How we see art is a reflection of ourselves. We can only feel things that are, in some way, part of ourselves. Much of art resonates not merely due to it’s beauty, but its ability to show us … us.
Sometimes that can be scary. Just out of personal interest — not for trolling — I am a member of several conservative meme/lifestyle groups. Occasionally an art piece pops up that deeply disturbs most members of the group (McJesus, for a recent example). The common, but not overwhelming, response is scorn. “That is horrible and blasphemous.” “Please take it down.” “They will regret [making that].” Very little is said why the piece is “horrible;” it is simply repeated that it is.
Jani Leinonen, creator of McJesus. Pirje Mykkänen, valokuvaaja / photographer • CC BY-SA 4.0
It’s not easy allowing ourselves such mental vulnerability. It feels like an attack – like they’re saying we’re bad. Like whoever made that art hates us. If I were a Christian, it would probably feel deeply unsettling to see Ronald McDonald nailed to a cross. To take something I took for granted and make it into what superficially feels like a mockery of who I am. For most people thought ends there. The mind shuts off and the shouting begins.
People suck at self-reflection. Especially when instigated by a faceless “other.” Part of this is growing a thicker skin. Did I really just want to yell at a sculpture? That’s ridiculous. Does some art make you feel silly? Alone and insignificant? Good. It’s doing its job. What is the art trying to say?
And what does it say about you that a piece makes you feel what it does?
Back in high school I created worlds. My parents had gotten me Vue, a procedural environment rendering program. Over a year I learned procedural texturing and developed my own algorithms for generating (what felt to me) like photo-realistic planets. I submitted my works to the Texas TSA art competition, won a few categories, and then mostly forgot about it when I began college.
A couple years ago I picked Vue back up and tried again. This time, I found the program too limiting – even though it has far more features now (including a Python scripting engine!). Mainly – I can’t run simulations on textures within Vue. At least, not efficiently.
A few weeks ago I returned with a different approach – this time I would write my own software for generating and simulating the worlds. And I’d use Go since it’s what we write Kubernetes in. I’ve done a fair bit of work, and now with my Google Copyright Waiver in-hand, I can open source the project.
At some point I’ll scope out what all features I want to implement, but these few should keep me for months. As I develop features, when it strikes my fancy I’ll write about the things I found interesting along the way.
I recently read The War of Art, a self-help book on overcoming the internal forces preventing us from doing our life’s work. It got a lot of things right. Foremost: for most people, our greatest enemy is ourselves.
It got one thing wrong: it says that many maladies are imagined and exist purely in our heads, and do not really exist. The specific examples it uses – Seasonal Affective Disorder and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder – are real phenomena that impact people’s ability to be productive. Marginalizing those disorders isn’t useful; it does not make those things less real. Pretending they aren’t real is futile. Instead, the below is how I approach those – and similar – psychological problems. It also applies to physical problems.
The only possible universes in which you produce the art you want to make are the ones where you have every malady in your path and you produce your art. It’s not fair that you’re going through whatever you’re experiencing. Some people have it better than you. Some people don’t feel a weight on their chest every morning keeping them from even rising to take a shower in the morning. That sucks. The possibilities where you produce art and you don’t have your issues aren’t worth considering – they aren’t real and can never be.
We’ve done a terrible job debating gun control. We’ve allowed gun-control opponents to steal the show because we haven’t done the basic legwork to even know what we’re saying.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would need a semi-auto for self defense.”
“ARs should be banned.”
“The shooter used a high power rifle.”
If you’ve said one of these, you’ve expressed an opinion you (probably) haven’t researched. Anyone with a reasonable understanding of guns will spot this immediately. This discredits anything further you have to say on the topic – even if it is compelling statistics backed by studies. Alternatively, they’ll take you at your word and you’ll find yourself defending a ridiculous or untenable position.
If you’re going to debate gun control, respect your conversational partners enough to know what you’re saying. Imagine how you’d feel if a marriage equality opponent mixed up the terms “trans” and “gay” or constantly assumed all gay men are effeminate. In the realm of gun control, you are on their turf and must use their terminology to be taken seriously. Words have meaning and we can’t expect to have meaningful, serious discussions without agreeing on definitions.
Language shapes how we perceive the things it describes, and knowledge of less-known parts of it can become part of your identity. Failing to learn the basics before spouting an opinion says that you don’t take the other side seriously enough to even learn to speak with them and understand what they’re saying. It voids any possibility of common ground and makes you susceptible to making a public fool of yourself. It kills your ability to show empathy – one of the strongest tools for building compromise.
