CV writing: Content & Example CV layout – An IT contractor's view

Your CV is your shop window
It's not exaggeration to say that the CV is the single most important document you possess as a contractor and you should not take any chances with its presentation or content. Sure, when the contract market is running high a shoddy note on the back of an envelope will get you work, but during tough times or when you really want that peach assignment, your CV is the defining instrument of your career. Mess with it at your peril.

Put simply, your CV's goal is to get you an interview with a client who will offer you a high-paid contract. Clients do not have the time to interview everybody, and must make valued judgments based on a quick scan of a CV – they are unlikely even to read a CV all that thoroughly, so first impressions really do count.

Yet despite the importance it is surprising that so many contractors really have no idea about making sure their CV is properly written and presented. Les Berridge, REC IT and Comms sector executive committee member, estimates that only 20% of CVs are very good, 40% okay, 30% poor and 10% are dreadful. For him, 40% of candidates rule themselves out because of how they write their CV.

Things hirers want to know immediately
Do not make the mistake of being in that 40%. There is simply no need. And it's simple to raise the bar. Is your CV presentable, readable, grammatically correct with no spelling mistakes? Does the CV display the required buzz words and technology? Does the CV show a background in similar projects and/or companies? If a reader can establish these three criteria instantly then they may well read beyond the last few roles and even into the qualifications and training sections. Because of the sheer size of the task and the boredom involved in reading perhaps hundreds of CVs any recruiter or client is looking for quick reasons to discount an applicant and not reasons to interview. It is only when all the possible grounds to throw a CV in the bin have been discounted that a positive search is made for those candidates to interview.

Recruitment companies have it worse
When considering the CV economy at recruitment companies it is even more apparent why you must take care to present your CV carefully.

Skills Market, a company that promotes a form of online CV called an iProfile and helps recruitment companies take advantage of the boom in online job-seeking, reports that the average recruiter looks at 750 CVs to generate 250 phone calls, to get 150 conversations, to put forward 15 CVs, to gain three interviews, to finally place one candidate.

It's known as the placement funnel, and it illustrates how hard your CV might have to work to make you the one in 750 that gets the job. Actually, it sounds worse than it is. Of the 750 most will simply be unavailable or will discount themselves with the wrong skills and experience, but it does illustrate how hard recruiters and clients must work to find you your contract. Any help you can offer, no matter how marginal it may seem, will be welcome, and it is vital therefore that your CV displays your skills and business experience in a priority position above all else.

Create an experience table
I and many of my contractor colleagues have found it useful to provide a summary of skills vs experience at the very beginning of our CVs to provide the at a glance facility to judge our talents.

These tables are popular among contractors and from my experience seem to do what they are supposed to. However, agent and REC spokesman Les Berridge says there is a tendency for contractors to make the tables overlong and unfocussed. They must focus on a core skill he says and adds, "Five years experience by a mediocre person doesn't mean they are any good."

Do keep the table short, concentrating on the core skills, development and programming languages, and even then only on the programming languages that are currently industry hot points and you wish to continue. This table is probably enough and it clearly shows the candidate is an experienced developer able to run small teams.

Roles Experience
Developer
Java, UML, Visual Age, Websphere, Oracle, XML, SQL, C/C++
10 Years
Development Team Leader 3 Years

Mechanical sorting
But do make sure all your experience is listed somewhere. When an agent receives a new job offer, the first thing they do is search the CV database for the buzzwords and then dispatch an email inquiring about your availability. If your CV does not have the buzzword in the correct format you will be lost.

It all helps
For the sake of a compact and neat CV I have in the past, removed subsidiary technologies that were not critical to the success of a project. Things like the application development environment, or the requirements database used. As the years have passed, these technologies have become increasingly important, not just for clients, but quality project processes, and companies look out for them even if they are "nice to haves" on a CV. So do not take them out, keep your key skills listed in the experience table but makes sure each position shows the relevant technology used.

But add contact details first
But for all this talk of writing a clear table and making sure your skills can be surmised in a jiffy, you should not put the table as the first thing on your CV. First things first, and that is your contact name and address, and a paragraph about you generally. Agents often remove your contact details from CVs before they go before a client.

Summary
Human readers like to feel they are dealing with another human being. They may only scan an introductory paragraph and contact address but they will appreciate it being there. (An example is in my CV style guide.)

