I read a lot of CVs. A lot.

Most of them are terrible, eye-watering, piles of shite. This post is a guide on how to write a decent tech CV. I review and interview software engineers mostly, so this post will be focussed on that kind of CV, but there should be something useful for anyone wanting tips on writing a technical CV.

Formatting

First an apology – all CVs I get are first triaged by my lizard brain, this means that I’ll make a judgement about you without even reading anything on the CV. This is unforgivable, but also, unavoidable. First impressions are important, so please make sure that your CV is legible, sensibly laid out and, above all, not in comic sans.

There are some creative, wacky and alarming CVs. You’ll need yours to stand apart from a plethora of other, similarly written CVs. Spend some time thinking about what you want me to know about you and how you want to come across. I hire for culture rather than a set of specific skills, make your personality shine through your CV.

I’m usually not the only one to read the CVs. I’ll pass it to others in my team (lead and senior devs) and, if you’re in engineering you’ll know this already, some engineers can be very cynical – so, get a good balance of great presentation and content. It’s a challenge, definitely, but I want to be able to get a good idea of who you are from your CV, as well as what you can do.

Ratings

While on the subject of formatting, some people give themselves star ratings on their CV, or marks out of five or 10. Please don’t do this. If you give yourself five out of five, or five stars, you are telling me that you are absolutely perfect at whatever you’ve rated yourself on. This is rarely true and, if it was, I’d be contacting you to work with me, not the other way around.

I will bring you in for an interview just for fun, to watch you squirm (well, I won’t, but my engineers will – they’ll enjoy watching you squirm under the intense laser beam of knowledge of bleeding-edge features that only a five star engineer would know).

What to put in your CV

So, we get to the content. Broadly speaking, I want to know what tools/languages you know and use well and what kind of problems you have solved with them, and how.

Summary/Description/Personal Statement

I’ve never seen one of these that was any good. Mostly it’s fluffy bullshit that I don’t need to know. Words like “hard working”, “trustworthy”, “mature”, “team player”, “versatile”, “creative” and “hands-on” are almost entirely useless. I will assume you are these things because, without them, it would be hard to hold down a job. They are “permission to play” virtues. This is a good summary paragraph:

With a strong focus on innovation, research and development of challenging solutions, I’m a firm believer in using the right tool for the job.

ONE list of languages/tools/technologies

Put a brief list (10 – 15 items long) of tools/technologies you’ve worked with that you know well. If you put PHP or JAVA on your CV, I’ll know that you can do python, ruby or any other similar language – I don’t need to know you wrote a python script to sync your flickr photos a couple of years ago. I want to know CORE language skills and tools and I can work out the rest based on what you put in the rest of your CV. If they match the ones I’m looking for you stand a better chance of landing an interview. Huge lists make me think you’re a fraud or a liar (or both), unless your job history is long and varied and I can see evidence of a history that would allow for that many tools to be learnt in depth.

Huge lists of tools and tech are usually for the benefit of lazy recruiters who simply search CVs for keywords. If you really must put all your languages on a CV, then put them at the end so I can safely ignore them. Knowing what and what kind of language you’re most comfortable in is more useful to me that knowing how many languages you’ve read about.

Things you’ve done, not technologies you’ve worked with

Now you’ve added the list of things you can do to your CV, you can stop worrying about stuffing each and every position with the technologies you used there. What I really want to see under each position is the problems you solved and how you solved them. I cannot stress how important this kind of information is. If I see this on your CV you will be 90% of the way through the door because it usually shows that you’re agnostic to your choice of tools – the problem will dictate the tool, not the other way around.

For example, something like this will get me excited:

Company Inc – July 2010 – Jan 2011
At Company INC, we were asked to make the search functionality on the site faster and more accurate. Our search requirements were unique enough to not allow us to buy search from a 3rd party. After some research and prototyping, we settled on using Hadoop to allow distributing the keyword mining across clusters – something that we found MySQL wasn’t very good at for our needs.

