The Cover Letter is Dead. Long Live LinkedIn!
Stop sweating over those overly long humble-brag letters. Employers know they're BS. Instead, save your sweat for making a lush LinkedIn profile.
I set out to write an article about stupid techie cover letter tricks. Technology people do sometimes do dumb things in cover letters, such as list technologies that exist somewhere in their work environment even though they personally have no experience using said technologies, as if osmosis had something to do with acquiring skills.
And then too, technology people sometimes write cover letters that go on for pages. More like cover encyclopedias, really.
Sometimes they just make stuff up, like they're super-humans who did these amazing projects and saved their companies a gazillion, all on their own, with no help from a team.
I'm not writing that article. I started researching that article, but I'm not writing it because I learned that cover letters are dead.
They're dead because employers hate them. Employers hate cover letters because they know they're mostly BS.
People who need to hire technologists are doing a few things instead of looking at your sweated-over, mostly fictional self-love letters:
- They're keeping cover letter-type fields very short in online applications forms, so you can foist no more than a paragraph or so on them.
- They're using LinkedIn for a richer, more honest assessment of somebody's involvement in the industry, his experience, his network, and what that network says about the individual in the form of references.
The upshot is this: Stop sweating cover letters. Start sweating LinkedIn. If you don't have a lush LinkedIn profile, keep reading for some areas to build up, to make your professional persona more deeply nuanced and thereby more give-me-a-job-ish.
But first, let's assess the concept of being able to stick a fork in the cover letter.
Do you need a cover letter?
I took a look at how to get your cover letter noticed back in 2009.
Even then, I was hearing from human resources managers, career coaches, and vendors of applicant tracking systems (ATSes) that the resume was taking center stage and that cover letters were often not getting read at all.
Technology-wise, some ATSes were treating cover letters as searchable text, the same as a resume. That meant that, just like a resume, cover letters had little room for error and demanded exacting attention to structure and keyword usage. But then again, a sizable number of ATSes just didn't scan cover letters at all.
Human process-wise, however, it was the rare recruiter who even bothered to pass cover letters on to hiring managers.
That was 2009. Five years later, Eliassen Group Senior Account Executive Matt Richard's experience parallels what I was seeing back in 2009.
Richard has spent five years as a technical recruiter and three as a recruiter for business development professionals. Earlier in his career, when he worked as a technical recruiter, technology professionals applying for jobs would send a cover letter.
Times have changed. Nowadays, the percentage of applicants who submit a cover letter along with their resume has shrunk considerably, he tells me.
Understandably so. Why bother, given that hiring managers are wadding them up and going straight to the resume? "In my experience working with hiring managers, if there is a cover letter there, they'll scrap it and get right into what the person's been doing for the last couple of years," Richard told me.
Richard is more diplomatic than I. Where I would explain the shunning of the cover letter as pertaining to it consisting of 95% horse puck, Richard delicately notes that hiring managers are aware that "People tend to embellish in cover letters. People have a tendency to exaggerate regarding what they can bring to the table or the skills they think they have."
Potato, po-tah-to. Once a hiring manager digs into the facts behind a cover letter, the glittery facade can start to lose its luster.
Richard has seen what many recruiters and other hiring professionals have seen: Technology professionals’ cover letters all too often include a laundry list of protocols, standards, tools, and technologies. But when push comes to shove, it frequently turns out they weren't actually responsible for either using or managing such things.
"You ask [job applicants], 'What did you do with that Cisco firewall? Where did you install it?'" he says. "They'd say, 'Oh, I was just maintaining the network. I didn't install it or configure it. It was just in the environment.'"
Likewise, cover letters often get stuffed with 25 technologies, but it turns out that if you quiz the job applicant, often, she only has hands-on experience with a fraction of them. Maybe five of those 25 items on the laundry list will have been used on a day-to-day basis, Richard says.
The analogy he offers: It's comparable to someone in admissions at a hospital who claims that they know heart surgery because it's happening down the hall.
So instead of a Christmas tree's worth of embellishment stuffed into a cover letter, nowadays, corporate websites often limit job applicants to a small "Tell us about yourself" section. The smallness prevents submitting a five-page cover letter. (Or a 16-page cover letter, for that matter. I kid you not. It happens. Eliassen Group got one. It included a photo of the applicant wearing a tux. I know not why. They couldn't let me get my hands on it, since making it anonymous would surely have taken a class in knot untying.)
The reason for stuffing a cover letter (and a resume, for that matter) with every techie-sounding word or acronym under the sun is obvious: Many companies, when they search for people, search for very specific skills. They do keyword searches. A resume or cover letter that's got a hot technology on it will rise to the top, and maybe a phone call will be made.
You should never have put irrelevant stuff on your cover letter—it's just a waste of people's time—just as you should now keep it off your LinkedIn profile.
At any rate, corporate recruiting managers and hiring managers tend to zero in on what a technology professional is doing right now. Or perhaps in their last job or few jobs, depending on the length of a given person's tenure. They want to know what the meat is.
So submitting a cover letter when applying for a position is "probably a waste of your time," Richard advises.
So, that LinkedIn profile…
What's more important is your professional summary on LinkedIn. Even small businesses that might not be running fancy ATSes to crunch resumes can afford to check a potential hire's LinkedIn profile. And they most assuredly are doing so.
This is what yours should have if you want to get hired:
According to LinkedIn, account holders with a complete profile get up to 40% more job inquiries than those who put up a patchy resume or profile page. Benjamin Roussey, writing for PluralSight, brings up a good point about not repeating the sins of the rambling cover letters of the past, here. Do include certifications, management of teams, and completed projects, but make sure your summary is a "crisp read," he suggests, rather than one of those irrelevant keyword dustbins in which to store everything plus the kitchen sink.
For every resume that Richard gets from a recruiter, he looks up the person on LinkedIn. It’s not only to see recommendations and such, but to see if the applicant uploaded project samples. The proof is in the pudding, after all. LinkedIn how to upload work samples here.
If you don't have any recommendations, you need to grow your network, Roussey advises. Include both past and present coworkers, current and ex-bosses, and other people who are in your technology field or share similar interests. "Build a rapport with them and then ask them for recommendations, endorsements of skills and/or introductions into a job opportunity," Roussey says. (The process of asking other people to write you LinkedIn recommendations is another discussion.)
Don't belong to any? Join relevant ones. "If you are an Oracle Database Administrator, then make sure that you have joined all the major and active Oracle groups on LinkedIn and have forged quite a few connections with the community members," Roussey suggests.
Richard seconds that emotion. "[I prefer candidates who join] groups associated with the technology they use, participating, and all that, vs. a plain profile that has a few dates of employment and no real substance to it. I gravitate toward people staying current."
Beyond merely joining professional groups, however, you should also participate in those groups. If you engage in a way that demonstrates your literacy with a given technology, skill, or business area, it's a far more contextualized rendition of what once would have gone into a cover letter. After all, when you enter into public dialogue, potential employers can not only vet your knowledge, they can also see if you're diplomatic, respectful of and respected by community members and peers.
Bear that in mind before you jump into a flame war, of course. It's just as easy to see that potential employees are jerks.
But most of all, you want a potential employer to know you're engaged, whether it's on professional groups or other areas of LinkedIn.
"It turns me off if people are in the techie space, or project managers, or business analysts, if they don't keep current in LinkedIn and log in at least once a week, and have new connections, and post articles they're reading," Richard says. "It's a bit of a turnoff to me. I like people staying current with the latest technology."
Stay current with the latest technology, indeed. And when it comes to getting noticed by employers, embracing current technology means that we all need to just say no to pouring so much work into cover letters.