A new influx of recruiter spam plopping into my inbox this afternoon prompted me to write a post I’ve been meaning to put together for a few months: a collection of my top tips for completing the job-hunting process with as little pain as possible.
This article ended up becoming a bit of a beast, so I’ve split it into sections which I’ll post daily for the next few days until - like a strange, informative illness - I’ve got it all out of my system. UPDATE: You can find the second part of the article here, and the third and final part here. Enjoy!
I decided to look for the next step in my fledgling IT career about five months ago - moving from freelance and contract web development work back into a permanent role. At the time the overall job market was pretty depressed - more so than now, I’d bet - but against general expectations I managed to run the whole gauntlet - CV posting, opportunity consideration, employer negotiation and finally contract signing - in exactly ten days. The job I ended up with kicks massive amounts of ass, so I’d say that for me the process was a pretty successful one. The job market is still hurting, but there’s still plenty out there if you’re willing to put the legwork in to find it.
It was the first time I’d had to perform a proper “cold” job hunt (i.e. going into the market with no existing contacts or proffered openings), and it was equal parts terrifying, exhilarating and fascinating. I got a real sense for how the market works, but wasted a lot of time on shit that didn’t matter - time-sinks to which I’d be keen to alert future job-seekers. Thus this article, in which I’ll attempt to pass on the knowledge that I gained in the hope of helping anyone else thinking of looking for a new job in the near future.
The advice that follows is fairly biased toward the IT industry, which I realise is a somewhat privileged position to be in as far as industries and their recruitment processes go. It is, however, the only industry with which I am familiar enough to want to pass comment, though I’ll do my best to cover as much in the way of general advice too.
Before you start: An often overlooked part of the job hunt comes before the hunt actually begins. It may sound like stating the obvious, but you should know what you want to do, and the sort of company for whom you want to do it. A lot of people miss this part out, instead subconsciously deferring these decisions to be made later when they evaluate incoming job offers.
Knowing these two things up front will save you a lot of wasted time, as it’s the best thing you can do to help narrow your search and screen out irrelevant stuff. If you have the luxury of being able to move into possible roles in multiple areas, draw up a chart of their relationships and evaluate the pros and cons of each. Decide too what sort of company you want to work for - do you want to go the corporate route, the startup, the SME or something in-between? Public or private sector? And whereabouts, geographically - would you consider relocating for the right job, or do you want something local to where you are now?
CV preparation: Unless you’re known in your industry by name, your job hunt will likely begin with the construction of a CV. Known as a résumé to our friends across the pond, your CV is an enumeration of your relevant personal details, current qualifications, skills, and career thus far. It is usually the first thing of substance that a potential employer will see of you - if a recruiter is involved, they’ll pass on a couple of breathless, glowing sentences regarding your suitability, then send over your CV (there may be a covering letter, but I’ll get to that later).
Books have been written on the subject of CV writing alone, but most of this advice is common sense, so I’ll try to keep it short… ish. Your CV needs to be a polished, perfected piece of work. If this is your first time job-hunting, you’ll likely agonise over it more than any other document you’ve ever written up to this point. You’ll also come across a lot of conflicting advice regarding level of detail, language and so on. I won’t attempt to argue with this stuff as it depends a great deal on the situation. I can only relate from my experience.
My advice on CV writing is thus, in no particular order. Put your contact details at the very top of the document - include email address (more on that shortly), telephone number, and location (you don’t need to provide a full address). Start with a concise, well-written introductory paragraph of a few sentences summarising your situation and what you are looking for. List your education back to GCSE level (or equivalent, for non-UK readers); you don’t need to provide grades, with the possible exception of your degree classification where applicable.
List your career back as far as is relevant (in my case I stopped at my first “proper” part-time job, as a barman, aged 18). Provide descriptions of the roles you held, the dates you held them, and the skills you were required to exercise in doing so. If there are gaps in the dates, be prepared to explain why. For the last position (or two, depending on how recent) you should provide details of someone who can be contacted to provide a reference, e.g. your manager. Enumerate your skills in as much detail as you feel is necessary. Include skills that might not be fundamental to the role but that show your well-roundedness and adaptability.
Include a short section on other achievements, where you can detail “extra-curricular” successes you have enjoyed in recent years (e.g. ran the London Marathon; had photography featured in a national magazine; released a piece of open-source software). This helps to illustrate your life outside of work. Also include a brief list of your interests, and try to make them sound interesting! Everyone likes socialising and watching films. Try to add a little spice.
Overall, represent yourself as fully and as positively as possible without descending into bullshit. Avoid buzzwords if at all possible. Remember the differing esteem in which CVs are held - Jason Fried of 37signals, for example, rightly points out that they usually “reduce people to bullet points, and most people look pretty good as bullet points.” Any indication that you’re being economical with the truth, and most potential employers will lose interest.
In terms of presentation, your CV should rock. I’ve seen far too many examples in my very limited experience that weren’t spellchecked, used shitty desktop-publisher templates, nauseating standard typefaces, or were laid out with all the imagination of a brown paper bag. There are thousands of examples of good CV design online, so off you go. If you’re applying for a design-related role, your CV should reflect your design skills. This article contains a few interesting examples of that, though I think for the most part they’re a bit over-the-top. I did, however, gain some inspiration from them for representing some of my details in novel ways.
You may want to prepare a couple of different versions depending on the sort of roles you’ll be putting yourself forward for. I prepared a standard textual version of my CV as well as a flashy graphical one as a bit of fun, and sent both to the company that ended up hiring me.
Save your completed CV in both DOC and PDF formats, and make sure the formatting holds up in the DOC version (if you’re on a Mac, make sure you test it on a Windows machine). Most recruiters use the DOC format in their internal systems, and we’re all poorer for it. I’ll talk a little more about this in the section on recruiters later.
When including your personal details, use a proper, professional-looking email address. This means, at bare minimum, firstname.lastname@example.org. Ideally, register your own domain name (with your name in it) and use an address with that. These details may seem trivial, but decisions may rest on email@example.com vs. firstname.lastname@example.org. It hardly costs anything, and it adds to your appearance as a pro.
With that in mind, I strongly recommend creating/registering a new email address for the purposes of your job hunt. Inevitably you’ll end up getting spam when your search is long over, and having that kept separate from your day-to-day account is a blessing. I ended up creating all my job site accounts using a new address, and putting my “real” address on the CV itself - that way I could tell which recruiters had actually read it, according to the address on which they reached me.
Finally, get someone sensible to review your CV before you start sending it around. Another pair of eyes will likely catch any mistakes, as well as being able to provide a bit of advice. If you’ve a parent or friend familiar with such things, corral them into lending a hand. Your current boss is probably not the best candidate for this part.
Having not really intended to write a whole post about CVs, I’ve ended up accidentally doing so. Whoops! Tune in tomorrow for the next part of this series, which will discuss cover letters; the “hunting” part of the job-hunting process; and so much more.