Are cover letters a waste of time? Short answer: yes (at least in the world of web development). For the longer answer—and some winning strategies to get you to the interview stage—keep reading our interview with Micah Jaffe, CTO at FairLoan Financial, a seed stage startup fixing financial services starting with small consumer lending. BTW, Micah is currently looking for a front-end dev. Find the deets below.
What is your current job title? Which positions do you review applications for?
I’m the CTO for FairLoan Financial. I’ve been hiring primarily for software development. In fact, we’re looking for a front-end dev right now.
What are some things that college students can do to make their applications stand out?
A résumé is just a starting point. I look for the candidate on Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, GitHub, StackExchange, MeetUp, Quora, etc. looking for hobby projects (demos, apps, open source, etc.) and developer community participation or blogging.
The easier they make that from their résumé, the better. Outside of that sort of sleuthing, I look at the usual suspects of: previous work and internships, school, degree (probably in that order).
Which majors tend to be most successful in the positions you review applications for? Which majors would you like to see more applications from?
For software developers, obviously Computer Science. Math, Econ, Engineering (any flavor), Design, Music, and Psychology all rate well with me as long as they have had at least a couple years building software either as their studies or hobby. Depends on the role, but I expect college hires to not come in with an immediately useful skill set, so I look for sharp enthusiasm for the company or industry.
What are some things you look for in résumés and cover letters? Are there any things that would send an applicant to the “no” pile right away?
Cover letters are a waste of time. One or two sentences at the top of the résumé summarizing interests and ideals is better. Résumés longer than two pages out of college are ridiculous. If something is on a résumé, be prepared to talk about it. I don’t look at awards, GPA, or scholarships, but I might ask you about it in the interview. I might look up a listed publication, patent, or media coverage and probably read it if it looks interesting.
If there’s even a slight positive vibe I’ll schedule a 10 to 20-minute Skype or Google Hangout session to see how well they can communicate their experience, expectations, and so on back to me. Lack of confidence, being late, inability to explain things well, dismissive attitudes, or general apathy get dropped like a hot plate. Sense of humor and able to roll with the unexpected rate highly. I might do some pair programming in that session if it’s going well.
The bad smell detector is a hard one to describe. I say “no” more often than not.
What steps would you recommend a student take to best prepare for a career in this field?
Learn humility. Because you can be hired anywhere as a software developer does not make it itself a vital component of being good at your job. Fifteen+ years in Silicon Valley have given me some archetypes to work with and prima donnas are ones to avoid.
Software development is team driven. It could be entirely anecdotal but I’ve found smart kids who have had to learn how to work as part of a team elsewhere (sports, music, etc.) fit faster and require less hand-holding.
Learn hierarchy. Even in a “flat” environment, giving respect earns respect. Honesty and severity do not need to share the same emotional investment.
Network early, often. Don’t live in a cave. Who you know helps you all the time whether it’s working through a gnarly programming problem or finding your next job.
Keep learning. What you know for what you need to get done can often shift dramatically even in a year. Being good at and specializing a skill set can keep your paychecks fat for four to five years, but that doesn’t mean it will keep you happy or fulfilled for the long run.
What is the biggest mistake you see candidates make when interviewing for positions as front-end developers? What do the best candidates do to stand out in an interview for front-end developer positions?
Things I don’t want to hear:
“I’ve never thought of that.”
“I did this once before, but I can’t remember now.”
“There’s a library for that.”
“That’s reinventing the wheel.”
“(obviously memorized response rattled out in 20 sec followed by the big O notation)”
Better things to say:
“I haven’t looked as deeply into that as you’re asking, here’s what I know…”
“Can I look that up?”
“If I weren’t using this library, here are some things I’d try…”
“I really like YUI, ExtJS, less of a fan of jQuery, here’s why…”
“You’re asking me to reinvent the wheel, why?”
“I’ve seen this question a lot, here’s the answer, here’s why it’s a good (or bad) interview question…”
In general, good candidates keep a conversation going, aren’t attempting to nail what feels like the right answer first, fast. Thoughtful discourse is a winner even if it’s wandering into a blind alley. Backtracking and recovering are important skills. Smart questions about the business are awesome. Debates in the interview are not.
That said, I think a lot of technical interviewers suck. Most technical interviews even at some of the best companies are no better than what feels like an uncomfortable mix of logic puzzles and dating. I steal good interviewing ideas, reuse my own that have worked. I interview with real problems, often directly with a problem-of-the-day in-development product. Final interviews often mean signing an NDA and working with us half a day pair programming with one or two of my team. By that point I take stock of what the team thinks and go from there.
Homework time! Brainstorm a list of some common interview questions, and think of how you would answer them in the way that Micah suggests. Extra credit: Find someone who will read the questions to you and let you practice your answers out loud.