DO Judge a Book By Its Cover (Letter)

As a team lead, one of the most interesting new avenues I’ve been able to explore is the hiring process.  I’ll start off by saying this:  interviewing is infinitely easier than actually hiring a good candidate.  There’s a lot to think about when you’re bringing a new person on and challenges are plentiful.

At a 10 000 ft level the process itself is fairly straightforward. The hiring manager puts up a job posting, the candidates apply, and the hiring manager picks the person who is objectively the best.  On paper it seems so simple.  As a software development interviewee you just have to be the best candidate and you’re in, right?  Well, partially.

The trickiest part of the process for both the hiring party and the potential candidate is the initial screening.  All you really have to judge each candidate by is a laundry list of skills and experiences packed into a resume and a covering letter.  Many candidates know that medium-large sized companies use keyword-based searches to screen out resumes.  The best way to get yourself past the pre-screening process is to pack your resume full of buzzwords so that it’s not thrown out before it’s even read.  It always makes you wonder how many potentially great candidates may have been given the boot before

Sadly, the aforementioned means that many software developer’s resumes quickly become dense, exaggerated, and at times unreadable.  I’d say that on average, and based soley on my own experience, that about 30% of a candidates resume will be TLAs (three-letter acronyms) and buzzwords.  Synergy this, efficiency that, Agile over here, paradigm shift over there.  Once you strip it all away you’re left with what’s effectively a timeline of your work history and a brief glance into what you’ve done in the past.

As a candidate, how do you set yourself apart from the rest, especially if your timeline is shorter or less diverse than others?  As an interviewer, how do you evaluate a person based on two sheets of paper?

The answer is the cover letter.  A quality covering letter is your ticket to the big leagues.  It tells a story not only about your work history, but also about YOU!    It speaks volumes about your writing skills and your communication style.  In fact, it’s quite easy to pick up on tidbits of a person’s personality just from the covering letter.  Did they over-sell themselves as a rockstar developer from out of this world?  Did they under-sell themselves or under-value something that an objective observer might consider an important tidbit?  The most important thing to note is that it puts YOU in control of the story.  It gives you a chance to portray yourself however you wish.

When I’m evaluating a candidate I will look at both equally.  Generally my pre-interview rankings can be hit or miss based on resumes, but the quality of the cover letter tends to correlate much more tightly with non-technical interview performance.

Of course, that’s not to say that great covering letter guarantees that you’ll be hired.  Ultimately the interview is the largest determining factor in whether or not you get the job.  In addition to technical acumen, the process attempts to evaluate your attitude, communication skill, your ability to co-operate with the personalities on the existing team, and where this position may fit into your overall career goals.  One thing candidates may not always consider is that the interviewer has to evaluate his or her OWN team every time a candidate is hired to ensure that an incoming candidate can balance out any skill gaps that exist.  It’s very possible to be an outstanding candidate but still be the wrong candidate for the job.

That discussion is for another day, though.  Landing an interview is very challenging and, as a candidate, is a process largely out of your control.  However, with keyword-friendly resume, a strong development timeline, and a great story to tell in a covering letter, you’ll be well on your way to getting a chance to show your skills in person.

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