Software Engineers: Resume and Job Application Tips for Startups

Alexander Iskrenov (Head Of Engineering @ Bluewater Control), Vinny Lawrenson-Woods (General Manager, Product Engineering @ Prezzee), Stuart Totman (Head of Engineering @ Campaign Monitor), Adrian Groch (Software Engineer @ Pendula), Artem Golubev (Dev Lead - Automated Retail @ Hivery), Jared Fraser (Director of Engineering @ Mr Yum), Dale Baldwin (Senior Software Engineer @ Culture Amp), Will Parker (Senior Software Engineer @ Smokeball Australia), Jessica Sun (Software Engineer @ Atlassian), John Wesley Salvador (Senior Software Engineer @ Zeller), Paul Kelcey (VP Engineering @ Displayr), Xavi Ferro (Head of Engineering @ Simply Wall St), Alex Gurr (Head of Engineering @ Cloudwave), Alan Truong (Head of Engineering @ EntryLevel), Tim Tang (VP Engineering @ Local Measure), Pratik Ghimire (Engineering Manager @ Car Next Door)

Authored by engineering leaders at Atlassian, Simply Wall St, Mr Yum, Culture Amp, Campaign monitor and more

Software Engineers: Resume and Job Application Tips for Startups

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Alexander Iskrenov (Head Of Engineering @ Bluewater Control)

"What are startups looking for?"

In a startup everything starts with a good team fit. Usually the team size in startups is just a few people. Having friction there due to personality differences can fail the company before it even starts, so it’s crucial that this small group can work together. This is why I always put team fit first before everything else. In a very close second it’s the right attitude. The candidate should demonstrate the ability to implement and execute mechanisms for self-improvement and learning. How unknown situations are handled is a testament for the presence/absence of such skills. The road ahead is often not clear and without an attitude for learning, developing and approaching problems analytically even a senior engineer can quickly become outdated. Lastly comes the experience. Lack of experience with a good team fit and the right can-do attitude is rarely a problem, since with small investment and guidance the candidate can easily get to a state where he/she can contribute. Standard university knowledge like data structures, algorithms, OOP principles, ability to express thought is pseudo code or any language, etc. is expected in this case.

Vinny Lawrenson-Woods  (General Manager, Product Engineering @ Prezzee)

"What are startups looking for?"

Startups come in many different sizes and can be at very different stages of maturity, from a single team to many hundreds of teams, such as Uber and Airbnb. One key similarity is that all startups need to find engineers with a good mix of both attitude and aptitude. Attitude covers a number of attributes including curiosity, proactiveness, empathy and a passion for continuous learning. Aptitude is the ability to learn, being open to change and most importantly, your problem solvings skills. Experience is a more challenging question as students are often looking for their first role. At Prezzee we value attitude and aptitude over experience, but it’s always a good idea to make available any personal projects you’re happy to share.

Stuart Totman (Head of Engineering @ Campaign Monitor)

"What are startups looking for?"

From an experience perspective we understand that as a graduate it is not always possible to have a lot of hands-on commercial experience. That being said, if you have had the chance to intern somewhere this is always a bonus. In lieu of intern experience we are always keen to hear about side projects you have worked on and technology you have tried out in your spare time and your experience in doing that. We love to speak to graduates who are passionate about software engineering and if you are passionate we would expect to see all your successful  applications (and just as importantly not so successful!) you have worked on in your own time.

From a personality side of things we are looking for graduate engineers who are up for a challenge and are keen to learn. The only guarantee we have is that priorities and technology will change over time. We will always look for engineers who thrive in that environment and are keen to continue to learn, embrace, and master new technology as it is adopted. It definitely helps too if you have a clear picture about what you want to do. Generally speaking we hire full stack engineers but we still want to know what you are passionate about. Some engineers love Front End whereas others prefer to spend their time serving data from the Back End. Having a clear goal around where you want more experience helps us put you in a team that will provide you the optimal experience.

Adrian Groch (Software Engineer @ Pendula)

"What are startups looking for?"

  • Fast learners, or just some sort of experience of being able to manage multiple roles/projects. 
  • Versatile 
  • Team players 
  • Some sort of experience in working in a fast paced environment - before working in tech, I worked in a busy cocktail bar/restaurant that served over 250 patrons in one sitting, with 2 or 3 sittings a day. I worked my way up to a manager role, and some of the skills I learned along the way there definitely were translatable and usable in working in tech startups.


In terms of attitude and personality, I think having a good can-do and optimistic attitude, along with a sprinkling of realisticness will go a long way. You need to be ambitious and have drive and think, have a problem solving mindset, but also have your head screwed on to know when it’s a good idea to stop running with an idea.

