Thursday, December 23, 2010

Technical Resumes: Part 3 (The Meat and Potatoes)

In the previous post I discussed the importance of a well-written, concise, relevant Overview in order to entice resume reviewers to spend more time on looking over your full credentials.  In this post I make some suggestions on how to present the main body of your resume.  

Recall that I recommend a four part structure for most resumes: Overview, Professional Experience, Personal Growth, and Education.  Those just entering the job market might want to swap the order between Experience and Education.  Those applying for very technical positions (like software developer) may want to include a fifth section summarizing their Technical Experience.


If you've done a good job at creating a brief, cleanly formatted resume with a relevant, focused Overview then the reviewer should now be eager to dig into the details of your professional experience.  The purpose of this section is to describe the most relevant portions of your experience.  This is not meant to be an exhaustive database of all your activities and projects.  All previous comments regarding relevancy and brevity still apply.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I recommend using present tense ("deliver quality widgets") for your current position and past tense ("delivered quality widgets") for previous positions.  Mixing tenses distracts the reader and interrupts flow.  I also recommend avoiding the use of any pronouns.  "Delivered quality widgets" rather than "I delivered..." or "we delivered...".  This has a number of advantages.  It sounds professional, makes the resume ever so slightly shorter, and it gives the prose a quicker pace.  

The usual order to list your professional experience starts with your most recent or current position and moves backward in time.  The format used is a matter of personal preference but I include the company name and position title left justified and the dates of employment right justified.  I keep bullets small, monochromatic, and unobtrusive.  I try to keep individual bullets to a single line of text.

Following the position heading, I usually suggest adding a single sentence that describes the position in the company (which helps in cases where non-standard titles might have been used).  Following this sentence is your (typically bulleted) list of what you feel were the most important responsibilities and accomplishments in this position.  Avoid all irrelevant and obvious details.  For instance, if your job title was "Software Developer" then don't bother adding a bullet that states that you developed software.   

Some people (even some organizations!) confuse activity with value.  It might be the case that you diligently attended weekly status meetings don't include that in your resume.  You want to focus on the ways you created value for the company you worked for.  This means describing what you delivered and not the actions you took to deliver it.  For technical positions this could mean describing the products that you contributed to building.  For leaders this might mean describing the products that your team delivered.  Avoid activity-centric words and phrases like "attended", "discussed", "met with", "worked on" and favour more results-oriented words like "delivered", "resolved", "created", "invented".  

Newer leaders can sometimes get stuck because they still cling to definitions of value from their single contributor days.  For instance, some newer leaders go through a period where they don't see their new responsibilities of leadership and organization as being as valuable as building or testing software.   Remember that as a leader your sphere of influence is wider and it is quite acceptable to talk about your team's accomplishments as well as your own direct accomplishments.  Maintain results-oriented language though and avoid descriptions like "Oversaw the creation of comprehensive security standards...".  Hiring managers know that leaders lead teams of people that deliver different portions of a result.  You don't need to include the fact that you oversaw the work.  Rather focus on the deliverable: "Created comprehensive security standards...". 

Finally, here are a few other common missteps that I've seen. 
  • Using internal project and product names and acronyms as if the reader should just know what they mean ("I worked on the XH25 component of Project Blinko"). 
  • Describe what the company does rather than what you did.
  • Include a comprehensive list of all responsibilities, accomplishments, deliverables, and activities in a long 20 bullet list.  Edit!
  • Put the most significant accomplishment at the end or randomly in the middle of the list.  If your most significant and relevant accomplishment was the invention of a new product feature that increased sales 20% then make that the first bullet!
  • Not being specific about accomplishments.  "Led a team delivering client-server software" rather than "Led a team delivering 6 major software releases and 12 patch releases over a period of 18 months".  
  • Going into too much detail for positions in the distant pace.  Focus your time on the more recent and relevant positions.  Limit the descriptions to a couple bullets for the distant past and positions that are of a different nature than the one you are applying for.  
Personal Growth

