Looking For A Job?

Looking for a job isn't fun. You have to boast of your accomplishments, which some find distasteful; you have to repeat yourself a lot as you send out your résumé and ever-so-slightly customized cover letters all across the internet, which some find tedious; and you have to do all this while in the throes of unemployment (or on the QT while still employed), which nobody enjoys.

It's no picnic for the hiring manager, either, especially at start-ups. Managers are usually expected to do other things than manage--lead engineers are supposed to code, VPs of marketing craft email campaigns, UX directors whip up Photoshop designs, and so everybody is chronically strapped for time, not least the person in charge of coordinating 30 positions that need to be filled yesterday without completely ignoring the existing employees and their ongoing issues. You have to balance the supreme requirement of hiring the right people (i.e. being ruthlessly selective) with the urgency of the hire and the overhead of screening, interviewing (and rejecting) a non-zero number of candidates. It's pretty common to find yourself in the following paradox loop:
"We need to find a (programmer|designer|marketer|PM|salesperson) pronto or we're never going to (ship|sell|market) this thing this year"
"I really don't have time to (screen|interview) those applicants"
I've been privileged to participate in hiring a lot of great people over the years, either as an interviewer or a hiring manager; and because I've been knee-deep in résumé-screening trying to fill a couple of positions for a little while, I thought it might be useful to recap a couple of the hurdles applicants and hiring managers always seem to be running into.


One of the hiring manager's more enervating enemies is the job trawler. The job trawler applies for dozens (hundreds) of jobs at the same time, with little regard for the posted requirements, presumably in the hope that the hiring manager will take it on faith they can learn the skills on the job, or not notice they just filled a real-time embedded-systems development position with a JSP programmer who's never even heard of C.

To spell it out in simple terms:

"Requirement" means "you have to know this stuff"

and so this:
"Requirements: 4+ years Oracle, PL/SQL, 6+ years C++, excellent knowledge of Unix/Linux performance optimization"
means that this won't cut it:
"Skills: Java (2 years), MySQL (3 years), perl, Windows Server"
Applying for a job whose requirements you don't meet is worse than ineffectual: it's counterproductive. It sucks up time out of a busy person's schedule that they could be spending interviewing qualified candidates. And if they have a modicum of organization, they might remember this when you apply for another position at their company.

Don't do it. And for Pete's sake, if the hiring manager sends you a rejection letter telling you you don't meet the requirements, don't argue with them.

Let Me Show You My Pokemans

Spelling, grammarsilly kitties and punctuation are mostly arbitrary and capricious. That's partly why software developers came up with various devices to help supplement their fallible memory (or typing skills), such as spelling- and grammar-checkers. Many are even free. So when you send in something like this:
dear mr/msr,

i wanted to apply for the engineer position in ur compny on craigslits i am a hardworking programmer with 2 yr. experience in java technologys. i guarante dedication to ur company because i need the money so i won't let u down.

  • java, j2ee, jni, xml, soa
  • well communication skills
  • work good under pressure
i look forward to discuss my application.
it just doesn't make a good impression, and when a hiring manager is screening résumés to find candidates that are worth spending over 10 man-hours wooing and interviewing, your first impression is all you have. Maybe Donald Knuth, Brian Kernighan and Ray Ozzie are ready to be your references at a moment's notice; maybe you did write seven bug-free patches that got checked into the kernel tree; but if your résumé and cover letter look like a Scrabble game board after a tornado, you'll never get a chance to show off those 1337 skillz, or to get Knuth on the phone with your boss.

There's nothing wrong with not having a hypertrophied command of English. There is, however, something wrong with not turning on your word processor or Web browser's spell-checker, or not spending 10 minutes going over your application materials to make sure they will impress your future boss into calling you in for an interview. If you're in school, visit the career center. If you're employed, ask a trusted co-worker (or your boss, if you can). Librarians love to help, and they're often the hyperliterate type that can smell a typo from a mile away. It's a cheap investment with very high returns.

Stating The Obvious

Of course, all of this stuff is trivial and should be self-evident. Joel Spolsky has written at length about it; he even started a job board. If you're like me, you want to hire people who read Joel Spolsky, so it's extra disheartening when so many of the resumes that come across your monitor show no evidence of Spolsky-awareness (or common sense).

In the case of software engineering jobs, in particular, you'd think people with the brains, education and experience (nominally, at least) to go after a job that can bring in six figures pretty quickly1 wouldn't even have to be told these things.

Rejecting a candidate is not something hiring managers do lightly: the opportunity cost of not hiring a great candidate is high; and we've also all been in an applicant's shoes, so we know how hurtful and discouraging it can be not to be called in for an interview.

So if you're a hiring manager, make sure your job postings and requirements are clear, follow up with applicants (both good and bad) in a timely manner, and renounce the "Screening applicants is such a time sink" attitude. If you're looking for a job, stack the odds in your favor, don't apply for jobs you're not qualified for, and knock 'em dead with a crisp, punchy résumé. And if you're a database or data warehouse engineer, get in touch ASAP.

1. If you're reasonably good at it.

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