“Talented, motivated and keen to learn” Yeah? You and everyone else

Singletrack is hiring again. Generally I love the hiring process and I’m looking forward to adding some fresh new talent to our growing development team in the new year. Personal contacts and word-of-mouth referrals only take you so far and we, like every growing business, have to deal with recruitment agents and advertising. I don’t mind: a good agent is worth their fee and ads can bring in unexpected delights.

But what the fuck has happened to CVs recently?

I rarely receive any CVs longer than two pages and the cover letters are bland variations on a theme: “I’m a talented and professional programmer seeking a new challenge. I’m hard-working, motivated and keen to learn.”

Yeah? You and everyone else.

How am I supposed to tell anything useful from a paint-by-numbers cover letter and a two-page resume where the first half of the page is an alphabet soup of programming languages, technologies and methodologies. Where the remaining page-and-a-half is a line or two about the projects you’ve worked on with almost everything about the project and nothing about your work?

How can I get any kind of feeling about you when your CV is devoid of all personal information apart from your name? Worried about discrimination? Aren’t we all but I, as I’d imagine most tech employers, don’t think that way and finding out you’re 50 and have cross-trained to programming after a career as an English teacher is something I’m going to find out pretty quickly anyway. In my case something like that is likely to make you more interesting to me, not less.

Here are my top five tips for getting a job with Singletrack or the many other employers looking for great people to join their development teams:

  1. Write a specific cover letter. Given you’re applying I know you want A job … I want to know why you want THIS job. It just has to be short and specific letting me know you’ve read and understood the job description, that you know a little about what we do and that you think you’re the person we need. 15 minutes of your time is all that’s required and if you can’t spare 15 minutes finding out a little about a company you might end up joining you’re definitely not the person for us.
  2. Write an adequate length CV. This ‘make everything fit on two pages’ approach is bullshit. We generally look for people with significant experience and there’s no way you can adequately tell me about the work you’ve done, the skills you’ve got and the person you are on two sides. Guess what? I’ve been hiring people for well over a decade and I know how to skim-read a six-page CV and spot good stuff, especially if the covering letter has already caught my eye. I don’t want chapter-and-verse but a short, pithy precis of everything you think I need to know about you if we’re going to work together.
  3. Tell me what you’ve done. Okay, I need to know a little bit about what a company or project was about to get some context on the work you’ve done. But its just background. This is your CV so don’t just tell me what the company does or what the project delivered, tell me about your role in it, what you took responsibility for and what you achieved.
  4. Tell me what you’ve learned. I can’t believe how few CVs I read that contain phrases like “On this project/at this company what I learned was …”. The thing about what you’ve done is its generally a factor of time: you can only do so much in a period of time. The thing about learning is its a factor of your capacity, openness and willingness to engage. Between a candidate that has done much and learned little and a candidate that has done little but learned much there’s only one winner.
  5. Tell me about you. Show me the person as well as the employee. Single mum who’s taught herself programming at nightschool? Now that’s hard-working, motivated and keen to learn. Lover of philosophy? Someone who knows about how to think. Fan of 80’s electro music? We’ll no-one’s perfect but I won’t hold it against you; it didn’t stop me founding a company with someone.  Fanatic Mountain Biker? There’s a reason we’re called Singletrack Systems.

The first three are really the basics: don’t do these and you’re just letting yourself down. The last two can make a stand-out difference. We’re looking for people to come and spend days, weeks, months and years with us so finding out about the person, not their skills and experience, is the number one priority.

And it all starts with the CV.

3 thoughts on ““Talented, motivated and keen to learn” Yeah? You and everyone else

  1. Andy Longshaw

    I can’t believe that people send in a generic covering letter. This suggests that either it’s all about me, me, me (look how wonderful I am so you have to hire me) or they are too lazy/disinterested to write a specific letter. Neither is good.
    As far as CVs go, for a long time I have used a CV that contains a reverse-chronological list of my engagements (permit and independent) each of which contains “scenario” (what the project or job was), “role” (what *I* did towards it rather than what other propel achieved) and “platform” (the technologies and practices we used). By far the largest section of these is “role” since I figure that people want to know what I can do rather than just what I’ve worked on (I worked in IT between 1995 and 2000 so I must have made a contribution to the rise of the Internet, right?).
    Good luck with your search.

  2. Andrew Jameson

    I agree with your comments. Having read hundreds of CVs in the last few years, I can recall from memory only two I would wish to tell you about socially if I met you in the hallway. One of these was beautifully formatted in a clear but original format (a student graphic designer). The other because the Italian applicant mis-translated into English their Status as “Marriageable”.

    However, I would also say people posting job advertisements are equally at fault, having spent little time on describing what kind of people they want, or who they are as a company, and why you should want to join them. It takes me usually at least an hour to figure out if a company is competent or not, if the information is actually provided. If. Such a big word with only 2 letters.
    [and I’ve been analysing companies for 20 years]

    I also like the following Zappos approaches to recruitment:

    of having two interviews: the technical and the “would I want to spend time with this person socially?” test. If the second fails, they move on to the next applicant.

    of paying people a sum of cash to leave after the first month of training: Zappos finds out pretty quickly if the person wants to stay or not, saving them a lot of time (and money) in the future.


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