Sunday, May 5, 2013
In Search of Better Résumés
Today’s blog is about writing a better résumé.
Having run my own business for 12 years, I certainly saw my share of résumés. In fact, in my current job, I’ve spent many months working on hiring. Between the two, I’ve seen hundreds of résumés, and been involved in hiring dozens of candidates. So I have a bit of experience in this area.
Of course, mine is only one opinion. Some people are going to agree and others will disagree. I’ve already been told by one person with some experience in these matters that he didn’t care for my personal résumé format ... too “fancy.” But my format is informed by several rules that I have when personally reviewing résumés, and I have been, at several points in my career, the guy to impress when you wanted to get a job at my company. So take that as you will.
Tip #1: Keep it short. Résumés are almost universally too long. The truth is that, when you’re faced with reading a dozen résumés a day, you can’t read them all anyway. You’re going to just scan them. And, even then, to be terribly terribly honest, I’m usually starting to drift off towards the top of page two. Do everything in your power to reduce your résumé to one page. And, realistically, unless you’ve been doing whatever it is you do professionally for a minimum of ten years, this shouldn’t even be difficult. Having a two or even three page résumé when you’re just a year or two out of college isn’t impressive. It’s pretentious. Even at 10+ years, when it ceases to be unbelievable, it’s still unnecessary.
Let’s face it: the vast majority of résumé content is bullshit. Everyone knows this. Any decent résumé reviewer also knows this and will completely ignore most of the crap on your résumé anyway. So don’t give them lots of crap to ignore. Hit the highlights—that’s all they were really going to read in any case. And this way you get to decide what the highlights are instead of having the reviewer take their best guess at it.
This year I’ll hit my 26th anniversary as a professional programmer. I still got my résumé down to a single page. If I can do it, you can too. And people are far more likely to read the whole thing at that length.
Tip #2: Focus. I’m a Perl programmer. I generally am looking to hire Perl programemrs. If you send me a résumé with a list of languages on it and Perl isn’t first in the list, I’m setting your résumé aside. I’ve got plenty of other résumés where Perl is the first language in the list. I want someone who’s passionate about Perl. When you bury the lead in the middle of a rote list of languages you know, that doesn’t scream “passionate” to me.
Even worse, don’t put it in the wrong category, and don’t misspell it. I have seen résumés for Perl jobs where Perl didn’t appear in the list of langauges at all, but in some other category like “Scripting.” Sure, Perl is a scripting language. Listing C++ and Java under “Languages” and Perl under “Scripting” isn’t going to win you points for being technically correct. Even if I were to agree with you that you were technically correct—which I certainly would not—why on earth would I want to hire someone with so obvious a disdain for the language they were looking to be hired for? And while misspelling anything on your résumé is pretty awful, misspelling the primary focus (e.g. “PERL” instead of “Perl”) is instant death.
And don’t give me any excuses about how you need a single résumé to submit to multiple different jobs. If you’re seriously applying for more than one different kind of job—perhaps you’re both a Perl programmer and a C++ programmer, or perhaps both a programmer and a QA engineer—then make different résumés. Even if the only difference is which language you list first, that’s a difference worth making.
Speaking of listing languages, don’t list every language you’ve ever dabbled in. Hit the top 4 or 5 (or even fewer) and move on. Remember: just the highlights. I used to put Fortran on my résumé because I took a course in it once. In college. Thirty years ago. I couldn’t program in Fortran if my life depended on it; why was I putting it on my résumé? Just to pad. And since it was tenth in a list of ten languages, I’m sure my reviewers had already decided they were drifting into bullshit territory long before they got there. So why was I bothering?
Hopefully you can turn these specific examples into general advice. If not, you probably have more issues than I can reasonably help you with.
Tip #3: Dates. I don’t read most of the details on a résumé. You know the one thing I do read? The dates. The dates on a job. I look for particularly long gaps. I look for how long ago you last worked with this or that. I look for how long ago your first job was, because that tells me far more precisely how long you’ve been at this than some general “blah-di-blah years of experience” up at the top.
Every job should have a month and year that you started, and a month and year that you ended. The most recent job (i.e. your current job, if you’re currently employed) should be first, and they should go in reverse chronological order, and your first job should be last. I may very well jump to the end to see the start date on that first job. Don’t bother with the exact day; I don’t care that much. On the other hand, just years may not be fine-grained enough.
If you do have a large gap in employment, don’t try to hide it by leaving dates off altogether. However bad it may look, I can always imagine worse. When you don’t put dates on your résumé at all, I can’t see when you did what. This irks me. Don’t irk me.
Oh, and by the way: include every job you’ve held in the field you’re trying to get a job in now. Some people will tell you not to do this. I’ve been told, for instance, that I shouldn’t bother with my first couple of jobs. They were a long time ago, after all, and there isn’t much there that’s relevant to my career now. But when I review résumés, as I said above, I’m going to jump to the end at some point and look at the date on your oldest job. That’s how long you’ve been in the business. If you leave off your first job in the field, then I don’t know how long you’ve been doing this. Do you not want me to know how long you’ve been doing this?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t need to see (and actively don’t want to see) your jobs outside the field. It doesn’t matter that you were a dishwasher or a pizza delivery guy or a construction worker or a paperboy. I could care less. But if it’s related to what you want to do—even tangentially—put it in there. Be very brief in your description, since it doesn’t much matter and I’m likely not going to read it anyway, but put it in there.