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

Funnily enough on cover-letters - that’s a thing for enterprise/bigger companies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a startup job posting that wanted a cover letter, or know anyone who submitted one for a smaller company. I actually saw a post on reddit saying that they’re becoming a thing of the past. 

Artem Golubev (Dev Lead - Automated Retail @ Hivery)

"What are startups looking for?"

I don’t believe there is a specific skill required for startups. People look for what they think is important, IMO. I personally always look for an interest in engineering. I’ve met 2 types of developers - a) those who love what they do, b) those who do the job and forget it at 5 pm; personally I prefer to work with #1. Also, as it is usually more of a family environment in a startup rather than a suite/tie corp world, jerks are not welcomed. No matter how good you are, if you can’t respect all your colleagues you will find it hard to work in an open startup environment.

"If I haven’t worked in tech before, what would help me stand out?"

I’d suggest showing the real understanding of the fundamentals is crucial. It makes me sad, when I see 20+ different languages and frameworks on candidates CV, but then they can not tell the difference between List and Set, never heard of complexity analysis and can’t solve the simplest algorithm challenge. I’d rather them having 1 language in their CV that they know well enough to write code, they know computer science fundamentals, and maybe basics of the clean code and design patterns. To learn the first thing is not that hard, resources like hackerrank.com, projecteuler.net and many many more provide more than enough materials and are a great practice ground. To me, a candidate that can demonstrate this on a CV even with little to no experience stands out much more than the one with 10+ years who can’t do that.

Jared Fraser (Director of Engineering @ Mr Yum)

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

A cover letter should be concise, highlighting why you are interested in the position and why you should be the one to fill it. I look for developers that want to take ownership of what they build. A startup has limited resources to operate, so those with a passion to be responsible for what they build have an advantage.

"If I haven’t worked in tech before, what would help me stand out?"

Only list items on your resume that relate to the advertised position. Put references to your github and other professional social media platforms.

Dale Baldwin (Senior Software Engineer @ Culture Amp)

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

At this point, I’m not sure startups are even looking at cover letters. I would focus on building up your LinkedIn profile, having good imagery and a great intro that captures your personality and what you are interested in.

"If I haven’t worked in tech before, what would help me stand out?"

I would focus on three things, ability to learn, problem-solving skills and empathy.

In so many roles I’ve had, not just in startups you are constantly learning on the job. Rarely have I walked into a role or position where I’ve had the majority of the knowledge to effectively do the role on day one. Your ability to quickly learn new skills and apply them is going to be key in being successful.

Tech roles are all about problem-solving, if you can demonstrate in other ways not just code you can solve complex problems then it will help to demonstrate you have the skills to approach the sorts of problems startups and engineering teams are facing.

I think empathy is often overlooked in startups but it’s actually super important. Can you not just listen to your customers and your co-workers but can you really understand their needs and help deliver something that helps them out day to day.

Will Parker (Senior Software Engineer @ Smokeball Australia)

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

Writing a CV with no previous professional experience can always be a challenge but it’s not the end of the world. There is no harm in highlighting work and experience you’ve gained during your learning whether that was during a university course, coding bootcamp or even self-learning. I’d highlight things you might have worked on such as personal portfolio sites, to-do list apps or any tutorials you’ve completed. Include a link to them if you have one and write a summary of the technologies you used, the decisions you made and the knowledge you gained while working on the project. This will go a long way in showing one; that you’re hungry to learn and two; that you have some experience even if it’s not in a professional setting.

Personally, even though I’ve been in the industry now for 12 years I always complete at least one side-project a year that I can talk about during interviews. In my opinion it is one of the best ways to learn and because you have done it in your own time, if asked you are free to talk freely about all the technology and show the source code which you often can’t do with code from a professional setting.

Jessica Sun (Software Engineer @ Atlassian)

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

Work on side projects and build things, volunteer at a non profit organization and work on those coding and communication skills. The good thing is you are free to choose any project that aligns with your interest. You struggle to find the nearest COVID vaccination appointment in a quick and efficient way? Build a website to address this. You struggle to understand algorithms? Code a visual step-by-step representation to help yourself and others understand it. Everyone has to start somewhere, at the end of the day any experience is good experience. It shows initiative, that you are passionate and that you can pull through the ups and downs of being a developer and carry a project forward

John Wesley Salvador (Senior Software Engineer @ Zeller)

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

Portfolio or personal projects will be the best tool to help you stand out. Technologies you are learning and are passionate about

I personally haven’t done a single cover letter in my career, but if you do need to do one, make sure to research about the company and align your experiences and personality with theirs.

