Writing a CV for a Contract Position

There is a lot of career advice related to writing CVs in books and floating around the net. Unfortunately almost all of it is tailored to permanent positions.

Some advice that I have seen includes researching the company you are applying for and emphasising your experience in related fields. This probably makes some sense if you have targetted a major company to be your employer for the rest of your life. But if you are after contract work (which incidentally tends to pay better than permanent positions) then it’s not going to work. About half the time when applying for contract work you won’t know the name of the company that is receiving your CV until after they have decided whether to grant you an interview.

Contractors therefore need to write their CVs to have broad appeal (emphasising common technologies such as C programming and skills such as debugging), and to appeal to a recruiting agent.

Some people recommend writing your CV in MS-Word to support agencies and potential employers who are not competent enough to open other file formats (such as PDF and HTML). I strongly disagree with this advice, most contract positions are advertised by multiple recruiting agencies and it would be best for you to be represented by the most competent agency. Therefore having an agency staffed by incompetent people not represent you because they can’t figure out how to read a HTML or PDF file is a good thing! The same applies for employers, while applying for the best paying contracts will often result in some strange and unpleasant working conditions having a manager who can’t open a PDF or HTML file is likely to result in something that is unusually bad – run away!

Recruiting agents will often give specific requirements for a CV. Sometimes these requirements are a little odd (such as demanding that references to C programming be removed from a CV when applying for a Unix sys-admin job), but being merely a little odd is no reason to boycot the agency. To solve this I wrote my CV in M4 macros to generate HTML code. When I wanted to apply for a position I would just type make to compile the M4 source into five or more different CVs. Sometimes a recruiting agent would request two versions when applying for one position, it’s a strange request but when five versions were compiled in one pass it was easy to satisfy it. If I liked PDF I could have written M4 macros that generate TeX and have the make process convert TeX to PS and then PS to PDF.

Unfortunately I can’t share any macros because the code was not of particularly high quality (which is a little ironic) and because it’s tightly tied in to my CV. The best piece of advice that I can give to anyone trying this is to get columns sorted out as the first issue. If you want to have some lists of programming languages, lists of OSs, and lists of hardware, etc in your CV then it usually works best to have two columns in the page. If the largest list is removed then the other lists need to be shuffled around to get the column lengths to match. Doing this in HTML required some ugly M4 macros. There probably is a better way of doing this in TeX (but I’m really not good at TeX and can’t give advice about it).

James has some interesting advice about writing CVs. I think that his most useful points are:

  1. Use file names based on your name so that agents can find your CV in the directory full of CVs
  2. Include complete contact details. One thing he doesn’t mention is that you should buy a mobile phone for the purpose of getting a job even if you don’t want one for any other reason. A 5% difference in pay for a year’s work would cover the cost of many mobile phones and the difference between a good job and a bad one is likely to be more than 5%. If you are afraid of brain cancer then don’t worry, if you only spend a few minutes a month talking to recruiting agents then you are at no risk.
  3. Don’t start a sentence in the career history section with the word worked – everything in that section will be related to where you worked in the past. It seems obvious in retrospect but I realised that I have made this mistake on my CV.

5 comments to Writing a CV for a Contract Position

  • Have you seen xml-resume? I’ve been using that for a while now, because it allows me to contain a master CV, then output only items relevant to “sysadmin”, “hacker”, “assembly language”, etc.

    It also produces HTML, PDF, and Plain Text outputs which are moderately themeable/customizable.

  • etbe

    Steve: No, I haven’t. I developed my current CV between 1999 and 2001. Since then I’ve just been adding new material not new structure. Also over the last 4 years I haven’t had much need for a CV.

    xml-resume sounds really good, if I was going to re-write mine I’d use it. But with a bit of luck I won’t need a CV again. ;)

  • The Word requirement is not necessarily because they’re retarded. Both recruiters and the principals will use software like Resumix, which digests and distills Word-formatted resumes. I don’t know if you’ve talked to any of these people, but it’s not uncommon for them to take in a couple thousand resume/CV’s a day. There simply aren’t the tools for working with that volume of data in PDF. It’s a convenience thing for them as far as I know. And, you can pick out the really stupid ones on the phone (they are incidentally the same twits who refuse to describe the position in e-mail, instead insisting on a phone call).

    I’ve also written a longish rant on working with recruiters for contract positions. I haven’t directly linked it for fear of appearing spammish. It’s easy enough to find, though. I bumped into this post on Advogato, and thought it was kind of funny that you had written this post within a week or so from when I wrote my own “working with recruiters” thing.

  • I really do think you need your CV in Word .doc formats. I’ve done contracts as HR agencies that use indexing software that basically only works with .doc formatted documents.

    A lot of recruiters like to see *keywords*. I used to call my CV “the shopping list” to reflect this. I don’t do that anymore as it quickly gets silly and as you gain experience you put the “keywords” in bullet points.

    For preparing my CV I’ve used docbook2stuff. That was crap. Now I use HTML and use Prince to get it into PDF. For generating .doc I import the HTML into Google docs and let it spit out .doc.

  • etbe
    Alex: Was your post the one I previously linked to at the top URL (my post that links to it is above)?

    Sure agencies receive many CVs, but unless they actually read them they provide no benefit at all to the company that hires them. I would rather deal with agencies that at least pretend to do their job.

    Kai: Good idea to use Google Docs, I’ll check that out if I ever need to produce a MS-Word file.