How to write the best resume and cover letter for a computer programmer
March 14, 2007 6:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm a computer programmer looking for a new job. What are some tips for writing the best resume and cover letter possible?

Hiring managers and HR folk - What do you look for in a resume and cover letter?

Programmers/software engineers/IT people - What has worked best for you?

What are some good general guidelines for writng resumes and cover letters?

What are some guidelines that are specific to programmers?

Do you know of some good templates that I could follow?

Are there businesses that will help you write your resume?
Are they worth the money? Can you recommend any in the NYC/New Jersey/PA/CT area?

If you started out in a junior position, and then worked your way up to a higher position, how do you list your accomplishments at the company? Split them between the two positions, or merge them into one entry?
posted by Battlecat to Work & Money (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Tune your resume and cover letter to the job ad/company. Point out how your experience will work for the job you're applying for. I can spot a generic cover from a mile away and it says, "I don't care."

Don't BS about technical skills - you will be caught or you will be hired by incompetent boobs.

Tell me a few things that show me a little breadth beyond work experience.

Spell check.
posted by plinth at 6:56 AM on March 14, 2007

I don't know if we're atypical, but at my company, we won't hire a programmer without seeing a code sample. We want to see clean, well-commented code that solves a complex problem.
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 AM on March 14, 2007

From the employee POV: I have no idea what works. I've had four jobs in 10 years and each hired me in a different way, including the canonical "send in a resume and be chosen from a list of candidates" to the usual semi-nepotism of having a relative on the inside.

From the employer POV: When I was looking for programmers to hire, I was looking for someone who was qualified enough but not too qualified. (It was a drudgery programming reports type position, so I didn't want MIT grads on the top end who would get bored, but neither did I want community college morans who had a demonstrated inability to program themselves out of a paper bag.)

The resumes and cover letters that (probably) most impressed me were targetted but not oversold. Like, make sure to list relevant skills/responsibilities on your resume for each place you send it to (if this can be determined and done truthfully), but don't gush in the cover letter about how OMG THIS IS A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN!!1

But of course I'm not doing the hiring for you and these rules were clearly not in effect in at least some of the circumstances when I myself was hired, so....
posted by DU at 7:09 AM on March 14, 2007

Most important is to actually get the application right the first time. If they ask for cover letter, resume, and code sample, send a cover letter, resume, and code sample.

We are hiring interns now and 80% of applications miss something. It is sad but those who are capable of following directions stand out.

Provide as much info as you can in the space provided. Saying "ASP.NET" is less useful than saying "wrote, documented, and performed unit tests on an ASP.NET web application for displaying customer order information." While it might seem silly, the second example tells me that you didn't just cover it in class, you actually did something with it.
posted by mrbugsentry at 7:19 AM on March 14, 2007

It is sad but those who are capable of following directions stand out.

What's sad is that people don't follow directions.

I placed an ad asking for Actionscript programmers based in NYC. After which I got blitzed by emails from programmers who don't know Actionscript, don't live (or intend to move to) NYC or both. It's a small world and I keep everything on file. If a friend asked me my opinion on one of these guys, the first thing I'd say is that he can't follow directions.

The copy/paste-my-resume-into-a-zillion-emails approach is stupid. You really should tailer your info to each specific job. Everyone we've hired has done that.
posted by grumblebee at 7:28 AM on March 14, 2007

I'm with Rands: cover letters are wastes of time. Boilerplate bullshit that the best environments probably won't care about.

Take a read:

A Glimpse and a Hook.
posted by Mikey-San at 7:30 AM on March 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

As an employer, it'd impress me a lot more if an applicant sent me a URL to his own attractive personal portfolio site with plenty of samples, foregoing the whole fax-resume-coverletter ritual. If there's time, maybe a blog too with thoughts on coding, ideas for solutions, etc?
posted by deern the headlice at 7:42 AM on March 14, 2007

Seconding plinth. For any job you care about - which ideally would be by any job you're applying for - it's worth it to edit your resume and edit or rewrite your cover letter for that specific employer and position. Nothing is more pointless than sending a resume full of half-relevant experience and skills.

