next steps
There’s an industry slang expression reserved for people who don’t read documentation. It goes by the letters RTFM—read the #$* manual. The same advice applies to job descriptions.
It is advice that many tech job seekers seem to ignore to their own peril. They spam their resume to hundreds of positions. Meanwhile, they get few, if any, interview invites. I’m convinced that they either don’t read or don’t understand what they’re reading.
For any job, the first official documentation you’ll encounter is the job description. Most job descriptions are pretty mediocre and downright boring in my view. Even then, they contain a wealth of information that can help you knock your interviews out of the park. And yes, that goes for your tech interviews too.
Why do job descriptions matter?
Job descriptions matter because they outline what a company expects for a given role. This includes key skills and technologies candidates should know. Additionally, it describes the type of experience that helps ensure future success.
The job description gives you important information to prepare for your interview. When you’re getting ready for interviews, like behavioral, coding, or system design ones, the job description gives you info to prepare and saves you time and effort.
If nothing else, anything that shows up in the job description is fair game for the interview. It pays to know what’s on it so that you can answer questions that may come up.
As I wrote in my article on coding interview prep, recruiters and hiring managers work hard to describe the perfect candidates in job postings. Other teams may draft language for legal compliance and ensure inclusive language. A lot of work goes into writing a good job description.
If job descriptions are so important, why don’t people read them?
Candidates gloss over job descriptions for several reasons. One reason is the marketing fluff that seems irrelevant to the role, at least at first. Candidates know that companies are trying to sell themselves to prospective talent. They want to look good.
Another reason is the laundry list of qualifications. They are often aspirational, ambiguous, and just plain asinine. I mean, how can an entry level job demand three to five years of experience? More on that later.
Even with the bad ones, job descriptions are still essential for eager job seekers.
Breaking down the job description
Like a good resume, job descriptions have some common, conventional elements. This makes it easier to compare and contrast different positions between companies. We’re going to break down each element one by one so that you can maximize the value you get out of reading them.
Many job descriptions will have a job ID or number used to identify the exact position. Use it to find variations of the posting online or when reaching out to recruiters about the role. It may seem like it’s insignificant, but don’t miss it. It can actually be useful.
Job title and department
Before we get into prose and paragraphs, we need to start with the job title. The job title helps to identify a specific category of candidate a company seeks. It’s a convenient shorthand for companies and candidates. It helps narrow down the ideal candidate qualifications early on.
One caution: job titles sometimes mean different things between companies. For some, the titles of Software Developer and Software Engineers are more or less the same. For others, there are essential distinctions between them. The same is true for seniority. A mid-level role might be another company’s senior level.
Avoid assumptions from a job title alone. Read the job description to gain clarity on what’s expected. Even if the title isn’t one you’ve held, the responsibilities may be the same as things you’ve done in the past.
Some job titles also include a department. This helps distinguish roles and responsibilities unique to that area of the company. Don’t ignore it. Compare the listing with those in other departments and spot things that stand out.
Knowing the department also helps you identify key contacts. Research the hiring manager, existing employees, or other stakeholders. You might find someone you can connect with to learn more about the role or even get interview advice.
With the growing popularity of remote work, many candidates don’t care about location. But many companies still resist fully-remote work. Even tech companies will want candidates to at least commit to the hybrid model. That means you need to pay attention to location and know where you will need to report for duty in-person.
Location also matters for the purposes of determining pay and compensation. Certain markets pay more because of living costs, talent supply, project importance, and other factors. Local and state laws may also dictate how the job description appears. For example, some states require companies to put the salary range on job postings.
You can also use location to narrow down current or past employees who are familiar with the role.
Know whether the role is fully onsite, fully remote, or hybrid. Learn about the job market in that location and see what similar roles are paying in that area. If you are open to relocating, make sure to look out for relocation packages offered by the company.
Company and job overviews
When applying for roles, it is important to know what a company does, how it makes money, and what they value. The overviews help you connect the role to the work and mission of the company.
These sections do two things. First, they sell you on how awesome the company is and give you reasons to apply. The goal is to hook your interest in the problems they need solved. The second goal of these overviews is to describe values they want an ideal candidate to cherish. The job overview in particular will explain how great candidates behave and perform.
These sections matter a lot for interview prep, especially for behavioral interviews. They give you language that you’ll use when talking to recruiters and hiring managers. Speaking in their words is a good idea if you want a company to pursue you further for the role.
