Applying By Doing

Before I talk about covering letters and CVs in detail, I want to quickly mention that there’s another way that you can go about applying for a job. It isn’t an option that you can try with every employer, but it is one that can propel you to the front of the interview list if you can pull it off. It works especially well with those employers who are selling a product or hosted service.

The idea is simple: do something interesting with their product or service. Something that makes it better, stronger. Something that is relevant to the job that the employer is advertising. And then tell them about what you’ve done. If they like it, there is a chance that they’ll want to interview you, completely bypassing the dreaded CV sift stage.

Make The Employer Want To Hire You

The more savvy employers are monitoring social media - especially Twitter, which is the easiest to monitor - for what people are saying about them, and to learn how customers are using their products and services. If you have something interesting to tell them - such as a demo that uses their products or services - then you can use social media to tell the employer all about your demo. If you have built a demo that shows them how you might be suitable for the job they are hiring for, then they might just want to hire you for the job.

I can’t overstate how huge an advantage that gives you. It turns everything on its head.

Instead of you having to convince the employer to pick you out of a pile of CVs, mentally they have switched positions. Now, they are courting you. They will probably want to interview you as quickly as possible. Be prepared for this, and make sure that you are available for interview at very short notice. Their interest may cool very quickly if you’re not.

The trade-off with this technique is that you will probably have a harder interview, because you’ve raised the employer’s expectations of you. As long as you’ve got the breadth and depth of skills to back it up, you’ll be fine.

It might not seem very fair, deliberately trying to leapfrog over everyone else stuck in the dreaded CV sift, but don’t worry about that. You’re all competing for the same vacancy, and this technique still demands that you have the skills that the employer is looking for. You’re just selling yourself to the employer in a different way.

Finally, a word of advice. Don’t cheat. Don’t get someone else to build the demo for you. You will get found out during the interview.

What To Build?

Take your inspiration from the job description. In there is the clue that you need. If it isn’t obvious, try going for a walk, or sleeping on it first.

If you’re going to create a demo, make sure the demo uses the key technologies listed in the job description. The best demos always show how those key technologies can be combined with the employer’s products and services. Or maybe the employer has an open-source project that you can contribute to?

If that is difficult (perhaps the employer doesn’t open-source their work, and doesn’t give out free trials), then build a mockup of some kind that shows off what you imagine could be done if you did have access to the employer’s products and services. You’re limited only by your imagination, your skills, and the time you invest into this approach.

How much time should you spend on making your demo? My advice is to keep an eye not on the clock, but on how much you’re enjoying building the demo. If you’re having fun, then spending a whole weekend on the demo is time well-spent. However, if you’re not enjoying it, you probably won’t enjoy the job that you’re applying for either, and perhaps you should stop right there and look for another job to apply for.

How To Sell It

Before you contact the employer, there are four key things to do:

  1. First of all, your demo needs to be hosted somewhere online, so that the employer can look at it when it suits him. If you don’t have anywhere to host your demo, rent a cheap VPS somewhere and use that to host your demo. Virtual servers running Linux can be rented on a month-to-month basis, so that you’re not tied into a long-term commitment.

  2. Secondly, make sure your demo is robust. Ask your friends to try it out, and to see if they can break it at all. Fix every bug they tell you about, address every problem. This approach is high-stakes. You’re telling the employer, “look at how good I am,” so the employer expects your demo to be pretty good. Any problems with it, and your chance of an interview will be gone.

  3. Thirdly, make sure it is complete. A small demo that works well is normally better than an ambitious demo that overreaches. Employers like people who can finish things! If part of your demo doesn’t quite hang right, don’t be reluctant to strip it out.

  4. Finally, create a write-up about the demo, covering what technologies you’ve used, why, and how it works under the bonnet. Tell this as a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. This narrative allows you to guide the employer through your demo and your thinking. Make sure this narrative is very easy to find from your demo.

Now, you’re ready.

  • Find the employer’s main Twitter account. It will probably be run by his marketing people, especially in larger firms. Look around to see if the employer has a second Twitter account that’s run by his engineers (some firms do, some firms don’t). If there is such an account, that’s the one you really want to target.

  • Tweet about the demo you’ve built, and copy the employer in by mentioning his Twitter account at the end of the tweet.

  • Strike up a conversation with anyone who replies to your tweet. The employer’s engineers or managers may contact you from their own Twitter accounts, rather than from the employer’s official Twitter account. You might also get contacted by customers of the employer, and possibly even by rival firms.

Then it’s down to you and the quality of what you’ve put online. The best advice that I can give you here is to simply be yourself, and to keep an open mind. Even if the employer you’ve targetted doesn’t bite, you might just catch the eye of someone else, and find yourself with a completely new opportunity that you hadn’t anticipated when you started.

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