Sent from my wireless device.

I've recently found myself typing "Sent from my wireless device" at the end of an email sent from my desktop. It's shorthand for "You know this is just email, right?"

Some people react to perceived tone in email, a medium in which we compose in a hurry, usually while distracted. Emails that are written for the optimal distribution of information can seem terse, almost dismissive; and can provoke emotional reactions that get in the way of actual work.

We all need to remind one another that emails are not letters. The best email writers are careful and reread before hitting 'send' – but if you're spending hours composing emails, with sensitivity for tone instead of clarity, selecting synonyms to avoid every possibility of slight, then you're probably doing it wrong. Instead, try this: include some cues that, hey, this is email: don't read too much into it. The occasionally spelling or grammatical error, provided that it does not obscure meaning, serves the same function.

Posted from my wireless device.

How to get an interview

A complete departure and absolutely nothing to do with Portishead, I promise; or even, particularly, books or music. I was going to call this post "how to get a job" but in truth it's more like "how to apply for a job," or, at best, "how to get an interview." Last year I posted several job positions in Random House of Canada's digital team; for one of them I received – over a 10-day period – over 80 applications. Only two of those, as far as I could tell, were automated responses; the rest all showed some signs of someone having read the job description, assembled a resume and cover letter, and made a decision to send them. In other words, they went to the trouble. But not all of them went to very much trouble, and not all of them put thought into reducing my trouble.

Since I just posted another position and found that I was steeling myself for the same experience, I thought I'd post my ideas on what a well-assembled job application should look like.

(Note to future applicants: you should be able to figure out who I am with a couple of minutes of Googling, which is the very, very least bit of preparation you should do before a job interview. And now that I've posted this, I will expect you to have read this before applying.)

So here are my pushy and opinionated tips for your application package. YMMV, obviously.

1. Remember that you're trying to get an interview

Your cover letter and resume are not there to get you the job. You have to do that on your own. You have to do it in conversation (more on that later). Your cover letter and resume are to get you into an interview – and perhaps somewhat to define the terms of that interview. When you're preparing your materials, and trying to reduce their length, ask yourself this question: will this piece of information get me an interview for this particular job? Yes, you might need to include that period of minimum wage work in a completely different industry to explain a resume gap (we all have them, nowadays), but you don't need four bullet points underneath to explain exactly what you did. Company, title, dates. Move on. For jobs or education or anything else with specific applicability to the job for which you are applying, no more than 3-4 bullet points to summarize the responsibilities of your role and highlight some specific achievements.

2. Keep it brief

Everybody gets so many applications for a job that sifting through them very quickly turns – despite anyone's best intentions – into "give me a reason to reject this application." We'll look for anything: spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, or just being bored (this is especially true in content industries; if you're applying for a writing/marketing job, you absolutely don't want to seem boring). The longer your letter/resume goes on, the higher the chance you'll make a mistake. Here's how you want it to go down: "this looks professional; he/she has pertinent experience; I've reached the end." There's no alternative action left to the hiring manager other than to set up an interview. Your cover letter – properly laid out like a letter with addresses and everything else in the right place – should not exceed a single page. Your resume should ideally not exceed one page; I personally dream of receiving one-page resumes but will settle for two. No more.

Here's how you successfully prepare a brief resume: somewhere (and LinkedIn can be that place) you store a full-length resume. Every job; and for every job a list of your main responsibilities and some key achievements.*

This is your 'master resume'. When you are applying for a specific job, you take this master resume and selectively remove non-applicable pieces. Now, you can't cheat: if only one aspect of your last job was applicable, but it was only 5% of your responsibilities, you can't remove everything else and give the impression that it was 100% of your responsibilities. And you may have to reword things slightly. But the point is that you are not re-writing your resume every time you apply to a job. You are editing it down to size.

That size is 1-2 pages.

* (Why highlight some key achievements? Because it demonstrates that, for you, work is not just showing up at 9am every day and executing some tasks. Rather, you understand that work is for the purpose of achieving things. This is a clue to prospective managers: you are the kind of person who can perceive objectives and align your tasks against those objectives. You are not a task drone. Capable managers dread managing task drones because they are time vampires and cannot participate in change without unleashing contagious anxiety germs into the team.)