Gun control is a complex topic. Have the personal responsibility to learn about it before speaking. If there’s a requirement for constructive discourse, it’s being able to communicate. If someone uses a term you don’t know – ask – showing humility is a great way to build rapport with an opponent. I’ve included a list below of several terms you should know to be an informed citizen.
Commonly Misused Terms
Don’t use these unless you mean them. If you don’t care enough about the topic to learn these and use them properly, stay out of gun control debates – you’ll do far more harm to your side than good.
AR – ArmaLite Rifle, a series of rifles produced by ArmaLite, a small arms engineering company.
About a month ago I read Dr. Cathy O’Neil‘s book, Weapons of Math Destruction. It is a call to arms for data scientists and anyone in the automation field to handle their data responsibly. She lays out a framework for a code of conduct for people designing systems that handle people’s data, and how to avoid or at least become aware of the harm they cause society. Below is a draft of a speech I’ve prepared to give for my Toastmaster’s group.
Imagining weapons of mass destruction is something of an American pastime. The dangers are obvious – millions dead and large-scale infrastructure overwhelmed or simply annihilated. These effects grip modern culture, seeping into irresponsibly speculative news and defining Michael Bay and Tom Cruise movies. Fun, but not a useful discussion to have in your daily life. Instead, I want to cover the automated systems already harming us – what Dr. Cathy O’Neil terms “Weapons of Math Destruction.” A Weapon of Math Destruction is any scalable system that uses a model with the potential to harm society. In her book, Weapons of Math Destruction, Dr. O’Neil defines three types of WMDs: invisible systems, opaque systems, and obviously harmful systems. I’m going to define those three types of WMDs, giving illustrative examples from her book and from my experience in the hiring automation field.
First, invisible systems. Who here has been given a personality test while being considered for a job? How many of those employers told you that your response could automatically disqualify you? That’s an example of an invisible system – you don’t even know it’s there. On the surface, sure, no one wants to work with jerks so just screen them out. The problem is two-fold: since you’re not aware of this, you can’t appeal the decision and don’t know what went wrong. The second is that “jerk” is not a well-defined term (and there aren’t any tests for it). In this case, employers misuse common personality tests (OCEAN, MBTI, etc.) for something they weren’t designed for: candidate filtering. In fact, these tests were designed to help teams work together by helping members understand what makes each individual tick.
This specific issue has a history dating back to discrimination against people with mental illnesses such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Unable to legally directly filter out people with mental illnesses, employers fall back to the poorly-correlated results of personality tests. Systems like these have obvious potential for abuse. Since they’re invisible, there is no public accountability and no way to correct the harm these practices cause.
But what if a system is visible, but the owner doesn’t want to reveal how it works? This is an opaque system. Opaque systems are very prevalent in software, especially in artificial intelligence development. There’s a lot of startups that promise automated systems that match candidates to job openings, aiding or even eliminating the role of recruiters. On the surface level this seems like a great idea – by making it easier for companies to hire people, it will be easier for people to get hired. What you’ll note is that none of these services reveal how they match candidates – it may be proprietary logic or a machine learning system that obfuscates the logic even from the company using it. Candidates who sign up for these systems know that there is a matching algorithm, but they aren’t let in on how it reasons about them. Since candidates don’t know about the strengths and limitations of these systems, they can’t tailor their resumes or profiles. This is worsened further since recruiters usually have limited understanding of the skills they’re hiring for, and can reason neither about the system they’re using or the skills they’re looking for. The system could be biased by race or gender, and the software’s developers may not even know.
By choosing to make their candidate matching system opaque, these services discriminate arbitrarily against candidates who haven’t optimized their profiles them recruiters, and there isn’t a way for candidates to learn how to improve their odds. The system is unappealable and outsiders can’t reason about how it behaves, so they are powerless.
But what if a system is visible and the implementers are transparent about how it works? You’re still not out of the woods. Many companies do a credit check before making a hiring decision. This system is visible and transparent – you know they are checking your credit history and that they have some minimum bar they’ll use to make a decision. Again, this initially seems like a good choice – if someone isn’t able to handle their finances responsibly, how can you expect them to be responsible with their job?
Financial irresponsibility isn’t the only way to end up with bad credit. Someone could steal your identity. A hospital might balance-bill you for tens of thousands over what your insurance covers. Maybe you’re still recovering from the financial crisis. But even if you are at fault for your financial history, systemically denying you a job will only make things worse for you and people like you. This is a simple feedback loop: people with bad credit get fewer and worse jobs, so their credit score gets worse. This is one of the many systems contributing to the cycle of poverty in the US.
