The common factor in all your failed job applications: Your CV

Top tips from an insider in the tech recruitment game


Comment It has been a decade since we first demonstrated that IT pros' resumes were a bit crap, and so here's an update to help you get real about how you present yourself in 2021.

As Real Techies™, we know when code is too rotten to rejig and must be deleted with extreme prejudice. Why should your CV be any different?

Jobs are like personal relationships: employers like to feel they’re special to you; no, don’t laugh – they want to feel that your very life has led up to the point where you bang out front ends for their legacy Oracle database, so you must pander to that delusion.

For CVs, it's more grep than grok

CVs are filtered by agents (sometimes now aided by Artificial Ignorance), and then cheap people, and thereafter skimmed by hiring managers who look for a "key" term. So it’s just like writing code for three different languages, you need to cater for each phase, without confusing the others.

The first phases are very buzzword-driven, and to maximize your chances of passing means adapting your CV to every job, starting with a spreadsheet, not the horrible Word document you’ve built by shoving the details of your latest gig on top of the last.

List every skill, experience, business area, and qualification buzzword you have ever done, and give them a performance rank like A-F, or a percentage, or however long you've been misusing them. Then a week later do it again because you’ve forgotten stuff. Unless you’re a complete newbie, that’s north of 150 items. Now you can bang out a custom CV for a particular job and its requirements much faster: rattle off the stronger items relevant to the description of the position.

One reason for this is a major change that has taken place since we wrote about the CV 10 years ago: the recent rise of recruitment process outsourcers. The outsourced recruiters are tasked with sifting through CVs very cheaply by using simple literal buzzword matching.

You might think it obvious that someone who’s been doing Oracle development for a decade might know PL/SQL, or that a recruiter at AWS might at least have heard of cloud technology. Dream on.

It may be their fault if they don't realize, but be clear: it is your problem. So whatever the core parts of your pitch may be, make sure you include several closely related buzzwords so recruiters don’t easily miss it. For example, put both containers and Docker. Say Java and Eclipse, or whatever. And if some component of Kubernetes or HPC is your main pitch, make sure they are in there twice, both as words and acronyms.

There's a caveat here, though. You need to be careful of dilution – the mixing of terms that look related to you but are unrelated in the eyes of those parsing your CV.

Although I’m a C++ programmer, I’ve done VB for money and it confuses some people. We both know the Superior Programmer thinks in some confection of multiple languages where the actual code is merely used to express our intent. But in some people’s limited minds, that reduces their admiration of what we can do. This is another reason to adapt your CV for each job: sometimes they like that you can explain why VBA’s SafeArrays aren’t even slightly safe to pass to C++, but mostly it just confuses them. So if the role calls for C++ and SQL, just focus on your C++ and SQL, and don't bring up VB and Perl. Keep diluting words to an absolute minimum, and where they are not necessary, just do not include in the body of your CV.

It is increasingly important to have contributed to a public open-source project, and as a rough rule: the better the job, the more they care. This means that including links to some repos is well worth the space. Of course, some firms forbid you from taking part, which a) tells you they aren’t the best to work for, and b) that you need to use an alias on GitHub that inevitably gets found out when you’re leaving anyway.

All hiring is done as a balance of need and want. Employers want smart people with business savvy who will grow with the business, and you need the online store to stop glitching out and producing duplicate orders. Quite often hires are needed to keep things going, despite whatever the management says it wants in public, hence our focus on buzzwords that optimize for this need.

Pros and cons of buzzword stuffing

Recruiters are regarded with contempt by IT pros, often for good reason, though they make critical decisions about your life, and if they don’t put you forward for a role, there’s no chance of you getting it.

So when customizing your CV to get their attention, draw from your list of buzzwords minus the things you can’t do properly or really hate.

Some clients demand absurdly rare combinations of skills – eg, Arm assembler, equity derivatives, and netmail – because they resent paying top dollar to anyone who’s not perfect, and sometimes because these abilities are actually needed.