3. Show that you read the job posting

This is basic. Don't say "this role" or "this position" in place of the job title. Don't say "Dear Sir/Madam" in place of the name of the hiring manager if it is something you can ascertain from the job posting or some simple detective work (i.e., Google). Don't say "your company" in place of the company in question. All of that shows that you have a generic letter/resume ready to send at the slightest opportunity. That's rude. It will only guarantee that you will not get an interview. Moreover:

4. Show that you thought about the job posting

Seriously. What is it that excites you about this role? Say it. This is what your cover letter is for. Is the job in an industry that is undergoing exciting change? If so: what is it, and why is it exciting? Is the job at an industry-leading company, or an underground boutique startup, or working with a particularly impressive team? Say so and explain why that appeals to you. By doing so, you demonstrate that you are thoughtful about the opportunity and your career, that you have the committment to do some research, and you allow your prospective employer to imagine how you might contribute to the team or the company. If your cover letter is all about you, and not at all about the position or the company or the industry, it's harder for a prospective manager to see how you might fit into the role.

5. Cut out all the top shit

We've all seen the resumes that open with 'Objective', 'Highlights', or 'Profile'. Please don't do that. Really. It's my #1 pet hate. I never, ever read it. Why? Because that isn't what I'm looking for in your resume. That's in your cover letter, where it exists in two or three sentences and doesn't convey the same bland set of meaningless qualities that everyone else touts. Maybe you are an "independent self-starter" or an "effective multitasker," but I'm afraid that these claims are going to be completely ignored because of their use by people who are emphatically not any of those things, usually don't realize it, but nonetheless claimed so at the top of their resume. If you genuinely do possess these qualities, I'm going to be able to infer them from the quickly summarized specific achievements in specific roles on your resume. If you led a set of specific process improvement initiatives with specific results in your last job, I'm going to know that you are an independent self-starter capable of working within and across teams with a results-orientated approach. Show, don't tell.

When I open a resume, I'm fairly quickly looking to get a sense of what you have done, not who you are. Your attitude, intelligence, and approach should all have come across (briefly!) in the cover letter. When I get to the resume, I really, really don't want to come across a trailer. Especially a boring one.

6. [Advanced tip] You know what? Instead, open with something like this:

If you insist upon a summary at the top of your resume, then summarize in a visually coherent manner your experience. Solve the resume problem that, as its reader, I face: trying to figure out what the hell all this stuff is, when you did it, for how long, and how has led us to the current situation.

Now, as you can see, I have a spectacularly complicated professional history because I changed my mind a number of times and it took me until very very recently to find a single job that united my interests in software and writing. For quite a while I was doing several things at once. But if I can assemble this incoherent professional history into a clean infographic (I did it in garden-variety spreadsheet software, by the way) then you probably can too. (If anyone is really interested, I'll post a how-to guide another time.)

7. Resist the temptation to design your resume

Clean and well-organized, please. Clean segregation of distinct jobs or periods in your career. Specific dates (months helps). Most people put working experience ahead of education so that the current/last job is at the top, but if you've only recently finished school, that's fine; by all means put education at the top. (If you use #6 you'll pretty much solve the problem.)

Above, all remember this: resumes have one design problem to solve. That design problem is:

  • How should this information be best laid out in order to clearly and quickly communicate it?

It is not:

  • What can I do to ensure that my resume stands out from everyone else's resume?

Why not? Remember #2: I'm likely looking for the first possible excuse to put your resume down and move onto the next one. A really really good excuse would be that in order to understand your resume I needed to reorient my entire understanding of visual hierarchy or design conventions. Your task here is to make me think less, not more. You want your resume to look like a job application, not a Futurist manifesto.

So:

  • Try not to use glaring colour schemes, background images, etc.
  • Your resume should be no more than three colours.
  • Two of those colours should be (1) black and (2) white.
  • Clue: the pages should be white.
  • A third colour may be used discreetly for accents (e.g. headings, dividing lines, etc).