The companies using and profiting on these systems – these WMDs – rarely look at their impact on the world and are unlikely to share if they do know. As citizens we have to be aware that these types of automated systems exist and influence much of our lives. Invisible and opaque systems are unaccountable, and we have to push back because usually we only learn they exist and hurt people when they’ve reached a monstrous size.
As the designers of systems, we have to make sure we aren’t falling into these pitfalls. If you’re making something with the potential to improve the lives of millions and have any sort of professional ethic, how can you live not knowing whether it is actually having that impact? Do you really take pride in your system if you’re not willing to let someone independently verify its effects?
These WMDs are already hurting you and the people around you. I’ve only given examples in hiring, but imagine the collective effect of thousands of these systems across every industry – real estate, medicine, finance – each impacting millions of lives. You probably participate in several, and may even be building one for work. Algorithms to automate systems will only become more prevalent with time. We have to be ready, and responsible.
Not all populations are created equal. Blindly designing a system without thinking about the pressures involved in the data you collect (or the people who will participate) can easily result in harm to society.
As an example, in a public online polls respondents are more likely to have strong opinions. Potential respondents who don’t have firm positions are less likely to see value in providing answers, and will be less likely to put effort into it. Drawing conclusions from an online poll anyone can respond to will incorrectly lead to the finding that people are very polarized on issues. Scientific polls have safeguards to prevent this sort of bias.
Self-selection bias in system design isn’t always obvious, so I want to discuss a more nuanced case.
There’s a trend in the US for developing new financial instruments. Markets in the US are not well regulated, so it is very easy for entrepreneurs to develop new types of financial contracts as means of making money. One such case is instruments mimicking reverse mortgages. For example, Point lets homeowners sell a percentage of their home in return for cash.
Homes and Liquidity
In economics, liquid assets refers to things that people can exchange without the item losing value. In practice, this means anyone can easily determine the item’s value and can exchange it easily. Cash is a liquid asset because its value is literally printed on the bill or coin and nearly anyone will accept it in exchange for goods immediately. The opposite, illiquid assets, refers to items for which this is difficult. For example, exchanging a home can take weeks and it takes a professional hours to determine a fair value.
For Point, its selling point is the option for homeowners to exchange a portion of their illiquid assets – ownership of their home – in exchange for liquid assets – cash. Fortunately Point is honest that they may offer less for the portion of the home that they buy. They may only offer $90,000 for 20% of a home which has been appraised at $500,000. In these agreements the homeowner’s net worth immediately decreases significantly – possibly by tens of thousands of dollars. (Just think of what would happen if the owner sold to Point, then immediately bought back that 20% in the case above.)
In designing any system, we have to consider the pressures which will influence the statistical properties of the decisions it makes.
Aside: Homo Economicus and Homo Psychologicus
Homo economicus is a simplification of humans for economic modeling. It presents a human-like agent that acts rationally in its own self interest according to available information.
Homo psychologicus is a perturbation of homo economicus that takes into accounts the psychological factors all humans fall prey to. These models are more complex since they require more variables, but should be taken into account in situations where humans are less likely to act in their rational self interest.
In this case, we must first ask: What sort of homeowner is likely to accept an offer from Point?
This is where self-selection bias comes into play. In the long term, it’s obvious that statistically the better option is to hold onto full ownership. (If it were not, Point would not have a business model.) So if we assume an owner has a base level of financial savviness, they will hold on to full ownership if they have the financial means to do so. Thus, we can expect many participating homeowners to feel some pressure to get cash quickly. We can then assume they are less likely to be financially stable – more likely to have a credit payment or a bill they need to pay off quickly. They are not reducible to homo economicus but must be modeled as homo psychologicus. They will be more prone to mistakes in reasoning and more impacted by biases.
Next: What sorts of offers is Point likely to make?
This is a second source of selection pressure – it impacts the statistics of the offers Point is likely to make. Success for Point’s valuation algorithm is the money Point makes, so if functioning optimally the algorithm will offer the lowest amount the owner will agree to. As a business Point is likely to be functioning close to homo economicus, so we can assume they will make this rational decision.
Aside: Weapon of Math Destruction
The logic which goes into this offer cannot be appealed, and there is no way for the owner to know how the value was calculated – it is hidden behind an unquestionable proprietary algorithm. This algorithm is unlikely to be “fair” to the homeowner – its purpose is to make money for Point. Simply by measuring success this way and not being auditable, the algorithm will be predatory (even if no humans involved had this intention). This unaccountability makes it a Weapon of Math Destruction.
