Who DOESN’T want to be hired?

There’s a famous thread on Hacker News called “Who wants to be hired?” once every month on the 1st day of the month. Well, famous amongst HN readers I guess. It usually features hundreds of job ads for mostly tech-related jobs.

The common climate seems to suggest that it’s a sellers market. i.e. companies are chasing job applicants, who can pick and choose.

It’s largely true for lots of people with great skills that are high in-demand. But it’s not like the market is completely bone-dry from candidates. Companies might try to “head hunt” some select few people, maybe those already working at the top tech companies (meaning, they at least managed to get through the hard screening process). Otherwise, it’s not uncommon for companies who post job ads to get dozens, hundreds or even thousands of applicants.

Now, I’m not an authority on hiring. I hired only a handful of people so far. But it’s a mind-blowing eye-opening experience to hire even for the smallest freelance jobs.

From my standpoint, it’s shocking how many candidates can (and do) get eliminated within a few seconds.

If you’re applying for a job. Any job. Your chance of getting screened-out within seconds is extremely high, unless you follow some fairly basic rules. And trust me, these are BASIC. Dumb. Simple. Stupid stupid simple.

Rule #1: Read the job ad

Ok, this sounds silly, right? I mean, obviously you’re reading the job ad before you can apply to it. You need to figure out where to send your resume? or if the job sounds appealing?

But you’d be amazed how many people do not appear to read the ad. They might apply with completely different skillset. They won’t answer basic questions on the ad. They leave out very important requirements. Don’t be that person!

Rule #2: Read the job ad

No. It’s not a mistake. You should read the job ad twice. Three times if you really want to be sure. Read it all. Make sure you understand everything. Don’t miss anything. If you need to, write some notes. For example:

The company name is Xobolobo! (it’s useful to know it, spell it right), the person who posted the job ad is called Joachim. They’re looking for a Fortran frontend developer with COBOL experience. Right. I have those skills. Joachim asked for a cover letter. Gotcha. I’ll make sure to include one. Hey! it’s a remote role with once a year team meeting. I can do that too.

… you get the picture. right?

Rule #3: Use the information you have

So now that you’ve read the job ad, how do you make it crystal clear — to the person reading your application — that you did? You write about it on your cover letter. Use whatever information you have from the job ad. A lot of stuff is already there.

Dear Joachim,

I’m writing to apply for your job at Xobolobo. I see that you’re looking for a Fortran frontend developer with COBOL skills. That’s just my thing. I just finished a project using Fortran and Fortran++.

Simple, right? You’d be amazed how many people don’t do even that.

Rule #4: Find out more

Do you really want to work at Xobolobo? what if they sell kittens to be used in mining the rain forest? It literally takes 5 seconds to Google a company. Or jump straight to their homepage. Maybe you saved yourself the trouble. Or maybe you’ll see that they still use Fortran 0.3 to compile their CSS. Yikes. You don’t want to work with the FACK stack, do you? (Fortran, Ada, COBOL on Kubernetes).

Or maybe Xobolobo is awesome. They’re a marketplace for carbon-free ecofriendly snacks for dolphins. You definitely want to work there. And check out the beautiful smooth design and how happy their team page looks with all those nice perks (Joachim didn’t mention any of that! Thailand retreat??)

So once you spent your 3 minutes of figuring out Xobolobo, you now have a secret weapon. You can actually show what you know. Joachim would LOVE you. Seriously, I think 9 out of 10 candidates don’t even mention the company name, let alone why they want to work there. You’ll stand out instantly.

I checked out Xobolobo, and I totally believe in your mission. I always loved dolphins and had a pet dolphin named Charlie when I was 12.

How easy was that? you showed that you share an interest in the company in one simple sentence. That’s all it takes.

Rule #5: Go the extra yard

It’s not the extra mile. It’s literally a tiny bit of effort. Just show something extra. Maybe it was a typo on the contact box. Maybe a question that show that you’re interested? this really shows that you pay attention to detail. That you care. It has an impact.

By the way, I noticed on your FAQ page that the Xobolobo dolphins are artistically trained. Does it include formal musical training?

Now, some people go overboard… We had one guy who redesigned our homepage, even though we never asked for it. That’s not a good thing. It’s spooky. How can we hire someone who goes off to do some batshit crzy project we didn’t ask for when we asked for something dead-simple? Enthusiasm and doing a bit of extra is awesome. Going overboard is a big No.

Rule #6: Cover letter

Perhaps this is only me, but honestly I hardly read CVs. It’s the cover letter that matters. And it doesn’t even need to be a cover letter. It can basically be the email that you send. What you write on the cover letter will determine if I even open your CV at all, or trash the whole thing. So even though Joachim did ask for a cover letter, some job ads might not. Do it always.

Trying to give some air of authority to my claim, this is also what Jason Fried (founder of Basecamp) says. And no. I don’t have a link to prove it, but I’m sure I saw or heard him say this.

Rule #7: Make it about them

I’ve read your job ad and I think I’m a perfect candidate for your company.

It’s tempting to copy&paste some “cover letter” that you write once, and just use it everywhere. Those tend to be all about you, your skills, what you know, what you did, how well you did it.

Show! Don’t tell.

By the way, I would guess that 99% of those candidates who claimed to be the perfect fit, were perfectly unfit. They had completely different skillset from the job ad. It was obviously a copy&paste job. Guess what? They also got a copy&paste rejection letter.