The meat of your experience
Now that you've sorted out your contact-heading, experience table and summary paragraph, the rest of the CV is mundane and will probably only ever be glanced at. Everything clients and agents need to give you the job has already been said, and in less than a side of A4. Regardless of how many contracts you eventually take in your marathon 35 year career, the first page of your CV will get you through the door of all of them.

But what should the rest of the CV look like? A latest-first ordered list of positions giving a little bit of information about each position you have held – contract and permanent if you have a mix. The further back in time you go, the less information needs to be imparted, since the overall goal is to limit the whole CV to just 3 sides of A4, and you must also add your education and professional qualifications.

Example position details (start of CV)

Tails Systems, Birmingham May 2006 – Present

Software Process Manager, Hands on Software Architect/Designer.

  • J2EE, EJB
  • Eclipse IDE
  • IBM MQ Message Server
  • Rational Rose
  • UML

Developing an information management system for Totnes airport, Bert designed and documented the development team's working processes based around the RUP and other safety critical standards required of the transport industry. He helped architect and design the Java component systems and mentored new Java developers in Java programming.

The above entries are quite detailed, but by the end of the CV, maybe ten years earlier, simpler entries will do:

XMLComponents, Glasgow Apr 2004 – Apr 2006

Sales support consultant, Hands on Team leader.

  • Application server developed for component/service deployment over the internet.
  • J2EE, XML, EJB.
  • Visual Age IDE on Windows, targeted for Linux OS.
  • UML, Rational Rose.
  • JDBC to mySQL storage solution.
  • Java Servlet deployment, Apache running JServ.
  • XSLT translation of XML documents into HTML and WML.
  • DOM and Xpath.

E-commerce systems development from requirements to deployment planning.

Sales support including user guide, documentation and technical consultancy

In a complex role for a small consultancy, Bert designed an innovative application server then oversaw a technical team of four programmers ensuring targets, milestones and quality controls were met to deliver a commercial product. He wrote user documentation and technical marketing/sales information, including the company's website, and provided sales support in the form of technical proposals, designs and project plans.

Bert supervised the creation of solutions for Travel, Biochemistry and Event management e-commerce systems using the prototype product.

The point here is not to provide all the gritty details, but to build a foundation for your summary paragraph and experience table. Any prospective client will want to make sure your impressive summary stacks up against the rest of the CV, and the traditional list of contracts will do that very nicely without you needing to go overboard. Remember, the CV is there to help you get an interview, more detailed exposure of your experience can happen then.

End matter or critical info?
Now we get to the point in the CV where nobody is reading anymore and nobody really cares; education, hobbies and qualifications. The contract market is not like the permanent job market, and your survival depends on doing a good job in the prescribed time. Clients will offer a role based on your CV and interview performance, and while qualifications and where you went to school have a bearing, they are less important. Having a degree in one subject or another does not prove you are a project manager, but successive year long contracts at well-known companies more than show your competence.

Professional qualifications
More and more companies however, particularly in the financial sector, are adopting verifiable operating processes. This has come about through a number of accounting scandals and the too-numerous-to-count high profile IT failures. The interest has been partly driven by regulation with the likes of BASEL and SOX, and partly by industries' desire to get better results. But it means that the way a company works is audited and checked, and that usually includes their processes for appointing freelancers.

The company might, for example, as a matter of principle only take contractors with a verifiable 2:1 degree in an IT based subject. Or it might mean that certain freelancers must be professionally qualified, of which there are an increasing number of schemes and certifications available. The idea is to drive up quality and to prove that steps are being taken to do so.

Therefore, where a qualification becomes a necessity for you, or it is considered important in your sector, do not hide it down at the end of the CV but put it in your summary paragraph, e.g. "Ben Dover, ITIL, MSCE has twenty years experience of network administration..." and put this section after the summary paragraph.

A word about hobbies
Well, I do know some contractors who still put personal stuff like hobbies at the end of the CV and wax lyrical about their five-a-side prowess, or how they photograph iron bridges at the weekend.

The feeling is that the hobbies section provides a little bit of space to add a sprinkle of personality. If you have personality then excellent, but you have to be careful your hobbies say less about you than you think and proclaiming your habit of dressing in leather trousers and running round a field hitting goblins with a rubber sword is probably giving too much away.

In my opinion hobbies are best left until you have secured the contract based on your professional skills. After that, feel free to talk about your love of herb-gardening to your heart's content. And besides, if you are a successful contractor, your CV will simply not have enough room for such nonsense.

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Editor's notes: Further reading IT contractor CV template guide here.