Combining these two selection pressures lets us answer: What sort of agreements are likely to be made and accepted?
Point is most likely to enter into agreements with owners who have undervalued their own home. The greater the disparity between an owner’s valuation and what Point really thinks the value is, the more incentive Point has to make a deal. If the value Point offers is sufficiently lower than what a homeowner thinks it is, a homeowner will always reject the offer. If the owner does not have a reasonable understanding of their home’s value, they are more likely to think the offer is a good one. Additionally, if the owner’s rationality is compromised they are more likely to enter into a deal that is not in their best interests. For deals between two homo economicus we would expect deals only to be made when both parties rationally perceive they will profit. Since it is likely many owners will not be acting purely rationally due to other factors in their life, we can’t make this assumption. There will be owners who enter deals which hurt them.
The Sunk Cost Effect
By the time owners get to this stage, they have spent several hundred dollars in getting their home appraised and hours of their time. Point at most has wasted some of its employees’ time. It’s worth it to Point as they absorb some of this cost by offering other homeowners lower prices. But for the owner, they now have an appraisal that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For many the time, money, and effort they already expended will make them more likely to accept the offer even if it is below what they are comfortable with – this is the sunk cost effect. Since many potential participants already had some pressure to get money quickly, this has made their situation more dire and they are less likely to act rationally.
Should you use Point? That depends on your measure of success. If success is making a good return on investment, that depends on whether you can use the increased liquidity to make more than what you (effectively) paid Point and it is better than similar financial arrangements (e.g. reverse mortgage). If you are against systems that have the potential to harm society, you have to decide whether you trust Point has accounted for the damage it could do.
Point has the capacity to harm society if it isn’t careful. We can’t measure the impact on society since its valuation algorithms are hidden and Point is unlikely to share its data with researchers. Even if it cost them nothing to find out, it is likely they would choose not to know1 whether their system caused harm. They would also be unlikely to share if they did know.
By default, the homeowners who self-select to enter agreements with Point will not be in a good financial situation, and so will generally lose net worth in the agreement. We can expect Point’s algorithm will move net worth from people with lower wealth to people with higher wealth – exacerbating the current wealth inequality problems our society faces. While it is possible for individuals to recoup the loss they incurred by purchasing the fast liquidity, this is not the default. If a homeowner has need of liquidity urgently, they aren’t likely to be using it in a way that will gain value (like investments) – they are more likely to need it for a large high-interest debt or unexpected bill.
It is important to consider these factors in any system being designed. It is possible Point has mitigated the issues I’ve described. This would require them to have a drive to actively ensure they aren’t being predatory of people in tough financial spots. This isn’t something done passively, but a professional responsibility they would have to choose to take. In the absence of evidence or any insight into their transactions and offer methodology, we simply can’t know.
*Economics for the Common Good*, by Jean Tirole, 2017, pp. 131-132 ↩
Why is it hard for computers to understand language?
This question plagues many a developer of NLP (Natural Language Processing) systems. While there are certain aspects of language we don’t know how to process yet, often we oversimplify language to make it easier for computers at the expense of maintaining the meaning. This isn’t a problem with processing power, but a conceptual limitation of humans designing these machines. In trying to understand how to deal with language, there’s many common mistakes that plague systems that try to interpret English. These cause the sorts of problems that make the users of these systems think computers will never really be able to interact on a human level.
An Aside: Normalization
Before processing text, most NLP systems normalize the text in some way to make it easier for the computer to understand. This may include steps like correcting obvious spelling mistakes, lowercasing all letters, and removing superfluous spacing. The idea is that none of these modifications really changes the meaning of the text, and there’s no need to develop a machine that can (and thus, has to) learn that when a sentence has extra spaces in the middle that it rarely means anything interesting.
Overnormalization: Ignoring Capitalization
Making all text lowercase before processing makes sense. For example, there’s obviously not a significantly big difference between For (as it would appear at the start of a sentence) and for in the middle. By default, a machine would treat For and for as completely different words and not know that they are very related. By lowercasing all text, we eliminate this class of mistake. It also nearly halves the number of words the machine has to learn. This can be a massive help since most words rarely appear capitalized, and if the machine sees the capitalized form of the word for the first time in the wild (rather than in training), it will immediately connect it to the word it already understands. There might simply not be enough training data for a computer to learn that Lanthanide and lanthanide are the same word just from context. However, this simplification has unintended side effects.
Consider these three sentences and their intended meaning.