Tip #4: Nobody cares about ... Remember how, in high school, your teachers and your principal and your guidance counselor told you that your school record would follow you around for the rest of your life? They lied. I have never told a single person in my entire life what my high school grade point average was. I never even put it on my college applications, although I’m sure they got it from the high school records upon request. I have also never told a single person what my college grade point average was. I don’t even remember what either of them were any more, to be honest. I used to tell people what I made on the SATs every now and again, until I realized there were plenty of people in the world who had done better than I had and I should just shut up about it. But I’ve never told an employer what it was, and I’ve never been asked.
I do not care what your grade on anything was. It’s beyond irrelevant. I also do not care what your hobbies are. Some people will tell you that interesting personal details like this make you stand out. They do not. They make reviewers wonder why the hell you are telling them this.
One other thing: I have never called a personal reference. Ever. And I never will. If you put them down on your résumé, they like you. No, more than that: they adore you. If you put someone down on your résumé as a personal reference who does not adore you, then you are a moron. If you are a moron, I’m not going to hire you anyway, and I don’t need a bad personal reference to figure that out, so it’s a waste of time to call them. If you are not a moron, any personal reference I call is going to tell me how utterly awesome you are, and I know they’re going to say that ahead of time, so it’s a waste of time to call them. I don’t have time to waste. I have hundreds of résumés to review, remember?
Tip #5: But they do care about ... Every field is going to have a few unique things that don’t fit into a standard résumé format. For me, it’s a link to my blog (my technical blog) and a list of the CPAN modules I maintain. For you it might be professional organizations, or certifications, or who knows what all. Put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes. Pretend that you were going to hire a coworker. If you had to work with someone for the next several years, what would you want to know about them besides all the other places they’d worked? Would you really care where they went to school and what they majored in? (There are perhaps some jobs where you would, but probably not.) What about articles they’d written? (Probably so, but then again maybe not.) Only you, or someone else in your field, can answer this question.
Tip #6: Contact info. Please, for the love of all that is holy, put your phone number and your email address on your résumé. And absolutely under no circumstances allow your recruiter, if you must use one, to remove them. Nothing frustrates me more than a résumé for someone I can’t contact. And do not put either one or the other. Put both. Some people like phone calls. Some people (like me) prefer emails. You don’t know which type is going to end up with your résumé; don’t risk pissing off half of your potential reviewers.
Tip #7: Review. Everything you ever write you must review. Never, ever, under any circumstances, let a single thing that you write leave your possession without rereading it. Nothing. Not a letter, not a report, not an email, not an instant message. And absolutely positively not something as vital as a résumé. A résumé should be reread several times. In fact, you should reread it before you send it to anyone. Every time you send it to anyone. You will constantly find mistakes or areas of improvement in your résumé, even when it’s been around for years and you’ve read over it hundreds of times. Read it again. You’ll find something else. Pick apart the spelling, the punctuation, the grammar. Give it to friends to read for you. Pick the people you know who write the best and make them help you. Read it aloud to yourself and listen to yourself. Any time you hear yourself stumble over something, change it.
Tip #8: Don’t be afraid to experiment. There is something to the idea that your résumé can be too over-the-top. But there’s a long way to go before you go too far. Résumés are depressingly similar, and when you have to go through hundreds of them, they all start to blur. Anything that sets yours apart is far more likely to be positive than negative. Look at it this way: even if the reviewer doesn’t like the risks you take, they’ll remember them. I got a résumé once completely written in a strange, futuristic font. I made fun of it mercilessly, but I still remember that candidate’s name. Moreover, in the process of making fun of it mercilessly, I showed it to everyone in the office. That’s the sort of exposure you can’t buy.
Once upon a time, people might recommend that you put your résumé on some sort of unique paper: pink, perhaps, or a heavier bond. Nowadays everything is electronic, though. Of course, you can do things with an electronic format that would be difficult or impractical to do on paper, if you have the skills. You could, for instance, make your own watermark. Or add a detailed image to your résumé, if that might have value. You can definitely take this one too far—if you could somehow rig it so that, whenever I opened your résumé, a .wav file of the 1812 Overture played, I would consider that to be the résumé equivalent of the dreaded blink tag, and I would see you in hell before I saw you in the workplace. But there’s a hell of a lot of room to play in before you reach that point. Try it out on your friends before you try it out on an employer, if you’re worried.
Putting it all together. So do I practice what I preach? Well, here’s my résumé so you can judge for yourself. Note that it all fits on one page, despite having quite a few years to fit on there. In order to make that happen, I went with the two-column format, which is the experimental part. I included a few things that some résumés don’t; I excluded a bunch of things many résumés have. All my programming jobs are listed, and they all have dates. Every job (except the first few, which are listed last) also includes exactly what technical things I was doing, so that anyone can see how old my experience with this or that is, or how long I’ve been continuously working with something. My technical skills section has gone from being a long list of long lists to being a short, singular batch of bullet points, with only the top-tier skills listed. And Perl is first, because that’s the sort of job I want to get. And I’ve read it over and over again a hundred times. At least.
In fact, the only piece of my own advice I didn’t take was including my phone number. This is because I am a grumpy old man who doesn’t particularly care for phone calls, and I can afford to eliminate those people who can’t operate their email. But this is definitely one of those do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do things.
So, there’s some advice on how to present your résumé, from someone who has some experience in those sorts of things. Take it or not, as you please. In fact, now that I think on it, the more people who listen to this advice, the fewer résumés I can toss aside without having to do phone screens. So, actually, don’t take my advice. Haven’t I told you not to read this damn blog? Stubborn bastards.