I ran a computer games company for more than ten years. I read thousands of CVs and did hundreds of interviews. Now, I’m writer-in-chief at a technology marketing company, Articulate Marketing.
This article is based on first-hand experience as a hirer and as a professional writer. I hope it will help readers maximise their chances of getting a good job in these difficult times. Good luck!
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Finding the right employer
- Do your homework. Use the internet and trade magazines to make a list of companies you would like to work for. You can get anonymous feedback from existing employees on Best Companies Guide.
- Talk to your network. Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking sites are a good way to find people who already work in your target companies. Reach out and ask for information, advice and help.
- Don’t wait for vacancies. The job pages of newspapers and trade magazines may be a good source of vacancies or candidates for your short list, but the best jobs and the best leads come from personal contact. I placed an advert in the Guardian in 1991 and got over 500 replies. For one job. I’m far more likely to pay attention to an existing employee’s recommendation.
- What do you want? Write your own job description and your own specification of your ideal employer. What are you going to do? What kind of company is it? How big is it?
- Think rifle not shotgun. Better to focus on a handful of good matches than shotgun hundreds of badly copied CVs through an agency.
- Agencies. Recruitment agencies can be very effective at getting you in front of lots of employers. Back in the day, online recruiters like Monster.com didn’t exist. Most agencies fax-spammed CVs to every company on their books. I suspect that online agencies are just more efficient at doing the same thing. Not good.
- Be committed. My view of agencies is that it’s okay to use them but it’s your job and you need to be fully engaged with the process. Don’t let someone else decide what’s best for you. Especially when their only motivation is a commission.
Writing an excellent cover letter
- Write a personal letter. A cover letter is your chance to personalise your application. Be brief but be specific. For me, a cover letter was a good chance to see if the candidate knew anything about my company and to gauge their enthusiasm. It was a rare treat to find someone mention one of our games or having looked at our website.
- Don’t make mistakes. Spelling mistakes alienate 77 per cent of business people, according to research by Hertfordshire University. Use a spell checker. Get someone you trust to proofread it. Hire a proofreader on Elance.com to check it for you.
- Don’t be a bozo. Occasionally, I would get real howlers that damned a candidate’s chances. Several named the wrong company. Mis-spelling my name was very common. One included the immortal phrase “I’m looking for a job in the insurance industry.” (Applying for a job in computer games!) Many were flippant or weird, for instance “This job is right up my street. Hell, no! It’s right next door,” or my favourite: “I’m not as fit as my dog although I work well in a team and alone.”
- Professional presentation. Don’t go crazy with the design. Look professional and conservative. A good cover letter is short – about half a page – neatly typed, grammatical, and properly spelt. It is polite to write the salutation (“Dear Mr. Manager,”) and the sign-off (“Yours sincerely”) by hand. Double-check who you are applying to – telephone if you have to – and put their name, title and address correctly at the top of the page. Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners has helpful advice about writing proper letters and other old-fashioned virtues.
- Prepare an email version. Emails must be shorter and more focused than letters. Use short, declaratory sentences. Don’t waffle. But do still include the recipient’s name and something that personalises it.
- Apply direct. Remember that agencies don’t include cover letters and generally fax CVs, so a direct application with a good cover letter can make you look like a better candidate simply through better presentation. Even if you think you are certain to get any job you apply for, it is worth using every opportunity to make a good impression, as it will help your case when negotiating a salary and people’s perceptions of you once you start.
How to write a compelling resumé/CV
- Get good advice. Ask your friends. Ask your current employer’s HR department (but only if they already know you’re leaving!). Find mentors. Read advice online (e.g. Guy Kawasaki: What employers want to see, How to use LinkedIn to find a job etc.)
- Professional presentation. Programmers used to apply with CVs that were riddled with typos. Not a good sign in a profession that rewards attention to detail. Graphic designers’ CVs used to look like they were DTP’d by a five-year old. Crazy. As with the cover letter, CVs should be neat, grammatical and properly spelled.
- Be brief. Unless you have had a very illustrious career, there is no need to use more than one page for a CV – second pages are rarely read.
