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If a position requires programming language "A", but I only know a different one, is it recommended to mention that in the cover letter?

Such as when an employer prefers someone knowing SAS over other similar statistical programming languages (such as R), but I only know R. Is it good to say the following?

Currently, my primary programming languages are R, Python and MATLAB, and I am able to quickly pick up SAS or STATA as needed.

Should I include the above or not mention it at all?

  • Hi Tom. I made some edits to this to highlight the question being asked and put the tittle into a better format. If it has changed the question to much please feel free to rollback. – Michael Grubey Aug 8 '13 at 8:04
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If the language is a requirement, then it not showing up in your cover letter / CV at all would be a negative.

The way you have phrased it - that you can pick it up quickly, is (in my eyes) a bonus. You should make a point of R being a statistical programming language - this helps show that you are familiar with the domain as well.

In short - if you don't currently have the requisite knowledge, ensure your cover letter makes it an much of a non-issue as possible.

  • 1
    +1 - also, give some indication of how quickly you were able to learn the other language. – user8365 Aug 8 '13 at 14:43
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    Emphasize what is transferable (i.e. the data analysis skills), and emphasize that you are confident that you can pick up SAS quickly enough to be productive soon. Imo, the data analysis skills are harder to learn to learn than the scripting skills (not to be confused with software engineering). – Paul Hiemstra Aug 11 '13 at 15:39
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Should I include the above or not mention it at all?

Your cover letter should emphasize the positives and ignore the negatives in your background. Thus, you should not mention anything that is missing.

Something like this emphasizes the positives:

Currently, my primary programming languages are R, Python and Matlab. Over the years, I have been able to pick up other languages very quickly.

  • This strategy may cause very serious problems, can not it? HR could think that OP actually knows language A since HR explicitly mentioned language A as a requirement. Doesn't it mean that if something it stated as a requirement, nobody should reply to a vacancy if he doesn't meet this requirement? – Kolyunya Aug 9 '13 at 14:02
  • I like that you changed, "am able to quickly pick up SAS". The only way that claim could be well-founded in evidence, is if you have picked SAS up quickly in the past, in which case you'd list it. If I (the recruiter) am asking for SAS in preference to R, then it's because I think picking up SAS is not completely trivial. Even if I'm in fact wrong there's a problem with the questioner's proposed formulation, that it makes them look like they habitually make unfounded predictions of their own abilities. Which you've fixed by sticking to a claim with real foundation. – Steve Jessop Jun 30 '14 at 1:05
  • I've just (yesterday) started work at a company where I started the cover letter by pointing out that I didn't know Java despite this being a requirement for the job. (They didn't actually give me that job, but a slightly different one.) The reason is that I had experience which is very useful to them (and very rare). If the language is a requirement, you have to mention it, and why your lack doesn't matter; if it it's a nice to have, ignore it but mention all the other positives (e.g. "experience with statistics"). – Martin Bonner Jul 19 '16 at 14:50
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Usually you will find two sets of "requirements" in a job posting.

  • Those the applicant must have.
  • Those they desire that the applicant have.

If the particular language or technology you are missing is from the must have list that is harder to overcome. You risk that the initial filtering by either the computer or HR will reject the application/resume. They want to see those words. It is easier if you have some experience but not as many years as they describe.

If a skill they desire but don't require is missing from your resume that is much more easily overcome. They realize that applicants resume and experience is shaped by the jobs that they have had. If you worked for a company that only used R you might not have the expertise in SAS. They will usually list a bunch of statistical packages to allow as many applicants to qualify. They expect that every applicant is missing some of the list. The more items of the list you do have the better candidate on paper you are.

The new company will generally give you time to come up to speed on the desired items. They might train you or send you to training. On the other hand items on the required skill list you are expected to know before you walk in the door.

Use your cover letter to overcome the deficiencies, by expanding on the related experience. Though realize that the more you are missing from the required list the more likely your application will be rejected long before the interview.

Most of this concern is moot if you can get a recommendation from somebody on the project, they can more personally vouch that your long experience in the field will overcome some minor deficiencies in the specific technology.

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This just depends on the company. If the technologies requested are at least related to work you have done in the past, I would play up my domain knowledge and ability to learn new languages quickly (which it would appear you are already doing).

However, some companies are looking for someone that can fill an immediate need. They want someone who has knowledge and experience in the specific technologies they are using such that they require little or no training and can be productive on day one. These sorts of companies tend to stick to widely adopted technologies (Java, etc.) so that they can find replacements quickly. These companies will generally prefer someone of average talent who has X years experience with the right technologies over a genius with experience in other areas. If you don't have the skills, you won't even get an interview. No great loss, you probably wouldn't want to work at such a place anyway.

Other companies (usually the smaller ones, but not always) tend to seek out talented software engineers first and consider experience with the right technologies to be a bonus. Usually you'll be able to tell which sort of employer you're dealing with early on in the application process (if the job posting itself doesn't give it away).

If they don't care what language you use to solve problems during the interview process (either pre-screening homework or 'whiteboard' questions during the interview itself), that's a good sign. I have been known to satisfactorily complete such an 'interview homework' assignment in an unfamiliar language only to be rejected later on when the interviewer(s) learned that my experience in language X was basically limited to said homework assignment :/

Alas, I have had to develop better filters on my side of the interview process, and a lot of it comes down to gut feelings (based on experience) that lead me to say "Sorry, no longer interested" :)

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