Sep 30, 2015 | hr, job applications

How to Apply for a Web Developer Job at Tighten (and How Not To)

Warning: This post is over a year old. I don't always update old posts with new information, so some of this information may be out of date.

I just finished reading over 200 applications for our latest job posting, a Web Developer job at Tighten Co.. We still hire infrequently enough and are small enough that the two founders (Dan and me) and our operations manager (Dave) read every single application, which is hours upon hours of work before we even get to our initial phone screen.

Some applicants, and some tendencies among applicants, have stood out as best practices, but many more things have stood out as consistent turnoffs. So, I figured I'd share some with you here.

Caveat: Applying for a job at a large company is often very different than applying for a job at a small consultancy like Tighten. This is not about "how to apply for any job ever," but instead, it's a reflection on what helps me, as a hiring supervisor at Tighten, choose to put your application in our phone screen stack.

DO: Read the job description

Many applicants applied purely because they liked Tighten. I'm overjoyed that we have such a good reputation that folks will apply to our job postings without even bothering to read the description. A little bit of attention to addressing the requirements of this particular job would've been nice in these circumstances, because each job posting is unique depending on the mixture of frontend, backend, or other particular skills. But that's not too bad.

What is disappointing, however, is the number of applicants who missed key elements of the job description. For example, we only can handle to hire people from the U.S. and Canada right now. We wrote that explicitly on the job posting. And yet a solid 1/5th of our applicants were not from the U.S. or Canada.

Just reference the cat already

This has happened before. So on the job posting this time, I wrote as a "Must Have" this item: "Reference a cat or a breed of cat in your application". I just snuck it in there. And only about a third of our applicants did reference a cat. ONE THIRD.

Now, again, I understand that quite a few applicants were just excited to apply to Tighten, and we didn't hold that against them. But it helped make it even more clear the distinction between people who really cared about this job posting (or our company) and those who just were bulk sending off applications to every remotely viable job post.

DON'T: Go overboard with your resumé

Aesthetic appeal is important on your resumé! But colors and fonts and styles and layouts and other complicated stuff can be distracting on any resumé, and this is doubly true when you're not a professional designer. Keep it simple.

Keeping your resumé simple also applies to the content. There's such a thing as Too Much Information on a resumé. Give me the information that will help me decide to hire you and leave the rest off.

DO: Write a custom cover letter for each job application

First, we can smell a generic cover letter from 20 feet away. It says to us, "your company isn't important enough for me to spend 15 minutes writing you a custom cover letter." This is something that could be a huge part of your life for the next few years or more, and you can't spend 15 minutes on a custom cover letter?

Second, a generic cover letter probably doesn't do a good job of communicating how you meet our needs. Each job posting is carefully crafted to find someone who meets our particular needs at the moment, so that you have the opportunity in your application to show why you are that person. Your generic cover letter that is designed to get you any job in the entire field of IT is not the best tool you have to do that.

Third, the number of times someone has pasted a generic cover letter when applying to our job and left another company's name on it would blow your mind. Someone who does that is instantly rejected, regardless of the quality of their application. Don't be that person.

The best cover letter shows that you understand who we are and what we want, and communicates to use why you can meet all of our requirements.

DON'T: Stop yourself from applying if you don't have the nice-to-haves

It seems that the less qualified someone is, the more likely they are to apply to absolutely everything. Many developers that we'd love to work with are extremely empathic, which in turn means they're much less likely to apply a job posting that they don't think fits them perfectly.

This means we wade through many applications from people who don't meet any of our must-haves, but there are plenty of amazing developers who would be a great fit but don't fit 100% of our nice-to-haves and therefore never apply.

At least at Tighten, we intentionally separate our job requirements between "Must Have" and "Nice to Have". If you meet all the must haves, apply! The benefit of the Nice to Have is just so that you can distinguish yourself if you meet all those too, but don't let those keep you from applying.

DO: Update your web site and resumé

We're going to check out your Twitter, and your web site, and we're going to read your resumé. We'll be curious about holes in your resumé, and the first things we check are your education, where your job history started, and what your most recent job looks like.

