I’ve read thousands of resumes and CVs during my 3+ years as a hiring manager at a high-growth tech startup.
It’s the same at many companies:
Most applications land in the bin at the stage where your resume or CV is all the company knows about you.
The reason for this is more or less mathematical: It’s simply impossible to speak to every single applicant. The time of hiring managers, tech recruiters, and everyone involved in any given hiring process is finite.
Popular roles can receive hundreds or thousands of candidates.
To top it off, companies are pretty much never recruiting for one role at a time. Hiring managers and tech recruiters are usually juggling numerous roles simultaneously. Hiring managers will have their own roles to fill, and may be involved in hiring processes of other managers as well.
That’s why it’s so important for your application to stand out amid the masses.
Luckily, it’s not that hard to do.
You can stand out simply by avoid a few painfully common mistakes, and learning a bit about how hiring processes actually work from the perspective of an employer.
Read on for tips on standing out with your resume in the competitive developer job market.
My experience as a hiring manager
Just to give you a quick idea about my background, which you’re welcome to skip if you don’t care (hey, some people will take advice from anyone on the internet, you do you).
I’m an American software engineer and former hiring manager, based in Berlin, Germany. There are a couple of unique aspects to this, such as dealing with visas, immigration guidelines, and working in an international environment – all of which can impact the best way to put together a CV. I won’t cover that in this blog post, but feel free to let me know on Twitter (@monicalent) if you’d like CV tips specifically for applying for tech jobs in Germany.
Here’s how I’ve been involved with hiring processes:
I’ve done evaluations of candidates at all steps of a typical hiring process, from recruitment, job fairs, and cold outreach, to CV/resume screening and technical interviews, cultural fit interviews, salary negotiation, and everything in between. I’ve hired just about every level of individual contributor role, ranging from juniors and interns to senior engineers, across the tech stack. I’ve also interviewed engineering managers and VPs though that’s less relevant to this article.
During that time, I worked either independently as a hiring manager managing my own hiring process end-to-end, or in tandem with a technical recruiter. I have experience working with both in-house recruitment teams and outsourced recruitment agencies.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the tips 🚀
Disclaimer: This blog post represents my opinions, not those of any employer I’ve had, past or present. I will use this disclaimer to be able to give you my more or less unfiltered opinion on how to practically fix your developer resume or CV so you make it to the next stage.
Thanks to Steven, Carolyn, Christian, and Agnes for feedback on this post.
7 Software developer resume tips to help you stand out
For the purpose of this post, I’ll be using “resume” and “CV” interchangeably.
Here in Germany, it’s perfectly acceptable to submit a multi-page CV for an application (so long as it’s not full of fluff), whereas in the United States you may be expected to fit everything on one page.
It doesn’t really matter with regards to these tips, because the most important information should be on the first page anyways 😉
1. For the love of God, use a spell checker
Anecdotally, I can tell you that having a CV with proper spelling and decent grammar will make you stand out from 90% of candidates who don’t.
Now, I’m not talking about the kinds of minor English mistakes which are common with people who speak English as a second language. That’s just the reality of working in an international environment, and it’s not a deal breaker whatsoever. Frankly I’ve seen native speakers with as many or more errors than non-native speakers.
Avoiding typos and grammatical mistakes might sound trivial, but get this:
An analysis by Interviewing.io, a hiring platform for engineers, found that “typos and grammatical errors matter more than anything else” with regards to the success of a candidate.
But that analysis wasn’t just about passing the preliminary CV screening.
Lack of typos and grammatical errors were the leading indicator that a candidate gets a job offer.
Why do you think that is?
It’s probably not because final hiring decisions are made based on a vague memory of the candidate’s immaculate, typo-free CV.
My personal hypothesis is that having a CV without typos and grammatical mistakes is a byproduct of the candidate paying attention to details and having good communication skills.
Of all the tips on this list, this one is probably the easiest to implement.
Solution: Ask a friend (or two) to proofread
Besides getting your bff Clippy (or Grammarly) to help you fix typos and spelling mistakes, try reading your CV out loud or asking a friend to proofread it and tell you if it makes sense.
Sometimes when you spend hours working on something, it’s easy to become blind to mistakes because your brain fills in the gaps subconsciously.
Making sure you don’t have typos or grammatical errors in your CV is some of the best time you can spend working on it.
2. Make your resume concise and easy to scan
Remember how I said that hiring managers and technical recruiters don’t have a lot of time?