- Get a second opinion. It is well worth getting an honest friend to review your CV so that you can avoid saying something that does not say what you meant it to say. A classic example of this was one candidate who claimed “I have a close and loving relationship with my two sisters.”
- Don’t be glib or scary. People don’t always share the same tastes or humour so keep it straight – don’t include a picture of yourself in Star Trek costume, for example. In one case, I read: “I am interested in the triumph of justice.” I’ve seen a few candidates who claimed to have worked for Mossad, MI5 or MI6. Trust me, the applicants in question definitely did not work for these agencies. In general, try not to amuse, scare or bullshit your prospective employers.
- Don’t exaggerate. Some of the more extreme claims I have seen include “top secret research work for NASA,” “testing elasticity on incontinence knickers,” and one candidate who claimed to have written an entire hit game for a well-known developer on their own in a two month summer internship. Another claimed that “I am a world class Rubics Cube champion as well as winning the world mathematics championship in Hungary 1993.”
- Don’t job-hop. I was always very, very wary of candidates who seemed to be ‘job-hopping’. More than a couple of jobs of less than 12-18 months looks pretty bad. It indicates some serious problem with their work or their attitude. The worst example I have seen was eight jobs in less than seven years. Needless to say, we didn’t hire him. If you have a lot of jobs on your CV, have a very convincing reason.
- Use references wisely. Opinion on naming referees is divided. Generally, we didn’t take up references until after we make an offer but before someone started – mainly, we wanted to make sure that the candidate was who they said they were. If an employer wants a reference, they can always ask. The games industry is a very small one and quite often if we are uncertain about making a candidate an offer we will talk to someone at a previous employer informally. Occasionally, I got a call from other people warning me off certain candidates – a bad reputation can follow you. If you do give references, it is better if they are people who can claim some sort of independent judgement – for example, previous employers, tutors, lawyers – and not “my mother” as one hapless candidate offered.
- Get yourself referred. There’s a big difference between a reference on a CV and someone who actively champions your cause. If you can find a mentor, rabbi or champion who can get you in front of the right people, do it. And be very grateful.
- Clarify your name. If, like me, you are blessed with a memorable but unpronounceable name, it is a good idea to say how you pronounce it somewhere in your CV or cover letter. Also, if it isn’t clear which is your first name and which is your surname, it is helpful to underline the latter.
- Don’t make stuff up that we can check. I’ve seen extraordinary claims of Olympic victory, Rubik’s Cube championships, hit games written in a weekend, implausible job titles at friends’ companies. In the immortal words of Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Minister, “never conceal something that the press can discover for themselves.”
- Check your application before you send it. I saw many applications with the names of competitors in the covering letter. Mailmerge failure is a sign that you lack attention to detail.
- If you want a reference, don’t punch your boss. Luckily this didn’t happen to me. In general, however, threats of litigation, sabotage and violence by departing employees are likely to result in a less than favourable reference.
How to get a interview, even if there isn’t a vacancy
If you’ve done your research, you should have a list of target companies and individuals within those companies. You could spam them with your CV but there’s another way – the 15 minute chat and introductory email. This is modelled on a sales technique in “Sales on a Beermat” by Mike Southron and Chris West.
What you are trying to do is get a brief face-to-face meeting with someone at your target company. It isn’t a job interview but it is a good step towards one. Remember – the best jobs are the ones that aren’t advertised and the best way to get them is with personal relationships.
So, what you do is this:
- Find the right opportunity. Monitor your target companies using Google News or other media so you can spot a good hook for your email.
- Find the right person. Ideally, you’d like to get an introduction or referral from someone in your network to someone in your target company.
- Send an introductory email. Short and sweet. Like thisSubject: Referral from Ann Other Dear Mr. Smith, Good news about the acquisition of Megacorp. I guess this means you’ll be needing more programmers at SuperSizers. Ann suggested that I contact you because I have been working as a programmer at WidgetCo. and now I’m looking for a new challenge. Ann would be happy to give me a reference: Ann.Other@Megacorp.com. I’d like arrange a short meeting so I can learn a bit more about SuperSizers and ask for your advice about how I could become part of the team there. Can you spare 15 minutes sometime next week? Best wishes, John Doe
- Introduce yourself, be liked, ask for help. And leave after the allotted time. This isn’t a job interview. It’s about finding a friend in your target company, learning more about it and showing that you have some initiative. If you pull it off, you’ll have an insider helping you out. This has got to be a better investment of time than spamming a hundred companies with a me-too CV.
