How to skip the resume pile and get a ton of interviews (even without a degree): The ridiculously detailed guide

Photo by Kevin Ku / Unsplash

This is going to be the first in a series of posts of the simple process a junior software engineer with no experience can do to be hired quickly and at high salary.

This post will be focused on Getting an interview with a particular emphasis for those with non-traditional backgrounds and who don’t have a degree (though honestly this process is simply far more effective even if you do have a degree.

But before we dive in, given the makeup of the hiring market today we really should slow down and talk about degrees for a minute.

On CS Degrees

If there’s a single thing I see hold people back from achieving their career potential more than any other, it’s believing you have to possess a specific credential – most often a Computer Science degree – to have a successful career in a technical field.

Actually, having a credential is convenient for making it past an HR screen in some circumstances, but is not necessary in almost every circumstance. First, many HR teams have now learned to not screen for degrees in resumes, but even if they do if you’re getting caught in an HR screen you’re doing something wrong in the first place.

I’m not going to spend time here debating whether or not you should get a degree - that’s an entirely separate (and much more personal) conversation. Degrees make sense for some folks, and don’t make sense for others. Personally I opted out of college and am grateful for that decision every day, but I encouraged my little sister to stay in college.

I will say, however, if you decide to get a degree, get it for the right reasons. Don’t spend years of your life and a huge amount of money if you’re only doing so to make it marginally easier to get through an HR screen. That’s an awfully expensive way to get around an HR screen that we’re going to talk about how to avoid entirely later on in this post.

Which brings up perhaps the most important question:

When Are Degrees Required?

First, let’s get one myth out of the way: The vast, vast majority of companies in tech no longer require a degree. The only places I’ve seen actually full-stop require a degree are defense contractors and universities, and not even always at those.

That said, it’s also not true that degrees provide no advantage. Some HR managers use degrees as a checkbox to raise resumes to the top of a pile (and a small number of companies’ applicant tracking systems – the place you submit your resume – will automatically filter for degrees).

If you are a non-degree holder, however, you shouldn’t let that bother you. Primarily becaus, whether you have a degree or not, if you are only one resume in a pile of faceless, context-less resumes, you’ve already lost part of the battle.

Gut check: How do I know companies don’t require degrees?

(I mention this for relevant context only): I’m the co-founder of one of the biggest technical schools in the US (we’re 6-9 months full-time so not what you would think of if I said “bootcamp”), and every year we train thousands of engineers and data scientists. More than half of our students do not have a degree of any kind.

I’ve literally seen over 1,000 software engineers, data scientists, and designers placed at most of the top companies with no degree whatsoever in the past couple of years. These aren’t anomalous scenarios or people who already have connections. We’re talking about people with no degree, no experience, and zero connections whatsoever hired at Google, Microsoft, Amazon… you name it.

For some reason, despite the fact that I literally see this happen with my own eyes all the time, there are still many out there who are convinced this is impossible. I’m genuinely unsure what to do about that, as self-taught engineers (and bootcamps more recently) have always been a staple of engineering teams, but hopefully you’re close enough to a few folks who can vouch for this around you.

I promise: Companies really just want smart, talented, hardworking people, and all we have to do is show them that we are exactly that.

Now vs The Past: Understanding Those who Disagree

In having this discussion you should also be cognizant of the social factors and different understandings of what is and isn’t true about holding a degree or not. What is true today may not have been the case in the past, and those who started their careers in the past may not understand that.

When I dropped out of college a decade ago (admittedly in an environment that was ever-so-slightly more risky than today to not have a degree), my entire extended family practically staged an intervention at our weekly Sunday dinner. And they did so out of love. They legitimately thought I was throwing my life away and that I would never be able to find employment. They fought back because they loved me, in a way I didn’t really appreciate at the time, because they were operating from a mental model of a reality that was simply different from the one that I lived in.

It is entirely possible that, were I my grandpa’s age, whether or not I got a degree would determine whether or not I would have access to a good job, more money, and a better life. So be sensitive when you’re having conversations with folks who still believe that this is the case, and know that they may never fully wrap their minds around the new economy. That’s OK. I have a friend who is an engineering manager who makes north of $500k/yr (including equity), whose parents are still pretty convinced that he’s going to be unemployed soon and that he is only employed because of some weird prolonged anomaly in the job market.

Where Do Degrees Matter?