That means it’s your job to make it dead simple to figure out whether you’re a potential fit for the role after about 5-7 seconds of reading your CV.
You read me right. That’s how long a recruiter typically spends reading a CV according to an eye-tracking study.
If you look like a potential match, they might spend a little longer looking at your projects, checking out your website, and trying to understand better how you might fit into the existing team.
If you have long paragraphs with information buried in there, there’s a good chance it’ll get passed over by mistake. Keep your sentences short, simple, direct, and easy to scan.
From the first 5 seconds, a recruiter or hiring manager should be able to figure out:
- How much practical, professional experience do you have?
- What technologies are you the most comfortable with?
- What exactly did you do in your most recent role?
- Do you match the requirements of the job position being advertised?
Skilled recruiters can and will assess this in a very short amount of time.
Tips for making your resume easy to scan
Use bullet points when possible. The simplest thing I can propose to you is to stick with bullet points when possible, and keeping those sentences really short (no more than 2 lines of text).
Mind the maximum width for readability. Bullet points won’t help if the width of your paragraphs or lists are too wide. 70-75 characters is the maximum.
Use active voice and simple grammar. Be direct and concise. Talk about the impact. Make it straightforward to figure out what you actually did (or are doing) at your latest job.
Use bold text to offset important information. See how I’m doing that in this blog post? You can do that on your CV. One way I’ve personally done this is to include the technologies I actively used below the bullet point summary of my responsibilities in a certain position.
Skills and technologies: Angular.js, Koa.js, Webpack, Karma, Protractor
3. Don’t list every single technology you’ve ever touched
Speaking of being concise, you know what’s not concise?
A gigantic, comma-separated list of every single technology you’ve ever heard of.
Some people might tell you that this is how you get past “algorithms” that look for a specific technology in your resume.
I don’t know how true that is, but I can tell you that once a human looks at it, it comes across like you lack depth in any field, preferring to dabble in a bit of everything.
Even if that’s not true, guess what?
Recruiters and hiring managers don’t have time to figure out whether one of those 50 technologies on your CV is something you’re competent with.
If they’re desperate, you might get an email back asking for a phone screen. If you’re lucky, they might go searching your GitHub account to try to figure out which technologies you’re actually proficient in.
But if they have dozens of other candidates with more focused resumes, your application will end up in the bin.
Solution: List technologies you’re comfortable discussing in an interview
Stick to a smaller number of technologies you’d be comfortable working with.
If you feel it’s important to list technologies you’ve been exposed to (let’s say you’re a junior dev or early in your career), you can denote which ones you are proficient in and which you’ve used passively. For example:
Familiar: Rollup, Redis, and Jenkins
But please, limit the number of technologies. No one expects you to be an expert in a dozen technologies.
Make it clear what you know well, so they can ask you relevant questions and you can sound smart (and feel comfortable) in a phone screen.
Questions can come up on just about anything on your CV, even if it’s not immediately related to job you’re applying for.
4. Actually read the job description. Then prove that you did.
You’d be surprised how many applications leave a recruiter or hiring manager wondering:
“Did this person read the job ad?”
There are three main possibilities that come to mind for how this can happen:
- You’re looking to switch your focus from whatever’s currently on your CV
- You don’t understand the role being advertised and aren’t a fit for the role
- You actually didn’t read the job ad
It doesn’t really matter which one of these it is. If you send in an “irrelevant” resume for a job, and don’t include any context, it’s usually the end of the road.
Again, you can’t forget that you may be 1 of hundreds or thousands of candidates, and this post is about how to stand out.
In a sea of applicants, they may not have the time or capacity to follow up and ask you why exactly you thought you were a fit for the role.
Solution: Do some light customization of your application for the role
If you’re in the position where you’re looking to shift from one tech stack to another, make that clear in your application. Mention your desire to change, and the steps you’ve taken to learn the new skills required (a link to a GitHub repository would be helpful).
Otherwise, if you’ve done your research, move on to the next tip about how to make it clearer that you’ve read the job description and done the tiniest bit of research about the company you’re applying for.
Last but not least, visit the company’s website and go into the interview with a basic understanding of what they do.
5. Write a customized cover letter
Even if you think you have a highly relevant CV, you should still consider writing a cover letter. It doesn’t have to be long, but it can only increase your chances of passing the CV screening phase.
I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it’s true:
Companies you’re applying for want to feel a little bit special. Like if they were to offer you a job, there’s a good chance you’d actually accept it.
