What makes the difference when employers are selecting job candidates for interview?
The squeeze on IT recruitment means an effective CV is more important than ever. Many of the advertised posts now attract hundreds of applications where once the figure may have been only in the tens.
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And applicants for senior positions increasingly have to overcome ageism. Yet even seasoned IT professionals continue to make basic errors in their CVs that keep the doors to new positions needlessly closed.
So what makes a winning CV?
The first rule is to keep your CV short. "The biggest turn-off is a CV with lots of information which is simply not relevant to the post being applied for," says Roger Ellis, formerly IT director of Blue Circle and now running IT consultancy and conference specialist Black Raven.
"The CV should be no more than two pages, but I’ve seen them as long as seven pages, including copious details of every technical course the applicant has ever done. If you are applying for a management role, your Fortran course back in 1985 is of no interest.
"You may be very proud of what you did 15 years ago, but creating an effective CV is not about writing your memoirs - it’s about getting an interview," he says.
Many headhunters and employers read only the first half of the first page before making a decision whether to consign your CV to the reject pile. So your CV should kick off with a succinct summary of why you are the right person.
Aim to quantify your achievements, rather than using vague statements such as "excellent people skills", advises Ellis. "Every applicant for a management role will reckon they are ‘good with people’. Much stronger is a brief statement such as; ‘Directed the £2m implementation of SAP systems across 25 countries’."
That clarity and brevity will convey your case far more strongly than long, off-putting paragraphs.
Spell out strategic moves
"I look for a coherent story, rather than just a jumble of jobs," says Richard Sykes, former vice-president of IT for ICI and now chairman of a number of companies including outsourcing consultancy Morgan Chambers and web site quality testing specialist Site Confidence.
"The interlinks between the various posts are very important. They demonstrate a clear strategy on the part of the individual - a clear sense of where they see themselves moving and why.
"A CV is often a purely retrospective document, but it will be made a lot stronger by a clear prospective element," says Sykes.
"In short, it should answer these questions: What have I delivered? What experience did I gain in the process? Where am I moving to and why?"
Sykes recommends spending as much effort drawing up a prospective document for yourself as you do on your CV. "A disciplined analysis of what you are seeking - including quality of life issues - is a powerful tool for the individual.
"Written well, it can also be invaluable for a headhunter in matching you to the posts which meet your goals. Certainly the essence of what you discover or clarify during the process should form part of your CV," he says.
Selling soft skills
As you move along the career ladder, "softer" management skills, such as man-management and communications, become ever more important, but how do you get across these abilities without resorting to clichés?
"Too often IT people get obsessive about their technical backgrounds but at senior levels an understanding of the business needs of the organisation and the personal qualities required to meet these are usually more important," says Robin Laidlaw, president of the Computer Weekly 500 Club of top IT decision-makers. He also runs IT consultancy and supplier relationship specialist Robin Laidlaw Associates and is a former IT director of British Gas.
"The tone of the summary at the top of your CV is very important. A blend of confidence and humility will impress the employer far more than the vainglorious style of some CVs," says Laidlaw.
"The career moves you have made can also point up the personal qualities sought by an employer. For instance, a successful change of market sector will demonstrate personal skills such as communication, flexibility, willingness to take on challenges and business sense," he says.
The technical aspects of your work should point to your business awareness, adds Laidlaw. For instance, do the applications you have implemented reflect your understanding of the organisation’s business needs?
"It is also important to show that you are fully aware of today’s major issues such as security. For example, can you demonstrate that you can maintain effective security while providing executives with easy access to the files they need? Are your communication skills up to persuading the users that they need to play their part in controlling risk?" asks Laidlaw.
Brevity and bullet points
Following your initial summary, your description of previous positions should again be governed by the benchmarks of brevity and relevance.
Four or five bullet points are preferable to a dense-looking paragraph, says Laidlaw. These should offer specific information about the size of the IT operation, the size of the company, the areas over which you had direct control, and your understanding of the business as a whole.
If you have stayed for four or more years in each job, only the last four posts need to be detailed, followed by a brief summary of what you did previously. "It’s surprising how many people still feel the need to put down, for example, that they were a grocer’s assistant when they were 17," says Laidlaw.
But he recommends that you include your membership of professional and industry groups. "These show that you are aware of broader business issues such as your company’s relationships with others in its industry."
So what about your age? If you feel you may be hamstrung by ageism, it can be tempting to fudge the issue. "If you’re, say, over 50, there’s no need to emphasise your age but it is best to state it clearly in the information about yourself towards the end of your CV. Hopefully by then everything that has gone before will have made the prospective employer excited about the benefits of your experience," says Ellis.
How to create an effective CV
- Keep it short - no more than two pages.
- Start with a brief summary showing what makes you different.
- Then list your previous positions, using bullet points to emphasise pertinence to the position you are applying for.
- Do not place your educational and academic achievements before your employment history.
- Include a prospective element in your CV. Say where you are going as well as where you have been.
- Avoid buzzwords and jargon.
- If you include personal information such as marital status, place this at the end.
- Demonstrate your "softer" skills such as communication and people-management through your achievements to date.
- Aim for a clear layout, but avoid distracting graphics.
- Check and double-check spelling. Bad spelling is still commonly found even in senior managers’ CVs.