How to review a tech CV/Resume in 2 minutes or less

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Professional recruiters are quoted as spending 20-30 seconds per CV (with eye-tracking studies showing it can be as low as 5-7 seconds). As a hiring manager this is too little: you cannot get the info you need and act on in that timeframe.

Engineers I’ve worked with typically spend 7-10 minutes per CV. This is too much: CV reading is only one small part of the hiring process and there are better places for us to invest this valuable employee’s time.

The sweet-spot for me has been around 2 minutes. For a well-defined role I can do 1.5 minutes per CV, for a tricky one I might be 2.5 minutes max. But what exactly am I doing to hit those times, and how can you repeat that?

What happens in 2 minutes

Conceptually we start the clock the moment you open the email/PDF/link, and only stop it when you’ve actively started the next CV in the pile (by opening the next email/PDF/etc). This gives us the most useful measurement: start-to-start time. You can multiply this by the number of CVs in the stack and accurately predict how long it will take you (how much calendar time to block-out). We do it this way so that you can schedule your CV-review sessions: partway through the pile a quick glance at the clock will tell you if you’ve slowed down or are going too fast, and you can adapt.

Within that period you must complete every aspect of the CV review. Briefly:

  • Access the CV/Resume (open a link, print a PDF, etc)
  • Decide which step in your hiring process they’ll go to next
  • Make sure they’re scheduled into that follow-on process
  • Record why they merited that decision
  • Convey the decision to all relevant colleagues
  • Flag questions/concerns that require followup enquiries
  • Adapt your process on the fly

That’s quite a lot to get done. If you’re not using an ATS yet this is one of the most obvious places you can see an ATS prove its value – but sadly this is rarely explained well by ATS vendors. When used correctly an ATS will almost fully automate some of those steps, and strip multiple inefficiencies from the rest.

How we get to 2 minutes

This is a production line. Think of yourself as a car-manufacturing plant: your goal is to do repeated actions quickly and effectively. If you do this correctly you will create the time and space for you to make the creative evaluations of individual people that humanize the hiring process. If not … you will quickly grow tired and fall behind, your brain will start to fall back on your own biases and prejudices in an attempt to save time. You’ll also tend to see the negatives instead of the positives, causing you to do exactly the wrong kind of evaluation for a hiring process.

Unfortunately you can get too good at this automation, and this is where an ATS can get in your way if you let it lead you by the nose: if you see your role in CV reading as a chore to be got through then you’ll pick the wrong candidates for the wrong reasons. You’ll turn into a human robot, and lose the main purpose: a human evaluating humans, not a machine evaluating keywords.

Creating a Production Line

Before you start:

  • Prep 1: Memorise your goals for this role
  • Prep 2: Remind yourself of your target time-per-CV, and record your projected end time (e.g. 11:40am)

Memorising your Goals

To move fast you need a set of goals in your head that you’re assessing every CV against. The list needs to be very short (so that they’re easily memorisable) and very clear (so that your interpretation doesn’t drift over time). These goals are the essence of your hiring strategy: they will be a mix of role-specific, team-specific, and company-wide items.

Memorizing them in advance is essential: it lets your brain check each goal many times in succession, rapidly and effortlessly. I normally write a crib-sheet per session in case I need to re-check as I go, but the crib is only 2 (at most 3) bullet-points: everything else is fluff.

What should your Goals be?

They should flow naturally and easily from your hiring strategy (whatever that is). If they don’t … your first and best action would be to stop reviewing CVs and instead review (or write!) your strategy. Hiring without a strategy is foolish: at best it costs more time than it should, at worst it’s dangerous (both for company profit and for employee happiness).

I plan to write a lot more on this in future, but for now I’ll highlight a couple of common strategic questions that help here:

  1. Are you looking for reasons to reject people, or reasons to hire them?
  2. What’s the worst thing that could happen if the worst person were hired into this role?
  3. What’s the best thing that could happen if the best person were hired into this role?

If you have way too many candidates applying, or the role is highly generic, then you’re probably looking to reject people. In all other tech situations you’re probably looking to hire people, unless your tech roles are truly boring and unchallenging and any warm body would be sufficient for your needs.

If the worst thing is very bad and reasonably likely, you might bake that into your Goals. It can be applied either way, positively or negatively. As above: for most companies you want to apply it positively, i.e. “this candidate has X that suggests they would never cause problem Y (the problem I fear the most)”.