I saw it. = I saw [something referenced in another sentence].
I saw It. = I saw [the film It].
I saw IT. = I saw [the Information Technology department].
Any system that blindly lowercases everything will treat these sentences identically and appear comically inept. They have three completely different meanings and as humans we can see the distinction immediately. What’s worse is when low-level machine learning models are trained on them, and they are used to feed more sophisticated models.
A technique we use to teach computers relationships between words is word embedding, which is a type of model that can be thought of as a map containing every word: words closer to each other have “more similar” meanings than those far apart. The model “learns” from a bunch of sample sentences we feed it – usually hundreds of thousands. In this case, by lowercasing everything we told the machine that it, It, and IT all mean the same thing – they have the “same location”. This not only corrupts the computer’s understanding of those three words, but anything even tangentially related to them. Words related to IT like administrator and support will be incorrectly be considered similar to ones near it such as that and this. Now if that faulty word embedding is used to train an even more complex model, it will compound the problems. Consider that there are literally hundreds of examples where capitalization matters in English, and there will be many bits of language the computer will have trouble understanding.
Solution: Variable Granularity
We appear to have competing requirements:
We want our machine to ignore differences in capitalization when they don’t matter.
We want our machine to pay attention to differences in capitalization when they do matter.
I suggest adding a third requirement, one that suggests a solution.
We don’t want to have to tell our machine each case where capitalization matters.
We could literally enumerate all instances where people capitalized words in a non-standard way, but that isn’t practical and the system won’t automatically figure out new instances. If we could automatically detect when capitalization mattered, then the first two requirements become non-issues.
A word embedding needs about one hundred example word usages to “learn” what a word means and use it as an anchor point to understand similar words. While educated may appear in many hundreds of sentences, erudite may appear in only a few, but it will appear in contexts similar enough to educated that the machine will figure out that the words are very similar. We can leverage this limitation – by declaring that if a word appears fewer than 100 times then we accept that the machine will sometimes make mistakes with those words.
We can turn this threshold into a rule which determines whether to create an entry for the word’s word embedding:
If the exact capitalization occurs 100 or more times, make an entry for it.
If the exact capitalization occurs fewer than 100 times, use the entry for the most common capitalization (or create one if it does not exist)
Even though most of these do have significantly different meanings, there wouldn’t be enough information for the computer to figure out the difference. Now suppose we collect significantly more data.
There is now ample data for the machine to see that rest and REST are used very differently. Both should have their own entries on the word embedding. Until “Rest” and reST have enough training examples, they will be grouped under a default – probably rest as it is the most common. While this correctly labels Rest as identical to rest, it still incorrectly groups reST with them.
This method may initially seem to fail for highly common words:
In this case, the logic will unnecessarily create an entry for both the and The (I would argue there are meaningful distinctions, but that discussion would be its own post). This behavior only impacts incredibly frequent words, but since those words are very frequent then the machine will have enough information to learn that they are very similar. Processing time will be several percent slower since this increases vocabulary size by several thousand words, but when we’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of unique words this isn’t a major issue.
The main limitation of this algorithm is that if there is little data for a given capitalization, the machine will automatically assign it the meaning of the most common capitalization. However, this is obviously better than the behavior of most systems now which unconditionally assign all capitalizations the same meaning.
Understanding language is hard. Taking shortcuts can still produce cool results, but introduces additional limitations to anything that depends on it. Approximations make things easier – remember the spherical cow from Physics – but they always produce imperfect models. In the case of capitalization and language processing, getting rid of this approximation is relatively straightforward and we can immediately realize benefits while only paying a small computational cost.
In either case, as a layperson or someone consuming a product that promised “natural language understanding”, be aware that these approximations (and their associated problems) exist, and consider the harm that could be caused by neglecting them.
This is a speech I prepared as my Icebreaker speech for Toastmasters. Toastmasters is an organization that promotes public speaking skills, and the famous “Icebreaker” is the first speech a new member gives to introduce themselves to their club-mates. This is mine (with edits suggested from the feedback I received from other members and friends).
Hi, I’m Will Beason and I’m going to change how you think.
While preparing this speech I put a lot of thought into how it differs from introducing myself to someone or writing an “about me” article. I don’t normally introduce myself in speeches, so it was important for me to think about how the medium is different than the modes I’m comfortable communicating in. I can’t simply take what I would say in a conversation or bio and put that into a speech: I’d run into the same problems people have when adapting books to films – they are different media with different strengths and different weaknesses. I want to give you an impression of the care and thought I put into creating things, and why I decided to focus on public speaking now. Along the way, I want to help you understand what drives me.
