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


Kimota94 aka Matt aka AgileMan said...

Really, really good post, Pete. I hope your readership takes what you've written to heart, because I've seen virtually all the same issues in resumes that have been passed by me. Looking forward to reading the next part!

Kevin Hendry said...

I thought you liked my WoW anecdotes. My Night Elf Druid /weeps.