Quite a few applicants had web sites that were clearly from the late 1990's or early 2000's. Dan and I were both web developers then, so we can recognize a site from that time period well; additionally, your IE6 conditionals might be showing. :)

If you send something along to us, it should be how you want to present yourself to us. If something isn't up to snuff, and if you have to caveat it heavily, consider either re-making it, or just not sending it at all. Only a few people actually make it from the screening round to an actual phone conversation, so your materials you send along--cover letter, resumé, web site, etc.--need to speak for you. Are they saying the things you want said?

DON'T: "To whom it may concern" us

Know the company you're applying to. Is it a big company? Keep it formal, and stuff all your keywords in. You need to pass their HR screen, so I get it.

But if it's a small company like Tighten, especially if you know the founders read the applications, be a human. Yes, we want you to be professional. But we want to know what you're like as a person. We're entirely remote, so we need to know that you know how to communicate effectively; if you're overly formal, that will affect our perception of what you'll be like to have on a team.

For us, you might try: "Dear Dan & Matt", "Dear Hiring Manager," "Hey Tighten folks,", or the internal favorite at Tighten, "Yo Stauff-meister". (The last one is a joke. You probably shouldn't actually do that.)

DO: Use LinkedIn well or not at all

Sorry, because I know developers love to hate LinkedIn. I hate it too. Its emails are painfully annoying. Its UI is horrible. But it's one of the things we're going to look at when we evaluate your application.

If you don't have a LinkedIn, that looks like an intentional choice. But if you have a LinkedIn with two connections and no profile picture and not any useful information, that shows that you're not concerned with managing your business relationships and reputation. It's not as if that's a not-hireable offense, but it looks a little bit like a broken-down-house on your property.

DON'T: Tell us your entire life story

We love when applications are personal and fun. We want to get to know you, and we love hearing a little bit about your family and your hobbies. But for the cover lever, keep it to just a little bit. If two thirds of your cover letter is a story of every place you've lived for the last three years and we know more about your life than the people closest to you do, there's a name for that: overdisclosure. Keep it short.

DO: Give us up-to-date code samples

I understand that many developers' work situations keep them from being able to share code samples from their work, and not every developer has time to do lots of open source work.

However, I'm not going to hire a developer without seeing their code. And if you send over examples of your work, I will read it. So if the only samples you have are from 10 years ago, you're better off not sending it in.

Rather, spend some time on a night or weekend and create a side project solely for the purpose of applying to jobs. It's worth the time. Even if it's not a fully functional project, just write a single page of PHP or Javascript or HTML or CSS. Give me something to work with.

DO: Check your spelling and grammar

In programming we talk about "code smells." A code smell doesn't mean code is bad, but just that you should be on guard.

Typos, grammar issues, and spelling issues are job application smells. Of course, we all make typos. But typos and spelling issues, especially when we see several of them, show that you don't have attention to detail as a personality trait, and that's a big turnoff.

Additionally, almost all such issues can be caught if you read over your application once or twice, if you run it through a spell checker, or if you have a friend read it over. Again, this job could be a huge part of your life over the next few years. Doesn't it merit a bit of attention?

DON'T: Make excuses

It's completely fine if there's a particular reason for a gap in your work history, so if you know we're going to be asking a question ("Why no code samples?", "Why are you applying for this job if all your work experience is in Python?", etc.), please feel free to preemptively answer those questions for us.

But there's a difference between a preemptive answer and an excuse. Is it something you can fix up in a few hours, or even a weekend? Then just fix it. Is it a code sample that isn't a good fit? Don't send it. Make something else. Don't make excuses for things that you're capable of changing.

DO: Set yourself apart

There were a few applicants whose applications stood heads and shoulders above the rest. These folks wrote compelling cover letters, custom application web sites, and were involved with impressive projects and open source tools.

Standing out in the application phase doesn't guarantee you a job. But it almost completely guarantees you get to the phone call round. If someone took the time to learn about our company, build a custom web site to apply for it, and to generally show us that this job is something special to them, not just one of the fifty jobs they applied to today, that's a special thing for us.


Do you have other tips for job applicants I didn't include here? Let me know on Twitter!

I also asked around on Twitter:

And got these responses:

(CC-licensed image from waponigirl on Flickr)

Comments? I'm @stauffermatt on Twitter

Tags: hr  •  job applications


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