communication with candidates

Almost every job I apply for requires ‘attention to detail’ and ‘communication skills’, often with an interest in the ‘user experience’. I feel these are often lacking in the recruitment process itself.

I helped to create a tutorial for support staff at Bristol University, now known as ‘InfoSafe’, which dealt with data curation and storage. Amongst other things, we explained how you could use file and directory names constructively for easy retrieval. Some employers could do with studying this advice. I’ve just downloaded further particulars of a job I’m interested in, and the file name is of the form ‘123456’ or simply ‘Job Description’. Would it be so hard to include the job title – in abbreviated form if necessary? Maybe the organisation’s name too, given that the file is likely to be downloaded by people outside it?

Another regrettable trend, which I put down to tidy-minded HR departments, is an absolutely formulaic invitation to interview. So much so that in two recent cases, instructions about a presentation to be given at interview were contained only in an attachment, with no reference to the presentation or the attachment in the body of the message. So easy to overlook, especially when many emails now come with a string of otiose attached files. It’s basic email etiquette that if there is important information in an attachment, the body of the message should indicate this.

No wonder the skills I referred to in my opening sentence are in such demand!

novel-length source code

I have a bookmarked collection of ‘horrors’: Web pages which really should have been designed differently, many of which are mercifully no longer online. Backgrounds were one bête noire; I shudder when I recall the page promoting Scotland on a repeated backdrop of saltires, for example. A more recent example is the Ure Museum’s display of images of its entire collection (scroll down!) behind the search box. For the full effect, however, one needed to include animation. Spinning geometric patterns on a page about an exhibition of Islamic art (at the Bodleian, no less) or reduplicated Flash clips as can be seen here. The prize was taken by the guest-house in Wales which displayed six simultaneously rotating 360-degree views of each of its rooms, one above the other. It was impossible to look at this without feeling genuinely queasy.

There are of course many ways in which Web pages may be unsatisfactory. Investigating a local antique shop (or rather, the premises it used to occupy) I came across the page at https://www.antique-glawibbless.co.uk/. (To lessen potential embarrassment, I haven’t given it correctly; remove ‘wibble’). It appears to be a very simple page thanking past customers, and while one might think the mix of seriffed and sans-serif fonts a bit last millennium, uncovering the source code is the true revelation. It is 4,963 lines and 427,273 characters long (a mere 401,361 without spaces), that is, about as long as a typical novel. All to display a couple of images (one of which has had the top cropped off) and a message that is 31 words long!

How can this happen? I used the Wayback machine to look at earlier versions of the page, and while they had links to what was then a more extensive site, there seems no justification for the baroque confection of Javascript and stylesheet that lies behind it. The single largest component is a long list of instructions relating to a long string of fonts, including Cyrillic, Devanagari, Vietnamese and other scripts, linking to Monotype Imaging’s software. Wix.com seems to be the immediate source of the code. I think that pages like this survive because they are commissioned by people who don’t look ‘under the bonnet’ and ask awkward questions about why so much code is needed.

The search engine and Us

To my horror I realise that it is nearly a year since I wrote an article for this blog. I have been busy blogging elsewhere, and it is not for want of topics. I’ll do a quick post – a cautionary tale about search-engine optimisation and branding.

My church supports a charity which for many years was known as USPG – standing for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Its origins lie in missionary activity in the days of the British Empire, but now its work emphasises partnership with churches overseas (our particular area of support is a project in Malawi).

A few years ago the Society decided to rebrand itself as the ‘United Society’ or simply ‘Us’. Getting rid of the awkward colonialist connotations of the full name, and also sounding inclusive and pally. But you can see the problem – a search on ‘Us’ will find instances of the personal pronoun, or pages about the United States, if indeed ‘us’ is not a stopword and excluded altogether from searches.

(Actually even leaving out search engines, there’s a problem with ‘Us’ in conversation. Saying “St Filofax’ is supporting Us this month” is ambiguous. It reminds me of the workplace I had which named its servers after parts of the body (don’t ask….). It was very hard dictating IP addresses or URLs involving the one called ‘colon’.)

So back to USPG it went. Nice idea, but really any rebranding needs to take account of the search engine test.

where did the casual work go?

