Secrets of the ATS: A chat with Lever’s CEO Nate Smith

I know you have questions about Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), how they work, and if they’re blocking your applications from ever being seen.

After my interviews with resume parsing companies’ CEOs and technical experts received so much positive feedback last fall, I’m now interviewing the CEOs of the Top 10 ATS companies.

My aim is to help you learn how to navigate these critical software systems, and improve your chances for success.

Today I’m sharing my interview with Nate Smith, CEO & Co-Founder at Lever, Inc. Lever is a leading talent acquisition suite, and ranks #6 on Ladders’ list of ATSs supporting the most $100K+ jobs.

Nate Smith, CEO & Co-Founder at Lever, Inc.

Marc Cenedella: 

Nate, thanks for making the time. If you’re familiar with Ladders, we’re a community of nine million folks, at the $100K+ level. So I thought it would be great to chat with you for our non-technical, non-expert audience.

With that in mind, what exactly is an ATS?

Nate Smith:

Happy to. I would say that it’s actually a category that’s undergoing a lot of change right now.

So, when you think about an ATS – ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System – it is very much a translation of what used to be a paper process into a computer system.

So, when we go back to how people would do hiring before we had computers and the internet, HR would basically look through the resumes and decide who to interview. You do some interviews; you kind of like each step of the process; you’re kind of whittling down your stack of paper and the people you decide not to move forward.You put those people in one filing cabinet, and the people you decide to hire go in a different filing cabinet. You probably never look at either of those filing cabinets ever again. And that was how you did hiring. 

When we look at what an ATS is, it’s very much a translation of that paper process into a computer. Today you can advertise jobs either on the company’s website or on a job board. And you have applicants who can find those job opportunities and submit a resume, which still looks very much like a piece of paper today.

And then, when you’re in an ATS, what you see is a list of people who’ve applied. From there, you can choose to move them forward or not.

Those people who aren’t going forward get archived. And the people who do move forward go from one step to another, until ultimately you make a hiring decision. 

And those stages are very much analogous to piles of paper. So, that’s what an ATS is. 

At the end of the day, it’s a computerized system that helps you to do this process, which goes all the way back in time to paper. 

Marc Cenedella:

How does an ATS work? Let’s say I’m applying to a midsize company – they ask me for my resume and I give it to them. What happens next, specifically, with Lever?

Nate Smith:

It is still standard at every single company to accept applicants and review them. 

Honestly, the majority of what happens is people manually look at each resume and make a quick decision about whether that person is qualified. They then decide whether to move them forward or not. 

You should think about the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of people oftentimes applying for that same job, especially for well-known companies. And so, there’s a couple of different ways you can stand out within the application realm, such as applying  to companies that don’t have thousands and thousands of applicants.

Find smaller companies that won’t be receiving as many inbound applications.They might be a lot more responsive to people who are coming inbound because they don’t have as many people showing up at their front door.

So if they want to move forward, a recruiter might ask you to do a phone screen, but they might in some roles ask for you to do an assessment before doing a phone screen. It does vary.

If there’s an automated pre-screening, the recruiter will look at that before making a decision to phone screen you, but ultimately you’ll get to a phone screening step where the recruiter will talk to you.

Nate Smith:

Typically, it’s a pretty brief conversation. They’re going to ask about stuff that is largely based on  your experience. They’re looking to find out whether you’re a fit for those criteria given to them by the manager. One tip I have for that is…Don’t enter the  failure mode where really good candidates do themselves harm by not treating that conversation with respect. They think, “Well, this person isn’t really making the hiring decision, it’s the manager.” So the candidate sleepwalks through this step.

You should be really nice to everyone involved in the hiring process and treat them with a lot of respect. That recruiter has been trained to ask certain questions and look for certain things. And, in many cases, they actually do have a lot of expertise in the domain area.

Let’s say you’re a highly skilled person in marketing. That recruiter has probably never been a marketer, but they’ve worked with a manager who said, “Here’s the stuff I want you to test for and questions I want you to ask.”

So, they’re operating under the guidance of someone who does know the field; and a lot of times they have acquired a lot of expertise through the process of doing many screens.

While they might not be an expert in it themselves, they do know  enough about the domain to ask the right questions.

Marc Cenedella:

That is great advice.

When you say “the majority of what happens when people manually review resumes”, who is that? Is that HR? Is that the hiring manager?

Nate Smith:

It’s typically a recruiter these days.

Marc Cenedella:

And why is that? Why isn’t the hiring manager looking at resumes?

Nate Smith:

Frankly, hiring managers don’t have enough time to review resumes, and  most of the applicants aren’t qualified.  A typical ratio is about 100 applicants to a given hire. And the ratio is going to vary broadly based on the popularity of the company, or the type of role, but it’s a big ballpark. It takes 100 resumes to make one hire and a manager needs to hire a couple of people within a given quarter. Let’s say two people within a quarter. 

If you do some math on reviewing 100 applications, with maybe a couple of minutes per resume, that’s a huge amount of time! And the reality is… you’re busy doing other things, right? 

So, at the end of the day, the managers want to spend their time focusing on their current team and on the part of the process only they can do. The part of the process only they can do is the interviews –  talking to the candidates about the potential opportunity; and, to the great candidates, explaining why they should take this job and why that’s exciting. 

The recruiter is usually someone that the manager spends some time with, to help them calibrate. The way this works is, a recruiter and a manager often sit down together and the recruiter will find a number of profiles they think are promising. The manager will go through them and review them with the recruiter. And a lot of times this is done just over a video conference, or you’re looking at a bunch of variables on the list together, so that the recruiter can learn, “Oh, that’s what you’re looking for.”