The cynics among you will note this also means that, by listing a range of skills to match these sorts of bonkers jobs, you appear on more searches in general. The old trick of stuffing your CV with buzzwords in one-point white text on a white background still does occasionally work, and when it doesn't, it renders on the recruiter's screen as a tragic ugly mess.

An industry standard lie is that you’ll be working on the "latest tech." However, firms have far more old stuff (euphemistically called "technical debt") that is more critical to the continued health of the company than the flashy convolutional neural network they use to spot shoplifters.

Also, their big-data projects require combat with reluctant aging systems to give up their hoard of data gold. How much you include of your own legacy skills is a function of how hard you are finding your job search, since saying you did Transact SQL five years ago increases the chances of having to do it again.

This means a candidate who is merely competent at Python and Bash can often get jobs that an expert in one can't. One put Python and Bash on their CV, and the other didn't think it was necessary.

Be positive

You absolutely must go through your life history and find something that makes you look generally smart in a way HR can understand. Yes, CUDA is harder to master than VBA, but do they know that? Things that have a high failure rate, or simply have flashy names, have more value to the non-IT-pros in the process than you might think rational, and yes, that does mean a passing grade in plasma physics is as good as topping the class in data structures. Being promoted at your current employment is often left out and that is a big mistake, as it shows recognition by people that see your work.

Use their own words against them

Your CV has to match the language used in the job ads and specifications. It reveals the employer's level of approval for certain terms, and if you adjust your CV accordingly, it'll appear you're on their wavelength. What order do they use programmer, software engineer, developer, and coder? You need to follow that ordering. If they put software engineer first, you use that first. If they snub coder, you snub coder. The same applies to choosing QA over testing, UX over GUI, or agile over tactical, when listing your strengths and experiences.

Like the Inuits and snow, if you'll forgive the cliche, employers have many approved words that all mean the same thing. You need to spice your CV with every single one they use, such as deliver, quality, business, saving, team, agile (again), and flexible – all of which frankly should be in your CV already. If it is in their job ads, you should have it in your CV twice (but no more than that).

So: get the job specification to learn not only exactly what the client needs but how they express wanting it.

Mind the gap

A lot more people have holes in their employment history of late, for a reason that may be obvious to all of us. However, many HR departments have a “no gaps” policy, citing (imaginary) laws and things they’ve heard in bars at diversity conferences. Even when you get past this, expect to be asked what you’ve been doing, and the response of a blank look and mumble gives the impression you’ve been watching daytime reality TV. So you need to cushion that with some project, preferably learning a skill, or volunteering to be a steward at a vaccination center.

Don’t look like a millennial, especially if you are one

Delete the word “feel” and replace it with grownup words for decisions you’ve made. I “decided to go into DevOps,” not “I felt UX was important.”

The best way of putting this across? I “delivered X by using Y.” Actual experience of achievement trumps everything. Saying you were involved in a project is like saying that shouting abuse at the referee is being involved in a football match: you deliver, develop, build, integrate, solve, and optimize, but make sure you include words that imply you work well in teams, especially if you don’t.

Spent some time with a diversity consultant at your current job? It is worth putting it on your CV because it will make HR happy. And there is a pothole here for you to fall into. If you reckon the hiring process might prune older applicants, simply cut anything that happened more than 15 years ago.

Every word on your CV is an interview question

Saying you've completed training in diversity, dealt with AWS, done AIOps, mastered NoSQl, suffered REXX, or whatever means they may ask about it, even if it was a few years ago. Interviews can turn into Columbo-grade investigations into whether or not your CV is true, and that means any whiff of bullshit means your credibility drops really quite hard.

You might see all of this as a lot of work. Guilty as charged. But I suspect you would not have read this far if everything was going well in your career. Conversely, if you are finding it too easy to get a job, you are not trying for the best you can get and leaving yourself vulnerable to cheaper people competing for them. When you’re going for a top job you can only just get, a better CV is the edge you need. ®

Dominic Connor used to boss IT pros and quants around in banks, and now recruits for less crappy jobs in the City of London.

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