One major change since I was on the job market at the end of the last millennium is the abolition of the way into employment in universities by doing casual work. This was in fact the way ILRT recruited a lot of its staff, and a lot of the best ones: someone was taken on for a few weeks, and if they proved to do the job well their employment was extended, in many cases being converted into a permanent job.

I contrast this with some posts recently advertised near here. First time round four candidates (disclaimer: I was one) were shortlisted for the two identical roles and went through a selection process, but no appointment resulted. The posts were re-advertised but again no one was appointed. They were advertised a third time, with vaguer indications of the salary, and the process seems to have been again unsuccessful.

In the past, this would have been much less likely to happen. Without a strict ‘point-scoring’ level that candidates had to reach, there would have been flexibility to offer the posts to any of the short-listed candidates, relying on the probation period in the job as a safety net if one proved inadequate in practice. The work was done as part of a closely-knit team, so there would be limited damage they could do.

Offering short-term contract work and seeing how people got on would have been another possibility, with the possibility of extending it; this is quite common in the commercial sector. Instead, an expensive recruitment process has been repeated over and over, and the backlog of work the appointees would have done has been piling up. It does provide employment, but in the Human Resources department!

what happened to subject gateways?

An ‘ILRT alumni and friends’ group has sprung up on Facebook, with several dozen members. We reminisce about events we attended and projects we worked on, and share photos of former staff jollies and awaydays, conference visits, giveaway items and so on. Many of us had something to do with the resource discovery site Intute (I still have an Intute plastic drinks coaster). It covered all subjects and subsumed ILRT’s own SOSIG (Social Services Information Gateway). As well as cross-searching, Intute also had add-ons such as newsfeeds and a personalised space for tagging and exporting content. It ran from 2006 until 2011, with content frozen till 2014, when the site was finally closed.

(Earlier when I worked at NISS – now Eduserv which has been in the news this week – we had a ‘Directory of Networked Resources’, which also covered all subjects. As well as cataloguing all resources on the NISS site, anyone could catalogue and submit a resource. It ceased to work in about 2002, I believe because there wasn’t the staff time available to check the resources that had been submitted, and by then it was only duplicating other gateways, including those that became Intute. BUBL met a similar fate.)

What went wrong with Intute, apart from the general shortage of funds after the credit crunch? We were proud of SOSIG, but it was apparent when I worked on merging it with other subject gateways, that they were at different levels of development and detail. The claimed advantage of Intute was that it enabled cross-searching, but it wasn’t so clear how much of an advantage that was. If you are a historian, do you need to be able to find resources relating to chemistry? And how much do you need a facility to export content, when most people are comfortable with cut and paste, and have their own way of storing information that they need to keep?

More generally, we don’t seem to hear much about subject gateways any more. A search on the term suggests that the main people who run ‘subject gateways’ now are professional organisations. They were labour-intensive – SOSIG had a distributed team of subject experts cataloguing resources, plus a team at ILRT keeping the whole thing going. And the whole process of resource discovery has changed. Better search engine algorithms have lessened the need for them, as relevant, popular resources rise to the top of the list of search results, so there is less need to go browsing through a catalogue.

But they haven’t gone away altogether. For a few years now I’ve been an editor of the Digital Classicist Wiki, which collects and catalogues ‘digital projects and tools of relevance to classicists’ (this last term is quite generously interpreted). The wiki works by voluntary labour from interested people, and is part of the Digital Classicist hub, which in turn is hosted by KCL’s Department of Digital Humanities. We meet for a sprint once a month, with a suggested list of resources to be added or edited, and contribute at other times. The interface is not flashy, and the tagging by category doesn’t catch everything (this is one of the areas I like to work on); the categories themselves are a folksonomy* of what people find useful, not a systematic hierarchical classification scheme. But it’s got over 500 entries in it now. Because of its focus on digital projects, it doesn’t attempt to link to every Classics-related website – for example, it doesn’t cover Classics departments or most journals – but it does include the sort of resources which were once found on Intute.

I don’t know whether similar sites exist for other subjects. But it would seem that in the case of Classics at least, we have reverted to the earlier model of subject gateway – created by volunteer experts and with basic functionality – as being more sustainable than the relatively short life of sites such as Intute.