Note any key phrases that appear multiple times throughout the job description. The more something repeats, the more important it is. Remember to include synonyms as well.
Here’s the bottom line. If you want to stand out, know, understand, and communicate the values stated in the JD.
Requirements and qualifications
This section of the job description can be the trickiest and most stress inducing. Sometimes contradictory or unclear, qualifications tend to be ambitious and idealistic. Even great candidates will struggle to know whether they clear the bar until they have an offer in hand.
It used to be that meeting at least 50% of the qualifications would get you an interview. However, a slack labor market has made tech companies more selective. That makes it harder for early career talent trying to gain professional experience. I recommend aiming to meet at least 75% of the qualifications if you want to get an interview.
That said, ensure you understand the qualifications as stated. Research unfamiliar keywords, technologies, or disciplines. Again, repetition matters a lot here. Discern if there is an emphasis on a particular part of the tech stack (front end vs back end). Look for cloud technologies or frameworks you need to know.
Do not confuse required qualifications with desired qualifications. Many employers will break these into two sections, but not all. Watch for a section that may include something about “the ideal candidate.” This section represents desired qualifications. Applicants usually won’t have half of these qualifications. Don’t disqualify yourself if you don’t check all the boxes. When in doubt, apply!
Your resume should speak to the qualifications of the job description with precision. Use the exact same words and phrases to the extent that they reflect your honest experience. Highlight impact on your resume. Note times when you’ve improved the bottom line using skills and tools mentioned.
Of course, these same topics will form the basis of your interview study list. Pick out soft skills, programming languages, and concepts to review before your interview. You can narrow down or amend this list over time once you’ve talked to a recruiter or hiring manager.
The most important section of the job description is the responsibilities section. Even if you don’t meet all the qualifications, you can find your way into an interview if you can show you’ve done the job. Of course, the interview will be all about making sure that’s actually true.
Like the qualifications section, you will find both technical skills and behaviors. These are exactly the things that should appear on your resume. Again, pair everything with impact that shows you were able to use these means to positive ends.
How should you read a job description?
To read a job description well, commit to reviewing it at least four or five times, at least. Below is a strategy for thoroughly reading a job description:
- On the first two or three readings, read through the content while passively noting the structure and tone. Resist the temptation to dig into details too soon. Try not to even take notes. Absorb the whole job description as a unit. Understand how everything fits and flows together. You are doing well when you begin to expect words and phrases as you read. This will help you later in the process.
- Now read the job description from the beginning. This time, highlight any words, phrases, or concepts that stand out. Focus especially on repetition. These are things you should rank highest in your preparation plan.
- In the last iterations, write out a list of topics that will form the foundation of your study list. Organize your list into three categories: 1) technical skills, 2) soft skills, and 3) key values. For your coding interview preparation plan, the technical skills will matter most.
This kind of reading takes time, so it’s fine if you only reserve this for jobs you intend to apply for. A good applicant will read the job description, tailor their resume, and prepare for the interview with efficiency.
How do you find keywords and important phrases in the job description?
As stated before, customize your resume by focusing on words in the job description. Start with repeated words and phrases. Things that matter much are usually mentioned more than once. Also, note bolded, underlined, capitalized, or other decorated words.
Repetition also occurs across similar roles across companies. I’ll use four job descriptions I found from Amazon, American Express, Workday, and Uber to discuss some common words and phrases you should look for. While these positions are all for software engineers and developers, don’t worry. The concepts I discuss here apply to other technical and non-technical roles too.
If I asked you to define your problem solving approach in 60 seconds, would you be able to do it? All four postings included the word “problem” at least once. Three posts referred to problem solving specifically.
I really like that Uber lists “detailed problem-solving approach” as a qualification.
I’ve long taught my clients to know and practice good problem solving techniques. This is key to succeeding at technical interviews. Show this on your resume and in behavioral interview responses with examples.
Another word that appeared in all the job descriptions is the word “team.” It often appears with the word “collaboration.” That means your ability to be a good teammate matters more than you think.
Many early-career or entry-level readers underestimate the importance of this point. It might be the reason why your application gets dismissed so quickly. You fail to show how you’re productive within a team setting. You can’t show you have the ability to think about other folks beyond yourself.
Trust me when I say that making a bad hire can create drag on team productivity and morale. It’s not worth rushing to fill a position to have to deal with this on the tail end.