The best-designed resume I have ever seen was put together by a young and talented intern who was applying for a full-time position. It looked something like this:

See how clear that is?

  • How should this information be best laid out in order to clearly and quickly communicate it?

Here's a rule of thumb:

If you are a design professional and you are applying for a design job, by all means spend a great deal of time thinking about the design of your resume. If you are not, avoid anything that might risk abominable personal branding exercises, clip art, and idiosyncratic attempts to reinvent our collective perception of time.

8. Send a single attachment

Oh, and that reminds me: I rather like the single-document pdf attachment. So you're including one file with your email (your email, by the way, should be a single sentence, something like "please find attached materials to support my application for the role of Web Analytics Specialist at Steamworks Analytics"). This attachment is a pdf; the first page is your cover letter (properly laid out) and the second (and maybe third) pages are your resume. This single document is wonderful because I can print it easily and quickly for myself or anyone else; pdf has the additional advantage of preserving your resume's coherent (see #7) layout and means it will display consistently on my laptop, phone, or wherever else I'm trying to open it.

9. Read the instructions

It the job posting asks you to include links that showcase your work, include links that showcase your work. Your best work. Ideally recently. If you don't have recent pertinent work: should you really be applying for this job? If it's a job that involves writing copy, you should probably be able to demonstrate that you can write copy, even if your current gig isn't writing copy.

10. Use a professional email address

When I say we end up looking for any reason to reject an application – see #2, above – this includes an email address like ilikemesomehoneyandfireworks@gmail.com or gina@iamasexyginbunny.com. Please.

Against Experience

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

I've interviewed a large number of people over the last year or so for entry- and intermediate-level retail analyst positions. One of the most frustrating challenges is how to effectively screen applicants at the pre-interview stage. With only a resume to go on (usually with one of those bland and pointless "objective statements"), along with a cover letter and horribly formatted extended online profile courtesy of Monster.com, you inevitably fall back on experience: has this applicant performed a comparable role in a comparable institution in the past? If yes, bring them in for an interview. If no, move on. It's the only way to get through a large quantity of applications, not to mention the ungovernable ocean of prose that comes with them.

The trouble is that experience can be an incredibly poor predictor of performance. This is especially true for positions where the accumulation of 'soft skills' or a full Rolodex of professional contacts -- managerial positions, negotiating roles -- is not a prerequisite.

In fact, investing your labour resources in experience can carry a high degree of risk. The acceptable level of professional analytics in most businesses is incredibly low, and retraining somebody against a new set of expectations can be time-consuming and alienating for the employee ("this wasn't the job I signed up for"). Indeed, sometimes an apparently "underqualified" person who can vault through the initial screening process via a personal recommendation can be brought up to speed much faster and develop a much stronger voice in the business as a result.

So why, when we all rely on online screening services for our hiring processes, do we fall back on this mainstay of a paper-based economy? Why don't more companies take the opportunity to attach problems or assignments to their job postings, to encourage applicants to show their skills, approaches, and processes?

In fact, given everything I've had to say about social media of late, maybe I'd be better off just checking out their Twitter feed.

And I Don't Much Want Your Business Card Either

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

For various reasons too boring to get into, I've been handed an awful lot of business cards over the last few months. It was a relief, while attending BookCamp Toronto a couple of weeks ago, to escape the day w entirely ithout any of those sorry floppy items being apologetically proffered. I felt like some kind of temporary respite had been granted from my tenure in an extended episode of Life on Mars. What was behind it, of course, was that most of the participants at BookCamp had made the leap that something like Twitter is not just an improvement on Cro Magnon technologies like email, but geological epochs ahead of the Neanderthal business card.

That's not just because you have to carry business cards around and remember to input them into some kind of storage system later (usually, let's be honest, the desk drawer). And it's not just because, while they are occasionally gorgeous, creative, and inspiring, business cards usually showcase the most appalling and amateurish use of appalling and amateurish typefaces like Comic Sans. Let's not even mention the clip art.

