Creating Narratives

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Updated August 24, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a book by Osman (Ozzie) Osman and over 45 other contributors. It is the most authoritative resource on growing software engineering teams effectively, written by and for hiring managers, recruiters, interviewers, and candidates. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, over 800 links and references, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

The job description is a tool for reaching toward candidate-company fit: it is as much about the people you hope will apply for the role as it is about the company. The job description exposes your company—possibly for the first time—to the candidate pool, so it’s crucial to think about how you are representing the value proposition of your company and team through this medium. At the same time, a good job description will be designed to find and attract candidates who are both qualified for and interested in the role. The best way to do this is to build narratives—that is, telling stories—about the company and the ideal candidate.

Storytelling doesn’t come naturally to everyone; it’s easy to do too little, with a list of requirements awkwardly crammed into a character study, and too much, with a grandiose story that doesn’t map to people’s expectations about the nature of their work. After all, you’re hiring people to solve engineering challenges, not fight dragons. And odds are, you don’t have a writer on staff to help you craft these artifacts. For a smaller company or team, you’re probably best off having everyone, even non-engineers, review the job description to make sure the mission, company narrative, and role narrative feel right. Larger organizations might already have enough experience writing these that you’ll have a bank of options to choose from, but that doesn’t mean what you’ve been working with has really been effective. It may be time to update your story for the next great candidate.

Company Narrative

People want to be emotionally engaged in your story, and the journey of your company, and the arc—and to feel like it’s on an upward arc.Aileen Lee, founder, Cowboy Ventures*

The company narrative is a concise expression of how a company wants to be perceived—that is, a distilled version of the brand it hopes to project. It typically describes the company’s mission, which may be supported by an origin story and a statement of the company’s vision. A company narrative may also include a brief pitch about what it’s like to work there and what values the company holds.

The story you tell about your company is one of the more powerful ways to convey your values and brand to a candidate. To be effective, it needs to be concise (a paragraph or two at the most) and evoke an emotional reaction. Standard corporate boilerplate won’t attract curious candidates—neither will descriptions that are heavy with company jargon. Consider this example from Jan Tegze at SourceCon:

Which company would you like to join? ‘We are an international company focusing on space with offices across the globe, and our goal is to send people to other planets.’ Or the second company, ‘Our company was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today we are actively developing the technologies to make this possible with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.’Jan Tegze, author and Senior Recruiting Manager, SolarWinds*

Both descriptions are for SpaceX; the second is directly from the company, and the first is a version of it that Tegze wrote based on common pitfalls in how companies write about themselves. His version is a collection of facts, while SpaceX’s version is an actual story, grown out of the company’s origin, mission, and unique vision.

Here are a few questions to get you started building your company narrative:

  • Why does the company exist? Why does it matter? What is the founding story?

    • If you’re the founder of a company, think back to what you told investors or your first customers. What was the problem you saw, and why did you choose to solve it? Why are you the right person or team to solve it?
  • Why will the company be successful? What unique attributes does it have, and what has it accomplished so far to prove that it can succeed in the future?

  • What is your personal story with the company? Why did you join and why are you excited about it?

  • Why do current employees choose to work for this company instead of any other?

You won’t use all of this—your narrative will be shorter—but these questions can get you thinking about what your ideal candidate will most want to hear.

In “The Power of Company Narratives,” management expert John Hagel provides hypothetical examples of these narratives, and identifies two key elements of great company narratives:

  • They are open-ended: there is no clear resolution to the story.

  • The narrative is about the intended audience (the candidate), not the organization telling the story.

Rather than being strictly about the company, a great company narrative connects the mission to the work the candidate would be doing to tackle that open-ended challenge. (For an even more in-depth look into company narrative, we recommend Hagel’s post on narrative as a “powerful agent of pull.”)

Obviously, if you are a hiring manager at a larger company, branding will already have been established and you most likely will have a lot less power to change the company story. It still might be helpful to consider whether the company story can be adapted to suit this role and the kinds of candidates you’re hoping to bring on.

Example Company Narratives

Many job descriptions lead with their company story first, to help get the candidate familiar with its goals and values and hopefully generate intrigue or excitement about joining the team. Here are a few examples of brief, compelling company narratives we pulled from job descriptions for engineering roles. Notably, each of these avoids company-specific jargon that can be alienating to candidates:

  • Nike. NIKE, Inc. does more than outfit the world’s best athletes. It is a place to explore potential, obliterate boundaries and push out the edges of what can be. The company looks for people who can grow, think, dream and create. Its culture thrives by embracing diversity and rewarding imagination. The brand seeks achievers, leaders and visionaries. At NIKE, Inc. it’s about each person bringing skills and passion to a challenging and constantly evolving game.*

  • Splice. We’re building a creative ecosystem for music producers. With this ecosystem, we’re cultivating a global community of creators that fosters inspiration, connection, focus, and growth.

    Our work environment is no different. We champion collaboration, big ideas, helping where we can and asking for assistance when we need it. We aim for steady, measured expansion through experimentation and iteration. We encourage optimism, inclusion, and transparency in the workplace. We aren’t afraid to stumble, because every stumble can teach us something about our processes, strategies, and even ourselves.

    We don’t just hire people who mirror our culture. We hire people who add to it.*

  • Nordstrom. We’re a fast-moving fashion company that empowers our people to be innovative, creative and always focused on providing the best service to our customers. The retail industry is rapidly changing, and we have interesting, complex problems to solve every day—from developing cutting-edge technology and opening new stores, to designing fresh, must-have fashion.*

Appendix B has more on building your company’s value system and sharing it with the world.