Cross-functional collaboration is about being able to work with people in different roles. Engineers collaborate with product managers, UX designers, researchers, and customers. You need to set clear expectations, over-communicate, and provide expertise to be successful.
Cross-team collaboration involves all the stuff that cross-functional collaboration requires. Then multiply that several factors. Things like department politics, time zone challenges, and differing management systems add complexity. If nothing else, more teams means more people and personalities to manage. It takes skill to do this well.
Software development life cycle
Three of the jobs mentioned some aspect of the software development life cycle (SDLC). While Amazon uses the exact phrase, Workday and Uber cite “methodologies.” American Express spells out using words like “design”, “testing,” “deployment,” “documentation,” and etc.
One of the keys to building software in the team environment is a robust understanding of how an SDLC methodology works. Many teams claim to use agile methods featuring time-boxed iterations and frequent deployments. Some organizations are strict scrum followers, and others are agile-ish. Sort of. That’s another article.
You will need to show you have experience working in several parts of the process, not just the coding part. Make sure this reflects on your resume.
On a related note, the word “design” appears in all jobs I reviewed. You need to understand the basics of design as part of the software development process. It doesn’t matter if you’re expected to lead design or contribute. Your resume must include evidence that you can assist with this important task. Those with at least a few years of experience should expect to get tested on it outright.
By the way, this is a great reason to consider building some open source experience. Working on open source projects provides concrete evidence of collaboration ability. It shows that you are a well-rounded developer who can navigate every part of the SDLC.
I talk a lot about demonstrating impact when I provide resume advice to my clients, and for good reason. The whole reason someone pays you to do your job is so you can have a positive impact. You are making or saving the company money. You are saving time and driving efficiency. You are solving someone’s headache. Every job description explicitly lists “impact” as a key value except Amazon, surprisingly. I guarantee you it still matters to them, and matters a lot. Impact is always implied.
Having impact doesn’t need to be as ambiguous as it sounds. Like I said, tie the work that you do to saving or making either more money or more time. Track it. Measure it. Log it. Ask other people when you’ve done it. Impact is career oxygen. Without it, you languish and die.
If you don’t know how you’ve made an impact in your previous roles, then you have a serious problem. You are either ineffective at what you do or negligent. You are blindly moving through your career. Fix it.
Scalability / high performance
Making scalable software is a whole area of discussion that deserves its own article. Again, many juniors don’t grok how hard it is to build scalable software. This is partly because most folks don’t build for millions of users and billions of devices. Also, many entry level candidates today are skipping a formal computer science education. That’s the part that usually teaches foundational concepts in distributed systems design.
Companies concerned with highly scalable and performant systems also care about algorithms, data structures, Big O analysis, and computer science fundamentals. They want you to have a CS degree or “relevant experience.” “Relevant experience” means you don’t need the degree if you’ve already helped build scalable systems.
If you are new-ish in your career, I don’t recommend starting your job search chasing these kinds of positions. Yes, they pay the best. But you’ll need to invest in gaining educational credentials. And, you’ll need to build the required experience. It will be much easier for you to apply for these roles with at least one of those two things than it will be with neither. Instead, look for startups, e-commerce, and fintech companies. They are usually more willing to bet on early career talent. That allows you to build experience over time before going after the big tech FAANG fish.
Every job description used the word “innovation” at least once. It can be easy to overlook this one because, like impact, it is not a very well understood concept, even by techies.
To innovate implies that you have the ability to do something new. You can build something not seen before or build something a different way than it has been. Innovation is solving a known problem using novel approaches.
Many people think of innovation in terms of whole products or systems (think Gmail, ChatGPT, or Kubernetes). But innovation actually happens in a million microscopic ways. Innovation can be a simple new tool or feature that adds new capabilities to existing things.
You don’t have to be on a patent to be innovative. Chances are, you’ve been innovative and didn’t realize you were. Reflect on things that you’ve done to solve problems. Consider whether you displayed innovativeness in those situations. Then, reflect that on your resume.
You should now have a good understanding of how to mine insights from job descriptions. Use the advice from the article to refine your resume, and make sure to check out resume advice article for more pointers.
If you need help understanding tech job descriptions, book a complimentary consultation with me. I help my clients strategize for their job search and prepare well for interviews. I’ve also got a free upcoming live webinar on technical interviewing that you can join. Whether in two weeks or two months, I can help!