EP30 – Landing the interview, a coder’s guide to applying for jobs

Man and woman shaking handsEveryone will, at some time or another, need to apply for positions and pass an interview or more to land the perfect job. Whether you are fresh out of school, or after years in the trenches, this applies to almost all of us. Often the competition can be fierce, you can simply drown in the torrent of applications some positions get.

What I’m going to try to summarise here, is how to improve one’s chances of getting that first interview. Now, I’m not an expert in the area, but I have some personal experience actually getting the interviews. I am also basing this article on a couple of interviews my associate, Trevor Page, did for his podcast.

These interviews complement each other well, as they are from both the business’ and an applicant’s point of view. Many of the tips will apply to many professions, but it’s written for all the coders out there.

Networking

People collaborating around a deskI would have to say that the number one, biggest chance of getting an interview, and hopefully the job, is your network. People you know have more information to go on considering you, than they do with the rest of the pile. This will usually move you to the top portion of the list. Having already established good chemistry will be of immense help.

This means that getting to know a lot of people in the right circles can be one of the best things to do, but it takes time. This means you ought to start as soon as possible. You also need to remember to be genuine and honest, to be yourself and to actually try to connect with people. If you do not, you will be just another face in the crowd, a possibly familiar name, but not someone to bump up a list.

Good places to do this sort of networking, outside school and current workplace, are meetups, hackathons, conferences and other similar events. These are events where like-minded meet and exchange thoughts and ideas. These are also great places to both gain knowledge and skills, as well as showing what you can do. Get to know some piece of awesome tech, make a cool DIY project or create a little something people might be interested in, and give a presentation on it.

Also remember that your network is where your references and letters of recommendations will come from. No one will vouch for you, if they don’t know you.

Cover letter

Now, for the application itself, it’s always a good idea to write a custom cover letter tailored for each position and company. Sure, many things will be the same or similar between them. There will however be enough unique qualities, skills and frameworks between positions, that taking the time to craft a well written cover letter will help you to stand out.

This cover letter needs to explain clearly why you are the right candidate for the position, why the company needs you to bring something unique to the table, and of course what that is. The letter must express who you are as a person and as a worker, perhaps let a few minor flaws shine through, but in a way that emphasises your best qualities or skills.

You should also consider writing a little about your ambitions and goals, as this will give them a clearer image of how you will fit over time. It’s naturally best if these ambitions and goals align with the company’s goals. Also, the letter should not be long, one to two pages at most, laid out in a readable way with short paragraphs, a nice readable font no smaller than 12 to 14 points in size.

Research

Doing research with books and computerTo align the letter to the company you will have to research the company. Visit their website, read their brochures, look them up on wikipedia, google them, read news articles and press releases. Most importantly, actually read the job posting carefully. This research will also give you information you can use to ask well formulated questions about the company, the position and the person doing the interview.

Do not be afraid to actually picking up the phone and calling the contact listed in the job posting, even if they also list an e-mail address. Talking to the contact will always increase your chances of being remembered. Talk about the position, dig deeper into what the job will actually be, what type of product you will be working on, give a good impression and share something about yourself.

If you do not match the actual text and wording in the posting perfectly, you can still apply, but need to work even harder on your letter and phone call. You need to shine a light on what you bring that weighs up for what you’re missing, be it a degree, a framework or some other detail.

Be realistic

If you find you are lacking most of what they are asking for, you need to stop for a moment and do another assessment of your fit for the position. The less of a match you are, the less likely you are to get the interview. This is true even if your cover letter or phone call were perfect.

Being a junior and applying to senior positions is a long shot, and most likely will tell the company that you are unrealistic and overestimate your skills. The job posting is a reflection of an actual need that the company has for a specific skill set, and if you do not have any of what they ask for, you might be wasting everyone’s time.

