What Matters Most (Job Hunt Advice)

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Recently I’ve had the opportunity to review a number of resumes and cover letters, both through my professional endeavors and because of inadvertent posts to the DC PHP list from people replying to job postings.

One thing that strikes me as odd is the number of people who send cover letters riddled with errors.

For example:

dear sirs,

Im interested in applying for the position your advertising. I have 5 years experience developing applications. I attach a copy of my resume for your consideration.


Two things to note: first, this was made up, based on a common set of mistakes. Second, I’m presuming for the moment that the developer applying is a native English speaker and not someone from another country.

I’ve heard the argument that developers aren’t necessarily great writers, nor do they need to be. But I reject that argument for two reasons. First, email communications are critical to business and yes, though the message was communicated effectively, the message is still riddled with errors.

Second, poor English reflects on your programming abilities.

How so?

Programming languages are not that different from actual languages: each has a set of syntactical rules, a set of conventions, a set of best practices, and a way of doing things that’s specific to that language.

If you haven’t taken the time to learn how to communicate in your native language, what makes me think you’re going to be a capable programmer?

Developers, as you prepare cover letters and resumes, please read through them and have others do so, as well. Syntax is as important in English as it is in PHP; knowing the difference between your and you’re or there/their/they’re does matter, as does proper form in a formal letter (even if it’s being sent through email). Don’t jeopardize your chances by writing a crappy cover letter or resume.

Brandon Savage is the author of Mastering Object Oriented PHP and Practical Design Patterns in PHP

Posted on 3/29/2009 at 12:00 am
Categories: Personal Management
Tags: , , , ,

gasper_k (@gasper_k) wrote at 3/29/2009 5:31 am:

Interesting point and to some extent fairly valid. The difference I see is that a natural language syntax is far more complex than any programming language syntax. Not only that, but NL syntax isn’t even always logical, and has many exceptions, while PL syntax follows a (small) set of strictly enforced rules. So, not knowing NLS doesn’t necessarily say much about your knowledge of PLS.

I would agree, though, that people should learn to write better. I get a nervous tic every time I see a statement like “They brought there kids …”


Shahar Evron (@shevron) wrote at 3/29/2009 8:44 am:

Interesting post – especially as I was just going over someone’s CV :)

I somewhat disagree with your point that “Syntax is as important in English as it is in PHP”. The big difference is that humans are pretty flexible with what they can understand. We can all easily understand the sentence you put as an example, but making similar mistakes in a programming language would either not compile, or worse – will compile but not work. Programming languages are way more restrictive than human languages, for the simple reason that the human ability to interpret language is far more flexible than computer language interpreters. This is of course for a good reason.

English is a second language for me (maybe even third, after BASIC (; ) and I can tell you that personally, I have to think 3 times when using “its” vs. “it’s” or “your” vs. “you’re”. I’ve probably used the word “asses” several times in official documents to presented to customers when I meant to use “assess”.

The syntax rules of PHP are much simpler – and PHP is very permissive in that sense – e.g. there are some developers who don’t know the difference between (1 == true) and (1 === true) or between $array[KEY] and $array[‘KEY’]. But once you learn the differences, they come to you naturally, unlike the rules of a written language (esp. if it’s your 2nd or 3rd language).

That said, I do think that someone who doesn’t proof-read (and ask someone else to proof-read) his *cover letter* is just not trying hard enough.

Sean Coates (@coates) wrote at 3/29/2009 10:52 am:

Two additional points:
– Spelling and grammar are a sign of intelligence. I have a hard time respecting the intellect of otherwise intelligent people if they can’t spel or right.
– Spelling is very important when you work in a team. Here’s an example that I saw last week: http://code.google.com/p/html5lib/source/browse/trunk/php/library/HTML5/TreeConstructer.php Not only does a team member need to remember the file/class name, but s/he also needs to remember that it’s spelled incorrectly.

This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but from experience, I know it /is/ a problem—especially when you have a recurring charges mechanism that, in various parts of the code and schema, is spelled in all of these ways: recuring, recurring, reccuring, reccurring, reocuring, reocurring, reoccuring, and reoccurring. (I’m not making this up.)


Maarten wrote at 3/29/2009 11:46 am:

My experience is that dyslectic people are often quite technical, which to me makes them good programmers.
The only valid point I see above is the one about spelling mistakes in names, we have such a problem in one database field, and it often bites me.

Brock (@brock) wrote at 3/29/2009 11:54 am:

Sean – two VERY good points.

I also wanted to mention commenting. I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I feel comfortable in my assumption that someone who writes a cover letter like that isn’t going to bother writing meaningful or helpful comments in their code.

Jory Geerts wrote at 3/29/2009 5:05 pm:

Maarten, I’m a dyslectic person myself. Does that mean I get to be lazy and just send things in without even trying to make sure I’ve spelled everything correctly? Especially with spelling check software build into just about application you can type in, spelling errors aren’t something you can afford in important writings.
To compare that to PHP programming: You don’t just write some code and then deploy it into production without even making sure it parses, do you? No, you first try if the code is valid PHP and does what you want it to do on a testing server or your workstation. (Well, you should.:) )

I do agree that “there”/”their”/”they’re” can be confusing, though I found it to be much like the $array[‘KEY’] vs $array[KEY] thing Shahar Evron mentioned: it’s something you do wrong mostly because you don’t know any better. Once you know which to use where it becomes something you to automatically after a while. (At least that’s how it was for me.)

I also agree very much with Sean Coates. When I read something that is filled with spelling and grammar errors, it becomes very difficult to take what was written serious for me.

/me lets Word spell and grammar check this to prevent him from looking like an idiot.
(Dumb Word, it doesn’t even know what “/me” means.)

Maarten wrote at 3/30/2009 3:07 am:

Jory, good to hear that from a dyslectic person. I’m not dyslectic myself, so you probably know better.
I tend to agree with the effort bit, so I guess that invalidated my point :-)

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