A Three-Point Scale for Ranking Resumes

I’ve had the good fortune, both back when we had an economy and, less often but more recently, now that we don’t, to be responsible for hiring a fair number of people over my career. I’ve had the even better fortune of hiring some fantastic talent along the way, people who took my expectations and then climbed far past them, who learned from me and — more often — taught me, who I have had an enormous amount of fun with and shared some sadnesses, too, and who I have developed lasting friendships with even long after we’ve parted ways. Hiring is everything. It builds great teams, makes good teams stronger, and provides the personality and drive that sets the table for success. A bad hire slows everyone down, ruins morale, and creates a management problem you don’t need or want.

I’m currently responsible for or a part of two different search committees (thankfully) and was reminded how much my hiring has been influenced by a three-point resume-ranking model I developed about a decade ago. At the time, I needed a simple process primarily because we were hiring so many people and looking at so many resumes. Today, we hire far fewer people but have exponentially more candidates to cull through. In either case, a scale is very useful, and I thought I would share mine in case you find it helpful — or have a better idea to share back.

The Three-Point Scale

The applicant scores one point for achieving each of the following criterion:

  1. She has worked somewhere I have wanted to work. This assessment favors candidates who have worked at desirable employers: Google, Apple, IDEO, Starbucks, Fast Company, a university press, a boutique consulting firm, a successful nonprofit, a small design shop. Places that are desirable to work hire great, interesting people and inspire others to want to work there, which means they can be selective. I like to hire those people, too.
  2. She has worked on a project that sounds interesting or yielded a critical result. You may have worked somewhere that I have never thought of wanting to work or somewhere I may have never heard of, particularly if you are an out-of-town applicant, but maybe you have worked on a cool project: an agile transformation, building software for helicopters, a corporate turn-around, a healthcare research effort, an open-source project. People who work on cool projects either are cool or can become so by working on those projects. I think it was Tom Peters who characterized a career as a series of interesting projects. I want to hire people who have started beading such a string.
  3. She has done something that makes me want to have a real conversation with her. Maybe she went to an interesting school, studied astrophysics, taught poetry to prisoners, played on a collegiate team, won a national rock-paper-scissors contest, wrote a thesis comparing music composition to software development, lived somewhere eccentric or remote, wrote an evocative cover letter. Ideally this point is awarded outside of the first two (just because you’ve worked at Apple doesn’t mean I want to have a conversation with you, though it is likely) and could be considered an extra credit point. At the end of the day, or over lunch, or at the coffee pot, you need to actually be interested in having a conversation with your colleagues, and those with interesting experiences typically have something intriguing to say.

I try not to give half or quarter points and use a simple “0 or 1” assessment for each standard, though I am not a complete stickler and might give a half-point for someone who worked somewhere mildly interesting or on a semi-cool project, especially if we have a large number of resumes to get through and distinguishing among them requires greater precision.

I only use this scale as an initial screening to determine who we want to phone interview. We’re trying to find the five or six folks we want to schedule for a phone call and after that conversation we hope to get down to two or three for in-person interviews. I haven’t kept track of how many perfect threes I’ve actually hired, but I know I’ve rarely hired someone who didn’t score at least a two. Maybe never. And I’ve certainly been disappointed in the interview process by people who were fantastic on paper; not everyone who worked at Apple, ported a major app from C++ to Java in a month singlehandedly, or spends weekends trying to communicate with whales is actually someone who interviews well or will fit the culture of the team. But you need a process, because “[p]rocess is more important than outcome.”

When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.