It is important to include a section on personal growth because it demonstrates that you are a life-long learner and have depth that goes beyond just what your work experience suggests.  Personal growth accomplishments might include any of the following:
  • Courses taken and completed
  • Certifications
  • Volunteer roles
  • Sports-related roles (coaching, captain of a team, team in a competitive league)
  • Speaking engagements
  • Publications (although these might be attached to specific roles as well)
  • Relevant hobbies ("Created and maintain the Infocom website" is relevant.  "Table top gaming" is, likely, not)
  • Your blog (unless your subject matter is of the nature of "nice pairs that I've seen") 

Technical Experience

If you are applying for a leadership position it is less relevant what computer languages you are fluent in and what software frameworks you've used.  This doesn't mean you should exclude them in your work experience but there really isn't any need to have a specific technical experience section in your resume.  Spend a little more time on describing how your leadership and communication skills delivered results.

However, for technical positions you really should include technical experience.  Search engines will pick up on keywords like Java, C#, and Maven.  Also, the technical experience section is often used, like the overview section, to quickly filter resumes.  If I'm looking for software developers with Ruby experience I'm going to want to see Ruby somewhere on the resume before I dig into the finer details.  Keep the section short and neatly formated. 

Recall my note regarding honesty.  You want to focus on the technologies, languages, platforms, frameworks that you have real experience using.  If all you know about Javascript is it's definition and what it is typically used for but you don't have any experience actually using it, then don't include it.  You'll just embarrass yourself later in the interview when it becomes obvious that you've never actually worked with it.  


By "education" I mean formal, multi-year, focused study on a subject resulting in some kind of degree or diploma.  Microsoft Certification does not qualify as education.  It's training and should go in your personal growth section.

Different companies place different emphasis on education.  Google, for example, places a very strong emphasis on education even if you got your degree 20 years ago.  My philosophy has always been that your education demonstrates your intelligence and commitment early in your career but soon gets overshadowed by your continuous learning and professional experience.  Unless you are new to the workforce, or your education ties directly into the job you are applying for, or the company to which you are applying places a high importance on education then I recommend including this section at the end of your resume.  

Obviously include the school names and degree levels achieved.  If you did a thesis then include its title and link to it if it is available online.  Include the titles of (and links to) other academic publications you achieved in your studies. 

I'm hesitant to recommend including education that was started but not completed.  It suggests a lack of discipline or capability.  If you started a degree but had good reason to not complete it (perhaps a business or job opportunity came up) then by all means include the fact that you did 3 years of a 4 year degree but then also include your reason for not completing.  

So that basically covers that I typically advise when people ask me to review their resume.  I'm going write one more post tomorrow that covers the related topic of the Cover Letter and I might include a couple of thoughts on LinkedIn.  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Technical Resumes: Part 2 (The Overview)

In yesterday's post I kicked off my resume writing advice for technical and technology leadership positions.  Today's post continues on that theme and I cover what I consider to be the most critical and most overlooked part of the resume: The Overview.

Overview is to Resume as Resume is to Interview.  Hiring managers have many constraints on their time  and are not waiting around for your resume to hit their desk.  It is not unusual for hiring managers to blast through a 12 inch thick stack of resumes in 60 to 90 minutes making gut reaction decisions on which candidates seem the most promising.  When I sort resumes I create two piles: Interested and TBNT (Thanks, But No Thanks).  After my initial sort the Interested pile is typically about 10% of the original stack size.  This is the pile that I spend my time on and really consider who I would like to interview.

Spending 30 seconds on one resume while doing this initial sort is the absolute maximum.  Typically a decision is made in less than 10 seconds.  There are a handful of surface factors that cause resumes to be dumped into TBNT: excessive length, obvious spelling errors, or anything that makes the resume look like it will be difficult to work through (poor layout, goofy font choices, dark paper -- why print black text on dark coloured paper?).  However, most of the filtering comes from the Overview section of a resume.   The primary goal of the Overview section is to convince the reviewer that they should continue to read the rest of your resume, search for you on LinkedIn and otherwise spend timing learning about you. 