The most important place degrees move the needle is in getting to the first phone screen. Recruiters and HR at many companies do use degrees; luckily in ways that are easy to get around. We’ll talk about how to do that, but first let’s understand why:

Degrees, at least in theory, check a bunch of obvious boxes at once.

  • Graduating from college shows you’re able to stick things out (see Brian Caplan’s sheepskin effect).
  • A CS degree shows you know some very basic level of how computers work (thought I’ve found people who don’t have a CS degree are very surprised at what one does and doesn’t learn in the curriculum of a CS degree)
  • Getting into a top school shows that you are a very hard worker and have a high level of intelligence (SAT/ACT are highly correlated with IQ; though all of these are less than perfect measures, it’s a filter for intelligence).

Good news is, we can show all of the above (and more) much more quickly than spending four years in college and much more inexpensively (in most countries) than it would cost to obtain a degree.

And the first piece of advice is probably the most crucial.

THROW AWAY YOUR RESUME

OK, perhaps not literally, but this is the biggest mistake I see people continually make, and I use capitals and use strong language to try and get across how important it is to not let your resume do all of the talking for you, especially if your resume won’t look great (compared to others).

Resumes are lossy storage and a format best suited for those who want to show off their years of experience. There are ways to construct your resume so it doesn’t scream quite so loudly, “I don’t actually have any professional experience in this field,” but having spoken with thousands of hiring managers that is generally what’s happening. They’re sifting 100 resumes into a pile of 90 “nos” and “yeses,” and regardless of what your background is like the fastest way to get hired is to end-around this sorting process altogether.

Especially if you have a non-traditional path, If your very first contact with someone is “resume first” - if you hand them a resume before you shake their hand (or whatever the virtual equivalent of a handshake may be), you lose.

So if loading up LinkedIn with a resume and hitting the one-click apply 500 times doesn’t get us to win, what does?

Signal, Don’t Say

The next important skill for you to pick up is what I like to call, “Signal, don’t say.” That’s when we’re going to methodically and intentionally prove things to those who would be looking at hiring us without saying them directly.

For example, if I wanted to show that I’m consistent, instead of saying, “I’m a very consistent person” I would make sure (as silly as it seems) that I have green GitHub squares every day. (This isn’t difficult to game, but you’ll also want to make sure that there are reasonable pull requests on the squares just in case).

It’s a bit of a silly game to signal instead of say, but from my experience talking to thousands of people who hire software engineers, most are simply running a silent checklist in the back of their heads, and if you check enough of the boxes (without tripping on any of their mental landmines) you progress to the next stage and/or get the job.

I won’t pretend like this game of mental tennis is the most effective or statistically proven way to match the ideal employee with the ideal employer, but that is precisely how the hiring process works at the vast majority of companies.

I’ve watched some interviews where companies were prepared to pay six figures, and the hiring managers mentioned to me that literally all they were looking to see is if a junior candidate wrote good tests as they were building the test project. Good hiring practice? I’m not convinced, but in this instance the checklist in the hiring manager’s head was very simple.

Signaling (The Things You’ll Want Ready)

So with that said, let’s look back at the list of things a degree might prove, and find other ways we might be able to signal those same things, even without a sheepskin.

  • Graduating from college shows you’re able to stick things out (see Brian Caplan’s sheepskin effect).

The good news is if you’re good enough at writing code and have done a number of projects, that really only happens by sticking it out. For this aspect I would focus on a well-done portfolio, though if you had a personal website or social media peppered with other things that signaled how hard you work, that is great as well. For example, if you are a marathon runner or were in the military, those things signal “disciplined, hard worker” at least as well as a college degree (in my opinion), and you might want to find a way to slip that in.

I’ll do another full essay on a portfolio, but for now I’ll leave you with one ciritical piece of advice: Please, please, please, have projects in your portfolio that are different from easily accessible online tutorials or from your school that had hundreds of engineers do the exact same thing.

When I was hiring junior iOS engineers I cannot tell you the number of people who showed up only with portfolios of projects containing the exact same tutorials from the same few classes. Building Breakout because you watched Stanford’s CS106A is a phenomenal exercise for learning to program, but I can pretty easily copy and paste the entire project from different places online.

Ideally these are projects where you had to solve some set of problems uniquely – on your own. Certainly you can still use Google, look up syntax, and copy design patterns (you wouldn’t necessarily want to rethink MVC from scratch, for example,) but you should try to show you can think and solve problems – that you’re not going to be stumped the minute a fully written out solution isn’t available on StackOverflow. In an absolutely perfect world you’re building a real project for a real organization, it’s actually deployed (best case scenario is on AWS or similar cloud environment, but pushing to a simpler Heroku or Netlify is probably fine as well).

