Secrets of the ATS: A chat with SmartRecruiters CEO Jerome Ternynck

You have questions on Applicant Tracking Systems, and I’m getting you answers, interviewing the CEOs of the top ATSs in my Secrets of the ATS series.

Today, I’m sharing the delightful conversation I had with Jerome Ternynck, Founder & CEO of SmartRecruiters.

What will come across is Jerome’s deep experience in the industry and his great empathy for your experience in applying for jobs.

What won’t come across in the printed word is Jerome’s infectious enthusiasm for absolutely everything about hiring, which in person makes an hourlong conversation go by too fast.

Marc Cenedella:

Well, thank you very much for joining us Jerome. Really appreciate your spending time with our 9 million members.

Jerome Ternynck:

Well, thank you for having me, Marc.

Jerome Tenryck, Founder & CEO, SmartRecruiters

Marc Cenedella:

How does SmartRecruiters work?

Jerome Ternynck:

SmartRecruiters is a talent acquisition suite. 

Think of it as a piece of software that helps organizations attract candidates. It has a lot of marketing features, and then an amount of collaboration, and managing the inflow of candidates around scheduling interviews and screening candidates, of course. 

It’s end-to-end hiring software for enterprises. 

At SmartRecruiters we serve mostly large enterprises – several thousands or tens or even hundreds of thousands of employees. Companies like LinkedIn or Twitter or Visa are customers of SmartRecruiters. They have to manage millions of resumes, tens of thousands of jobs, in hundreds of countries. That deserves good software. 

Our software helps them find better candidates, offer a better candidate experience, and make the right hiring decision.

Marc Cenedella:

That’s great. LinkedIn uses your software for their hiring?

Jerome Ternynck:


Marc Cenedella:

I guess one would have guessed that LinkedIn would use their own software for hiring?

Jerome Ternynck:

So, yeah. It’s an interesting way to think about the world of recruiting technology, because LinkedIn is an amazing platform for candidates to find jobs and apply. But then everything that happens afterwards in managing, ‘Which job is open? Has this job been approved? Is this job published internally? Who is on the hiring team? What are the criteria that we have for this job? Has the interview been scheduled? Did Marc give us feedback? Are we making an offer? What’s the offer priced at?’

And when somebody is hired: ‘Was the offer approved? Have they been signed? When is this person starting? When is the onboarding?’

There’s a lot happening beyond just, ‘Oh, here’s a good job I can apply to,’ Right? And that’s what we do. We do the core plumbing of hiring to make sure that things are happening and that the experience of candidates and managers is good and results in a good decision for both parties, actually.

Marc Cenedella:

That’s terrific. When did SmartRecruiters get started?

Jerome Ternynck:

We got started in 2011 and we spent about four years purely in engineering.  We launched our enterprise talent acquisition suite in January 2015. So we’ve been in the market really selling for five years now. We have about 300 employees.

We’ve seen good growth throughout this period, as companies are taking recruiting more and more seriously, especially large enterprises.

Marc Cenedella:

When we asked Ladders users, how long does it take you to fill out an application? The answer came back 18 minutes on average. Why does it take professionals in the U.S. and Canada 18 minutes to apply to a typical job?

Jerome Ternynck:

Because the systems that companies are using are just bad. The average at SmartRecruiters is under two minutes. And for people who have a smart profile, it’s actually 40 seconds. 

In Taleo most people give up, right? 

“Want to start by creating an account?”

“No, I don’t want to create an account! Why do I want to create an account?” 

This is where enterprises think of recruiting as an administrative process. It’s like you’re applying for a freaking mortgage. 

“No, I’m not. I’m a super talented human being! You want to hire me! Let’s talk!”

…is what you are saying. 

Marc Cenedella:

I know this isn’t how we in the industry think about it, but it is the most common question that we get. How do I know if my resume made it past the ATS?

Jerome Ternynck:

I’m very passionate about this topic because when I started SmartRecruiters, I actually invented a simple concept – a very simple feature that is in SmartRecruiters.  When a recruiter rates or reviews your resume, you get an alert as a candidate in your SmartRecruiters portal.  It says, ‘Somebody at this hour at Twitter has viewed your resume.’

Marc Cenedella:

And then how does the candidate find out that the process is ended and they’ve not been selected?

Jerome Ternynck:

So we force a decision out of the process – you cannot close a job without informing all the candidates. 

We have alerts if you forget some candidates. We do a lot of functionality to help everybody in the process, because the candidate wants to know. They want feedback, but also on the other side, nobody wants to do a bad job. The recruiters care about the candidate. They didn’t get into recruiting because they hate candidates, right? They got into recruiting because they like people. They want to be nice, but then they post a job and the next morning they have a thousand resumes. What do you do with all of that? 

So it’s easy to forget someone and usually that’s what’s happening. We are building and we have many functionalities in the system to help recruiters and managers make sure nobody falls through the cracks.

Marc Cenedella:

As a professional, why does my resume get misinterpreted when I upload it? It happens time and time again. I upload it and the parser garbles what I’ve written so carefully on my resume.