At my old games company, we would tend to do two or three rounds of interviews. The first would be a short interview to make sure that you would fit in and to see if you are the person you say you are on the CV (in part through a programming test and discussion or portfolio review). A second interview would be more specific and lengthy. It would focus on your suitability for a particular project or position and you would get to meet prospective team members. I always liked to meet anyone we were considering making a job offer to, so a final interview with senior management would indicate that you were on the home straight. The whole process might take two or three weeks, and occasionally longer if there were changes in the project schedule.
- Dress conservatively. One candidate sent a 10×8 picture of herself in a Star Trek uniform. I’m a fan but it just looks weird in a job application. Another candidate for a graphic designer’s job turned up in a cape, beret and cane (actually, I think we hired him). We didn’t expect people to dress up for an interview but it doesn’t hurt to look reasonably smart – clean jeans and a pressed shirt is going to look better than a creased, mouldy old suit that doesn’t fit any more. Of course, different jobs have different dress standards. If in doubt, call ahead and check. A good suit and tie is going to work for almost all interviews as a default.
- Don’t bring your mother to the interview. One candidate did this. We didn’t hire him.
- Be punctual. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the interview.
- Prepare. Call ahead and ask what might be involved. For example, we usually gave programmers a C programming test. Anyone who knew this in advance would have an advantage. Unlike one candidate who asked “what’s C?” despite having it on her CV.
- Be friendly (but not unctuous). Be enthusiastic, affable but not pushy or sycophantic. Pay attention but don’t treat an interview like the boardroom in The Apprentice.
- Always shake hands. If you suffer from nerves and sweaty palms, discreetly wipe you hand on your clothes before the handshake is required. There’s nothing worse than a wet fish handshake.
- Hygiene matters. Candidates have created very bad impressions on me and my colleagues by not attending to basic hygiene, like bathing, brushing teeth or wearing clean clothes. Such people are not nice to share a room with.
- Be respectful. Slagging off previous employers is also a no-no. This is entertaining gossip but it is very easy to imagine that they would do the same about you.
- Write a thank you letter. After an interview a short, polite letter to the main person who interviewed you can be a good idea. You should say ‘thank you’ and highlight anything you felt you might have missed in the interview (e.g. ‘I think that I may have forgotten to mention that although I dropped out of Harvard without graduating, I do run the world’s largest software corporation’) or anything you want to emphasise (e.g. ‘I feel my experience with 3D graphics in my last job would be very relevant to your project’). Very, very few people do this and it is a good way to make a strong, positive impression.
- Call if you’re going to be late. If you can’t get to an interview or change your mind about going, please let the company know in good time. There is nothing more irritating that waiting around for someone to show up and not know whether they are coming or not.
- Ask your own questions. You should come prepared with questions. Here are some of the good questions I have been asked over the years: How do you organise training? How will my work be assessed? (this is better than saying how often do I get a pay rise) How do you ensure projects come in on time? How are games designed? Who does the design? Describe a typical team?
- Show some interest. As with the cover letter, an interview a good opportunity for you to show some interest in the company. Look at their website before the interview and think of a couple of company-specific questions. In the first interview you may not get a lot of time for questions, but you should make sure that all your questions are answered before you accept a job offer. You are interviewing them at this stage.
- Get a hobby. I asked one woman ‘what do you do in your spare time.’ The answer was “I smoke a lot.” It wasn’t meant as a joke and she didn’t get the job. You need to look like you have life so if you don’t have any hobbies, get some.
Update: check out this guy's tips about interview technique. He and I disagree about a couple of things, such as cover letters but agree about many more. What's great is the video clips that he uses to illustrate his points. (Hat tip: Seth Godin.)
