Selecting an ATS: Technical Considerations

Not long ago, an article appeared here at ERE downplaying the role of technical considerations and your IT department in selecting an applicant tracking system. But selecting an ATS without taking technical issues into account is like buying a car without bothering to check out what sort of gas mileage it gets or its repair and safety record. If you were buying a used car, would you have your mechanic check it out, or would you just take the salesman’s word on its mechanical condition? I’ve been in the computer business for 22 years and it still amazes me that savvy businesspeople, who will subject their raw materials, supplies, suppliers and staff to rigorous investigation before agreeing to use them, will buy computers based entirely on the salesperson’s representation of what will fulfill their needs. (Contrary to some people’s opinions, salespeople are not evil. Almost every one I’ve met is a good, honest person. But they often don’t know much more about the product’s technical issues than what’s printed in the brochure they hand out. Remember: The vendor is going to say whatever it takes to make the sale. It’s their job. When did you ever hear a salesperson say, “Oh boy, you’re right, our system doesn’t do that very well. You’d better not buy it if you do a lot of that!”?) Before going any further I need to give you the best, most important computer advice you’ll ever get. Do not be the first kid on your block. Unless the system the vendor is selling has a proven track record with companies of your size, in your industry, and using it the way you intend to use it, run, don’t walk, away. This goes for any computer hardware or software. Some people call the folks who ignore this rule “beta testers” or “early adopters.” I call them what they are ó fools. All business decisions involve some degree of risk. But successful businesspeople know the difference between necessary and unnecessary risk. All good ATSs have certain features in common. There is not one of them that have a magic bullet that will enable you to close 500% more deals than your competition. All of them, if improperly implemented, have the potential to cost you thousands of unbudgeted dollars. There are three major technical issues in selecting ANY software, ATSs included. Hardware Issues This is the big one. Will it work well on your existing computers? Do you have sufficient processor power, hard drive space, and memory to handle the software? On most every software package you will see “System Requirements.” I’ll use Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition as an example. The system requirements include:

  • Personal computer with Pentium 75-MHz or higher
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  • Microsoft Windows 95 or later operating system
  • 16 MB of RAM for the operating system, plus an additional 4 MB of RAM for each application running simultaneously (8 MB for Outlook)

