The ideal CV of a software professional

Tip #1: Make sure you include relevant keywords, but don’t overdo it.

Let’s not fool ourselves, the main purpose of a CV is to get you past the filtering process of recruitment agencies, HR departments, and other hurdles that stand between you and the hiring manager.

Many of these intermediaries will have no technical knowledge, and they will be looking for keywords. Yes, this means that you could in theory replace the agent with a one-line perl script, but that’s the way it is. (Oh, and apparently it’s your fault.)

The hiring manager will understand that contributing to the ECMAScript specification probably means you know JavaScript (and JScript for that matter) but the typical recruiter will not.

Don’t be like the Meta-tag-stuffers of ten years ago, because it will scream FAKE to the hiring manager. You’ve got to find a balance.

Tip #2: Write as well as you can

It’s perfectly fine if English is not your first language (my first language is Kiwi – Kia Ora Cuz!) but if what you write doesn’t make sense to the reader you will be at a severe disadvantage to say the least. What you write must be clear, and it must flow. Proof-read (or better, have a friend proof-read) and ruthlessly re-write or delete disconnected, incomplete, ambiguous or vague sentences.

When stuck for how to write something I find it helpful to pretend you’re telling it to a friend. Write down the words you used, and then revise it into shape. It’s good to show a bit of personality, but don’t ramble, and keep in mind that what might seem funny to you as you write your CV will not look so clever to everyone that might read it. Much better to let your personality show at the interview after you’ve established a rapport. If in doubt, always err on the side of playing it straight in your CV.

Some managers don’t care so much about spelling and grammar, but others (like me) care a great deal. I think my distaste stems from years of reviewing poor code, code which is often full of spelling errors. It doesn’t take a lot of extra effort to use the spelling checker in your word-processor or browser. Don’t ignore the red squiggly lines!

Finally, most people find that writing well takes a bit of effort and discipline, so be realistic and allow yourself plenty of time to write and revise.

Tip #3: Make sure your CV shows where you got your experience

So, let’s assume you’re applying for a job as a web developer, and the job advert is asking for “a minimum of five years experience with ASP.Net”. If you claim to have that experience, I’m going to want to see where you got it. If I don’t see it, I won’t necessarily assume you’re lying, but you will be at a disadvantage when I have another CV that clearly shows where the five years experience was obtained.

If you claim to be good at anything, it should be reflected in the experience you’ve written about. You need to be explicit, not least because job titles have become meaningless. Being an “analyst” could mean just about anything these days, and doesn’t necessarily imply analysis skill of any kind. A “web developer” could mean someone with programming skills, or someone with Photoshop skills. A “programmer” should mean someone who produces code (though this is a debateable point) but I’ve seen it used for jobs that amount to configuring systems via drop-down lists. You need to describe the technology, and how you used it.

Tip #4: Ignore anyone who tells you “strictly one or two pages”

Ignore all the advice about keeping a CV short. That’s for marketing and sales jobs, and for people with short attention spans. If you have lots of experience it should be reflected.

As a hiring manager I want to see it, and more importantly you should be proud of it, not ashamed.

Tip #5: There’s nothing wrong with emphasising certain skills to match a job advert

It took me a long time to internalise the idea that its OK to emphasise different skills depending on the job in question. Frankly, I used to think it was deceptive. But think of it from the hiring manager’s point of view – if a CV clearly calls out skills that match the advert, that will appeal more than a CV that contains the same skills but buries them among other, less relevant skills.

Highlighting relevant skills helps everyone.

If you have experience in a variety of areas, consider writing more than one CV, each one to emphasise different areas like database or analysis or customer-facing or whatever so that you can quickly respond to adverts when you find them.

Tip #6: Don’t leave unexplained gaps between jobs

Don’t leave gaps in your CV, especially big ones, it risks making you look like a layabout. If you were volunteering in Africa, great. If you took time off to retrain, or to pursue a start-up idea, or to raise your kids, that’s all good. The only thing you have to prove is that you can do the job. Yes, in some cases it might mean you have to accept a lesser salary, but a savvy employer will see that as an opportunity rather than a problem, and savvy exployers also know that life-experience counts for something.

Tip #7: Everyone enjoys “reading, music, and cinema”, it doesn’t need saying.

I reckon that 80% of CVs contain a personal interests section, and 80% of these contain the exact same things; reading, music, and cinema.

My take is that you really don’t need this section in a CV, and if all it contains is the same old stuff then you really, really don’t need it.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a world-class skittles champion, maybe that’s something to show off.

But generally, instead of trying to show how “well-rounded” you are in this odd corner of the CV, try to let that show through in the rest of your CV and in the interview.

If you get stuck, let me know.




Posted in CV

Ed Guiness

I am the author of Ace the Programming Interview, published 2013 by John Wiley and Sons. In 2012 I founded, a volunteering organisation for programmers. I have been a professional programmer for more than 20 years, and a hiring manager since 2004.

Ask me anything.