I've seen resumes include an Objectives section (rather than an Overview) where the candidate describes what their career objectives are.  To be honest, I don't know you and I don't yet care what your objectives are -- TBNT (or at least ignore this section).  I've read other resumes that include a mini-resume in their Overview.  This kind of Overview doesn't say anything new or interesting that I can't get from the rest of the resume and is typically consists of long lists of comma separated skills and technologies.  Way too long and boring to hold my attention -- TBNT.  Still others include all boiler-plate.  Let me fill you in on a secret, there are literally thousands of people who "have excellent communication skills" and  "are dynamic leaders" and "put great attention to detail" -- TBNT.  Still others don't include an Overview section at all.  The reviewers challenge then becomes figuring out where to cast their eyes for the next 10-30 seconds in order to determine if there is enough value in doing a deeper read.  Couple this with an overly long resume and you're on the top of the TBNT pile.

Imagine you have 30 seconds to convince The Donald that you have a compelling business idea or Brian Eno that U2 should be opening for your band or Spielberg that you've written a blockbuster.  In all these cases you need to know what Trump/Eno/Spielberg are interested in and what they find valuable.  The same goes for your Overview.  If you have a boilerplate Overview that doesn't take into account the specific position let alone the specific company then you're 10 seconds away from TBNT.

You mean I have to write an Overview for every job that I'm applying for?  Yes, but it's not as bad as it sounds.  Chances are you have a core set of skills and interests and you are applying for similar positions at companies in related industries.  Still, there is a huge difference between what is required for a Senior Software Designer vs a Software Team Leader.

To start off I recommend writing a longer and broader Overview that captures many of your technical and non-technical skills, experiences and traits.  This might sound counter to everything I've written so far but you will NOT use this version on any actual resume.  Think of this as your diamond mine out of which you will extract gems for each resume.  You will edit this ├╝ber-Overview down to just what is needed for each position/company to which you are applying.  Editing down is much easier than trying to come up with new material for each resume.

Once you are ready to write an Overview for a particular resume put yourself in the shoes of the business owner or hiring manager for that company and think about how you would fill that position.  Imagine that you have dozens or hundreds of highly skilled candidates to choose from so you can be picky.  What experience, skills, knowledge would you be looking for to fill the position?  What would your dream candidate look like?  If you're having trouble do a little research on the web.  Google and LinkedIn can be great resources to get to know more about a company or about a type of position.  Now consider your experience, skills and knowledge and pick out a couple of experiences or unique skills that you think best match your vision for this position.  Be specific and call out (briefly!) experiences that you think would make you the top candidate for this position.

Once you have a draft Overview consisting of maybe 3 to 5 sentences (no more than 6 to 8 lines of text) read it over again deleting everything that you feel takes away from the core message you are trying to deliver.  Be brutal in your editing.  Slash irrelevant details, boilerplate, and duplication.  Even eradicate unnecessary words (particularly adjectives) and superfluous punctuation.  Get this section down to its very essence in order to minimize the time it takes a reviewer to decide to give your resume a deeper read.  This is your first impression and you want it to be positive.  Keep it relevant, keep it specific, keep it brief.  Your goal is to illicit a reaction like "hey that's cool" or even "hmmm, that's interesting".  All you want at this point is for the reviewer to be compelled to invest time in the rest of your resume.

A word about honesty.  Sometimes getting into the mind of the hiring manager gets your creative juices flowing and after you've written your Overview you realize that you've described someone else.  At that point you need to either rewrite the section using your actual experience (maybe you're 80% qualified for the position) or admit that maybe you're not the right person for this position after all.  Nothing will irk a hiring manager more than being lied to and having their time wasted.  At best you'll be on permanent TBNT from that department but you might also end up on the black list for the whole company or even a whole industry.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Technical Resumes: Part 1

Over the years in my roles as manager, director, and technical executive I frequently had to review resumes and qualifications of candidates applying for technical and leadership positions.  I also get asked fairly frequently (maybe once a month) to cast a critical eye on the resumes of coworkers, former coworkers, friends of coworkers, etc.  While I enjoy doing this it does take some time to do well.  What I've included in this post and in the upcoming posts is the core set of principles that I use to guide my review of resumes for technical and technology leadership positions.

