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I hope you are all enjoying this beautiful weekend. Over the past few weeks we've received a number of questions about writing resumes and performing well in technical interviews. I thought it best to summarize our advice in a short blog post. Other employers are welcome to contribute.

Resumes
1. Show an interest in the company to which you are applying. Write a cover letter that describes why you are interested in that particular company, and why they should be interested in you. In any relationship (romantic, customer / vendor, employee / employer, etc.), showing that you have invested time in learning about the other party gets you a lot of mileage.
2. Include a profile section at the top of your resume that sums up your experience in a sentence or two. People who screen resumes like candidates who make their jobs easier. I know, because I've screened thousands of resumes for previous employers and customers. If I'm looking for a QA manager for my software company, a resume with a profile at the top that reads, "Quality assurance manager with 10 years of experience in the enterprise software space" is going to get my attention.
3. Don't be sloppy. Ensure your resume has no misspellings or grammatical errors. Get a friend or relative with strong writing skills to review your resume. If you can, get two. This document is the first impression a potential employer will have of you. Many engineers and IT people think this isn't important. I assure you, they are wrong.
4. Don't ramble. Describe each education and job entry with concise, clear language.
5. Sell yourself, but be honest. If you say ".NET expert" or "experienced .NET developer" on your resume, be prepared to answer hard questions about .NET.
6. Its OK to have a two page resume if you really have two pages worth of experience. Employers aren't interested in reading your four page resume unless you are a 247 year old elvish C++ programmer from Rivendell. Summarize.

Interviews
1. An interview is a date. Look good, show interest, do your research and impress.
2. Research, research, research. Learn everything there is to know about the company interviewing you and their technology.
3. If you don't know the answer to an interview question, don't make one up. Simply say, "I don't know, but I'm happy to research the answer." Interviewers don't like people who BS them.
4. Ask intelligent questions about your potential employer at the appropriate time during your interview. Remember that annoying narcissist you dated in college who talked about herself incessantly at every opportunity? Don't be her.

The best way to approach any company is through an introduction from a trusted employee or partner. If you can, network your way into the company. Attending techie events is a good way to get started.

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Comment by Bruce M. Bird on April 28, 2009 at 5:07pm
Hi, Dan.

Excellent blog! Your advice is quite helpful. From time to time, I am responsible for interviewing candidates for positions in academia. You would be absolutely amazed at the number of prospective candidates who simply refuse to follow instructions when applying for a job.

Good first impression versus not-so-good first impression: A cover letter that uses short declarative sentences --in the active voice-- can hit a lot of good "notes". It suggests action. A "can-do" attitude. A "no-nonsense" approach. Conversely, a cover letter that makes excessive use of the words "was" or "were" suggests that the job candidate views the process of writing to be a bit of a "chore". Most jobs involve a certain amount of writing and first impressions are important.

I also like a cover letter that somehow suggests that an interviewee's particular talents and abilities would make for a "good fit" with an employer's needs. If it's expressed in a subtle way, it can be really effective. Whatever an interviewee can do to help establish a "comfort level" with a prospective employer is key.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 28, 2009 at 2:30pm
Laurence A. Lee: My advice: Find a technical niche for yourself, and demonstrate your capabilities. Write technical blogs (even if you're "just learning", blog about it anyway to show the world that you're spending thought on the subject matter). Build up a portfolio; participate in Open Source projects; and give presentations at local Tech Meetups.
This is excellent advice. I was focusing more on the resume and interview (the marketing), but your first order of business is to ensure you are selling a good product (you.) I always tell students to pick a specialization, and become a master of their craft. For example, if you are the best Flex developer on the island, you won't have any trouble finding work. Of course, software frameworks come and go, so you need to stay on top of things, but within an area like UI development the technology stacks share a lot of core concepts and design patterns.

Technical blogs with good beefy posts and contributions to open source projects are huge assets when you are job hunting. Companies that are on the ball specifically look for these things.
Comment by Paul Graydon on April 28, 2009 at 1:37pm
BS gets exposed quickly, but does it get dealt with quickly? In my experience and that of friends, half the time the managers will try and sweep it under the carpet and try to pretend that they didn't goof up really badly, even when the individuals employed were way below par and obviously bluffed their way through the interview. After all, everyone knows with that kind of poor manager their ego is more important than the department or corporate performance :)
In the past I've had the lovely job of training such staff too :-/ I don't expect to have to teach someone who says they've been a Solaris admin for 5 years basic commands like "kill", "grep" or "ps", let alone how to start and stop processes!

If you go to work for a tech company I'd generally expect it to be a lot harder, but if you go work for a joe blogs small - medium sized company pounds for pennies you'll end up being interviewed by someone non-technical and you can bluff away to your hearts content.
Comment by Lance Furuyama on April 28, 2009 at 7:56am
"Laurence A. Lee:
And finally, Dan's Point #3 is spot on: Never ever EVER bullshit your way through an answer for the sake of "sounding good" in an interview. As much as we like to ask tough questions to see how far your capabilities stretch, we much prefer to see how you respond when you don't know the answer."


That is one thing that we try to emphasize with our students that are looking for work. Technology is one place that BS gets exposed very quickly.
Comment by Laurence A. Lee on April 27, 2009 at 6:56pm
Everyone oversells themselves in resumes, so be prepared for tough questions in a Technical Interview. It goes both ways, though -- if you DON'T get the low-level Engineers throwing a few good technical questions at you, that's a good indication that the company may not be worth your time. As a new-hire, there's nothing more exasperating (IMHO) than working under a Lead Engineer who can't teach you anything new.

Certifications are also excellent ways to put yourself above and beyond the competition; but keep in mind they only take you so far. The world doesn't pay you for what you know; it pays for what you do with what you know.

My advice: Find a technical niche for yourself, and demonstrate your capabilities. Write technical blogs (even if you're "just learning", blog about it anyway to show the world that you're spending thought on the subject matter). Build up a portfolio; participate in Open Source projects; and give presentations at local Tech Meetups.

The more visible and reputable you are within the programming circles you want to work with, the more likely you'll just be offered a position when someone has a need. If you're willing to relocate, that makes your job search all the more easier.

By far, the best way to get a job is to avoid mass-advertised jobs where you're just a number, and your resume is compared against a checklist of bullet-points by an HR drone. Find an inside route, if possible. Network with leaders of companies who may be hiring in the near future. If you impress the right insiders, they might vouch for you. Never understimate how much pull an insider's recommendation has within a company's hiring process. :-)

And finally, Dan's Point #3 is spot on: Never ever EVER bullshit your way through an answer for the sake of "sounding good" in an interview. As much as we like to ask tough questions to see how far your capabilities stretch, we much prefer to see how you respond when you don't know the answer.
Comment by Seth Ladd on April 26, 2009 at 8:31pm
Dan,

Great advice! If the person I am interviewing has no idea about the company or the position, they are immediately written off.

Also, send a snail mail thank you note after you interview. That scores major points and shows you care.

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