If the best thing is very good and reasonably likely, you might bake that in instead. It’s unlikely that you’d use both a worst thing and a best thing: that would be a sign that your hiring strategy is unfocussed and unworkable.

Recording the projected end-time

This part is easy. Depending on your personality you may want to set a repeating timer per CV, or a timer for half-way. Or a countdown clock showing your end-time. Whatever works for you – but I recommend researching the Pomodoro Technique if you’ve not done this kind of work before, since there’s a huge amount of discussion and exploration of different cadences and timers there. The key thing is that you set something up that will keep you focussed and prevent you from wandering off-track on a single CV – or worrying that you’re spending too long and then rushing through a few giving them unfair assessments.

Running the Production Line

With your Goals defined there are now four small steps to run through:

  • Step 1: Disqualifiers
  • Step 2: Apply goals: Find 1-3 reasons to hire them
  • Step 3: Tweak your decision
  • Step 4: Yes/No processing
  • Step 5: Update Disqualifiers

Step 1: Disqualifiers

When you start there will be no Disqualifiers. If you think there are … then your previous Hiring Stage is broken: it shouldn’t be letting-through people you already intend to disqualify.

But if you have them then apply them where they save you the most time: right at the start.

Step 2: Apply your goals

Refresh your memory of your Goals (check a crib sheet if you must) and read through the CV with them in mind. As you go lookout for anything that impacts one or more of them and highlight it (or copy/paste into a doc). The key here is that you won’t have time to go back and find it later, so you pull it out the moment you spot it.

What do you look at? … Everything. If it’s in the CV then use it.

(The obvious exception is data that you choose to ignore: either for legal reasons (depending on jurisdiction: sexuality, race, photo) or for company culture or strategic reasons (age, marital status). This is good! It reduces the amount you have to consider, giving you more time to focus on the bits that are important to you!)

By the end of the document you should have a list of notes that support your decision for what happens next.

Step 3: Tweak your decision

In most companies keyword highlighting doesn’t make the decision for you. You’ve done the core repetitive work but the decision is yet to be made. Now you deploy your instincts, your optimism, and your ability to read between the lines, you go back and read through looking for things you might have missed.

You still have your Goals to compare against, but this time you can be more nuanced in your interpretation. This is where you start to say things like: “the candidate doesn’t have X that we need, but they have Y which I know is easily convertible to X with only a little effort – they might be able to upskill before they arrive”.

Whatever these nuanced thoughts are it’s essential that you record them. In the interview stage these notes will act as pre-written prompts of things you can bring up and give the candidate a chance to elevate themselves in areas where they undersold themselves. Generally speaking if a candidate undersells it in the CV then they also forget to sell it, or undervalue it, in the interview: as an interviewer, you want to help them tease that info out.

Step 4: Yes/No processing

Now you make the decision: which hiring stage does this candidate move forwards to? Depending your process, you may also be required to stack-rank them (sadly: many hiring processes and even ATS’s force you to do this despite the overwhelming evidence against the practice).

You do not move on to the next CV until you have made the decision and acted on it (this should be a few clicks, nothing more; if it takes a long time to act on … go buy an ATS!).

If the decision is proving difficult, eating in to your precious time allowance, then it’s probably because your Hiring Process doesn’t have enough explicit options. Everyone knows they can “call for interview” and “reject”, but less experienced staff may not realise that “request more info” (e.g. I’m not sure this person is based in the right timezone?) and “recommend to team X” (e.g. I know that their hiring manager is looking for this skillset) exist as well.

Step 5: Update Disqualifiers

Decision made, ready to move to the next, but … was there something drastically terribly wrong? Have you just read 3 CVs in a row where all the candidates were applying to the wrong role?

Now is the time to add automatic Disqualifiers to your list. These are mainly to help you get through the process faster and to remain focussed on the positives of candidates instead of the negatives. Your disqualification list should contain both the reason and the list of CV’s that you skipped – both are necessary (A good ATS will record both these in a single step).

When you finish reviewing the entire pile of CVs you should make it a high priority to speak to your colleagues about the disqualifiers: how and why did anyone end up in your CV intake who shouldn’t have been there? Are you advertising the job badly? Or in the wrong place, or with the wrong job-title (I’ve seen this happen a lot)?

At that point it may turn out that you made a mistake – but since you have the list of candidates who were disqualified for each reason you can now go back and review them properly.

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