Your resume. It’s the little things that hurt. (The Programmer’s Guide to Getting Hired)


A skill that emerges naturally for managers after conducting a relatively small number of recruiting efforts is the ability to recognize common anti-patterns in resumes that are contra-indicators of good developers. I’m not talking about the major faux pas that have been repeatedly covered in generic articles about job hunting, but rather the nuanced messages that are communicated to a technical hiring manager who has learned to  read between the lines. This article is intended as cautionary advice to help prospective developers avoid the most common and damaging mistakes beyond simple typos and grammar considerations.

Risk Level: For senior candidates, most of the mistakes described below are fatal to your candidacy. For more entry level technical positions I am more likely to let these types of issues slide, but do use them to differentiate candidates that are otherwise equally qualified, so it still makes sense to be mindful of them.

 

Tip #1: Don’t be hyper-specific

One of the most effective ways to portray yourself as a novice or one-trick-pony is to pile on the trivial details when describing past jobs or projects. I understand that you are proud of your accomplishments, and know how easy it is to get wordy when drafting the Book of Moi, but remember that a resume is a brochure, not a biography. The prime objective of a resume is to get you booked for an interview, not to close the sale. The interview is a much better forum to brag about the implementation specifics of the “Monolith 3.0 Infrastructure Upgrade Project” because it allows you to adjust the message as you deliver it to hone in on whatever aspects resonate with the interviewer.

The key problem with being too specific arises from the undesirable subtext it creates. I think this is demonstrated well in the following excerpt from a real resume submitted for a Web developer job that I was trying to fill.

“Created stored procedures to fetch query results from the database for higher performance. Involved in writing complex SQL queries that required data from multiple tables using inner and outer joins.”

Gems of this type are hardly rare. I see variants of this exact statement so often in developer resumes that I can now spot them as quickly as if they were marked with a yellow highlighter pen. My mind automatically drifts to the same questions every time I see something like this…

Question 1:  Why is this person making such a big deal about menial tasks like writing a stored procedure and using specific join types?
Option A: They find writing SQL/Stored Procs very difficult and consider it a major accomplishment to have done so.
Option B: They didn’t have much to talk about in the resume and are padding it with trivialities to seem more qualified.
Option C: They just learned about joins and are proud of that accomplishment.

Question 2:  Why call out that they wrote the procedure specifically to query data?
Option A: Maybe they have never written a query that modifies data, are they that inexperienced?
Option B: Are they trying to educate me about what a stored procedure is? Do they think this isn’t common knowledge? Perhaps it isn’t to them.

Another example from the same resume:

“Designed online store by using ASP.Net. This system allowed user to order the products from the store and user can accept the order or cancel the order. “

Question 3: Did this person do substantial work on the project or just write the code for the “Accept” and “Cancel” buttons?

My advice to the author of this resume would be to take Vince Lombardi’s advice and “Act like you’ve been there before.” By assuming the details, it conveys a tone that the candidate considers the specifics of optimizing queries as routine and not worth bragging about. The discussion about the specifics of the clever optimization technique are best saved for the interview. Here is a reworked version that generalizes the same sentiment without dwelling on the trivia.

“Substantially improved performance of company’s core accounting package by profiling and optimizing database access code.”

Another major problem with getting too far into the weeds on a resume is that it implies that the resume is a comprehensive. By being asymmetrically specific about experience with various technologies, it has the effect of implying that the applicant is less competent in skills that are described more generally and not skilled in those that are not explicitly mentioned. In the above example, by specifically calling out experience with SELECT queries, it leads the reader to the conclude that the candidate might not be able to form other types of queries.Be mindful that what you do say often speaks volumes about what you don’t.

Tip #2: Don’t egregiously add keywords in the narrative sections

It could be argued that being specific in a resume gives you an opportunity to get all the buzzwords in, and this is true. The gatekeepers to most jobs are recruiters and HR people who use keywords from the job requisition to locate candiates on sites like monster.com and internal recruiting databases often without understanding their meaning. For this reason, I like the idea of separating out the keywords in to a separate “skills” section on the resume. This makes it easy for recruiters to scan your list of competencies by grouping them together, and makes the narrative parts easier to read for the hiring manager who doesn’t need to be prejudiced by that level of detail.

Here are a couple of examples from resumes that work a little too hard to jam keywords into the job history.

“Debugged and fixed the bugs which reported in TestTrack Pro by Seapine Software, Inc. according to SDLC.”

“Designed the database in SQL Server using database normal forms to prevent data redundancy and ER (Entity Relationship) diagrams.”

Although it is amusing, I’ll forgo a discussion on whether using normal forms actually “prevent ER diagrams.” If only…

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22 Responses

  1. I am planning a follow-up article where I go through a real resume line by line and critique it from the perspective of a technical hiring manager. I’d censor out the names of any companies/persons listed as much as possible, of course.