One other piece of polish I have heard hiring managers mention when looking at portfolios: Use a real domain (of any kind). It’s not rocket science to fiddle with the DNS, I know, but from a hiring manager's perspective there is a massive difference between my-cool-project.co and my-cool-project.heroku.com.

  • A CS degree shows you know some very basic level of how computers work (thought I’ve found people who don’t have a CS degree are very surprised at what one does and doesn’t learn in the curriculum of a CS degree)

This is more broad, as you can spend your entire lifetime understanding at deeper and deeper levels how computers work, but a neat thing you can do here is write about a couple of these things in a blog post.

As a rule of thumb here, there are a couple ways to go deeper. Something more heavy in data structures or algorithms, or getting closer to the metal (lower level/systems/architecture type stuff).

The simplest way here (and an unfortunate necessity at some companies) is to get really good at GCA/Leetcode style questions.

Other options:

  • Write a very in-depth blog post on “what exactly happens when you go to website.com
  • Start creating a new programming language or designing an operating system (these are incredibly strong signals because it shows not only are you interested in lower-level computing but you’re creative and willing to dig in where others may shy away).
  • Teach a class or tutor (even though you don’t actually have to be very good to tutor, tutoring sets of a psychological switch that says, “This person is good enough to help others.”
  • Get really good at data structures and algorithms questions. (If you’re good enough at these, there are many platforms that will usher you straight into interviews, though honestly the “job-ready” level is far below the “I automatically qualify for interviews on various platforms by virtue of my ability to solve algorithms challenges” level.
  • Contribute to any open source project at a meaningful level. (We once had a BloomTech student who shipped a meaningful patch to the V8 JavaScript Engine… he was contacted by no less than a dozen recruiters the next day).

And last one for today (my plan was to publish this in an hour and it went way long…)

Getting into a top school shows that you have a high level of intelligence (SAT/ACT are highly correlated with IQ; though all of these are less than perfect measures, it’s a filter for intelligence).

This is where I have to remind you that my job is not to justify what hirers are looking for, it’s to convey the information. I would be doing you a disservice not to mention it, despite how politically incorrect it may be.

I have heard the sentiment explicitly from enough people at enough companies that I need to mention that some are explicitly looking for people who got into top schools because they assume that means they have filtered for high IQ.

There are a few creative ways to combat this one. The first (and easiest) is if you got into and subsequently dropped out of a school that conveys this signaling. The saying goes in Silicon Valley the only credential more prestigious than “Stanford Degree” is “Stanford Dropout.”

But outside of that, a few things that help:

  • Clear, clean communication. The way one communicates often reflects the way he or she thinks, and I have had many hiring managers comment on the clarity (or lack thereof) of thinking in speech in someone’s blog post or social media.

Play Hard to Get

I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” - Groucho Marx.

Regardless of where you are looking for a job, it’s now time to learn about something Silicon Valley calls FOMO - the Fear Of Missing Out.

In markets, such as hiring markets, FOMO is one of the most powerful motivators, and we are going to help employers experience it ever so slightly.

If you’re a hiring manager you are going after great engineers, and you are aware that the best of them won’t be available for long.

If you want to watch a behavior shift, watch how quickly recruiters and hiring managers will reschedule things once they learn that a competitive process is underway. You’ll see interviews moved up, interviews eliminated, unnecessary screens completely removed, and more.

So remember, as you’re going through this phase, repeat to yourself (and others):

“I’m talking to a lot of companies right now.”

“I’m figuring out where I’ll land.”

“I’m pleased at how much opportunity there is.”

The phrases above can all be true even if a job hunt isn’t going as well as you would like, and they all tell an employer, “You need to get me while you can, because soon I’ll be gone.”

The opposite end of the spectrum, are things you should never share or say (publicly or where an employer can see it):

“I’m having a really hard time finding a job right now.”

“I’ve submitted 500 applications and no bites.”

“I’ve had 37 interviews but every single company has turned me down.”

And, even though you will get a bunch of likes for it on LinkedIn, complaining about how stupid recruiters are, how poorly hiring processes are run, how all of these jobs say entry level yet they require five years of experience so you no longer qualify for them… these things may be true, they may be funny, and there may be a time and place, but I would propose they’re not the right signal for you to be sending as you’re focused on your first job.