(* I don’t use ‘folksonomy’ perjoratively – traditional classification schemes such as UDC or DDC would struggle with some of the categories which are useful for digital resources in classics. A topic for another post!)

The Premdictor

My sons and I decided that we wanted to run a Premier League prediction competition this year. We decided on a system where you got 2 points for putting a team in the right place in the table, and 1 point if your prediction differed by one place in either direction. The advantage of doing this with the Premier League is that, at least until the latter stages of the FA Cup, the teams play rounds of matches, at the end of which every team has played the same number of games. (We are all Reading fans and a postponed match has caused our team to have a spuriously low position in the table for several weeks, now remedied.)

A parent with coding skills can put something like this online in a short time. I have written a script that grabs the current table off a Web page and parses out the team names in their current order, together with the number of matches played. Sorting this out probably took most of my time. This order is then compared against four lots of predictions (my husband has joined in, with a random order of teams). The current table, number of matches (so one can see whether the current round is complete) and all the predictions are displayed as columns in a table. Teams in exactly the right place are in a box with a red background; those one place off are in a pink one. Below the table the current score for each predicted table is given, with a breakdown of which predictions have contributed to it.

After each round of matches I note the scores and winner of that round in a spreadsheet. I could have automated that process too, but I decided not to put in all the extra effort. Perhaps at a later stage. A pattern is beginning to emerge. The random predictions tend to score about 3. The non-random ones have gradually improved as teams have gravitated to their natural place in the league, except that the most accurate prediction of all so far was mine after the first round of matches: 13. And predictions can fluctuate a lot between rounds. After round 14 I was the winner with an accuracy of 8; but one round later I scored only 4.

The non-random predictions have some agreement among themselves. We all thought Everton would be 7th; this seemed most unlikely for a while, but they’ve now risen to 10th. We all put West Ham two places below them, which is way off at the moment. And Leicester in 11th which is rather better as things stand.

Online forums: blessing or curse?

A recent* thread on an online forum leads me to think about the dangers of such forums – or are they blessings in disguise? A communication from a Cathedral to a visiting choir implied a significant change in what such choirs would be permitted to do. An online discussion of the implications of its content caused consternation at that Cathedral. It turned out that this communication had left out a couple of relevant points, and the original poster ended the discussion by posting a correction.

I understand how organisations must fear social media and forums with their power to spread information, possibly altering it in the process. But there are benefits for them. Firstly, an awareness that the content of communications may quickly become public may cause greater care in the wording of those communications and on how they are delivered; in my experience Cathedrals can be quite casual about this. It may mean fewer messages coming from ‘on high’ with the originator of a decision getting someone else to deliver the actual message, with the attendant risk of distortion, misunderstanding and lack of transparency. Better communications all round can only be a help.

Secondly, the internet is making the sort of discussions members of visiting choirs have always had among themselves (there is a large overlap in membership) more visible. In other words, it is now possible to eavesdrop on these discussions, scotch false rumours, correct inaccuracies, and even reflect on the actions which sparked off those discussions. These points seem relevant to a wider world outside the rather restricted one of Cathedral visiting choirs.

* I have backdated this thread so as not to reveal any identities, which is not the point of this post.

a continuity is broken

My first job was at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population. The Group’s founder, Peter Laslett (still then an active presence), had the vision that everyone who worked there, including IT support and admin staff, would be doing some research into historical demography. I suspect this was an ideal that was never attained in practice, but there was nevertheless an expectation that if you worked there you would develop an understanding of what the Group’s research was about. I attended seminars and we had (frequently) learned discussions when we assembled over morning coffee and afternoon tea.

Something of this expectation was there when I worked at Manchester University’s computing centre, supporting the use of contemporary Census data. I was encouraged to do a bit of Census research of my own, on the way student populations affected migration statistics, in conjunction with the Census Microdata Unit, and I gave a talk at the Unit’s research seminar about my previous work at the Cambridge Group.

But in the years since then, the ethos of Universities and their IT departments has got more corporate. Every minute of time has to be accounted for and assigned to a project, and one’s value is only evaluated against a set number of attributes on a job description. ‘Academics’ are regarded almost as an alien species by support staff and if I was assigned to do IT development work on an academic project, I was assumed to take no interest in its subject matter. There was a brief flashback to former times just before I left Bristol University, when I worked on what is now the Historical Photographs of China site. I was able to contribute a blog post on a topic relating to some of the photographs, on which I happened to have some expertise.