This shows that you can think about a problem without worrying about tools. it also gives us something interesting to talk about in your interview.

Something like this will cause me to be sad:

Company Inc – July 2010 – Jan 2011
Hadoop, MySQL, scrum, PHP, kanban, javascript, jquery, angular, java, bananas, apples, pears, BBC, RAC, RACI. Built search engine from scratch with PHP and MySQL. Completed objectives. General maintenance of platform including x, y and z.

It’s not that this is a terrible way of representing your work at Company Inc. It just doesn’t give me any clues as to how you went about solving problems.

Accurate dates and explicit sabbaticals

Pay attention to the dates you put on your CV for the periods of time you held the positions. If positions overlap, it throws up a red flag for me – either there was some reason for the overlap, or your attention to detail sucks. I’m going to go with the latter because I don’t really know why you would have overlapping positions. The only exception to this is if you’re running your own company while working somewhere else, or you’re a contractor. If you’re a contractor, make that explicit in the position title.

If there’s a gap in your employment, it doesn’t alarm me, but it would be interesting to know what you’d done. Perhaps you’d gone to Tibet to train to be a monk, or taken three months off to learn a new skill – either way, it will help to add to the overall picture I have of you and where you might fit into my organisation.

Some prefer to see “solidity” in a job history – so, loyalty to a company, staying around for three or four years. I don’t. I’m aware that people do “tours of duty” now and loyalty is something that works both ways. Thats said, five jobs of 2 months each on a CV would ring some alarm bells (unless they were contract jobs).

URLs

There’s some contention over this; some people say you should add URLs to things and some people say you shouldn’t. To be clear, I don’t want your FaceBook URL, I want your Github (or bitbucket etc) URL and your blog, that should tell me what I need to know about you. If you contribute to any software, throw that one in too.

Adding URLs to websites you’ve worked on is OK, if you tell me what you did on the site. Just a URL on its own doesn’t tell me much, but something like: http://www.somecompany.inc (worked on the search and the three homepage widgets) is useful.

Interests

Yes, I do want to see this. If you put “visiting parks and gardens, bird watching and making iced cakes” it tells me a tiny bit about you and, like the MBTI assessment, helps me understand what team you might end up. It probably won’t be with the “play epic WoW sessions, pheasant shooting and gluten free savoury buns” guy (or it might be, depends on the rest of the team).

What you aspire to (optional)

(This is optional, because you may not have any aspirations, or any aspirations that are further than getting a job at my company). Do you want to run your own department or team? Does your future lie in management, architecture or systems? Adding this kind of detail allows me to see where you might fit and what kind of career path you may have. I need to work out where you will a) provide the most value and b) get the most value. I know that you’re interviewing us to and if I can help you understand how a role with my company might positively affect your career, you’re more likely to want the job.

Tailoring your CV

If you get an interview, you’ll more than likely want to research the company so you can ask questions and understand what it is you’re trying for before you get there. Why not get ahead of the game and do it before you even send your CV? Spend some time researching my company, my website it’s problems, the stack we use and anything else you can find, then tailor your CV to match. If you know Java, PHP, Scala and Ruby very well, but find that we do Java and PHP only, then put those first on the CV. Offer the problems you solved with PHP and Java over those with Scala and Ruby (that’s not to say you shouldn’t put the latter on your CV, only that you should favour the former).

Psychologically speaking, this works well.

Summary

Your CV is usually the first point of contact I will have with you. It needs to make a good first impression and, while I am able to sort wheat from chaff, it makes it easier for me if you’ve done the hard work for me. If I have to decode three terrible CVs only to find each candidate was useless, then I get to your CV (and, in fact, you’re amazing), my threshold to decode shit CVs is lowered and you’re may just go in the bin because I’ve had enough.

I want to know what problems you’ve solved and how. I want to know what tools/technologies you’re great at. I want to understand your work history.

I want to get to know you a bit – think of it like online dating and try and woo me with your true self.

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