Writing Your CV to Get Hired in a Product Role
Over the past few months, I’ve been either hiring manager or the one executing the hiring process for a number of product roles — product managers, product designers, product analysts. In this process, I’ve reviewed a ton of CVs, and many of them I had to reject immediately because the candidate made some easily avoidable mistakes. In this article, I’m going to give my perspective on some basics to get right.
Hiring managers and recruiters even at small companies get dozens or hundreds of applications for every opening. There simply is no time to spend more than a few seconds or at most a couple minutes reviewing each CV. It also means that hiring managers look more for cues that will eliminate the candidate than for cues why the candidate may fit the opening.
If your CV leaves some fundamental questions unanswered or raises any concerns, this often means an immediate disqualification. Your CV is static and can’t change in response to the hiring managers questions, so it is your task as a candidate to foresee the most important questions the hiring manager is going to have and answer them in the CV.
Please be aware, of course, that this is only my own perspective of a single hiring manager in a startup context — I was mostly doing the first CV screen, whereas in bigger companies or different contexts, a recruiter who might do more pattern matching might be the one doing the first screen. However, I would expect most of these recommendations to still hold.
The points I will touch on in this article are the following:
- Get a recommendataion
- Get the basics right
- Provide enough context
- Customize sufficiently
- Emphasize the right skills
- Make your pitch
1. Get a recommendation
This is the first point because it’s so important: If you were referred by someone already working at the company, your chances of at least making it to the phone screen increase tremendously. Once you are in the phone screen, you can have a conversation. You can understand any potential concerns and try to alleviate them. You can provide more in-depth examples of how your experience is relevant to the job than your CV ever could. You can show that you understand the company you are interviewing for and its challenges. You can make an overall positive impression so the interviewer thinks: ”this is someone I’d like to work with.”
Now, the trick is that most tech companies have a referral program, which means that someone who refers you gets a cash bonus if you get hired. As a candidate, you can use this to your advantage: even if you don’t know anyone at the company yet, try to network your way to someone who works at the company. Try to look for second or third degree connections on LinkedIn, go to relevant events, or even just cold email someone. Even someone who barely knows you will often be happy to put in a referral since the upside is the potential bonus, and the downside is none.
Of course, one might say that this is abusing the referral system that was designed for employees to refer someone they can personally vouch for. However, from my perspective as a hiring manager, if someone has put in the effort to get introduced to someone in the company and get a referral, they deserve to at least be spoken to anyway, so I’m happy to accept that.
The tips in the rest of this article apply in any case — regardless of whether you managed to get a personal referral or not, they are best practices that should be followed.
2. Get the basics right
It almost pains me to have to include a section on the absolute basics, but I get far too many CVs that break one of these rules. (Perhaps the people breaking those rules aren’t the ones reading articles like this, so I may be preaching to the choir).
Appearance: The nice thing about reviewing designer CVs is that they all look pretty. The same can’t be said about analyst CVs (although I do make it a bit of a hobby to spot the ones that were typeset in LaTeX). Now, of course, no one expects an analyst to have a CV that looks like a designer’s, but please get a few basics right. Font sizes and families shouldn’t suddenly change, bullets should be properly aligned, and in general the whole layout should be done in a way that makes it easy to digest. Some candidates try to get very creative with the layout of their CV, which is generally better than being sloppy, but a lot of time that doesn’t make it easier for the person reviewing the CV to find the most relevant information. Multiple columns are fine, though, and often make the CV more compact.
Side note: If you’re a designer, I’m sorry to say that you do have to put in a bit of extra effort. Who wants to hire a designer with a bland CV?
Spelling and grammar: While I’m not going to ding you for a spelling mistake or two, a CV that’s riddled with them is definitely a deal breaker. It’s about diligence: if you’re not even diligent enough to put together a CV without these mistakes, can I trust you to be diligent in your work? Especially if you’re not a native speaker in the language the CV is in, or you’re dyslexic, get someone to review the CV. Actually, that’s generally a good idea for anyone — after iterating over your CV a number of times, you can get blind to the details and might miss a spelling mistake you’d immediately spot in someone else’s CV.
Length: I’ve seen far too many excessively long CVs, which contain information that’s either redundant, not relevant to the position, or simply too verbose. As a rule of thumb: as a junior candidate, your CV should not be longer than one page. With less than 10 years experience, maximum two pages. Above that, three but only if you really, really need to. I’d argue it’s okay to just drop positions that are no longer relevant. Include a link to your LinkedIn profile if you want people to be able to check out your entire employment history including your internships and that side job as a barista in college. No hiring manager is looking for those in a senior candidate.