What I saw at the Cambridge Group was a continuity between academic researchers and academic-related support staff, which has been broken. When I started out, you could find around Cambridge University people in academic-related posts who were not (or no longer) officially doing research, but whose wide interests, high level of general knowledge and ability to make interdisciplinary connexions made them valuable to those who were. They had been in contact with academics enough to have much of their mindset and were productive because they loved what they did. Their names might not have appeared on the spines of academic monographs, but they often featured in the acknowledgements. And yet I fear such people are an endangered species in Universities now. I expect a reader might protest ‘Oh I know of so-and-so who is just like that’, and I’d ask when they were appointed; most likely in the days when the continuity still existed. Its loss can only be to the detriment of University research.

References, people skills and the competence-based interview

This is not really technology-based, more some observations about trends in recruitment procedures (something which I’ve been exposed to a lot of in the last few years).

I’ve been told by people on the other side of the process that some recruiters only take up references for successful candidates, to check that they have not made false claims about themselves, and that this is because references were becoming too hyperbolic in praise of candidates and hence less useful. Along with this is a rise in the ‘competence-based interview’ where the shortlisted candidate is asked to give examples of how they’ve behaved in particular work situations in the past, and to explain how they might behave in a particular hypothetical situation. In my experience this approach is particularly aimed at assessing ‘people skills’. These two trends seem to me to be connected, with the competence-based questions designed to find out about personal qualities which a referee might have drawn attention to, although I’m not sure which trend might have driven the other.

This approach seems to me to miss some important things. Firstly, there are some useful skills which will simply be missed by it. For example, the possibly vital one of remembering a trivial-seeming piece of information and then being able to apply it some time later, e.g. to introduce two people with something significant in common to one another. This is the sort of thing a referee might comment on, but which is impossible to test in a job interview.

Secondly, even a question about the candidate’s experience of dealing with failure is not necessarily going to find their really weak points. What people say they would do and the way they actually behave are two different things. In fact many people are not necessarily aware of major blunders they have made in their job, especially in the area of people skills. If you were asked about managing a team, or dealing with a member of staff whose job title had changed, you’d probably go on about the importance of meetings, and about keeping that member of staff informed of the change. And yet things don’t always happen that way, as I’ve remarked before.

Actually this shows up a problem with references generally: that they are written by one’s superiors. I wonder if a better picture would be given for those applying for management posts if one reference came from someone who had been line-managed by the candidate. The referee would be chosen by someone in the department/group other than the candidate. I think if people knew that this would happen when they applied for another job, people skills all round might improve enormously!

Thoughts of a Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator (2): crime statistics

We’ve been sent a message recently with some crime statistics. It reads ‘Please find attached a breakdown of the crimes [sic] types and number that occurred in your area in March 2017′ and a spreadsheet is attached.

I note the following:

a) There is no indication of what ‘your area’ is. Is it the whole of the place we live in? The part on our side of the river? Our local beat? Any smaller unit than that would make us quite a hotspot.

b) We were sent a similar breakdown of crimes a few months ago, but have had nothing since then until now, so it is impossible to get a picture of whether crime is going up or down, is seasonal, is changing in nature, or any other kind of longitudinal analysis.

c) The crimes are arranged alphabetically by type of crime using detailed categories, so that (for example) burglaries appear under both ‘Burglary….’ and ‘Other….’, not grouped together which makes it hard to get an overall picture.

d) I’m relieved to see that there have been no instances of murder or manslaughter and several other major crimes are absent. But has there really been no arson? Cars get set on fire quite often in the locality – should this be classified in a way that makes it clear fire was involved? And I don’t understand all the types of crime, for example ‘Engage in Controlling/Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate Family Relationship’. I’d have thought this was quite common, but not usually a matter for the police; presumably there is a line that has to be crossed before it is. Similarly with ‘Sending letters etc with intent to cause distress or anxiety (Mal Comms)’ which seems to be one of the commoner crimes round here.

For these reasons I won’t be circulating the spreadsheet round my NW email list.