Wednesday, 21 December 2011

How to make your CV Not Suck

When you're applying for a job at LMAX, your CV (or résumé, for our American readers) usually comes through me and I decide whether to call you for a technical phone screen.

I'm going to let you into a secret.

I'm going to tell you the criteria I use when judging your CV.

Now, you could say this is a foolish thing for me to do, because now when you apply you'll be "cheating" and writing your CV to pass these guidelines.

Good.

LMAX isn't the only company that's going to judge your CV based on these criteria. I firmly believe that an increase in quality of the CVs in our industry can only be A Good Thing.  An increase in the quality of your CV is definitely A Good Thing for you.

Even more importantly, if I get CVs that do not pass these basic criteria, now I know you either don't read the LMAX blogs (shame on you), or you're not able to follow simple instructions (bodes poorly for your ability to learn within the company).

The thing that you have to keep in mind when you're writing your CV is that the reader really does spend less than a minute reading it.  It's not fair, true.  But it's the way humans are. I'm not in HR or recruitment, I have a proper job as a software developer, and I need to get back to that as soon as I can.  When I get CVs in batches of up to 12, as I regularly do, I'm not free to spend more than 10 minutes going through all of them.

The Easy Stuff
You must be able to spell
You really must.  There are things called Spell Checkers and they are amazing.  Some of these new-fangled pieces of software even show you your errors in this cool squiggly red underline in your document.

I'm reading your CV in Open Office, and if I see red squigglies under words that aren't technologies or acronyms I'm going to wonder how good your attention to detail is.

You must use capital letters in the appropriate places
It's traditional to start a sentence with a capital.  It's also traditional to use a capital "I" not "i" when referring to oneself.  We're not 14 years old, we're not writing an SMS to our mates.  We're applying for a proper job paying proper money.

Correct grammar is appreciated
Whether you're a native English-speaker or not, you need to get someone else who is a native English-speaker to check the prose in your CV to see if it scans correctly.  For me, it's not about being prejudiced against you because you're not a natural author, it's a) attention to detail again and b) your ability to make yourself understood.  If your sentence construction, choice of words or simple comma placement is off, I'll have to read that sentence a couple of times to parse it and it's going to trip me up and ruin my flow.  I want to get a good feel for you from reading your CV, so if I stumble a few times I'm not going to feel like I connected with you.

Harder and fluffier
I don't care which versions of Spring you've worked with
I know you need a checklist of technologies on your CV so it gets past the non-technical recruitment agents and get picked up via automated searches.  This is a bigger problem with our industry than one I want to tackle right now.  So I'll let you off having buzzword bingo on your CV.  However, your CV needs to be more than just a list of technologies you have used vaguely, or perhaps once read about.

It's useful to me if a) you put the technology check list in a single place on your CV, b) you give an indication of your level of proficiency in that technology (novice/competent/master) or length of time you've used it in a commercial environment, and c) you organise them in some useful fashion - preferably the ones that are appropriate to the job you're applying for near the top, or at least those you're happiest with at the top.  Alternatively put the checklist of technologies next to the role you used them in.

Often I will completely ignore this section because I'm more interested in your ability to learn and your passion for what you do.

I want to know about your passions
In the old days I used to fast forward to your hobbies and interests, but these days we're encouraged not to put those on the CV in case you're judged against them.  Which seems like political correctness gone crazy, but then when you think about it you can infer a lot about a person from their hobbies and interests, and therefore you could be pre-judging them based on some criteria that is not at all associated with their ability to do the job.  For example, if they have hobbies that take them all over England I might infer they have a car and can drive - OK, it's a dumb example, but you get the idea.

These days, given that I'm trying to find great team members to work with me at LMAX, I'm looking for things like: your blog; any contributions to open source software; your involvement in a Java User Group (or other extra-curricular activity).  I'm not going to discard you if you don't have any of these things, but if you do it's definitely extra brownie points for you.

I want to know if you worship at the altar of technology, or if you're business-value driven
Either of these things is fine - we need people who are very business-focussed and people who are rabid about technology, as well as all those in between, to build a good team.  Another axis of interest is people/process - are you passionate about people, about building a good team, about helping them to deliver?

Getting a feel for where you sit on these axes is not for me to discard you, but if you look like you're strongly in one of these camps and I feel like we need a team member to really push that area, then you stand a much better chance of getting a phone interview.

I'll get an indication of where you are by the way you talk about your roles and your achievements.  This does not help me:
Senior Developer on a web administration application.  Product was implemented using JavaScript, HTML, Spring, Hibernate, JMS, and MySQL.
This is much more useful:
I was part of a team of four developers implementing a web based administration application, commissioned to enable internal users to update the settings of our reporting tool.  This saved the support staff approximately 4 hours every week, as they no longer needed to manually update the database. We used agile techniques such as daily standups and weekly iterations in order to provide quick feedback to the business.
(I made both of those up, by the way, before anyone starts trying to sue me for stealing something off their CV).

Here I can see:
  1. The size of the team, and your ability to work in a team
  2. You understood the business need you were trying to fulfill
  3. You have worked in an agile environment and at least pay lip service to why you were working that way.
I don't really care about the specific technologies you used, the fact that you mentioned web-based and database gives me enough of a feel.

Sometimes prospective employers really do stalk you
Personally I think claims that prospective employers will check every facet of your web presence are somewhat over-exaggerated.  If I barely have 60 seconds to read your CV, I'm not going to check you out on Facebook, my life is too short.

However, if you claim to have written a book I will look it up on Amazon .  If you have a publication or example code, I will glance at those.  If you've worked for a company I've worked for in the past, I'll look you up on LinkedIn to see if we have any common connections (or worse, to see if I should remember you and simply don't).  I'll also use LinkedIn if your CV is not screaming yes or no, to see if there's an extra dimension in your profile which will tip me one way or the other.

