One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve received came from the famous book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

In it, the authors suggest that to engage cooperation from your children, write a note. The idea is that writing a note can be far more effective than lecturing or yelling at children. Most children love receiving notes, and they will often respond with a note or drawing of their own in addition to following what the note says.

The book cites an example of two tired parents who needed an extra hour of sleep on a Sunday morning leaving a note on the front of their door that says, “Shh! Mommy and Daddy are sleeping. … When they were ready to let the children in, they flipped the sign over. … Hi! Come on in! Love, Mom and Dad.”

The advice seemed brilliant. My wife and I were ready to reclaim a needed hour of sleep on a weekend I thought! But there was just one problem. My children, who are 3-years old, don’t read yet.

Entrepreneurs trying to reinvent the traditional resume with things like digital portfolios that show real examples of people’s work or records of skills-based assessments that demonstrate what people know and can do are facing a similar problem. Many have attempted to create these new vehicles, yet none have really taken off. Entrepreneurs often wonder why. After all, a digital portfolio seems far more robust and useful to prospective employees and employers than a traditional resume.

From the outside though, one reason digital portfolios and the like have not taken off is simple. The keyword-based applicant tracking systems that employers use to filter resumes can’t read them.

As Ryan Craig, a partner and co-founder at University Ventures Fund, always reminds me, most job descriptions are now online, which means that every posted job generates 150 to 250 applications on average. No hiring manager can review all of them, so most employers have resorted to using applicant tracking systems to filter candidates out. These applicant tracking systems sort through resumes and look for keywords that are typically identical to the keywords in the job descriptions.

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write in the terrific book Designing Your Life that if you want to have more success in an online job search, tip one is to “rewrite your resume using the same words used in the job posting” and tip two is “if you have a specific skill that is posted as required, put it in your resume exactly the way it is written in the Internet posting. If you don’t have that skill, find a way to describe your skill set that uses the same words that will be found in a keyword search.”

Digital portfolios with real examples of work product and records of skills-based assessments that show students’ actual skills literally cannot compete in this world because if applicants use them and not resumes with keywords that match those in the job descriptions, they will be invisible to human hiring managers.

So what to do?

This is a classic problem of interdependence and modularity. Although I can’t make my kids older and able to read yet, entrepreneurs can integrate forward and build new kinds of applicant tracking systems for employers that are able to read the digital portfolios and records of skills-based assessments and badges that they are creating. The theory of interdependence and modularity suggests this problem won’t be solved at scale until an entrepreneur does just that. After all, companies need a way to filter efficiently through hundreds of applicants, and the current resume-applicant tracking system marriage does the job, no matter how imperfectly.

The theory of interdependence and modularity states that whenever an entrepreneur or organization tries to improve a part of an ecosystem, but the way the parts within the given system interact are not yet well understood and are therefore unpredictably interdependent, the organization must integrate to control every critical component of the system in order to make any part of the system function successfully.

In the early days of the mainframe computer industry, IBM faced a similar problem. At the time, IBM could not have existed as an independent manufacturer of mainframe computers because manufacturing was unpredictably interdependent with the design process for the machines, as well as the operating systems, core memory, and logic circuitry. IBM therefore had to integrate backward through all of the parts of the value chain of its production that were not yet well understood and established in order to succeed in the manufacture and sale of mainframe computers. In other words, it had to do nearly everything to do anything.

The same is true for entrepreneurs trying to reinvent the resume. Trying to build a disruptive applicant tracking system and successfully sell it into companies may sound daunting or more capital intensive than just building a digital portfolio, but it will be far more doable and less expensive than continuing to build solutions that figuratively butt their heads against a virtual wall that can’t read them.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.