When using a speech to introduce myself I can’t tailor my responses to an individual. I have to generalize and can’t personalize it as I can in a conversation. So, how do I highlight core components of myself in a speech rather than simply turning my side of an introductory conversation into a speech? In my case, metatext. Metatext is writing that references how writing is put together. In this case, I’ve written a speech that references its own structure and themes as an effort to highlight how carefully I construct things and think about how they go together.
One natural structure I could have followed is listing facts about myself – I attended West Point; I have worked for Google; my professional specializations are data analysis and natural language processing for building artificial intelligence. But these are just rote facts that could overshadow my point. Being able to regurgitate a list of statements about me isn’t really “knowing” me; to know me is to understand the common themes that I’ve used to structure my life and make decisions.
That suggests covering why I decided to focus on public speaking now. What can my answer to that question tell an audience about me? I believe I can have a positive impact on the world by sharing my ideas.
We are responsible for the effects of systems we’re a part of. What’s real – the truth – matters and is something we can discover. We have to be aware of the effects of using data to influence people’s lives. We’re going to have to figure out how to live, to learn, to build with the seven billion other people on the planet.
Being able to speak clearly and impactfully about these ideas gives me another avenue to communicate with others. Writing and one-on-one conversation can only take me so far; I have to be able to reach wider groups in order to be effective. I recognized this years ago, but until recently I lacked the self confidence in myself and my ideas.
I attribute much of this change to my move to San Francisco. Here, for the first time, I connected with the local gay community. I found people with similar life experiences and interests. I felt a connection to a place; that there was a network of people willing to support and guide me as I grow into my own.
I’m taking the time to learn about the influence I can have on the people around me. I want to become a better mentor. How do I introduce people to concepts they wouldn’t otherwise come across, and share the joy of figuring out how to change things for the better on a grand scale? I want people to not only understand and appreciate the thought I put into what I create, but inspire them to do the same in their own work. These aren’t easy tasks, but they’re deeply important to me.
For now it’s the struggle to find what’s next. I’ve finally learned that it’s the people I work with, so much more than the project I’m working on, who will help me grow and find actualization. I’ve worked on five different machine learning projects, each with its own immense potential benefit for the world, but without the right team for me. They’re good projects with smart people working on them, but I’ve realized that just being able to solve any problem isn’t the only requirement for greatness. It also takes a professional drive to make sure the right problem is being solved. A sense of responsibility to make sure we aren’t creating a system that will actively harm society – a path most often entered blindly.
It isn’t easy finding people of that caliber. I can’t force people to really accept that these things are important and make it a part of themselves. The best I can do is be an example that inspires people to follow my path. To quote one of my favorite books, The Clean Coder, “You can’t convince people to be craftsmen. Arguments are ineffective. Data is inconsequential. Case studies mean nothing. [It] is not so much a rational decision as an emotional one. This is a very human thing.”
It’s that human element that I’ve had the biggest struggle with. That we all struggle with. If you have the craftsman mindset, as Robert C. Martin calls it, then you know how it has changed how you see the world. If you don’t, all I can do is speak of a world beyond what you can see and show you what it looks like to live in it. One that glimmers for you in moments of introspection. But you alone can decide for yourself whether you will take the next step.
I previously covered some of the systemic problems that exist in recruiting today. In it, I mentioned that one of the first steps in the recruiting process is a candidate search engine that analyzes many millions of candidate resumes and professional profiles to find ones matching a given set of criteria.
Whether you like it or not, any resume you send to a recruiter gets packaged with millions of others and sold. The same goes for any site that lets you build a professional profile. So it’s already likely you’re in many databases that recruiters pay to have access to and search, and someone is making money on what you’ve written. Here’s how you can make the best of it.
A Note on Text Search
Two of the (many, many) rules text retrieval systems usually follow when ranking documents are:
How rare are the terms being searched?
How often do the terms appear in the documents relative to their size?
The first means that if your resume has rare terms and someone searches for those same rare terms, your resume will be boosted higher. Also, rarer terms are weighted more heavily – specifically, those terms appearing in fewer documents. So if a searcher typed “database” (more common) and “MongoDB” (less common), it will rank a resume only mentioning “MongoDB” higher than one only mentioning “database”.
The second means that longer documents are penalized if they don’t use the term often. This is usually calculated with word count – so a resume with 100 words mentioning “MongoDB” once will have a higher score than one with 1,000 words, but will be scored the same as one with 1,000 words that mentions “MongoDB” ten times.
