Advice For IT Graduates

Having interviewed a fair number of candidates fresh from university or with little experience, and having sifted through a mountain of CVs with disappointing results, I’d like to share a bit about what I want to see from candidates.

As with any advice or opinion, take it from whence it comes. Look critically at it. This is what I am looking for in a candidate, not necessarily what keyword filtering recruiters are looking for, nor other business owners. But I’d be willing to bet that if you display the attributes I’ve laid out here, you’ll have a better chance of landing a job than someone who doesn’t.

I look for a couple of attributes in our new hires. Intelligence and ambition.

Intelligence is an umbrella term describing a property of the mind including related abilities, such as the capacities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, learning from past experiences, planning, and problem solving. – Wikipedia

Ambition is the desire for personal achievement. It provides the motivation and determination necessary to achieve goals in life. Ambitious people seek to be the best at what they choose to do for attainment, power, or superiority. Ambition can also be defined as the object of this desire. – Wikipedia

There’s no brain scan for these attributes. Instead of testing directly for these, we need to look for indicators. It is not sufficient for someone to claim to exhibit these attributes; they must show them through action. What they have done that indicates they have the attribute.

A note on ambition: I don’t mean the blind ambition of greed and ego, or the condition of arrogance. The emphasis is on “people seek to be the best at what they choose to do“.

So the information we need the candidates application to convey is, what have they done?

During Your Studies

Apply yourself. Please. Great marks indicate, at the very least, either intelligence or ambition. Bad marks indicate laziness or lack of intelligence. If there are extenuating circumstances, elucidate in your application letter. Tell me a story of how you overcame these difficulties to attain your degree. Humans love a narrative.

Learn how to code. After a three or four year degree, you should, at the very least, have all the programming basics down. I have interviewed candidates that could not loop through an array and print each element. If you’re ambitious you’ll learn to programme outside of the classroom. If you’re intelligent, it will come quickly.

Extra Curricular Activities

Do more than study. There are a myriad of ways to show your ambition in the field of IT. The important points to stress are; the output should be publicly available and you should be building a network of contacts.

Some ideas:

There are thousands of open source projects covering a vast range of application domains that you can contribute towards. Whether you’re good at stats etc, there’s an open source project for you. And if you work hard enough at it, you’ll have gained some genuine experience. So to every graduate moaning about ‘how do I get experience’, this is how.

You’ve got ideas, experiences etc. Share that knowledge. Put up a blog and post regularly to it. Not only does this help you build a credible reputation, it will force you to improve your communication skills as well as subject matter knowledge. Being able to form a cohesive argument and convince people of your viewpoint comes with practice. This is a great way of practicing. If ever you get stuck and can’t find some information, or it’s difficult to get the answer, post your solution using the terms you tried searching for in the first place. You may not have been the first person to have the problem and certainly won’t be the last. Make it easier for others to find the answer.

Contribute on technical Q&A forums such as stackoverflow A strong reputation on these types of sites indicate someone who’s not only taken the time to learn their craft, but also indicates someone who is willing to help others and can form a coherent explanation. You’ll also find your technical knowledge growing as you research answers to questions.

Join IT groups. Not just at university, but in the wider world as well. You’ll learn a thing or two, but you’ll also get to meet people in the IT industry. When it comes time to find a job you’ll have a network of contacts to access. If you’re in Johannesburg and you’re into programming, take a look at the Ferndale Java User Group. Alternatively the Johannesburg Siebel User Group offers a more specialized crowd. There’s no better place to find mentors or even some advice than from a group of people passionate enough about IT to spend their free time discussing tech.

Continual learning

One of the greatest assets one can have in the world of IT is the ability to learn. When someone can explain to me how they’ve managed to keep up with the changes in IT, how they have never stopped learning, I’m impressed. Learning without a plan is problematic. I suggest picking up a copy of “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware” to help you figure out the most effective means of learning as quickly as possible.

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware


If your communication skills are not stellar, improve them.

Aside from making it easier to understand other people and convey your point of view, I’m sure (whether consciously or not) you attribute a lower intelligence to someone who cannot effectively share their thoughts.

Don’t underestimate this. People will discriminate against you based on your ability to communicate. It shouldn’t happen, but it will.

Your CV

The easiest item to get right, yet so many candidates fail here. Think about what it is you want to convey to your prospective employer. Don’t mindlessly follow a CV template.

Tell a story in your cover letter and tailor it to the particular application. You should have a mountain of achievements to convey on your CV. The problem should be how to concisely communicate the awesomeness that is you, not pad it with extraneous fluff to make up length.

If going through a recruiter, by all means, make sure you’ve added the obligatory keywords that recruiters, in their broken behaviour, use to filter CVs. But make sure you keep in mind the person who will eventually need to make the decision to interview you or not.

You should also be updating your CV throughout your academic and work career. It’s difficult to clearly remember what happened last quarter, never mind a couple of years ago.

As you achieve something, add it. If you’re not adding achievements, that indicates you’re stagnating.

Concluding thoughts

All this takes time. It’s best not to wait until you graduate to think about how you’re going to get a job and excel in the workplace.

What do you think?

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10 Responses to Advice For IT Graduates

  1. Sarathiel Chaipa says:

    Great stuff and very good comments! Students coming out of the university or college do not think about these things. To every jobseeker, remember you are a brand that needs to be marketed. The marketing manager is YOU unfortunately who has to market that brand. Take heed of the advice given.

    • Michael says:

      Glad you liked it. Good point about the brand. I do think, in general, people drawn to IT are less likely to be comfortable marketing themselves. But it’s something one does have to do.

  2. Ronnie says:

    Hi Michael

    I studies @ UNISA during my studies I wasnt sure what field to go into eventully I ended up in the MS/BI(Analytca) field which I love to bits cause you dont do hardcore coding instead its a mixture of technical and business skills. I always wanted to enter the ERP enviroment but finds it tough to enter as most companies want some sort of certifications ad these come @ hefty price tags

    Do u have any advice on how t enter the ERP field

    • Michael says:

      I’m not sure. If it’s a junior position I can’t imagine they’d need a qualification. If it’s a mid to senior position I can understand as it’s a lot of money to put down and risk to take on for an employer. What level of position are you applying for?

      Have you joined professional groups (virtual or otherwise) in the ERP industry? They’d be able to give better advice.

  3. Charlene says:

    I’m passionate about IT and would definately take this advice to hart. I wish from the bottom of my hart that I can find a job where I can get experience in the IT industry or just into a IT company even if it’s just as a receptionist. It’s challenging if your current work doesn’t correspond with your studies.

  4. Yolanda says:

    Hi Michael

    Great article indeed. I’m doing my BCom Informatics through UNISA and majoring in Quantitative Management (maths). I have years work experience in software testing but now want to move to BI (willing to even start as a Data Analyst) but i don’t have any analytical related experience. I’m planning on doing the MCTS: SQL Server 2008, Business Intelligence Development and Maintenance course and want to know if this course will help me get the BI or DA job seeing that i don’t come from a BI background

  5. phumudzo dongola says:

    i would like to join. i am a final year IT student luking for internships and jobs.where do i email my cv

    • Michael says:

      Hi Phumudzo

      To apply for an internship or job, please send the following to
      * Cover letter highlighting what you have done to make you stand out from your peers; and why you want to work for Tetrad in the Siebel industry.
      * Full academic record (including marks)
      * CV

      Please consider what type of impression you give when you comment using all lowercase letters and no punctuation.


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