No: these folks didn't give out business cards because exchanging contact details is, counter-intuitively, pretty much the worst way to go about developing contacts. It places an enormous burden upon first impressions and upon your powers of recall. Is that person you met several months ago at a technology conference really the right person to email about the idea you have just had at work? Did the person seem reliable and personable? Can I glean some insight into either of these questions from the sorry-looking creased piece of tree bark in front of me? Probably not. So I just won't bother.

The barriers of the medium just prevented me from getting something done.

Following someone new on Twitter, by contrast, allows you to enter their orbit -- to see what they think on the topics which, presumably, are of some shared interest. And, because of the mixture of personal and professional that Twitter allows, permits, and almost requires, you can develop some sense of whether their approach to life is likely to be conducive to yours. It will also allow you to get a glimpse into this new person's ability to engage (and survive) in a medium that allows all of that to happen. Does this person seem good at managing multiple streams of their life -- and maintaining the contacts necessary to do so?

You can then use Twitter to continue to lurk until an opportunity presents; to participate in a public conversation which by default is a casual interaction requiring less formal follow up; or to contact them privately via a direct message.

What's more, because there is only a single piece of information -- the username directly associated with you -- you don't risk losing every potential contact the moment that your phone number changes and those pieces of card you so diligently distributed become, everywhere, instantly, obsolete. (For those who simply can't live without lines and lines of personal contact information that you have to remember to update whenever they change, you may want to check out twtBizCard.)

In short, exchanging contact details is a waste of time. Don't give me a list of fourteen different means to contact you and try to entice me into doing it via some showy logo design. Give me access to your orbit. I'll take it from there.

First thing tomorrow morning, destroy your business cards. Let's make a stand.

Don't Tell Me Your Email Address

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

An interesting generational moment (one of many, to be entirely honest) at BookCamp Toronto yesterday. At the end of one session, the panel made a plea for all concerned to share any ideas, practices, or projects that might overlap with (or contribute to) the initiative that the team had spend the last 50 minutes outlining. A member of the audience asked for the resource at which this sharing would take place.

One of the panel members pointed to the email address that he had pinned to the wall about fifteen minutes earlier.

There was an awkward collective silence -- one of those "ah, what?" moments -- as everyone realized that, yes, that email address (an email address) was going to be the conduit for idea-sharing and contact management for the project.

Email is a terrible media for this kind of thing, and to this crowd -- a significant proportion of which had their Twitter usernames pinned to their chests through the day -- it carried a heavy implicit message. Email is not only a closed hatch, behind which activity is invisible, but it also suggests a very distinct model of information management. By emailing your information or ideas to someone, you are putting yourself at their disposal. It's a private communication vessel -- entirely inappropriate to a public plea for information sharing, and implicitly antithetical to an open source model of participatory innovation. And it's completely dependent on the recipient's ability to efficiently manage their inflow of information -- not something that most people are good at.

Twitter, to pick only the most obvious contrast, may allow for private 'direct messaging', but it is a public medium. The default means of a conversation -- the @ reply syntax -- makes the dialogue visible for all to see.

Positioning your email address as a the place at which I should post my ideas or contact details requires that I trust you to efficiently do the following things:

  1. Receive and record my information.
  2. Understand it completely, not only within the terms which I used to express it, but in all the possible implications it might carry for other people coming from a complete diversity of backgrounds.
  3. Distribute it to the most suitable members of the community.
  4. Do all of the above in a timeframe that is most appropriate to my ideas and best rewards my sense of engagement with the project.
  5. Warehouse all of that information in such a way that you can repeat steps 1-4 if someone new comes to the table later whose ideas and identity might have a fruitful relationship to my own.

In short, you're asking me to bet on your superhuman efficiency to understand information in all its possible permutations and maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of the network. But for most people of my generation that just isn't how we're used to interacting with the world. We like the instant public archiving of the internet (including the kudos and bragging rights that that provides), and the distributed networking that exposure to the crowd allows. In short, we'd rather rely on a network to do the things that a network does well.

I can understand that the team at this presentation might not yet have had time to put together a robust software solution (a forum? wiki?) at which open participation might take place. But a Twitter username or hashtag would have been better -- much better -- than someone's email address. Particularly when the topic was technological innovation. You guys know that email is 40 years old, right?