The Goal

Ask yourself why you are writing a resume at all.  If your answer was "to summarize my experience" or even "to get a job" then think again.  Your resume has exactly one purpose -- to get you an interview with an employer that you are interested in working for.

Some people think of their resume as a database or catalog of their experiences.  They feel that a short resume reflects a lack of experience and so they make it as long and detailed as possible.  Others think of their resume as some kind of sounding board for their opinions and ideas.  These resumes are like that guy at the party who doesn't clue in that people don't care about his latest World of Warcraft exploits.  Others think of their resume only as a compliance activity that needs to be checked off the list in order to say that you've applied for a position.  These people send identical copies of their resume to hundreds of potential employers hoping that one of them will notice something valuable to them.

So if the goal of your resume is to get yourself an interview then what you need to be focused on is how to catch the attention of the person or persons who are sifting through hundreds of resumes of people with similar qualifications to your own.  Think of your resume as a marketing teaser.  You've got one chance to get a hiring manager or recruiter to want to get you in for an interview.  You want your resume placed in the To Interview pile and not in the TBNT ("Thanks, But No Thanks") pile.

Overall Structure

Keep it short (yes, you've heard this before but I really mean it this time).  It should fit on one double-sided sheet of 8.5x11" paper (although I recommend using two single-sided sheets if you really need to print it out).  The problem with the "resume-as-database" folks is that the length of the resume becomes too daunting for reviewers and usually hits the TBNT pile.

The actual format of the header information at the top is a matter of subjective choice and can reflect your own design sensibility -- but keep it simple and to the point.  Your name and how to contact you.  Both via email and telephone -- for now keep your social media off your resume unless it is relevant to the position.

For senior or leadership positions I typically recommend a four part structure: Overview, Experience, Growth, Education (in that order).  If you're a new grad then put the Education section second after the Overview.  For technical positions, include a fifth section that summarizes the technologies that you feel you have expert experience in (and no, Word and Excel does not constitute "technical").


Like the header, the layout of the resume is largely subjective.  I do suggest that you resist any urge to experiment with all those fonts that you never get a chance to use.  Sans Serif fonts like Helvetica, Arial, and Futura were designed to ease eye strain.  Furthermore, you don't want your font choice to become your message -- you want your qualifications to be your message.

Bullet points are another area that some people feel necessary to "accessorize".  Small, round, monotone bullets in the same colour as your text are quite sufficient.  And don't go crazy with the bullets.  I've seen entire resumes formatted in bullet form.  They read like the parts list in an appendix of the Owner's Manual for my car.  TBNT.

Spelling and Grammar

It would amaze you, gentle reader, to learn how many resumes in this day and age still contain spelling errors.  It's not enough that every word processor includes a spell check function but most of them will even underline the misspellings in red as you type them.  Nothing says, "low effort compliance activity" than a resume with spelling errors.  TBNT.

Obviously grammatically correct sentences are just as important as correctly spelled words.  Prefer the active voice ("delivered the project") over passive ("the project was delivered").  Microsoft Word has a hate-on for passive voice so it should prove a useful ally.

One area that I find very often gets overlooked is verb tense.  I've read present progressive, past tense, and present tense all in a single resume.  Changing tenses interrupts flow and distracts the reviewer.  If I'm describing my current position I use plain old present tense: "Lead a team", "deliver solutions", "work with".  For past positions and experience I use plain old past tense: "Led a team", "delivered solutions", "worked with".  You may choose to use all past tense but whatever you decide stay consistent.

Remember Your Reader

While you might consider the Frobozz System that you helped build while at GrueTech, Inc. to be of earth-shattering importance it is very likely that the reviewers of your resume will have never heard of it.  Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has never worked where you worked and then read your resume.  How many assumptions did you build into it?  Unless your customer base was counted in the tens of millions or higher, don't assume that the products, services and processes of your former employers are self-evident.  Spell out company-specific acronyms, define custom terms, and include hyperlinks to relevant content should the reviewer wish to dig deeper.

Next Up: The Most Important Section of Any Resume