The combination of these two mean you want to be as concise as possible for smaller text fields in your profile like “degree” and “job title”. The more words you put in them, the lower your profile will be ranked.
Recall that you are writing your resume or professional profile for three completely different readers:
1. search engines
3. hiring managers
In this post I’m just focusing on (1). It may be a good follow-up article for me to muse on how to handle writing for groups (2) and (3).
Check Your Spelling
It should be obvious that computers aren’t great at guessing what you mean when you misspell things like names and titles. Until someone tells the search engine otherwise, “software” and “softward” are completely unrelated even if a human can understand it immediately. If you don’t spell things on your resume well, it will not be searchable. I’ve encountered terrifyingly large numbers of misspellings in degrees – literally over 100 different ways of misspelling “bachelor”. I haven’t decided whether the ten common misspellings of “doctorate” are more worrying.
Use the full name of the degree – no abbreviations. Think “Bachelor of Science in Computer Science”, not “BSCS”. There are many uncommon abbreviations that recruiters simply will not know and won’t bother to look up. My favorite is “EDM” which is a “Master of Education”, not “Electronic Dance Music”. Further, they aren’t going to include abbreviations they don’t know in their profile searches. And do be sure to include the level of education; resumes simply listing “CS” as the earned degree could mean many different things – you won’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Avoid including explanatory text like “Earned a BA in Communications” or “BA in Communications and a Minor in Interdisciplinary Studies”. The “earned a” is superfluous, and if the minor really is important then it should be listed as a separate degree. For real though, only the hiring manager is likely to care about your minor, and if at all only a very slight amount.
If you are interested in working in an English-speaking country, don’t go for the fancier-sounding “baccalaureate” over “bachelor”. You are even more likely to misspell it. I’ve seen cases where applicants even went as far as including the accent, but in the wrong place. If the search engine isn’t using a text normalization technique (e.g. one that removes accents, you’re out of luck). Similarly, English-native recruiters rarely think to type “baccalaureate”, so if you go that route you are unlikely to appear in results anyway.
As a best practice, use the name of the university on the institution’s LinkedIn profile. Not “Cambridge”, but “Cambridge University”. In this case “university” distinguishes you from “Cambridge College” graduates. Not “MIT” but “Massachusetts Institute of Technology”. And, dear god, never use something like “U of M”; there’s no way to figure out what school you are actually claiming to have attended.
Avoid including the name of the specific college within your university that you attended. If you went to Berkeley and got a business degree, that is the same as saying you went to the Haas School of Business. Candidates are very inconsistent with how they include school names, with everything from “Haas Berkeley” to “University of California, at Berkeley, the Haas School of Business”. It’s just difficult for the search engine to know that your profile should be ranked the same as the person who typed “University of California at Berkeley”.
Don’t combine multiple schools you went to in one line or entry. If you write “Harvard, Stanford, UCLA” as the name of the school you went to then you run the danger of not being found when someone searches for any of those schools. At best, your score will be one-third other candidates.
Much of the advice from the School Name section applies here.
Use your employer’s name as listed on the organization’s LinkedIn profile. If you worked for a specific well-known division or product of your company (e.g. “Walmart Labs” or “YouTube”), use it instead. Otherwise, mention the division or product in your job description.
Again, avoid explanatory text. Mentioning “internship” is accurate, but will just cause you to be ranked lower. By all means, include it in your job title, but the company name field is not the place. For “Contractor”, the best place for this is the job description.
You can put whatever job title you want on your resume. Your resume isn’t something for former employers to check, it is how you are presenting yourself to future employers. Obviously don’t lie or misrepresent yourself, but feel free to choose a common synonymous title over the specific one you may have been assigned. I’ve seen too many cases like “Integrated Data Network Engineer Level IV” who will never be found among the deluge of “Network Engineer”s.
If you are a contractor, the most common practice (of many, many different practices) is to append “(Contractor)” to the job title. This is up-front and honest, but I feel unfairly penalizes them in searches. Beginning your job description with “Contract work for …” is fine, and makes it more likely you’ll be seen.
Search ONET OnLine to get ideas of common job titles in your field. If you’re willing to do the full legwork, look for the occupation whose description most closely matches your functions in the Standard Occupation Classification and either use one of the examples directly, or take it back to ONET as inspiration for a search.
Don’t use meaningless job titles. Many people list things like “Specialist”, “Summer Intern”, or “Assistant” as their title and there’s no way to know what they mean. If you are a specialist, say what you specialized in. If you were an intern, be complete and say you were a “Software Developer Intern”.
