And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

Applying for a web developer role: CV dos and don’ts

(Editor’s note: this piece represents my personal opinions and not those of my employer. Now let’s begin)

In my day job I frequently look over CVs and applications to join my team as a front-end web developer. Of the batch that we receive each time we begin another hiring round, perhaps 15-35% make the cut for an interview. Of the people we end up interviewing, we make job offers to perhaps 30% of candidates (these numbers are finger-in-the-air estimates). The odds are ever not in your favour, statistically speaking. But why?

It’s because a lot of people don’t seem to know how to write a CV or apply for a job as a web developer. I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve sighed with frustration at candidates who fail to give me the right information or people who waste my time (and theirs) with irrelevant nonsense. I’m going to catalogue the best and worst of these applications and how you can avoid falling into the trap.

What not to do on your CV and job application for a web developer role

  • Include long, elaborate lists of acronyms.
    This is basically you detailing every piece of software, hardware, programming language, text editor, JavaScript framework or node.js plugin you’re familiar with. When I scan over an entire paragraph of things like “Experience with XML, HTML, DHTML, CSS, JS, AJAX, DOM, W3C, SOAP, JSON, USB, BBQ” I stop reading and skip to the next paragraph.

    The job description has a brief list of the kind of things we expect you to be proficient in.
    Don’t just give me a list of things you’ve used. When I hire a plumber to fix my broken sink his job advert doesn’t say “spanner, socket wrench, hammer, Phillips head screwdriver”. It tells me how good he is at using them to fix broken sinks.
  • Not including a covering letter.
    This one is mildly controversial in the exciting world of IT human resources. Some hiring managers think cover letters are a waste of time. Not me. A good 60% of the average CV is filler (I don’t really care how many GCSEs or A-Levels you got and wouldn’t miss them if they weren’t on the document). I’m assuming that once the HR staff filtered your CV through to me, they’ve already established for me that you know what a webpage is and have a basic grasp of HTML. I’m willing to take a gamble on your technical skills as long as you have something that convinces me that you actually want to work here.

    We want to hire people who want to work here.

    Tell me why you want to. Imagine how many applications we get from people who know how to write CSS and JavaScript. Why should we pick you? Also, if you’re not asking yourself why you want to work here, then maybe it’s not a good fit for you, either.
  • Use “CV phrases”.
    This is perhaps the refuge of the under-experienced: padding out dodgy student jobs to make the work experience section look better. Awkward achievements like “improved communications skills” or “gained valuable cross-departmental experience” mean nothing and you know it. There’s nothing wrong with a brief CV if you make use of it to tell me the bare facts that actually matter.

    It’s fine if you don’t have a ton of professional experience. 
    We’re not looking for someone who founded Google. There’s no shame in getting your foot on the ladder by working somewhere you’re not proud of anymore. But don’t talk it up or insert things you think make it sound good. Be upfront and talk about the things that are relevant. Do you have a cool sideproject you’ve been coding on GitHub? Been to any hack days? Got a good blogpost about why you think CSS4 variables are crap? Tell me about them. These things are as valuable as work experience in many cases.

  • Let a recruiter / agency lay out your CV.
    Don’t allow this to happen. Almost without exception the best CVs I see are ones where the candidate applied directly, or where they supplied their CV directly. The ones given to me by agencies are all formatted using the same god-awful template, and mean I can’t gauge the candidate on things like written skills, eye for design, website URLs or personality. The templates that recruiters use seem to imply that there’s only one type of applicant and only one position we’re interested in. There isn’t: a CV is your chance to demonstrate what’s unique about you, so don’t let an agency make you exactly the same as the other chumps.

    For a front-end development role, the look/feel of your CV is more important than you might think.

    If you’ve put a lot of thought and care into how it looks and you’ve made decisions about what information is relevant to include, that’s a massive plus point against your name.

Alright, that’s the bad stuff out of the way. Now let’s examine some of the good things people do when they send me CVs.

What to always do on your CV and job application for a web developer role

  • Include URLs.
    This is a no-brainer. You’d be amazed, therefore, how many applicants I see who apparently don’t have brains. If you’re applying for a web development role, you need to show me some web you’ve developed. It doesn’t matter what it is (I’ve seen some applicants whose portfolio included porn sites… ouch). If I can’t View Source at your work and have a peek at what you do, I’m not going to bother. I’d almost say that it’s mandatory to have your own website as well, whether it’s a blog, testing zone, or anything else. I can’t think of a single good front-end developer I know who doesn’t have one.

    If you don’t have a wide portfolio or you’re not quite ready to blog,  that’s fine.
    Just give me something to look at. Show me your current work’s website (assuming you worked on it) or the URL to a screenshot, or a GitHub account or even Twitter. Demonstrating that you’re interested in the web itself and contributing to it is key.

  • Prove that you know what’s relevant andinteresting.
    This is similar to the first rule of what not to do, but essentially: don’t tell me mundane details of projects you worked on or teams you were part of. I want snappy: give me quick, interesting nuggets of info.  GOOD: “I replaced a slow server-side backend with an AJAX-powered JavaScript application which improved page rendering speed by over 5 seconds”. BAD: “I was part of an Agile scrum team of six developers which was asked to replace a legacy PHP-powered MVC framework with a new JavaScript application in two months of development time”. I stopped caring halfway through that yawnfest.