Additionally, the Holloway Guide to Raising Venture Capital offers guidance on building mission and vision statements.

Role Narrative

A role narrative is a short story that appears in a job description and appealingly illustrates to potential candidates—especially the company’s ideal candidates—what it would be like to work in the advertised role. It may describe the outcomes of the role, how the role would benefit the candidate, why the role exists, characteristics and skills that will help a candidate succeed in the role, and the role’s organizational context. Role narratives are often written in the second person, addressing the candidate as “you” to allow them to envision themself in the role.

In addition to a narrative for your company, it will also be helpful to develop a story for each role. The process of considering all the elements of a role, including candidate personas and whether your company is interested in certain types of candidates, should lead you to be able to answer the following:

  • Why does this role exist? Why is it needed now?

    • How will the role impact the company and the wider world?

    • What challenges will this role help the team face? Why is that work exciting?

  • What skills or characteristics does a candidate need in order to succeed in the role?

    • Are you looking for an up-and-comer? Someone motivated by the company’s mission? Someone very self-motivated? Someone with specific experience?
  • What benefits does the candidate gain in taking on this role?

    • What sorts of challenges would the candidate work on?

    • What growth and learning opportunities does this role provide?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of merely describing the factual details of the role, but answering these questions in a job description helps place the candidate as the protagonist in a story. This provides imagery and concrete details that lead the person to imagine jumping into that role, tackling the challenges, and working for a company they’d be legitimately excited to join. It’s motivating instead of merely intimidating.

Example Role Narratives

Here are some examples of well-crafted role narratives:

  • Culture Amp:* Senior Software Engineer (Front end), Payment Platform Web

    We are searching for experienced frontend engineers to join our team in Melbourne, delivering new and updated product features in our JavaScript and CSS codebases.

    Depending on which team you join, you may work with React (typed with TypeScript or Flow), Apollo GraphQL, Redux or even the newest addition to our frontend stack, Elm (no experience required!). For styles, we use CSS Modules written in Sass, which our React and Elm components are able to share. We write JavaScript tests in Jest, Elm tests with elm-test, and end-to-end feature tests with RSpec and Cucumber. We also have a suite of visual regression tests, that automatically catch CSS bugs across our entire browser support matrix. Our back end is Ruby on Rails, with a growing constellation of microservices written in Ruby and Elixir.

    You should love crafting beautifully designed and intuitive user experiences, and believe that creating well-tested, clean code is just as important for the front end as the back end. You should enjoy being surrounded by talented engineers, learning from others, as well as contributing to their development. To top it off, we hope you’ll share our passion for culture and changing the world of work for the better.

  • Netflix:* Engineering Director - Netflix APIs

    Our API strategy has paid off in our consumer product offering. Signup and content discovery experiences on TV, mobile, and web rely on the API layer to provide their data and functionality. Hundreds of A/B tests are supported through this API. Millions of devices interact with it every day. We’re not done yet, though; as Netflix grows the needs of the API layer continue to evolve. You would guide the team in exploring ideas like API federation, alternate protocols and query languages like GraphQL, and many more ideas for how to accelerate our API development velocity.

    This past summer we made a new strategic bet—the patterns behind our consumer product API success could similarly pay off in our studio product. Netflix’s studio product is a suite of applications that enable content production, from the idea stage to a finished film or series, for 100s of Netflix originals each year. We formed a new group focused on building and scaling API layers for studio applications in addition to consumer applications. Come lead this combined group that is driving Netflix’s API evolution.

  • Square:* Senior Software Engineer (Frontend), Payment Platform

    Commerce is changing, and as part of that Square is transforming from a product company to a platform company. If you join now, you will ride the massive wave of omnichannel retail combining in-store and online / in-app payments. You’ll help create an “AWS of Commerce” as our developer platform exposes core primitives for other companies to build on top of. And you’ll have a great experience with our motivated, friendly, and diverse team.

Where to Post Job Descriptions

Along with posting job descriptions on your own site (typically in a careers or “work with us” section), you may consider posting in a number of common places that candidates look when conducting a job search.

Table: Where to Post Job Descriptions

SitePricingDetails
LinkedInPay per views/post; extensive custom recruiting productsYou can post individual jobs, or pay more for LinkedIn Recruiter, which offers advanced search tools and bulk InMail options.
Glassdoor$199–$699/monthCompanies can set up a free account to build their brand (and see what employees/candidates say about them), but have to pay to list jobs.
LeverCustom pricing depending on company planIf you use Lever for your ATS, you can integrate with your site to post jobs there, along with other job sites.
AngelListFreeTypically, but not exclusively, for startup positions
A-List (from AngelList)Custom pricingCustom pricing
Career Builder$375/job; $219–$499/monthLarger scale job site, better for accounting, clerical, retail, etc. Not well suited to tech hiring. Caters to a more Midwestern audience.
IndeedFree options; pay per click; 10% of salary of hired candidatesLarger scale, lower-skilled job site. Not typically used for tech hiring.
MonsterFree options; $249–$999/monthLarger scale job site, better for accounting, clerical, retail, etc. Not well suited to tech hiring.
Zip Recruiter$249–$1,569/monthLarge platform that’s been around for a long time.
Remote.comFree options; $295/posting; 10% of project cost per hire; custom pricingFor hiring remote talent.
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