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Jeff Szczepanski, COO of Stack Overflow, discusses how to identify the strongest candidates at the CV screening stage and points out what recruiters should be on the lookout for when hiring tech talent.

The CV has traditionally been the cornerstone of the job application process – but when making technical hires, it often falls short. While it contains the basic information you need on a candidate, when interviewing for roles such as developers, data scientists and technical account managers, there are lots of softer skills you need to investigate to ensure you get the best person.

Look for personality and personalisation

A few years ago, Stack Overflow’s very own Joel Spolsky wrote a blog where he explained that CVs and cover letters were most useful when trying to screen out technical candidates. Much of what he wrote then is still relevant today and here’s why.

Just as a recruiter is unlikely to be successful if they send out a generic recruitment email to a large number of candidates, a generic cover letter that has been sent by a candidate to several companies should also ring alarm bells. Look for evidence that the candidate has done their homework and due diligence on your specific company and role.

Firstly, ensure that a candidate has made it clear in their cover letter why they want the role. Are they interested in working with your other team members? Or is the draw the technical problems they will be solving? A candidate who can explain this, with a specific example of what interests them about the company, is ultimately more likely to be a successful hire.

The second part of a cover letter should explain why you should hire that applicant. If they make a compelling case for why you need them, they are probably worth adding to the interview shortlist.

The power of passion

The passion that a developer has for coding is arguably their most important asset. Top technical candidates are likely to have demonstrated computer programming experience from an early age. They may have attended a technical training course or workshop as a summer activity rather than a more typical job like working in a coffee shop. It is these extra-curricular activities that can reveal the most about a programmer’s passion and drive.

If you can find a programmer who reads books like ‘The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs’ in their spare time, then you are probably onto a winner. Another indicator is seeing a language that is so cutting-edge that employers do not even demand it yet. This underscores a genuine passion for programming, proving that programming is more than just a job to this candidate. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that passion does not mean that you spend every waking hour thinking about computer programming, passion can also come across when a developer talks to the skills that they have on their CV, whether that be hobbies, volunteering work or an unconventional educational degree.

The one thing that makes assessing passion easier for HR people is that developers love to show and share their work with one another. There are a multitude of platforms available that HR can examine to determine a developer’s passion for his or her job. Good developers, fundamentally, are makers, so it makes sense to look at the end result of their work whenever possible rather than reading about it abstractly on a piece of paper.

Sites like GitHub or Stack Overflow offer a treasure trove of activity and projects that your candidates may be working on, and these can be used to arm HR with relevant and personalised background information for the interview process as well. Stack Overflow has even recently launched Developer Story, its own take on the developer CV available to users for free.

Don’t hire a candidate just because they list buzzwords in their CV

Ask a recruiter and their ideal candidate will be one who fulfills every aspect of a role description and knows a company’s tech stack back to front. Unfortunately, such candidates are exceedingly hard to come by.  In fact, a candidate who isn’t intimately familiar with one of the programming languages that is being advertised can still be an excellent candidate. If a software developer is passionate about their work, and has an underlying foundation in computer science,  then it is not going to take them a great deal of time to become proficient in a new language.

Another factor that is far more important than the presence of a language on a CV is evidence of how a candidate works and a proven track record of achievement. Sure, a developer that has all the skills ahead of time can hit the ground running and be a knowledgeable member of the team, however completing work to deadlines is fundamentally the most important skill for any new employee.

It is therefore crucial to look for evidence that a candidate is able to see a project through to completion: because having a smart candidate who cannot take instruction is of no use to anyone. This trait is very difficult to accurately assess on paper, which is part of what makes CVs and cover letters so difficult to use. In my opinion it’s time for HR to accept that paper documentation is not the best way to assess a candidate’s thought patterns and ways of working, and these highly important traits are best left to in-person assessment.

When evaluating tech CVs it is vital to consider activities and skills from both the workplace and understanding the passion they display based on the things they’ve built. In the field of technical recruitment, even more than other verticals, a keyword based search is unlikely to unearth the strongest candidates. Evidence of a genuine passion for coding, a personalised cover letter illustrating research and interest in the company they are applying to and a track-record of delivering projects successfully and on time are much more important factors to consider when trying to attract the top tech talent.

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