Software Developer Career Tips: Your Application Strategy

Date: 2019-12-23

Time to Read: 6 Minutes

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Photo By: Floriane Vita

I always throw half of the applications I get into the trash without looking at them. I sure don’t want unlucky people on my team.

Now that your candidate pool has been defined, how you should go about the pursuit of possible job opportunities will also depend on your situation. There are also a couple of strategies that come into play when pursuing a job opportunity such as:

  • The cold application process.
  • Reaching out to a referral inside a company.

These are what I would call “Active” strategies which are differentiated by “Passive” strategies. “Active” strategies require an intentional proactive action on your part whereas “Passive” strategies involve a company or third-party recruiter approaching you about an opportunity. Starting out, you’re more likely to be focused on “Active” strategies until you build your reputation or network to facilitate opportunities coming to you rather than you seeking them out.

The cold application process is a hit or mostly miss process. This can include anything from applying via an online platform such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Indeed.com, or the company’s “careers” website (the link is usually found in the footer of their website). This works for some people but YMMV, some people claim that they obtained their position through this process by a fairly small number of attempts. Some people won the lottery on their first try. It happens. But the probability is fairly low (probably not lottery-level low). Let us also not forget that sometimes a publicly listed job opening is actually already (or in the process of) being internally filled however it must be made publicly available due to HR rules. Nevertheless, it costs you nothing besides your time (and sometimes your mental willpower) to truck through this process.

It’s very impersonal unlike the “walk through the door to speak with the owner/manager” approach oft-repeated by those who haven’t applied for a job since the 1980s. You’ll become familiar with a small number of the ERP (enterprise resource planning) HR services which will cause the per-company process to blend together. And since this process is pretty much a “numbers game” where your probability of success increases with your number of attempts, it’s best to streamline this process in an efficient as possible manner.

First, your resume should be more than simply “human readable”, it should be “machine readable”. There are a couple of reasons for this, first, your resume will need to pass through whatever ATS (application tracking system) the company uses without being flagged and immediately dropped.

So in addition to the basic rules of resume formation:

  • Highlight your best qualities/skills/positive information at the top of the document.
  • Use action verbs and statistically descriptive language in communicating your prior experience.
  • Spelling and grammar.

There is:

  • Make sure your information can be communicated/extracted effectively from the source document.

One way to test or determine this is to take your resume (PDF or otherwise) and simply “select-all -> copy” the contents into a plain text file. How is the content structured in this format? Can a program easily mine this content for select keywords or determine the organizational structure of the document (e.g. you don’t have employment experience intersecting with education information).

Also, most ERP services attempt (with varying success) to help you streamline the application process by auto-filling their forms with information obtained from uploading your resume. Having your resume in the best combination of machine/human readable format as possible will increase your chances of success in both of these areas. There are thousands of resume templates out there, so I won’t go any deeper into that; however I will recommend keeping your resume’s structure and content simple (esoteric fonts and graphics may make it visually appealing but utterly unreadable to the cold calculating eyes of the machine).

It may also be helpful to have a “Base” resume which is your broad application resume and then build off of this base resume with resumes that are tailored in some more specific way for specific jobs to increase the chances of your resume and application making it past the ATS’s Great Filter.

Another aspect of the cold application process that can infuriatingly slow you down are the position-specific open-ended questions. These are short-answer questions attached to the application forms that provide insight for the eventual human reviewing the application. I also believe that a second function of these questions are to discourage applicants who are simply spamming open positions. Unfortunately, as noted previously, there is a likelihood that these answers never even make it to an actual human which can be make the entire time spent constructing a thoughtful response feel completely wasted.

But alas, that’s not completely true. Save your answers. A lot of companies and positions share similar questions, and if you apply and answer enough you will eventually build a bank of short-answer answers that you can simply copy/paste to similar questions with minor tweaks or adjustments to minimize the time spent filling out applications that demand a response to those questions. Be careful when saving your questions and answers, possibly highlight any company or position specific details in the answers that will need to be changed if you’re using it for a similar question at a different company and/or position. It’s awkward to wax poetic about the principles of working as a software developer at Google in an application for a position at Amazon.

Next, set a weekly/monthly goal on how many applications that you want to submit. This can be as many or as little as you feel necessary for your current life situation but also keep in mind that some companies will explicitly limit how many times you can apply for a job position at their company within a specific range of time.

The reaching out to a referral inside a company is a much more vague and mysterious process that is largely dependent on your existing network or relationships. If you have a ex-colleague, friend, or family member who works within the company that you desire to work for, depending on their level within the company, they may have the leverage to allow you to skip the cold application circus and speak to any party that is more directly responsible for hiring decisions. This, more than anything else I believe, is the advantage to going to a prestigious university. If you decide to go this route, make sure that you represent both you and your referral well throughout the entire process (regardless if you obtain the position or not) as to not potentially burn any bridges or jeopardize their own reputation within the company. It really is who you know rather than what you know sometimes.

But what about those with a very limited network for whatever reason. Can you simply reach out to someone such as a recruiter on LinkedIn within the company. It doesn’t hurt, I guess. The likelihood that your advances will be positively received is pretty slim (especially in comparison to having a prior relationship with that person) but you could possibly go this route. Worst case, you’ll simply be ghosted (which is also the likely result of the cold application process as well). So this process works best for those with an extensive network of people. Sorry, introverts (I am one, also).

Now I won’t endorse the following approach because of its ethical (and possible legal) ramifications. Given the success rate of direct referrals when applying for most companies, a secondary anonymous market has opened up on platforms such as Rooftop Slushie where employees will essentially sell you a referral. Proceed with caution.

Now that we discussed the two active strategies…

Let’s construct some way to quantify and monitor our efforts. This isn’t difficult. Here is my approach.

I have a spreadsheet with the following columns:

  • Company (Self-Explanatory)
  • Position (Self-Explanatory)
  • Location (Self-Explanatory)
  • Status (I use one or two-letter abbreviations for the different statuses)

    • A - Applied
    • AR - Application Rejected
    • P - Phone/Video Screen
    • PR - Phone/Video Screen Rejected
    • I - Interview (Physical or otherwise)
    • IR - Interview Rejected
    • O - Offer
    • TD - Turned Down
    • CA - Coding Assessment
  • Started (The date when initially applied)
  • Last Updated (The date of the last status change)
  • Duration (The duration of the entire process (if it actually ended formally))

    • The duration also provides an idea of when to expect a response from a company for an application or even how long the entire hiring process typically takes (if it proceeds that far).

Each row represents an application.

I also include summary information that includes the number of applications, and the number/percentages of each stage or status reached and even provides an idea of how many applications received a response (positive or otherwise).

As you continue to apply to job positions and populate this spreadsheet, you can review the effectiveness of your efforts in a quantified manner and then proceed to cry yourself to sleep at night.

Software Developer Career Tips

12 February, 2020
A collection of posts detailing much of the information that I've learned in recent years when considering a significant career move.
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Blake Adams is a writer, software developer, technical consultant, and financial independence enthusiast living in Oxford, MS.

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