As for cover letters, I have to disagree with Mikey-San and his Rands link. I always read them, to get a feel for the style and personality of the applicant.
posted by pocams at 7:48 AM on March 14, 2007

I can see two major problems with what has been said (and linked to) so far (and without preview).. First, if you try, you might succeed, if you don't try, you have already failed. I hate that logic, but it is true. Also, it is very hard to predict whether your application will be screened by HR, technical people, or a computer. They will each read applications very differently from the others.

On top of that, various people are going to give contradicting advice while saying "always do this, never do that", you can't win. Finally, any sensible person knows that when it comes to specific detail qualifications, like actionscript programming, or whatever else, any competent engineer is going to learn more in the first six months on the actual job than five years of apparently relevant experience - as read from a job application - is likely to yield.

It is a broken system, unless you want to get all post modern about it - the corporate system has learned to filter for people who will fill rolls in the corporate system, and all that. Just concentrate on the basics, like prominently place messages you want to convey, provide all the basic information, keep it organized and legible. And, find ways to put an active and optimistic spin on everything you write, because people are emotional.
posted by Chuckles at 9:44 AM on March 14, 2007

Don't just tell me what languages you're proficient in—show me.

Someone had a PDF-based resume, but included a URL that had all sorts of code samples for each of his languages, all of which appeared to be genuinely his.

Some people/organizations will force you to only submit DOC or PDF attachments or some such, which is fine, but for smaller groups, they'll want to see your code, they'll want to know you're not a douche, they'll want to know you're honest and they'll want to see more of your code.

Those who listed projects they've worked on, and their contributions to them, with a little bit of detail were very valuable, including and perhaps especially personal projects. It showed us that you have an interest in coding and computers outside of the simple 9-5, and that's something we considered to be pretty important.
posted by disillusioned at 10:35 AM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a technical lead that's been doing interviews, I have a few thoughts. I don't how relevant they are to the industry at large, but I can at least share my pet peeves - which are generally shared by the others I work with. They aren't things that'll keep me from bringing someone in for an in-person, but they give me a bad first impression.

Also note that this is from a developer who does interviews, not an HR person or hiring manager. All I do is give up or down recommendations based on technical merit and community fit.

-Keep it short. A page or two is sufficient, even if you've been in the industry for years. We don't need a third of a page about a project you worked on 10 years ago.

-For the love of god, don't say you're a senior lead architect. EVERYONE says they're some combination of those words, and it drives me crazy. It also makes me think you have an ego and don't really want to write code.

-Don't get too buzzwordy. I love mocking the word "enterprise" and anyone that can say it with a straight face.

-If you list a skill, know it. The number of people who say they are "experts" at C# but don't know what 'sealed' means and don't understand garbage collection is staggering. And someone who put "UML 2.0" couldn't draw a sequence diagram.

-And, beyond the resume: in an interview, don't bullshit. If you don't know something, say so. Giving a best guess based on your understanding is okay, but make sure the interviewer knows that's what you're doing. Nothing ends an interview around here faster than bullshitting. Hopefully most places are involving a technically competent person in the process, and if you can bullshit your way past them, do you really want to work there?
posted by flaterik at 2:14 PM on March 14, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for your help, all. Hard to mark a best answer, since it was good advice all around.
posted by Battlecat at 10:45 PM on March 14, 2007

If what is written on your resume can be written by the person who did the job, before, with, or after you, then you haven’t done yourself justice. Resumes need to be infused with numbers, data, records, and accomplishments. These quantifiable and measurable details will dramatically improve your resume. When listing your accomplishments, think about the following:
• How was the organization/department better as a result of YOUR involvement?
• What did YOU specifically accomplish?
• How did YOU do it differently than the person before, after, or next to you?
• Were YOU ever singled out for superior work?
• Use facts and figures whenever possible.
When you’re putting together your resume, think about the projects and ventures that you undertook that you are particularly proud of. These are the components and the essence of a great resume.

Cover Letters
Most recruiting directors don't want to read a prose version of your resume. Make it fun, short, and compelling. Think of it as a teaser ad for your resume. for more advice.

Good luck!
posted by JobBound at 7:41 AM on March 19, 2007

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