    If you want to volunteer your resume and have a thick skin for constructive criticism, let me know.

    • John,

      I’d be happy to send you my resume for a line by line critique. Contact me by email and I’ll send it to you

    • I’d gladly have you critique my resume. How can I send it to you?

      • Look for an e-mail with my contact info shortly.

    • i’d like to have mine criticized too…

    • http://xenoterracide.googlepages.com/caleb_cushing_resume.html I keep mine in web format looks like it needs updating… feel free to use it though.

    • (soon-to-be) junior engineer here
      mail me if interested.

    • I’d love some advice if its still on offer.

  2. Feel free to use mine as an example.

    http://dvb.homelinux.org/~devdas/resume.pdf

    • @Devdas

      I’ve never seen someone use a list of keywords like you did… Aside from that and the layout, I thought it read well… But I’m no expert on resumes…

      “nuked 18000 domains belonging to the Russian Business Network”…

      NICE!

      • David, the keywords are
        (a) Machine buzzwords
        (b) A list of stuff which you can ask me about.

        The job description is for context.

        What do you like/not like about the layout?

        I am sorry I couldn’t get ESTdomains nuked faster though.

  3. John,

    Nice post.

    I would love for you to look at my resume, as I have been in and out of IT for awhile.

    I am trying to get back into IT, I am working in IT now but wish to update my resume for whats to come.

  4. Those 2 tips are life changers man. I was thinking, why my resume was being thrown away always at my college placement interviews. Looks like I found out just in time. Thank you

  5. Dude…you need to change themes. On Firefox 3.0.8 I can’t read anything because the text is under the rainbow.

    • Thanks for the heads up. I am still running FF 3.0.06 and it seems to be rendering okay, but I’ll download the new version and check it out.

      BTW: What rainbow?

  6. [...] The Programmer’s Guide to Getting Hired: Your resume. It’s the little things that hurt. A skill that emerges naturally for managers after conducting a relatively small number of recruiting efforts is the [...] [...]

  7. what do you think about mine: http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dhmq8gjp_74gkhh7pf8

  8. That was a great post – I totally agree with you. I remember making those same mistakes in my first year of seriously looking for work and came to a similar realization. There is something that can be said for keeping the resume brief and informative. I enjoyed the comparison of the resume to a brochure; the key is to view it as the tool it is and then hammer home the highlight reel during the interview.

    Keep up the great writing! And if you get a few moments, feel free to drop by my blog sometime – http://www.darkstarcollective.com

  9. [...] in The Recruiting and Interview Process at 12:37 am by johnfx In my previous article, Your Resume, It’s the little things that hurt, I extended an offer to provide feedback on programmer resumes for anyone brave enough to take some [...]

  10. This is an interesting article.

    The thing it demonstrates most convincingly is the fundamental flaw in the entire interview and hiring process. It demonstrates that hiring managers want someone who is good at writing a resume and further along, good at interviewing.

    While the suspicions that are outlined here may be valid for a given resume, they may not be. The author may simply have no clue what a hiring manager is interested in reading.

    When you consider that we spend the vast majority of our working lives working, and a bare minimum writing resumes, it is not surprising that most people are not good at writing them. This is true regardless of the expertise of the individual in the job they are trying to apply for.

    The reverse can also be true. Someone who is unqualified for a job may write an excellent resume and interview very well. I have had the misfortune of meeting such a person.

    In the end though this is just a fact of life and it is important for us to realize that the skill we bring to any company must initially be expressed skillfully.

  11. One of the difficulties with writing resumes is that the two people who are likely to read it might have very different agendas in what they want to see. While some recruiters do have technical backgrounds and knowledge, many don’t, and leaving out all the subtext and assuming that the recruiter knows what’s involved in a particular job title might not be a valid assumption.

  12. Another thing a person should not use a professional resume writer is because the person doesn’t really know you or what you have accomplished. I read a resume written by a professional resume writer and all of the information including the accomplishments were embellishments. The “voice” in the resume didn’t sound like the person that was sitting in front of me. As a result, it created many questions for me and the person finally admitted that they had not written the resume and that the information in the resume was not really how things were in their previous job. My assessment was that the person was misrepresenting themselves to me and that is great way to be removed from the hiring process. I was coaching the individual. I told them to rewrite their resume and advised them not to use it as a tool in their job search. If I had been a hiring manager, I would have ended the interview and they would not be considered for the job.

    If you want to use a professional resume writer, that is certainly an option for anyone looking for a job. Make sure you guide them as they write YOUR resume. Make sure the resume uses words you are comfortable using in the interview. Also, simple is always better than fluff. Tell them who you are, share accomplishments in your own words. And if you are using a resume writer, you shouldn’t be paying hundreds of dollars. You can get a great resume for under $30. That’s my two cents!

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