Anna Shipman : JFDI

Tips on writing a technical CV

19 July 2015

In the last few years I’ve been more involved in recruitment and seeing a lot of CVs for developer roles has given me some thoughts on what makes a good technical CV. Here are some tips to improve yours.

Make it relevant!

What I want to know when looking at a CV is whether you have the skills I’m looking for, and if not, whether you show the potential to gain them. I want to know what technologies and practices you know, and what you are doing at the moment. Ideally I’d like the two to be related – if I’m hiring for a Ruby developer (we’re not at GDS, we want good developers of any discipline) I want to know if you are going to hit the ground running.

So when you are describing your current or recent roles, make sure you highlight the things you are doing that are relevant to the job that you are trying to get. For example if the job spec asks for experience of leading a team, then make sure there is evidence for this in the description of what you’ve been working on. Use your cover letter or statement of suitability to draw attention to these areas. Make it easy for the hiring manager to see that you tick all the right boxes.

Together a CV and covering letter should leave no doubt that you know what is wanted and that you can provide it.

Address gaps and concerns

When you are reading a CV you notice gaps and short jobs, particularly recently. The good CVs are ones that address these rather than brushing over it. For example, one CV I saw, their most recent employment was two years ago. Had they been unemployed since then? No – they had taken some time out to raise a family. Another one had only been in their present job for three months. Why were they leaving so soon? They covered this in their letter – unfortunately the company was changing direction due to cash-flow problems. That’s fine – some of the best people get made redundant. But if you don’t explain, it invites the reader to wonder if you failed your probation, or if you changed your mind about working there and might change your mind about working here.

View anything like that through the eyes of the recruiter and offer an explanation, rather than attempting to gloss over it.

It’s also worth addressing any gaps in the required skills. In the example above, if you can’t provide evidence of team-leading from work, can you give other evidence, for example from captaining a sports team or running a Brownie pack?

Do what they asked for

Make sure you supply the requested information. In my case, I was reviewing CVs for a job as a developer at GDS. Our process has now changed but at the time our job adverts said that in order to apply, you need to send “a CV, a CV cover letter, and a written statement of suitability explaining how you meet all of the competencies and specialist skills required”.

A very large number of candidates do not include a written statement of suitability. This is an unusual requirement, but in the civil service it is an extremely important one because if you do not demonstrate evidence of the civil service competencies at some point in the process, we are not allowed to employ you.

OK, so this may not seem very relevant if you’re not thinking of applying to the civil service any time soon. But it is. As a developer, you want to demonstrate that you are able to understand users’ requirements, and a good place to start is with what they actually ask for.

Sell yourself

Essentially that’s what your CV is: a document for selling your skills. So make sure it does that. Say what you have done. Don’t say “I was asked to…” or “My team were given the task of…” Instead, make it clear that you actively seek out and take opportunities, rather than just being handed them.

It can be quite hard, as many of us are naturally quite modest, but it’s good to make it clear that you are a self-starter. It’s also worth phrasing things to show what your contribution to a team’s achievements were. I am interested in what your team achieved, but I am not hiring your team, I’m hiring you, and I want to know what you did to help the team reach those goals.

A profile can be useful

One thing that I find quite useful when looking at CVs is a profile at the top. Just a couple of lines that sum up your current role and what you’re looking for. It’s not essential, but it gives me an overview of what I’m going to read below and whether this person is likely to be a good fit for the role.

You don’t have to say everything!

I don’t really need to read four pages listing every job you’ve had since 1999. What I’m interested in is what you can do now. I want the current/most recent job, maybe the one or two before that if you’ve not been at your current place for very long, and if you do a lot of short contract work then maybe a bit more. And then summarise the rest – you just want to show a natural progression.

Similarly, very long lists of technologies are not that useful, particularly if they include things like SVN, Eclipse and Unix. If you are sending your CV to be included in a searchable database, for example for a recruitment consultancy, these will help, but if you are applying for a specific job, it is better to focus on the skills being asked for.

If you’ve worked on a full-stack project, you will have come into contact with a lot of technologies, and if you’re a good developer I don’t doubt you can pick up ones you don’t know quickly. Just concentrate on proving to me that you’re a good developer.

Context is useful

What shape has your experience been? A line summarising what a company’s business is and roughly how big it is is useful. Job titles in tech are very fluid and something like “senior developer” doesn’t mean the same thing from place to place. If you tell me how big the dev team is, then that gives me a bit of context.

And give details. Examples are good. You were a Linux admin; how many servers did you manage? Even better is examples of particular things you did. Don’t just say “I improved performance”, say “the site was experiencing extensive load spikes and I was able to diagnose the cause as X and implement solution Y which led to a reduction of Z%”.

Spend time on the layout

Yes, I know, you’re a developer not a designer. But get a designer to look over it if you can. Grey text, a lot of bold, tiny text – these all make it harder to read. When recruiting for the civil service we read each CV closely even if it is hard to do so, but in the private sector if your CV is too hard to read that might be enough for it to be rejected.

And be aware that it might be printed out.

A word on age

How old you are is irrelevant to how well you can do the job, and since the 2010 Equality Act it is illegal for employers to discriminate on grounds of age. So there is no need to include that extraneous information in your CV. Don’t include your birthdate. You don’t even need to include dates of your formal educational qualifications which would allow people to guess your age. And adjectives like “young” to describe yourself are also odd – you are inviting the recruiter to discriminate. Don’t do it.

In summary: make it easy for them to pick you!

It is much more cost-effective to rule people out at the CV stage than at the interview stage. It will probably take around 20 minutes for one person to look closely at your CV. But if you are invited in for interview, that’s a lot of extra investment of time on the part of the company.

Because we have a fair process in the civil service, you can be sure your CV will be properly reviewed. But the private sector is not bound by such rules. If your application is not great, it’s a much harder sell for the company to make the investment in interviewing you.

Essentially, you want to make it easy for whoever is in charge of hiring to choose your CV, because your CV is so obviously relevant to the role they are hiring for. This does mean that you have to revise your CV and cover letter for every job you apply for, but you should be used to that. You’re a good developer, so you are already prepared to do the hard work to make it simple. Right?

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