Now, I suppose you could run Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition on a Pentium 75 MHz computer running Windows 95 with 32 MB of RAM. But not on my desk! Truth is that if you want to be working for more time than you’re staring at that spinning hourglass, you’ll want at least a Pentium III or better computer with 128 MB of RAM running Windows 98. Big difference. Someone would probably give me the 75 MHz setup to get it off their hands and avoid the toxic waste disposal fee the dump would charge them to take it, whereas I’m going to be in for at least $500 for the system I’ll really need. Aside from the basic box, there are other considerations. Does the program require a certain monitor resolution to run, or must you set the monitor at a certain resolution to view the ATS’s entire work area? This will determine what kind of video card and size monitor you need. Your 15″ monitor may be capable of displaying the work area at a 1200 x 1024 resolution, but that doesn’t mean the guy with the trifocals is going to be able to read it. Will you have to invest in a new network or upgrade your current one? The software may require you to install a server onsite and set up a Local Area network (LAN). Even if the software is hosted at another location, you may have to upgrade your internet connection and still install a local area network (LAN) if you want the system to be practicable. I don’t care what anybody says, you can’t really use a hosted ATS by modeming in over a phone line ó even if you’re a small shop. If you operate out of your home you’ll need cable or DSL. If you have an office, you’ll need DSL or a T1. When you call the (at least) three companies of similar size to yours the vendor has given you as references, find out what kind of hardware they’re using and how it’s working out. This is probably the most important thing to remember in this section. Software Issues Does the software work and play well with others? One of the key considerations in a telephony software purchase at a friend’s company was that the software would be compatible with the Windows phone dialer. My friend’s boss wanted his salespeople to use the dialer feature of his ATS so that call activity would be recorded in the ATS. What the telephony software people neglected to mention was that the software worked fine on the Windows 95 operating system currently used, but would not work with the Windows 98 operating system on all the new computers he was purchasing. My friend managed to avoid paying $200 a seat to upgrade the affected component of the telephony software, but he still had to wait a year for the solution, with his boss breathing down his neck the whole time. An ATS at another friend’s company has a scheduling component that does not like to have his email program running at the same time. His people can work with the ATS’s schedule and with email, but not at the same time. This ATS has several very nice features that integrates extremely well with Outlook, but not very well (if at all) with the less-used email program my friend’s company uses. He has to settle for reduced functionality or change email clients. Can data be easily imported to or exported from the ATS in industry standard formats (e.g., CSV, ASCII, Microsoft Access)? If you are upgrading an existing ATS, you need to make sure that you can easily and quickly move your data into the new ATS. Some programs have proprietary data structures that do not allow for data interchange (ever manually enter 20,000 records into a database?) Other programs will allow you to export some, but not all of the data. You may be able to export a client company’s name, address, and phone, but not it’s annual revenues or the number of employees. Any ATS under consideration must not only be able to export to and import from industry standard data formats, but also be able to make adjustments to field order. For example, let’s say your data file has the fields in this order: name, address, phone number, but your ATS will only import them in this order: phone number, name, address. You will have to settle for calling Mr. 1234 Main St. who lives at 503-555-1212 by dialing the number John Smith or ó ever manually enter 20,000 records into a database? When you call the (at least) three companies of similar size to yours the vendor has given you as references to find out what kind of hardware they’re using and how it’s working out, don’t neglect to find out what other software they’re using and how well the ATS works with and/or integrates with it. A special word on hosted solutions. These are becoming popular as they can, in many cases, eliminate the need to buy and maintain a lot of expensive hardware onsite. For a small monthly fee the user goes to a website, logs in, and has access to “their” database. Notice those troublesome quotes again? Some hosted solutions do not allow you to import or export data. Once you sign up for their service, you’re stuck. If you go to another ATS, you can’t bring your data with you unless ó ever manually enter 20,000 records into a database? Even worse, a few hosted solutions actually own any data you enter into their system. Imagine getting a call from a PO’d client because his boss saw her resume on XYZ job board after you assured her of the confidential nature of your association. Support Issues Any purchaser of any product needs to be concerned about product support. There is one universal truth: things break. What’s important is what the vendor is gong to do to keep you in business when they do. The most common support issues are the quality of the vendor and the software manufacturer. As stated early on, unless the system the vendor is selling has a proven track record with companies of your size, in your industry and using it the way you intend to use it, run, don’t walk, away. If they meet this basic test, check them out financially. Your business will depend on this ATS; you want to make sure the people you buy it from are going to be around next year. Who owns what problem space? I’ve managed call centers and seen what happens when customers get caught between two or more product support groups pointing the finger at each other. If the ATS lives on top of, say, a Microsoft SQL database, does the vendor also provide support for SQL or are you going to wind up calling back and forth between Microsoft and the ATS vendor as they both point the finger at each other? What if you can’t even spell SQL, let alone know what it is? How accessible is support? What are their hours? If you’re on the West coast being supported by an organization in New York that works 9 to 5 and your system craps out at 2:10 Pacific Time, you’re hosed until 6:00 a.m. the next day. How soon can you expect to get your issue addressed? I once bought a critical piece of network hardware from a company whose policy was that you would call them and leave a message and they’d call you back within four hours. I found this out when the piece of equipment croaked and brought down my entire network. What does the support cost? Do you buy a separate support contract in addition to buying the ATS? Is the contract flat fee, per-incident, or per call? Quality of support is also critically important. Who is actually supporting this thing? Does the vendor provide their own support or do they outsource support to a call center that sees their primary job as getting you off the phone in less than eight minutes? Are the people doing the support certified in the technologies they support? Are these experienced professionals or some guy making eight dollars an hour whose computer experience was limited to surfing the Internet for porn before his current job? What is the average tenure of the support staff? If there’s a lot of turnover, there are probably a lot of problems with the product. How many staff is there? If the staff is not adequate to support eh call volume you’re going to be spending a lot of time listening to hold music. Summary Human considerations are extremely in selecting an ATS. You wouldn’t buy a car without enough headroom would you? Technical considerations are equally important. Anyone out there ever own a Yugo? Don’t neglect technical considerations. Selecting an ATS requires partnering potential users with your IT folks to make sure the system you choose is a happy marriage of convenience and functionality.

Tim Lyman (tlyman@mrportland.com) has been working with people and their computers for 22 years. He has trained employees and managers working for some of the country's leading computer and software manufacturers in both technical and soft skills. Since 1999 Tim has been the IT Manager for Management Recruiters of Portland, one of the country?s largest executive search firms.

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