3 Steps to the Best Programmer's Cover Letter

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The other day I found myself giving advice and revisions to a fellow PHP programmer about his cover letter for his next job application. That really inspired me to help out and write this entry.

I’ve had a lot of experience hiring programmers, so I thought I’d take a look at this fellow’s cover letter. After quickly reviewing it, I realized it was just a shortened version of his resume and maybe one personal paragraph. This won’t do! I wanted him to be successful.

The Connection Letter

Really, the cover letter should be called the connection letter. Whether it’s the email that is sent with an attached resume, or an actual letter attached to the resume, the purpose of this letter is to connect to the recipient. Automated systems scan the resume for keywords - and sometimes the HR department does a cursory glance over it to make sure it passes a few filters - but that cover letter is really what connects with the hiring manager.

When a hiring manager reviews your resume with a cover letter - they have two choices: read the cover letter and then the resume, or skip over the letter and just look for qualifications. You have precious few seconds to grab attention with this cover letter (come to think of it, it’s like a marketing webpage in that way). So, make them count. Otherwise, they’re going to do what I did a lot: skip over the cover letter and scan the resume to see if this is an extremely well qualified candidate - because they sure can’t write.

The Three Steps

So, you know you have to grab attention, but what else do you need to do? Add clarification beyond the resume details and share your personality. We all know that the official hiring stance is to hire the best qualified person for the job, but managers are hiring based on personality also. The power of the team is stronger than just the individual, so you must be a good fit - and someone that they want to spend at least 8 hours of their life with every day.

So, let’s get into the three steps - or three parts of the connection letter.

Step 1: Grab Attention

Those first few sentences are where you need to get the attention of the reader. But, how do we do that? Simple - we focus on their needs at this exact moment.

See, we know that the reader has a very big problem, and since they’re reading resumes right NOW, they’re focusing on that right now. We actually have the upper hand because we know exactly what the focus of the reader is: they need to solve a problem - and that problem is getting some more work done.

I bet you thought I’d say getting a great programmer on the team? Nope - the actual need is getting more work done. The programmer is just the path to get to the solution. So often I see programmers begin their cover letter with descriptions of their history or their qualifications. But, that doesn’t meet the need - the need is to get more work done. The solution is to get a good programmer in there to reduce the workload. So, we know exactly what we have to do.

First step is to connect with the need. You may want to talk about the work load, connect with them about their busy schedules, etc. Whatever fits your personality style. The point is to stay away from “I” and focus on them. Bonus points if you do a bit of research and can actually address particular needs they might have. The end of this is to transition to how you can fit that need.

Step 2: Indirectly Fit Their Need

This is where you can to speak about yourself. Here you can share a summary of your experience. And even better yet, if you can find a way to relate a personal project or a work project to the current business, that’s great! This is the place to quickly summarize the resume, but more so to add additional detail on a few key points that relate to this position.

This means that you need to be intimately familiar with the job posting. A standard cover letter will not suffice for this step. You must take the time to tailor your qualifications to fit this position - otherwise you’re just summarizing your resume and bragging. And, I bet you’d rather get the job than just brag to the hiring manager.

I’ve heard from some programmers in the past that they’re too busy applying to write custom cover letters. Hogwash! Hogwash I say! There are two things wrong with this statement. First, if you’re job hunting, you have the time. Instead of working 8 hours today, you’re just applying for jobs. Trust me, you have the time. Put away the PS4, xBox, Cheetos and self-pity, plop yourself down in front of this computer, and write write write!

The second reason this statement irks me is because of the quality vs quantity argument. If you’re so busy applying for so many jobs like this, chances are you’re applying for the wrong jobs. Slow down and focus on the ones that you may be a good fit for. If you invest the time in pitching just a few jobs, those will work out for you. Trust me, I received a lot of resumes when I was hiring for programmers - but the ones that actually stood out were the ones that I saw took time to invest in their cover letter and resume. See, if you can’t take the time to invest in the application process, I don’t know if I’ll trust you to spend the proper time doing the work.

Step 3: Confidently Submit Yourself

The last section of the cover letter is to do the ask. A lot of us programmers are used to working in the background and not having to do a lot of sales. Some of us are introverts. And by and large, many of the most talented programmers just don’t act confidently enough when it comes to the application process.

You’ve worked hard to get to this point, so it’s time to show it. Instead of asking if it’s ok for a phone call or response, carefully tailor your last few sentences into a confident requests for times that you can chat with the hiring manager. The subtle difference here is that you’re showing that you know you’re a fit for the position and you have every intention of moving forward. There was nothing that turned me off from a candidate more than their lack of close at the end. It almost seemed like they weren’t interested in the position by the time they got to the end of the letter. I’ve seen it shift from a job-seeker to job-hirer and back and forth market. But, regardless of who “has the power,” it’s important to understand that this is a two way conversation with give and take on both sides. You are planning on spending a third of your life here for the foreseeable future, so act like it!

Bonus Step: The PS

When you apply to a programming job, you should be ready to stand on your merits alone. Just because a friend referred you doesn’t necessarily mean that the hiring manager should look upon you more fondly. In fact, it can be a distraction. So instead, I suggest using any referral as your PS. Once you’ve (hopefully) successfully made your case to have the hiring manager move past your cover letter and truly evaluate your resume, this is where you drop the last bomb on them. Your referral.

The best way to put this is something that just mentions the referral had good things to say or thought you’d be a great fit. You may even joke about having to buy them lunch or something in return for the great connection they’ve made. But, point being, it should be a light-hearted name-drop and not a demand. I’ve seen people use phrases like “so and so recommended me, so you know I’m good.” Woah! Hell no - don’t do that.

End Notes

I know there is a lot of competing information out there, especially from higher level educational institutes about what a cover letter and a resume should be. I really believe that these people are trying their best to give a good answer to the millions of applications out there. But, programming is different, programmers are special. This job is hard and there is a lot of competition. Remember, you’re not writing a cover letter, you’re writing a connection letter. This is the time to share your personality, to make connections with the hiring manager, and to show you care about the position. Now, start writing better cover letters and win those jobs!

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