So you’re not copying and pasting. What do you say then? think about the person reading it. Yes, they want to find a great candidate. This candidate is you, right? But they don’t know that. If you just blurt out everything about yourself, and give them nothing to show that you’re interested working for the company, or nothing that shows that you are really a good fit (without saying it), why would they want to hire you?

Finding a job is a bit like dating. It’s all about the match. Show that you care about the company, the role, the team. Yes, your skills are important and they might be in high demand. But nobody wants a hotshot who only cares about themselves. They want someone who fits with the team, and can get the job done.

So of course, they don’t know you, and you don’t know them. But you need to spark interest. If you make it about them, at least you show that you’re interested. That you pay attention. That you’re trying to fit in.

Besides Fortran and COBOL, how do you guys run deployments? and what’s the code-review process like?

I see that this role is remote. I’ve been doing remote work for 3 years now and found it to be great. Are there specific hours / timezone that I must be online at? or is the work primarily asynchronous?

Most importantly: when it comes to job requirements and your skills — focus on the match. Think of it as a Venn diagram. You want to focus on the overlapping areas only. If you have some awesome skill that they didn’t ask about, leave it out.

Rule #8: Spelling, grammar, paragraphs, fonts

Paying attention to detail shows respect and care. It shows that you listen. It shows that you communicate clearly and deliberately. It’s easy for a typo to slip in, but isn’t it something that a quick spellcheck can fix? double-check before you hit send. One too many mistakes can ruin an otherwise great impression.

Also check that paragraphs are logical. Don’t cram everything into one paragraph. Avoid strange line breaks or misalignment. Avoid wonky bullets or strange fonts that make your email looking like a Frontpage website from 1998. Keep it clean. Simple. Professional.

Use abbreviations or names correctly. For example: COBOL should be all capitals. Fortran however is just spelled with a capital first letter. Stick to proper names and be consistent. Not sure? a quick Wikipedia check can help.

Avoid rambling or too long sentences. Try to keep things clear and minimal.

Putting it all together

Dear Joachim,

I’m writing to apply for your job at Xobolobo. I see that you’re looking for a Fortran frontend developer with COBOL skills. That’s just my thing. I just finished a project using Fortran and Fortran++.

I checked out Xobolobo, and I totally believe in your mission. I always loved dolphins and had a pet dolphin named Charlie when I was 12.

By the way, I noticed on your FAQ page that the Xobolobo dolphins are artistically trained. Does it include formal musical training?

Besides Fortran and COBOL, how do you guys run deployments? and what’s the code-review process like?

I see that this role is remote. I’ve been doing remote work for 3 years now and found it to be great. Are there specific hours / timezone that I must be online at? or is the work primarily asynchronous?

Please find attached my CV. I’m available for new assignments from March on, but am happy to jump on a call any time in the evening (Central European time).

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Candy Daat

Bonus tips

Here are a few extra bonus tips from my personal experience:

  • Never use docx files. When sifting through candidates I think 99.9% of those who sent us a docx were filtered out. Correlation != causation. I know. So perhaps the worst candidates use docx, but even if it’s not true to you, why send the wrong signal? plus, it’s a royal PITA to open a docx file. It looks different on Mac, imported to Google docs or Windows. Just export to PDF and get on with it. You can check that the PDF looks nice and clean and will always look this way.
  • Calibrate. What do I mean? If it’s a big Fortune 500 company with lots of departments, then you might want to use a more formal tone. Open with “Dear hiring manager” or something. If it’s a startup in a garage, “Hey Mike!” is what you should probably go for. Mirror the language on the job post. Figure out the right tone and style. If anything, it shows that you pay attention.
  • Don’t hide experience gaps. It’s tempting to gloss over one of the requirements on the job ad. After all, you match 80% of what they’re looking for. Save yourself and them a lot of time and agony and be upfront about it. Maybe it’s not a big deal? then you get extra points for being honest and transparent. You start the conversation. You’re not hiding anything. But what if it is a BIG DEAL? then they won’t hire you, however awesome you might be. Do you honestly want to fly over to a whole day onsite interview to find out that you’re not qualified? It’s a waste of your time. Not just theirs. A simple way is to bring this up is on your cover letter. “Is BBC Micro assembly a hard requirement on your side? I do have ZX spectrum experience, but I have to admit I never touched the Micro. I’m sure I can learn it in a few weeks though.”
  • Don’t worry about CV gaps. This seems like a common concern. “Oh, I got fired and spent 6 months looking for a job”. “I went surfing in Hawaii”. If you get to a point where they scrutinize your CV to find a gap, you’re already doing well. I honestly don’t think anybody cares these days. If they do, it tells you about the kind of company, and do you really want to work there? I’m not saying you should lie about it. You should be transparent and upfront. But on this one, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re a good match for the job.
  • 10 is better than 1000. Maybe you can write a scraper bot that matches keywords and applies to 1000 jobs in 60 seconds. Being able to write the script is a good skill to use on some jobs, but it’s not a good job-hunting skill. Those 10 job applications that you spent around 10 minute each to write a good cover letter might take you longer. But it will increase your chances of getting interviews and landing a job. It will also mean that you can pick companies that you actually care about, or save you the agony of going through shitty ones. Less is more.

Disclaimer: this is based on my limited, personal experience getting hired and hiring only a handful of people for niche roles in a niche industry. I don’t have data to back up any of the claims I made beyond my own intuition. YMMV. Choose your own adventure.

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