A better option then is to send in an open application, not tied to a specific posting. Perhaps try to set up a meeting with someone from the company in a position to consider you. There might be other positions in the pipeline you are better suited for, and letting them know about you, could perhaps sometimes convince them to hire you without them having to go through all the hoops.

Your resumé

Curriculum Vitae for interviewYour resumé will also have to be crafted for the position you are applying for. There’s no need showing off your entire life, just show the relevant experience and skills. Include relevant schools, degrees, courses and certifications, as well as some choice links to articles, posts, projects, papers and other resources that show off your work.

If you don’t have them already, chasing certificates as a coder is probably a waste of time and money. The certificates for software engineering does not carry the same weight as for system operations, architecture and security. The latter fields is where one often sees a requirement for such and such TOGAF, Microsoft or Cisco certification. It’s rare that a job will hinge on you being certified on Java, C# or HTML.

Always work on building your resumé. It really takes a long time and it is especially important when you are not actively looking for a job. This is because that is when you have the best opportunities to do so, already working with relevant topics.

You’ll need to write articles, blog posts or tutorials. Try to be active on support sites like Stack Overflow and build projects to show off. Maybe you can contribute to open source projects or perhaps you’ll find some other way to stand out.

A recent informal survey asking hundreds of developers across the world what they valued most in prospective hires shows that contributing to open source projects is more important than even a bachelors degree. Mind you that this is what the developers themselves answered, not HR or the managers normally doing the hiring, but it shows that finding time to do this might be the best way to up your ante.

Gaining experience

If you are lacking actual work experience, you can try to break the Catch 22 you are facing. Needing a job to get the experience you need to get a job, is fixed by actually getting that experience. There are other ways to get this than through a typical job. In doing so, starting with a blank slate, you can focus your efforts towards high demand areas. And this is where your chances improve due to lack of competition.

Getting this experience can involve doing contract work, lowballing a few bid to just get the experience. Perhaps freelancing online through sites like Freelancer or Upwork can help you there. Another option is to get the foot in the door by taking alternative positions within a company. Just be honest about your expectations and goals in the long run.

Volunteer work will also count. There are plenty of organisations and companies that need help, but can’t offer much of a budget. Summer internships is also something to look for if you need to get the ball rolling.

Portfolio for the interview

Let’s expand a bit on what I wrote about showing off a few choice links in the “Resumé” section. These links need to point to something juicy if you really want to stand out. Blog about actual technical issues and their solutions, post some tutorials or give some YouTube-lectures. These lectures can be on Computer Science topics like data structures, algorithms or how the file system works.

If you are targeting DevOps positions, you should try to show off articles and projects related to that. This can be articles about hyper scaling, automation, continuous integration and deployment or cloud infrastructure. Learn the profession and share your knowledge.

Try to make things that actually works, rather than just posting code. A working website, a mobile app or online service is more convincing than just a pile of code. The code is good for getting to know you as a coder, but the end result shows that it works.

Don’t forget the effect of posting on social media and building a strong profile there. Now I’m not talking about Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat, but sites like LinkedIn, Stack Overflow, GitHub and Medium.

Summary

Ok, that was a lot of information at once, but important nonetheless. I have presented you with a variety of aspects regarding the job application. This will hopefully help you figure out how to stand out from the rest of the crowd. With these tips you should be able to shape your profile into something a prospective employer wants to dig deeper into.

By being active online, building social profiles, posting code and helping people, you will draw positive attention. Being able to express yourself clearly in the cover letter, using rich and appropriate language, also speaks volumes. Employers depend upon workers being able to communicate ideas, needs and documentation in a precise and understandable way.

Use your resumé wisely. Show off your best stuff, the most relevant items, experiences and interests. Build it continuously as you work or study. It takes a lifetime to fill, so start early. Remember to be optimistic, even though you should be realistic as well. Going out on a limb is something quite different from taking a leap of faith.

I’ll leave you with this quote:

The way you personally communicate is 90 per cent of how you will be evaluated by any future employer.
-Kate Reardon via BrainyQuote