Much of this isn’t obvious advice. We’re dealing with imperfect systems that aren’t optimized for resumes being used to search resumes. If you were only writing for humans proficient in your job functions, your resume should look very different. But this is the system we have for now, and you’re part of it whether you want to be or not.
Do remember that you can always send recruiters and hiring managers an updated resume when they contact you
Have you ever received an unsolicited message from a recruiter about a position you’re not interested in? Do you ever get passed up for positions you are qualified for before you’ve even interviewed? There are reasons for that, and they kinda suck.
I’ve worked in the HR automation field for about a year now, and this is what I’ve seen:
Sourcers often aren’t familiar with the jargon of the positions they’re hiring for.
Search engines aren’t good at ranking candidate profiles.
Candidates don’t know how to write their profiles to make them easily searchable.
Sourcers are the people who look for candidates who are both qualified for open positions and are interested in filling them. The people who do sourcing often have the job title “recruiter”.
The process of finding and hiring a new employee can roughly be broken down into the below steps. (Depending on the company, steps may be condensed or done by the same person.)
A manager tells a hiring manager that they need someone with some set of qualifications/skills.
The hiring manager write a job requisition.
A sourcer reads the job requisition and looks for candidates who meet the qualifications.
The sourcer contacts the candidates, verifies their interest, and refers them to the hiring manager.
The hiring manger / team / etc. interviews the candidate.
The candidate is hired.
The issue here is with step 3. Sourcers generally have very little training, learning most of their trade on the job. They also hire for many, many different positions. The same sourcer may look for accountants, software developers, and mid-level managers. There’s so much jargon and so many different skills to juggle that sourcers rarely get much more than a superficial understanding of what they’re looking for. They don’t have the time to absorb the overwhelming amount of information in every profession. (Hiring managers, luckily, tend to specialize and pick up on the nuances of what they’re looking for)
Recruiters source for many, many different roles and don’t often have a deep understanding of what they’re looking for. A recruiter sourcing their first “Database Architect” may discard a candidate with a decade of “NoSQL” and “Data Modeling” experience because they aren’t familiar with the field. This can cause problems for candidates who use jargon that is too specific – they may be passed up because their resume or professional profile isn’t comprehensible to a layperson.
Candidate Search Engines
Sourcers usually go after passive candidates. As opposed to active candidates who are currently looking for a new position and applying to openings, passive candidates are waiting for opportunities to come their way. The set of potential passive candidates is in the many millions – it’s literally the entire job force. There’s no way a human can look through this set for every opening.
Fortunately, sourcers have tools that make it easy to filter down the candidate pool and sort candidates by different criteria. LinkedIn Recruiter, for example, gives recruiters a search engine for everyone on LinkedIn (it’s one way LinkedIn makes money on your professional profile). Like many other such tools, it gives sourcers the option to look for candidates with specific job titles, skills listed, and degrees. On the surface, this sounds great.
In the real world, people are messy. For the most part, these are text searches of what candidates have typed. Did you type “Master of Business Administration” while the sourcer searched for “MBA”? Tough luck. Did you say “MySQL” when the sourcer searched “SQL”? No dice. Are you a CPA but the recruiter typed “Accountant”? Nope. Are you a “Software Engineer” but the sourcer typed “Software Developer”? Unless you type what a sourcer thinks to type in their search engine, your profile won’t appear.
A common response sourcers have to this is to construct terrifyingly elaborate boolean queries containing hundreds of variations on titles and skills. Sourcers sometimes share parts of their queries, and some sourcers don’t even know how parts of their own queries work. If a part of the query breaks it may take hours or days to find the problem and fix.
The above problems are unintuitive. There’s no way for a candidate to know that sourcers are (1) passing them over for using jargon more specific than the sourcer knows or (2) just not seeing them because they don’t match their search queries.
Candidates are startlingly diverse in listing their qualifications on resumes. Even seemingly-limited fields like “degree” may have tens of thousands of variations. Once you get to a more varied field like “educational institution”, you can end up with tens of variations for the name of a single university! This isn’t just misspellings: many people include the college within the university, their major, acronyms, and explanatory text. Job titles are an order of magnitude worse (I measured it).
The candidates who receive the most unsolicited messages about job openings are simply those who have typed what the average sourcer thinks to look for. I should do a follow-up article on advice for specific fields in a resume or job profile, but the gist is to keep in mind that your resume has to be general enough that someone unfamiliar with your role could do a search and find you, but specific enough (e.g. in job experience descriptions) that it piques the hiring manager’s interest.