- Pick your moment. The right time to negotiate salary is after a job offer has been made. This puts you in the strongest position – you know they want you – and it also avoids prejudicing the interview process with money talk.
- Know what you’re worth. However, you should expect to give some indication of your expectations, if asked – perhaps as a range based on the responsibility required by the job or by reference to your previous salary – during the interview process so that the company can make sure that you are likely to fit into their budget.
- Do your homework. You should think about this carefully beforehand and don’t do what one naïve programmer did and ask for an outrageous amount and then immediately climb down to an absurdly low figure in minutes. That just looks silly. Any negotiation you make should be based on some kind of reasonable basis – for example you can use the seniority of the position, the level of responsibility or the level of skill required as grounds on which to base a request for more money. This sounds like you know your business better than simply asking for more money without a justification.
- Take the money and run. If you are offered what you want, don’t feel that you have to negotiate for more. If you negotiate an above average salary you may find yourself low-balled at the next pay review – it’s swings and roundabouts. Companies will generally try to offer you an attractive package, with a ‘bid out premium’ to get you to change jobs, but a package which balances their desire to get you with the budget they can afford. Remember that they will have a pretty good idea of what is a reasonable salary for a given level of experience and skill – they do hundreds of interviews and pay reviews a year! I guess what I am trying to say is that you shouldn’t feel shy of asking for a good, but realistic, salary – negotiating if you have to – but equally, you shouldn’t automatically haggle on principle.
Accepting an Offer
- Get an offer in writing. Don’t hand in your notice or stopping job-hunting without written confirmation. It should set out the basic terms and conditions of your job – salary, holiday, perks, job title and so on. Generally, I wouldn’t send out a formal offer until the job had been accepted in principle on the phone or in person.
- Confirm your acceptance in writing. You should confirm your acceptance in writing too. Besides the contractual side of things, this is creates an obligation on both sides.
- Tell people if you change your plans. If you change your mind, you should let the company know as soon as possible. I’ve had two or three cases of ‘no shows’ where people don’t turn up for their job on the first day without a word of explanation. This causes real inconvenience and also means that someone else who would have really wanted the job gets passed over. Also, I can remember the names of all the people who do it and would never offer them a job again – and you’d be surprised how many people re-apply over the years.
Handling your Existing Employer
- Be professional. Most people’s tendency when looking for a new job is to be secretive about it and only discuss it with the current employer once a new job has been secured. This is sensible in most cases. However, I have had some bad experiences of people taking large numbers of sick days, or simply not showing up at random, while going for interviews elsewhere. This is unprofessional and is likely to lead to a very poor reference at the very least. Better to take the time off as holiday.
- Don’t go into ‘exit mode’. Similarly, once some people are in ‘exit mode’ they behave badly. For example, they come in late, work poorly, or bad-mouth their colleagues or the company. Again, this reflects very poorly on them and can affect references. More importantly, it isn’t professional. You should judge yourself by how you behave when you don’t have a good reason to behave well.
- Don’t revenge-quit. If you want to leave your present job because of a problem, such as feeling under-paid, under-trained or whatever, I think it is courteous to give your current employer a reasonable chance to make amends before you start looking. My experience is that once people start looking for a job pride makes it very hard for them to pull back so the time to raise your voice is before you start looking. At IG we did exit interviews with people in their last couple of days and it was frustrating to find that a few people had left for reasons that could have been easily remedied had we known about them. Talk to your supervisor and explain your concerns and judge the company on its actions.
- Don’t bargain by resignation. Do not; however attempt the dangerous game of wage bargaining by resignation. This feels a lot like blackmail and, in my experience at least, doesn’t work.
- Quit with dignity. The proper way to resign is to seek a personal meeting with your boss as soon as you have formally accepted another position and tell him or her that you are leaving. You should have a written resignation note to give them at the meeting. It is pretty craven to leave a note in a pigeon-hole – you wouldn’t like to be fired that way! It is likely that they have seen a lot of people quit over the years and will not react unpleasantly. Mild shock was the worst experience I had in the last few years. Again, this is an opportunity to show some professionalism and dignity that will be remembered after you leave.