    If you can’t tell me what’s relevant about you, why should I hire you?
    We want developers who can instinctively and intuitively pick things up and run with new situations. Again, this doesn’t require tons of previous experience. You just need to be quick-witted and intelligent.

  • Do a bit of research.
    First let me clarify what this doesn’tmean: turning up to the interview with a set of pre-written notes and factoids about the company. “I believe you get 40m unique visitors a month, is that correct?”. Great work champ, glad that Wikipedia article was available for you last night. No, what will win you points on your application is having some idea about what we do (and by “we” I mean “the team you are specifically applying to join”, not “the 1000+ employee company I work for”). All our work is publicly documented and if you don’t already have some opinion about it, form one.

    This doesn’t mean you should brown-nose and heap praise on something we built.
    But it’d help me if you made it clear that you have some idea what the job entails and you’ve already seen some of our work. I’ll be even more impressed if you have a negative opinion on it: it’s brave and it proves you’ve looked in-depth rather than superficially.

Wait, who the hell are you to tell me how to apply for a job?

Good question. I’m not claiming to be some sort of CV guru or hiring expert, far from it. Of the last four interviews I did before my current role, I failed to get three of them. I lost count of the number of  applications I made at around 100. I certainly feel qualified now to dissect how not to apply for things.

In my day job I hire staff to join my team and this involves looking at a lot of CVs, whittling down candidates with fellow staff and interviewing and ultimately hiring them. In the last 6 months I’ve helped hire three brilliant developers and I’m proud of that track record. I think that qualifies me to know a good CV when I see one, I hope.

Web development is one of the most fast-paced and interesting jobs currently on offer. It’s a really exciting environment to work in and it’s becoming more competitive to break into. This does not mean that you have to be some kind of genius or computer science neckbeard to get a job doing it, however. If you’re passionate and excited by tech, able to solve problems with experimenting and creativity, and can show interest and desire to learn even where your experience has gaps, then you can get a good developer role.

If your CV doesn’t make it really clear that you have those abilities and passions, though, you won’t. It doesn’t need to be your life story. It doesn’t need your every career achievement. It needs to show me that you know what we want, you know what you’re good at, and you want to work for me. If you’re still interested, apply here.

  • Daniel H

    In regards to the agencies formatting your CV thing, I think this is largely not the fault of the candidate.

    I’ve often seen my CV completely butchered by agencies without my permission, this is especially apparent when your interviewer comes into the interview with your CV in hand and you don’t recognise it.

  • http://jamesmoss.co.uk James Moss

    These are all great points. If a developer can’t market and represent themselves well, how can they do it for your company?

    Another personal bugbear of mine is candidates who send through their CVs as Word documents which lose or munge their formatting when opened. PDFs are called portable for a reason.

  • Matt

    @Daniel: true, but I think it’s the candidate’s responsibility to make sure it doesn’t get mangled by the agency. I know you’re saying it’s without permission, so my point is that developers should *insist* that the CV is delivered as they made it (unless they really believe the agency can do a better job of it).

    @James: very good point about the format. I open any .doc files in OpenOffice or LibreOffice (or even Google Docs) since I run Ubuntu at work, and it doesn’t represent them as they were probably intended. PDFs all the way (or HTML!).

  • Andrew Turnbull

    Good advice. I think a lot of people are afraid to mess around with the CV because it seems like such a professional document.

    But web devs need creativity. So why not show some?

  • http://www.websitedoctor.com/ Alastair McDermott

    Great post. Some thoughts…

    I think PDF is a good format particularly for a creative role. In the programming space, a lot of hiring managers will take issue with .doc format, especially if they’re not a Windows shop.

    Some candidates may add “Copyright ($YEAR)” to prevent agencies modifying CVs. Not sure it’s the right way to go, but interesting.

    When you stop all agencies and HR depts keyword scanning CVs for lists of technologies, you will stop receiving CVs that contain a long list of acronyms. You say you stop reading and skip to the next paragraph – that’s exactly what you should do. And acknowledge that the candidate had to include those TLAs.

  • http://www.websitedoctor.com/ Alastair McDermott

    Oops, one other point I forgot – regarding “Include URLs”.

    I’ve often received a list of 30+ URLs with a CV. Don’t just list them out like that – tell me what you did.

    I’m not going to assume you did 100% of setup, design, code and content work on all of those sites (if that’s what you hoped).

    I’m going to assume you did almost nothing, unless you tell me otherwise.

    3 URLs with a paragraph explaining your contribution, and any constraints in the project, is far more valuable.

  • Matt

    @Alastair: Good points, both. Never heard of the “Copyright $year” technique, quite interesting. Wouldn’t trust recruiters I’ve worked with to trust it though — when I was last applying for work, one phoned me up asking why there weren’t any “urls” (pronounced like “earls”) on my CV. I directed him to the second page which was entirely URLs and descriptions of them. *facepalm*