How Employers Measure Passion in Software Engineering Candidates

Over the past few months I have had some exchanges with small company executives and hiring managers which have opened my eyes to what I consider a relatively new wrinkle in the software development hiring world. I have been recruiting software engineers for 14 years, and I don’t recall another time where I’ve observed this at the same level. Here are two examples.
The first incident was related to a candidate (‘A’) resume that I submitted to a local start-up. A was well-qualified for the position based on the technical specifications the client gave me, and I anticipated that at worst a phone screen for A would be automatic. I even went as far as to share A’s interview availability. A day after hitting ‘send’, I received feedback that the hiring manager was not interested in an interview. A large part of the manager’s reasoning was related to the fact that A had taken a two year sabbatical to pursue a degree in a non-technical discipline and subsequently took a job in that field for a brief stint, before returning to the software world a few years ago. I clarified information about A to be sure that the manager had full understanding of the situation, and the verdict was upheld – no interview.
My second anecdote involves another candidate (‘B’) that I presented for a position with a different client company. B was someone I would classify as a junior level candidate overall and probably ‘borderline qualified’ for the role. B had roughly the minimum amount of required experience with a few gaps, and I was not 100% confident that B would be invited in. B was brought in for an interview, performed about average on the technical portions, and shined interpersonally. As this company does not make a habit of hiring average engineers, I was at least a bit surprised when an offer was made. I was told that a contributing factor for making the offer was that B’s ‘extracurricular activities’ were, according to my client, indicative of someone that was going to be a great engineer (though B’s current skills were average). B’s potential wasn’t being assessed as if B were an entry level engineer with a solid academic background, but rather the potential was assessed based on B’s interest in software.
There are obviously many other stories like these, and the link between them seems obvious. Software firms that are hiring engineers (smaller shops in particular) appear to be qualifying and quantifying a candidate’s passion with the same level of scrutiny that they use in trying to measure technical skills and culture fit. Historically, companies have reviewed resumes and conducted interviews to answer the question, ‘Can this candidate perform the task at hand?‘. For my purposes as a recruiter of engineers, the question can be oversimplified as ‘Can he/she code?’. It seems the trend is to follow that question with ‘Does he/she CARE about the job, the company, and the craft?’.
If you lack passion for the industry, be advised that in future job interviews you may be judged on this quality. Whether you love coding or not, reading further will give you some insight. Engineer A is a cautionary tale, while B is someone the passionate will want to emulate. Let’s start with A.  
I don’t want to be like A. How can I avoid appearing dispassionate on my resume?
Candidate A never had a chance, and I’ll shoulder partial responsibility for that. A was rejected based solely on a resume and my accompanying notes, so theoretically A could be extremely passionate about software engineering without appearing to be so on paper. Applicants do take some potential risks by choosing to include irrelevant experience, education, or even hobbies on a resume, and I will often warn my candidates of items that could cause alarm. In this case, A’s inclusion of both job details and advanced degrees in another discipline were judged as a red flag that A might decide to again leave the software industry. A similar conclusion could have been reached if A had listed hobbies that evidenced a deep-rooted drive toward something other than engineering (say, studying for a certification in a trade).
Another related mistake on resumes is an Objective section that does not reflect the job for which you are applying. I have witnessed candidates being rejected for interviews based on an objective, and the most common example is when a candidate seeking a dev job lists ‘technical lead’ or ‘manager’ in the objective. Typical feedback might sound like this: ‘Our job is a basic development position, and if she only wants to be in a leadership slot she would not be happy with the role’. Listing the type of job that you are passionate about is essential if you are going to include an objective. I prefer that candidates avoid an objective section to avoid this specific danger, as most job seekers are open to more than one possible hiring scenario.
I want to be like B. What can I do to highlight my passion during my search?
Since the search starts out with the resume, be sure to list all of the details about you that demonstrate your enthusiasm. This should include relevant education, professional experience, and hobbies or activities that pertain to engineering. When listing your professional experience, emphasize the elements of your job that were the most relevant to what you want to do. If you want to strictly do development, downplay the details of your sys admin or QA tasks (a mention could be helpful, just don’t dwell). When listing your academic credentials, recent grads should be sure to provide specifics on classes relevant to your job goals, and it may be in your best interest to remove degrees or advanced courses unrelated to engineering.
In my experience, the most commonly overlooked resume details that would indicate passion are:
  • participation in open source projects
  • membership in user groups or meetups
  • conference attendance
  • public-speaking appearances
  • engineering-related hobbies (e.g. Arduino, personal/organizational websites you built or maintain, tech blogging)
  • technical volunteer/non-profit experience
If any of the above are not on your resume, be sure to include them before your next job search.
Assuming that you get the opportunity to interview, try to gracefully and tactfully include some details from the bulleted list above. Your reading habits and technologies you self-study are best mentioned in interviews, as they may seem less appropriate as resume material.
Conclusion: Most candidates should feel free to at least mention interests that are not engineering related if the opportunity presents itself, as companies tend to like hiring employees that are not strictly one-dimensional. Just be sure not to overemphasize interests or activities that could be misinterpreted as future career goals. Passion alone won’t get you a job, but it can certainly make a difference in a manager’s decision on who to hire (candidate B) and who not to even interview (candidate A). Make sure you use your resume and interview time to show your passion.

Dave Fecak

Dave Fecak has been recruiting software engineers for start-ups since 1998 and he has served as the founder and president of the Philadelphia Area Java Users’ Group since 2000. Dave is often cited and published on career topics for technology professionals, and he blogs at
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