Jerome Ternynck:

It’s your fault.

Marc Cenedella:

“It’s your fault?”

Jerome Ternynck:

Yeah. It’s your fault because you come up with some super random, weird format of resume that you think looks good, but the machine is like, “What? Wait, where is the address? Is that the university?” 

If you want the machine to ingest it properly, just keep it simple. And I think that’s the best way, don’t be too creative on your resume.

Marc Cenedella:

That’s an interesting viewpoint. So what can I do resume-wise to make sure that my application stands out when it goes through SmartRecruiters?

Jerome Ternynck:

You need to personalize your resume to the job. Not so much to go through the machine, and not so much to change the truths. Just to give the reader a good angle and keep your resume simple. Most organizations using SmartRecruiters will not actually open the resume, they’ll actually look at your profile in the system. So we parse resumes, create a profile and then show you how your profile is going to look to the recruiter. 

That’s why you should spend some time on that profile, making sure that it looks nice and it sets up the points you want to make. That’s your best shot.

There are many ways companies screen candidates, right? But one of the ways obviously is to read the resumes and profiles. They spend seven seconds per resume. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven: you’re in or you’re out. That’s not a lot of time.

Marc Cenedella:

Yes, that was our Ladders recruiter eye-tracking study from 2012. 

Jerome Ternynck:


Marc Cenedella:

It’s still true today.

Jerome Ternynck:

It’s still true today. It’s actually getting worse today in many ways. So we encourage you to get to the point, keep it simple, avoid the two page long letter, whatever. 

Marc Cenedella:

That’s great. So it’s 2021, do I need a resume if I’m a professional looking for a job? Can’t I just use LinkedIn? Do I really have to have a resume?

Jerome Ternynck:

You need to have a resume. You need more than your LinkedIn profile. Because your LinkedIn profile is a publicly available display of your achievements. It’s not really a resume and I think you need something more precise than that to apply for a job. 

So you do need a resume. 

I think more and more people will have online profiles with SmartRecruiters. We have introduced a smart profile and it’s smart in several ways. First it’s smart in that it looks really good for the recruiter. So you can put your best foot forward. Second, it’s smart in that you can reuse it to apply to any job at SmartRecruiters – in one click – and that’s already great.

Marc Cenedella:

If you have a friend or somebody who’s 5, 10 years into their career applying to jobs, what advice do you give them on the best way to apply and stand out?

Jerome Ternynck:

Less is more. 

Do not apply to 100 jobs. You’re wasting your time. The law of numbers might make you right, but aim for quality over quantity. You’re just exhausting yourself and exhausting the recruiters on the other side.

Pick the right jobs. And when you go after a job, do it like you’re selling.

Study the company, find the hiring manager and apply with intent.  

Don’t say “Today I applied to 10 jobs. That’s good, I can go have a drink now.” Right? 

This is not how you job search. Organize your job search and over optimize for quality over quantity.

Marc Cenedella:

Tell me about the difference between some of the legacy ATSs and what newer companies like SmartRecruiters are doing.

Jerome Ternynck:

Yeah. I actually founded one of the first generation applicant tracking systems in 1999. A company called Mr. Ted. If you are an applicant, you probably have tried to drop your resume in this old system.  It’s the recruiting product of Cornerstone now, and it’s still out there used by many companies. So I’ve been through that journey of how first generation applicant tracking systems and newer ones work – 20-some years ago.

And applicant tracking systems, as the name implies, were designed to automate the file cabinet. There was a time when recruitment departments had piles of resumes on their desks. And then the internet came and everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is great. I can have digital resumes and you can apply online and I will have a database to track where you are rather than have my notes on your resume.’

Right? And the problem is that all the systems initially were designed for that. To “track applications.” 

They were never designed to make it easy for candidates. They were never designed for candidate experience. And frankly, they were never designed for the manager experience either. So the candidates hated the old ATS, and the managers as well. In fact, nobody uses those systems anymore and they’ve become a black box, frankly, for all parties involved.

Marc Cenedella:

But would you agree that there are still some legacy ATSs around that have tremendous market share?

Jerome Ternynck:

Yeah. And frankly, legacy ATS, so you’re thinking Taleo, BrassRing, iCIMS and all this generation, but also the HR system that has said, “Oh, I have a recruiting module.” 

But what they really have is a requisition and application tracking system

Workday being a good example. Workday has a massive market share. Frankly, the experience for candidates and for managers is just really, really bad. But it comes down to – are companies looking at recruiting as an administrative process, or are they looking at it as ‘Let’s engage with great candidates and optimize that?’

Is this a sales and marketing process where the experience of the candidate is really important and you’re trying to attract the best? Or are you just filling in requisitions with acceptable applicants? 

I think those two philosophies of hiring are switching places. If you ask modern companies, they think, “Yeah, of course it’s a sales and marketing process. Of course I care about my candidates, of course I want them to feel really good about it even if we reject them, even if it didn’t work out. Of course I want good collaboration and I’m going to send you a t-shirt and chocolate, if you didn’t make it.” 