All of the above will make a hiring manager who may be considering you question what all the other companies may be seeing that they’re not.

Now with enough signaling out of the way (I could talk about this for hours), let’s talk about the tactics of how to actually land an interview:

The Nitty Gritty - How to Skip the Resume Pile

This is something I could go on about for hours, but skipping the resume pile is both simple and a little scary if you’re just getting started. But I promise you it’s so, so much easier than endlessly submitting resumes into an abyss.

I’ve seen people who have had no luck whatsoever at getting an interview for months get hired within 48 hours of starting these methods. I’ve seen people hired on the spot at a coffee shop. I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of interviews arranged and resume piles jumped.

This stuff is not complicated, but it works.

Method 1: Coffee Connections

Before we dive into the nitty gritty, first, a word of assurance:

The vast majority of engineers are nice. The vast majority of engineers want to see you succeed. The vast majority of engineers remember what it was like to be junior and are happy to take newer engineers under their wing.

Far too few people entering the field believe that, because they only see the walls and gatekeeping, but I promise it’s true.

So, simply put, all we’re going to do is

  1. Find a company we would be interested in working for (it actually doesn’t have to be a company we’re interested in working for, but we’ll start there)
  2. Find the person we’re most closely connected with (this is also optional but makes it easier)
  3. Email that person and ask them if you can “grab a coffee.”

When you “grab coffee” (note during Covid this can be a Zoom, it can always be a call, you can meet face to face, you can invite them to ski for the weekend… the format isn’t important, it’s just making a new/real connection).

That’s it.

I know this may sound weird, and some of the more introverted among you are already scared, but I promise you that engineers are ready for this, will do their best to find time, and it’s just part of life of being an engineer.

If it makes you feel any better, a lot of companies give engineers referral bonuses for referring other engineers. Sometimes it’s a couple grand (I know people who increase their salary by 30-40% by spending a lot of time recruiting), sometimes it’s stock (Uber once had a program where they awarded a number of shares for recruiting a new engineer; I know of at least one person who made more than $10 million by recruiting engineers to Uber).

So don’t feel bad asking for this.

It’s actually pretty easy to do. When you see a company with an opening, go to LinkedIn, search for Senior Engineer, Engineering Manager, etc. (if it’s a small enough company it could be VP Engineering or CTO, but definitely don’t email the CTO of Facebook expecting a response).

Google for their email, and shoot them an email. (At BloomTech we have software that does all this automatically; if you want to get really cute you can spin something up to have someone else find it on Mechanical Turk and blog about doing that - could be an interesting conversation starter).

But however you do it, simply make contact.

However, when you do so, you have two goals:

  1. To show that you’re someone they would love to work with
  2. To learn as much as you can
  3. To add as much value as you can

How could you add value to another more senior engineer? It’s difficult, but if you can do that, the connection is so much more meaningful. Maybe it’s introducing them to someone new. Maybe it’s talking about what the job search is like as a junior. Maybe they work on an open source project. Whatever it is, if you can add value to their life things get much more interesting.

Toward the end of the conversation, which will be natural as part of your conversation will be about how to break into engineering roles, ask if they know anyone who is hiring or who you should talk to.

That single ask alone, to a warm connection, is worth 100 cold resumes. Maybe 1,000.

Method 2: Straight to Code

One of the BloomTech students who got a job the fastest I’ve ever seen simply followed a two step process:

  1. Look up the hiring manager responsible for a job listing she was interested in
  2. Email the hiring manager, saying, “My resume isn’t that impressive, but I love to code, and I would love to show you what I can do. Can you send me a code challenge instead?

I believe she had something like a 33% response rate from that email (it’s really easy for a hiring manager to send out a code test), and she had job offers within a week.

The fascinating part here: As BloomTech students go, based on the code challenges we were seeing in class, she wasn’t even in the top half of the class. I don’t say this to knock her in any way, but rather to show that you don’t have to be a 99th percentile programmer for this process to work.

Incidentally, being confident and bold enough to email a hiring manager, ask if you can solve a problem more directly, and being good enough to solve the problem that hiring manager would have checks enough boxes that this approach may work at a large number of employers.

There are plenty more ways to go about this process and to skip the resume pile (go to a meetup, join your local developer group), but this took way longer than I expected and I need to go to bed.

Hope this helped a little bit!