Ordering: Most people get this right, but occasionally I get the odd CV that’s ordered forward-chronologically or starts out with the education section for someone with professional experience. So here it is, again, in short: the most relevant/recent entry should be on top, which means in most cases that you start with a section about professional experience which starts with an entry about your previous job.
In cases where your most recent experience is not at all relevant to the position you are applying for, I would definitely recommend including a summary section on top which makes your pitch (more on that below).
Skills: I’ve seen CVs with excessive laundry lists of skills. I personally think that less is more for these skill lists. I would recommend to only include hard skills there that may be relevant to the position you are applying for, that are not easily obtained or ubiquitous.
Examples of what should be in: a Scrum master certification for a product manager or knowledge of R and Python for an analyst.
Examples of what shouldn’t be in: proficiency in Microsoft Office (ubiquitous skill), communication and presentation skills (not hard skills, better demonstrated in how you describe the jobs you had).
Provide enough context
Keeping in mind that your CV is going to get looked at for a few seconds only, make sure that you provide sufficient context for everything you include. What does that mean? For example, explaining what the companies you worked for do, especially if they are smaller companies that not everybody knows. In big companies, explain what division you were in or what product you were working on. If you had a generic job title that could mean a lot of different things, explain what it meant in practice.
Think about what you would tell a family member or friend about your experience. Would you tell them “I work at 8fit”, or would you rather say “I work at a company called 8fit, we make a workout and nutrition app”?
Your CV should match the opportunity you are applying for as good as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to re-write your CV entirely for each new opportunity. If you are applying to a few different types of roles, it is probably a good idea to have at least one version of your CV for each role. For example, at one point I was applying for product management and product strategy roles, and I had two different CVs that emphasized slightly different parts of my experience.
Some other factors to potentially customize for: which industry is the opportunity in? What is the business model (e.g., B2B or B2C)? What is the company size (startup or big corporate)?
Additionally, while cover letters have fallen out of favor, some online applications provide a “summary” field. While no one expects a full blown cover letter there, it’s a good place for your summary pitch as well as mentioning the company and role name a few times.
Emphasize the right skills
Look at the job description and the skills listed. Almost no one perfectly matches all of the requirements, so you probably don’t, either. When writing your CV, make sure you provide the most depth on those skills that match to 100% what is required in the job description.
For the skills that you don’t quite match, but you have some experience that might be transferable, explain that experience in a way that makes it easy to understand why it could apply to the new job.
Of the remaining experience you have, cut at least 80% — just so you provide sufficient context.
As an example, when I applied for my first job as a product manager, I was obviously lacking product management experience. I had technical skills (a computer science degree and work as a software developer as well as some co-founded failed startups), which I of course included. As a consultant, I had also done some product strategy work as well as planning of big software projects, which I explained in a way that would make it clear how this experience might come in handy as a product manager. In my consulting past, I also had done extensive work on org design and spent a lot of time working for clients in the petrochemical industry. Neither of those were immediately applicable to a product manager role, so I omitted them from the CV.
Make your pitch
As soon as you apply to any position, you should have a rough skeleton of your “pitch” in mind. With pitch I mean the story that you tell that covers at least the following points:
- Why are you a good fit for the job
- What unique benefits you bring to the table
- What makes you interested in the specific company and opportunity
- Why you want to change jobs at the current point in time
The first two points should come through already in your CV, the latter two you should mention latest in your first phone screen (even if not asked directly).
Being clear about your pitch makes sure that your entire CV is more than an accumulation of experience, but it is rather all directed at making one argument. Of course, your pitch may fail — the hiring manager might not “buy” it or might be looking for something different. But at least you’ve made your argument. If you just try to mention everything and anything you’ve done and might contribute, then the reality is that none of it will get through to whoever reads your CV (so in the end, you’ve not made any argument at all).
As an example, here’s the rough pitch that I had in mind when I first applied as a product manager:
I studied computer science, and while studying, started a couple of startups that never went anywhere, mostly because I knew how to write code, but not how a business works. To build up my knowledge in that area, I went into consulting after uni, and also did my MBA after a couple of years. In consulting, I mostly worked on projects that were either software related or in the technology industry, and that always straddled the boundary between business and technology. After five years in consulting, I am now ready to make a change again, because I want to be more directly involved in building software and getting my hands dirty. With my knowledge of both the business and technology side, product management is the ideal role for me.
I hope you found these points useful. If you did, feel free to Follow me on Twitter, where I share thoughts and articles on product management.