And they sometimes learn to use heuristics, like what particular experience, or skill listed on the resume that this manager thinks are indicative that you might be a good fit. But that’s very much a human thing.

In most companies it is actually a person – a recruiter – looking through the applicants and making decisions, but they have to make quick decisions because they have to get through hundreds and hundreds of resumes.

Marc Cenedella:

For Lever’s ATS software, how much of the software is geared to the process up to that moment of the go / no-go phone screen? And how much of the software is geared to the process after that critical stage?

Nate Smith:

That’s an interesting question. I would say that probably 10% of the software covers everything  leading up to the moment the recruiter says “I am”, or “I’m not” going to move forward with you. And probably 40% of the software is focused on attracting people.

A lot of the software involves tools for recruiters to engage with candidates, whether they’ve applied, or people have referred people, or internal candidates who work at a company have applied to jobs at that company. So, actually a lot of the software is tools for the recruiters to identify talent. 

And then, maybe 50% is post, “Hey, we’re going to interview this person.” The interview process, scheduling, making an offer, doing reporting to analyze all of the different successes of that candidate; and integration with other platforms that are important, like HR systems and other systems outside Lever.

Marc Cenedella:

What if a Ladders professional said to you:  “Hey, this is 2021 – haven’t we’ve moved beyond resumes? Do I really still need to have a resume?”

Nate Smith:

You do. People do use professional networks like LinkedIn and others as kind of resume proxies. 

But you also want a written resume. The thing to realize about the interview process is that there are a lot of people who have to quickly become familiar with you. It’s not just the screening by the recruiter. Once you do that, you’re often going to be screening with a member of the team, or the manager for the role. And that person needs to pretty quickly identify, who is this person? What relevant things from their experience can I ask about?”

Marc Cenedella:

There’s a concept now that, “I have to get past the ATS to get to a real person.” 

Nate Smith:

That’s not how it works.

Marc Cenedella:

OK, please explain. The typical professional might ask, “What can I do resume-wise to make sure my application gets past the ATS?”

Nate Smith:

I mean, that’s just not actually how it works. 

So, it is true that ATSs have tools to help recruiters do things in batches. So, there might be questions and – depending on how you answer those questions –  there may be an automatic qualification, or an automatic disqualification. But those are going to be very specific things that recruiters need for a hire. 

I think sometimes people get in this mindset that companies are trying to not hire people. They’re trying to disqualify people! That’s not true. Those companies are actively trying to hire people. In the case of qualifying or disqualifying questions,  those are make or break things.

So, for example, if the company doesn’t have the financial resources to sponsor a Visa, and you don’t have work authorization, the company can’t hire you. That really boils down to saving everybody’s time.

Marc Cenedella:

From the professional’s viewpoint, you mentioned 100 resumes to one hire, and maybe 10 of those get a phone screen or interview. When you talk to professionals about it, the other 80 or 90 people in that process refer to it as “the black hole.” “I sent my application in, I never heard back, what happened?” And so, to them, it looks like they applied and the ATS stopped them  from talking to a human being. That’s their perception.

Nate Smith:

Everyone who applies does go through the same ATS process, in the same way. And recruiters do their best to look at as many people as they can. But there are certain realities. Some companies are  going to have a lot of applicants. They’ll find someone before they get to your application, and they’ll close the role.Your application never  gets seen. That can happen.

But it’s just because someone did find a fit for the job. And the reality is you can only go through so many things in a day. So, there will  certainly be times when your application doesn’t get viewed, because of timing. And that is the way it goes.

Marc Cenedella:

Does Lever have a feature that compares the resumes to the job description? And if that resume is missing keywords, certain keywords, does it prevent humans from seeing the resume?

Nate Smith:

We typically don’t do it that way. Our recruiters can configure certain criteria if they want. But that is something that they intentionally set up. There isn’t an automated prevention mechanism.

Just having a keyword isn’t going to resonate  with the recruiter that’s reading your resume, because they don’t know what you mean by that. It’s much better if you use the keyword in context: if you say, “Hey, I used SQL to build something that did this, and it was used by this many people,” you’re expressing what you did with a story people can immediately understand. That’s going to actually gain a lot of credibility with someone who’s just meeting you for the first time.

Imagine you met someone at a party. How would you introduce yourself? How would you actually talk about your experiences and your skills? Think of it as interacting with a human being. I think that’s the number one tip that people miss.

Nate Smith:

And what I would say is, the tool provides recruiters access to applicants, and recruiters can do a lot of different things to look at those applicants. But I just want to remind everyone that the goal of a recruiter and a hiring manager is to hire people. 

They’re looking to hire people… they are actively trying to find people to hire. 

I’d recommend spending time adding the keywords for your relevant skills, or technologies, or capabilities; but don’t put anything on your resume where in an actual interview, you aren’t going to be able to back that up with actual experience and knowledge.

Marc Cenedella:

Is my resume given a score by Lever? Zero to 100?

Nate Smith:

No. It does not. Some systems do.

Marc Cenedella:

And do recruiters who use Lever typically go back and search through old resumes for good fits?

Nate Smith:

That’s a really common thing. It’s one of the first things people tend to do. Sourcing from their existing pool of candidates, whether that’s internal professionals they’ve interacted with, or an existing resource of high-level candidates. These are good resources.

Marc Cenedella:

Hey, Nate, this has been fantastic. I really appreciate it. 

Nate Smith:

Thanks, Marc.