So be aware of your web presence, particularly something that is aimed at your professional image like LinkedIn, and make sure it represents you the way you want it to.

In Conclusion
This post might be simply a good way to increase my own workload - every CV I get from now on may be an automatic pass, and then I have to call all of you before I can start weeding you out.

But I don't mind too much about that.  I get concerned sometimes that good people are not getting the interviews they deserve, not just at LMAX but across the industry, because they get almost no good CV advice.  Frequently the people who are the first to read CVs are agencies who are not technologists.  By all means, have words on there that will make your CV appear on their search results.  But you need to put something on there for me, a real developer, because strings of keywords tell me nothing about you.

If I can improve the quality of just one person's CV with this post, I'm happy.  If I have given you that first step towards that job you really want, then that's even better.

10 comments:

  1. My own CV improved after reading through hundreds of CVs and noticing what looked bad (and realizing I had some of the same problems) and stealing what was good :-)

    My biggest CV annoyances are meaningless personality buzzwords. Stuff like "self-starting, motivated innovator with a can-do attitude and ability to work in a team". Anyone so socially unaware as to write that probably sits drooling in the corner, chewing their own toenails until you zap them with a cattle prod and micro-manage them.

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  2. Yeah totally, I re-wrote my CV when I first started screening them for recruitment, I realised mine was very mediocre.

    I mostly agree on the personality buzz words, because they are meaningless - I expect you to have worked in a team and alone and I expect you to have "excellent communication skills" like the rest of the world. However, how people choose to describe themselves is fascinating in its own right, it shows what you value - self-starter suggests that you like to be left alone, can-do attitude suggests you're keen to please (possibly a bit puppy-like too).

    My most hated phrase is "experienced in all aspects of the software development lifecycle" - I should bloody well hope so! But you're not going to say if you're NOT experienced in all aspects, so it's totally meaningless.

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  3. I am sorry but I really disagree. Let's take the sentence: "We developed web application using Hibernate for persistence, Spring as DI container and MVC framework and JSF as view-layer technology. This was really interesting stack to work with".

    According to you this might be unhelpful so I should write something like "We developed healthcare webapplication that saved our customer lot of time because of easyfying legal issues" - this would seem more helpful to you.

    So you read thru this and see I am probably passionate webdeveloper and you are in need of PHP/HTML/CSS/JavaScript developer that suits me based on non-technological description.

    So you'd contact me you're in need of webdeveloper but with completely other technological stack, because I should've ommited my favourites from CV :/

    There's something for you to understand: I am programmer and I work with technologies. I care mostly about the tools and language I use, and much less about problem domain. I don't give a damn if my next project is going to be from finance, healthcare, insuarance or what. I care about what tools and technologies I am going to use, because this makes me happy!

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  4. By the way I write my CV in way that non-technical people even won't understand. I use sentences like: "I really depend on injections" or "My favorite time in year is Spring" or "I can watch Eclipse all day".

    For most folks working at HR this is just some nonsens and they won't even bother to read it. That's cool, because sucky companies will fail this test and only those who are able to read thorugh lines and see I put there hidden technological words will be able to get the point :)

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  5. Xorty, I think it's great to emphasise interest in technology as well. I gave one example showing how you can do more than just talk about the technology stack you used, but I could just as easily have written it in a technology-focussed way which is more useful to me. For example: "This was the first project I had used Spring MVC on, and I found it much easier to implement than Struts" or "I chose to use a Spring/Hibernate stack after writing several prototypes in this and a number of alternatives". Both of these show me not only the technology used, but your level of involvement in them.

    What I don't need is a CV that's *just* a list of technologies. If you've got Spring and Hibernate and five years of Java, I can't tell the difference between you and the other CV I just read with Spring/Hibernate and five years of Java. I've got another ten CVs to get through before I can get on with my own coding, so I'm not going to pick either of you because there's nothing there that differentiates you.

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  6. Trisha, thanks for the great advice. My CV mostly adheres to your pointers, however, I have 2 remarks:
    - Hobbies. I only mention hobbies which can be useful in the context of job I'm applying for. I don't think would be useful if you knew I brew beer in my free time. So you always need to take into account how relevant the information is you put on your CV.
    - Size. You haven't mentioned CV size. I've seen a lot of CV's and when I'm pressed for time, the last thing I want is a 7-page CV. I try to limit my CV to 2 pages, so it can be printed on one page. As a rule of thumb, if it takes me more than 60 seconds to read my CV, it's too long.

    As an experiment (although it's not recommended) I made a 'special' CV and sent it to some companies which weren't actually looking for someone, but I knew they had interesting projects. My experiment can be found here: http://www.doclo.be/cvtest.pdf. Surprisingly, I had a lot of success (mostly because interviewers were intrigued and wanted to know more). I guess it's like you say, if you have 10 CV's to review, you'll probably pick out those that stand out. I think it also helped that it was only a single page.

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  7. I didn't mention CV size because to me, personally, it's not that important. Having said that, I have tossed away CVs that are 7 pages because I frankly don't have time for that.

    However, my own is about 5 pages so I can't criticise too much, but with mine the first page is the summary, the other pages are optional. With CVs I screen, I read the first page and skim the rest, which is probably a good guideline to bear in mind.

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  8. Hi Trisha

    Trenchant advice. Hope you and others might find this useful:

    http://enhyper.blogspot.com/2007/04/step-aid-to-it-recruitment-its.html

    It's a methodology which helped weed out the "people" candidates whilst I was recruiting.

    Best advice I was given was that I had the first half page to get across what I did and why I would be suitable for the role. Anything past the first page is for HR.

    Cheers

    Graeme

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