Paul Kelcey (VP Engineering @ Displayr)

"What are startups looking for?"

Willingness to learn. Leave your ego at the door. Team is more important than the individual (so shared sense of ownership, willingness to help and uplift others). Either experience in the subject matter or an interest that they can demonstrate. Proactive and has a strong sense of ownership. Thinks broadly about what’s needed to make the business successful (not just doing their tasks to the letter). Flexible and adaptable and able to take on a broad variety of tasks and assignments. Willingness to step in where needed.

Xavi Ferro (Head of Engineering @ Simply Wall St)

"What are startups looking for?"

It depends on the stage of startup but I would say engineers at any level. Attitude? Eager to learn and willing to enjoy the journey. Great team player and growth mindset. Personality? Diversity is key, so be yourself.

Alex Gurr (Head of Engineering @ Cloudwave)

"What are startups looking for?"

This depends on the size of the startup and progress through the project. When a startup’s first formed, the developers they hire will be competent experienced engineers who can do everything, from requirements/ideation to build and dev ops. This is because most startups don’t have enough budget to hire people for every role. Startups look for solid engineers who can wear many hats.

Further down the track, most companies will switch and look for switched on engineers who can work as part of a team, with good communication skills and a “can do” attitude. Experience becomes less of a factor, unless there are pressures to deliver, where senior engineers might be more of a hiring focus.

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

  • Only put relevant work experience to your job/field of expertise. No one cares that you worked at Pizza Hut for 2 years in your teens
  • Mention the tech stack you worked with for each role
  • Only your most recent education/qualifications are useful. Your high school grades will just get skipped and just take up unnecessary space


Alan Truong (Head of Engineering @ EntryLevel)

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

  • Personal projects. This is the number one best thing you can put on your resume if you want to be a software engineer without any relevant experience
  • Show that you have the ability to learn independently 
  • You don’t need to have worked in tech but you need to show that you have some capability of picking up technical skills 


"What are startups looking for?"

Can do it attitude, independent approach to learning. You want to show this, not tell - doing extracurricular activities or personal projects outside of uni work demonstrates the ability 

Most startups don’t care much about your uni degrees or marks. Sure, having a HD average in a computer science or a software engineering degree is a good indicator or someone’s technically ability but showing you have relevant experience either through previous software roles or projects is a much better indicator of your ability

Having a friendly and approachable personality goes a long way. In startups, you tend to work with fewer people but more closely with these people so contributing a positive vibe and energy to a startup’s team culture is often much valued and appreciated (sometimes more than someone’s technical ability!)

"And what if I can’t get a job?"

Don’t be discouraged if you are having a hard time.

People often say landing your first job is the hardest and I believe this is true. It is true that startups (especially early startups) tend to avoid hiring entry level or intern positions - only because the unit of economics of hiring a junior developer is often very low on average versus a senior engineer.

Keep working on those projects, build up your skills and experience and you’ll be surprised, remember, it’s not a race!

Tim Tang (VP Engineering @ Local Measure)

"What are startups looking for?"

Personality-wise, I really enjoy speaking to someone who has opinions about any technologies and to hear them articulate their reasoning for holding those opinions and also accept dissent and pushback. What that says to me is that they can participate and contribute to serious technical discussions, weigh out pros and cons and help decide on a direction. Strong decision making processes are crucial to startup success.

"What looks good on a CV or cover letter?"

Something that always impresses me is when someone makes contributions to open source projects. It doesn't even have to be huge commits or owning any particular thing. When you see someone's GitHub and they have made some small contribution, accompanied with a clear explanation on what they did and why and they engaged in dialogue in the comments it sends a clear message they know how to work on a team.

Pratik Ghimire (Engineering Manager @ Car Next Door)

"What are startups looking for?"

Working in tech does not involve coding solutions 100% of the time. There are several skills which can be transferred from different industries. For example, problem solving is a skill which can be transferred, presentation skills, documentation skills are ever so useful but underestimated. The skills which hiring managers are looking for are teamwork, collaboration, written/verbal communication skills, problem solving skills and attitude and most importantly willingness to learn and improve. If there are any concrete examples which highlight above mentioned skills that’s even better. Hiring managers are looking for people who are willing to learn and can work in teams, tech is generally something that can be learned easily.

Experience depends on the role which you are applying for. The important thing which the hiring manager would be looking for is being open to the uncertainties, challenges and taking on different roles at different times. People who actively look for ways to improve and help teammates/other teams are appreciated.

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