Why? Well, because interviewing just one person takes hours of people’s time! And why should they invest hours in scheduling, interviewing, and discussing your application if you’re just as likely to accept any other position?
You will stand out if you have a coherent cover letter that demonstrates you’ve read the job ad and the website.
It doesn’t have to be long, either. In fact, it shouldn’t be long, because ain’t nobody got time to read a super long cover letter. Just don’t forget to spell check 😉
Tip: Basic elements of a cover letter for a developer role
Cover letters are extremely useful for standing out as a candidate for a number of reasons. Here’s a quick checklist of things you should demonstrate in your cover letter:
- Show off your good communication skills
- Demonstrate an understanding of the role
- Briefly explain your qualifications and why you think you’re a good fit
- Mention the company name
- Demonstrate that you read the company’s website
Bonus tip: Attach the cover letter as a PDF
It’s just easier to read than pretty much any text format that could be typed into a web interface. Again, optimizing for ease of reading.
Note: Some companies may not find the cover letter useful or even read them. This can vary based on the role – for a typical dev job, perhaps not. But for highly competitive junior roles or very senior roles, your motivation is relevant. In the end, a cover letter will never hurt you, and has the possibility to help you stand out.
6. Make it easy to find your work
Not everyone has time (or desire) to code for hours after work. Frankly, I don’t spend any more time coding than I need to.
But if you’re early in your career or looking to make a career switch, it is extremely important to have something to share besides a CV with a couple of buzzwords on it.
But even more important than having it: MAKE IT EASY TO FIND.
I can’t tell you how much effort I’ve put into searching for people’s GitHub accounts, copy-pasting URLs with typos in them, all to try and find a reason to pass the person to the next stage of the process.
But a lot of CVs don’t make that easy!
If you’ve put in the effort to have any openly available code, blog posts, a website, or anything public at all – make it easy to access.
Solution: Hyperlinks to blog posts, GitHub repos, your website, etc.
This seems basic, but learn how to make your PDF resume or CV actually hyperlink to a website. Go through all the links and actually click on them to make sure they aren’t broken!
Remember: recruiters and managers have a limited amount of time. The easier you can make it for them to see what you can do, the faster they can pass you to the next round 👍🏼
7. Focus on projects and results over formal education
I’m going to preface this with the disclaimer that it’s totally possible there are recruiters or managers who may have a preference for graduates from a specific school.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t mention your degree or education.
Especially when applying for jobs in another country where your education may be a key factor in helping you land a work visa.
But in my experience, junior developers or developers early in their career tend to over-emphasize their education instead of practical, hands-on projects that demonstrate coding ability.
For example, here’s a grand list of things that don’t tell me if you can code well:
- The grades or GPA you got in school
- Which school you attended, or what you studied
- What your class rank was
- Which bootcamp you attended
- That you attended a bootcamp at all
- Pretty much anything related to formal education
It’s not that those things don’t matter at all. But they are a very weak indicator of whether you’re actually good at writing software. If you’ve sat in on pretty much any Computer Science class, you might notice that having a CS degree does not indicate ability to program.
Beyond that, the market has become flooded with bootcamp graduates at all levels of skill. Just like having a degree, it doesn’t speak for itself whether you learned how to code.
Solution: Focus on what you’ve built and its business impact
This can come in a number of forms. Working code is always great, but a well-written blog post or even just a concise and clear explanation on your CV is usually sufficient.
You can use some popular formulas to express your impact:
- Built (project, feature) in order to (achieve something) using (technologies).
- Increased (metric) by (amount) through (technical implementation).
- Integrated (technologies) by (strategy) in order to (outcome).
Be specific, and avoid including points where it’s not clear whether you accomplished them yourself or passively participated in a process.
At the same time, be truthful about your role, responsibilities, and title. Don’t exaggerate. Being untruthful during the process is one of the quickest ways to get disqualified from a position.
Last point on describing your experience: while side projects and initiatives are great, they are mostly there as a supplement – not a replacement – for your accomplishments in your current role.
What tips would you give to developers looking for a job today?
👋 This post has been cookin' for a while, and I figured it's a good time to share.— Monica Lent (@monicalent) April 21, 2020
Whether you're on the market for your next dev job or thinking of polishing that resume "just in case", these tips are for you.https://t.co/BbzriSw9B7
I’d love to hear your feedback, and if you have more tips you think I should include! Let me know on Twitter @monicalent.