They invest a lot in hiring but those are the winning companies, frankly. If you applied to a job at Twitter or LinkedIn, you’re going to have a great experience regardless. If you applied for a job at AT&T, I don’t know.

Marc Cenedella:

Is it true that my resume gets a score when I apply for jobs through SmartRecruiters?

Jerome Ternynck:

Yes. It’s an optional functionality we offer. It’s called SmartAssistant and it’s based on machine learning.

Marc Cenedella:

If we go back 20 years, the HR professional in the year 2000 was a different person than the HR professional today. How has the HR function changed over time with the introduction of new tools like SmartRecruiters?

Jerome Ternynck:

I think that the HR function has the unique opportunity to really be a business partner, a value add function. And I wrote a book actually about it called Hiring Success, which is how CEOs hire amazing talent. And in there I had described the evolution of HR teams in recruiting. They have become more digitally savvy. They have become more marketers and they start to measure candidate experience, they optimize for it, they optimize for the flow of it. Then they start to measure how decisions are being made. 

And in the most advanced organizations, the shift that we are seeing in the relationship between HR and the business is really beautiful. A good example of that is what metrics are they measured on? Historically, recruiters are measured on: 

1) time to fill and 

2) cost per hire, 

So… faster and cheaper.

How can you actually create a company and grow a company if recruiting operates on faster, cheaper?

It’s completely broken metrics. 

So we introduced new metrics that are:

1) hiring velocity, and

2) number of jobs that are filled on time. 

If half of your jobs are filled on time, you’re doing half of the job. 

And hiring velocity and business velocity are the same. 

And then we introduced the net hiring score, which is like an NPS. So 90 days after hire, we ask the manager, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a fit is this candidate? And we ask the candidate, the new hire, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a fit is this job? And then take an NPS, the one with the 9 and 10, the one we’re like, ‘yeah, best job ever minus the ones not so sure’ — the jury’s still out. 

And you end up with a positive or negative score to measure the quality of the hire. 

With these two metrics, businesses are giving the hiring velocity to managers. They’re saying, ‘Managers, it is your job to fill your positions on time. You’re the sales manager for the Southeast, you have to hire 10 reps next quarter. You don’t hire them I don’t care. You’re still getting the quota. So you better hire them otherwise you’re in trouble. Okay?’ 

So the managers are really pushing for hiring and the recruiters are given the net hiring score, which means the recruiters are in charge of quality of hire.

And now the dynamic is the manager saying, ‘Yeah, we should hire this person.’ And then the recruiter is like, ‘Wait, maybe we could find a better one. Are you sure about this?’

They are raising the bar of quality of hire and for the candidates. This means a lot, right? Because now you have a recruiter that is here to help you make the right decision. 

The last thing a recruiter wants is to put you in a job where you’re not going to be happy. On the contrary, they really want to help you find the right job. And yes, it might sound like, shoot, I didn’t get the job, but at least it’s getting you into a right match.

Marc Cenedella:

What information does an ATS parse? What does the employer see?

Jerome Ternynck:

The ATS will parse all of your resume. Whatever you give them through our machine learning will augment that data. 

In many organizations, they actually hide name, picture, and address, at least for the initial screening, which may have an effect on reducing bias in screening in some organizations.

Marc Cenedella:

Why do you say “may” have an effect?

Jerome Ternynck:

Because I think it’s just kicking the can down the road. I was part of the team that debated this principle in France, where it became a law that companies must offer candidates a way to apply anonymously. 

It’s like, okay, sure. So I’m anonymous here. Then what happens after? 

Am I anonymous when I interview? No. 

So I think that transparency is the best weapon we have against discrimination.

Hiding this allows us to push discrimination a bit further down the process. I don’t like the idea of hiding to avoid discrimination. I’d rather put it in full transparency and say, “You are discriminating and here is how and here is why and how are you going to change?”

We published a plan at SmartRecruiters for us to be an anti-racist, anti-discrimination force in the market. Our Chief Diversity Officer Rocki Howard has published The Diversity Hiring Toolkit for companies to adopt. So we’re very, very involved here in driving better diversity hiring outcomes and making the world of hiring more equitable.

Marc Cenedella:

Do recruiters use the resume database search function in SmartRecruiters? When they’ve opened a new job for product manager, are they going back and looking at product manager resumes from 2019?

Jerome Ternynck:

Yes, they do. They do because we force them to through our SmartAssistant.

When recruiters open a job, we actually go back to all their ‘silver medalist’ candidates who they should get back in touch with.

Marc Cenedella:

Jerome. We really appreciate you sharing these insights with our readers.

Jerome Ternynck:

Thank you for having me, Marc.

Thanks very much to Jerome of SmartRecruiters for joining me today and sharing his wisdom with you all. 

For ATS-optimized resume advice, see my detailed article The High Score Resume format: How to write a resume for 2021.