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.  

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