As a small software company, we at Simplificator handle the entire hiring process on our own. We find that gives us the best results. I've been helping review job applications and interview candidates for more than 4 years. Here are some things I've observed that influence the success of an application.
I look for two things in a motivation letter:
- interest for the job position or company;
- how the person's experience relates to the job offer.
Interest for the company
A single person has a big impact in a small company. That's why it's important that everyone finds their work meaningful and motivating. It's hard to tell if that's the case before the trial period, but you get a hint if you work through a representative problem together during technical interviews. If I have to choose who to interview, I'd rather pick candidates who've given enough thought about whether they'd like this particular job.
Show you've done research:
- Write to the listed contact instead of "Dear Sir/Madam".
- If the offer says fluency in a language is a requirement, write the motivation letter in that language. It's okay to keep your CV in another language.
- Look for public information about the company (from its website, blog, sponsorships, conference talks, etc.) and mention something you like or identify with.
The last one is not about flattery. Even if you don't find anything "exciting" about the company, surely there's something you could get out of working there, besides money. Do you want to learn a specific skill? Do you want to gain experience in a company of a certain size? Do you want to change your work mode to improve your work-life balance? Answering such questions doesn't just help a company decide whether they want to work with you. It also helps you refine your job search.
Demonstrating how your experience fulfills the requirements
Don't just say "I fit the job description perfectly". Give concrete examples of how you meet the criteria in the job listing.
It's tempting to just rephrase the contents of the CV. Instead, try highlighting which skills or specific parts of past jobs relate to this offer.
Counter-intuitively, stating in which ways you don't fit the job description and how you plan to address that can play in your favour as well. Job offers often make it sound like companies are looking for a candidate who fits a certain mold. However, the right hire can also transform their job for the benefit of the entire team. If you're unsure about the strictness of the requirements, get in touch with the company to clarify. A phone call can give you a new perspective.
Include experience from areas of work other than the core role for which you are applying. Your expertise will be valuable in a small company which cannot have a specialist in every field. As an example, here are some skills from seemingly unrelated domains that remain relevant at a software agency:
- former translator - you have good writing skills, the languages you know could give access to new markets. This is particularly important in countries with multiple language regions, like Switzerland.
- government job - you understand how procurement/tendering works
- background in a niche industry - you understand domain processes and have ideas on how to optimize them; that could be an opportunity for a new product or a partnership
- background in any client facing job - you know how to talk to customers, negotiate, etc.
General CV advice - like keeping it short and structuring it around impact - still applies.
Companies may ask to send them a product of your work, especially for technical positions. Sometimes that is a take-home assignment, sometimes it's an extract from prior work.
Take-homes are time-consuming when applying for multiple positions, so we prefer a sample from existing work. We also request something similar for non-technical positions (see below).
If you need to provide a code sample, make it easy to find and read. The reviewer won't know what to look for if you've linked your entire GitHub profile.
Point to a specific piece of code you're proud of or find interesting. That could be a class or module. It could be a single commit that fixes a bug with a commit message explaining when and why the bug occurs, why your fix works and what alternatives there are.
"I can't share code written for my current employer"
You don't have to. It's also okay if you don't have a side-project and don't code outside of work. However, if applying at multiple companies, consider creating something small that you can present to all of them.
- try solving a problem you've encountered at a previous job in a new manner
- contribute to an open source library you use: check the open issues, try to reproduce one. Attach a failing test case or a reproduction script. If you know enough about the project internals, you could even coordinate with the maintainers and open a pull request with a fix.
Other types of work samples
Your line of work does not involve coding? You can still describe how you work. Maybe you can share a blog post about how you solved a problem at work, or a presentation you've given about an achievement. Feel free to link to them in your cover letter or CV.