Resume Advice

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

On resumes:

>2) I've been out of college for 11 years and I can still fit my
>resume on one page. Is that a bad thing?

Not necessarily. In fact, unless you are just so incredibly studly, you should do everything possible to fit your resume onto one page. Bring extra pages of information to the interview (in fact, bring extra copies of your resume, samples of your work, and have your list of references available as well), but in point of fact, the 1-page rule is almost a law of nature, mostly because of sheer numbers.

As Gary points out below, the hiring process from the other side consists first of much winnowing of resumes (at one point a department I worked for attempted to hire somebody and got 2000 resumes in response). At this point you want to account for human nature and structure your resume to make human nature work to your advantage, instead of against. Make it easier for them to see how you fit the job requirements and you'll more likely get the interview than the next resume, which didn't.

A resume's job is to convey, at a glance, a correct impression of the applicant's skills, talents and experience, and then on closer reading to reveal nuances that will demonstrate that the applicant is worth talking to. Anything beyond that is superfluous.

Oh, and to quote one quite experienced and seasoned professional who gave me my first advice on my second job hunt, "Objectives are college kid stuff." Leave off the objective.

Also, if you're in a particularly technical field, you may want to put a "nut graph" (to borrow a term from journalism) of acronyms, buzzwords, skills, certifications, etc, near the top of your resume. This is helpful because often in the hiring process you get people playing "buzzword bingo" - often the first pass (or couple of passes) on the stack of resumes will be done by people who have no clue about the job or experience in the field, they just have a list of criteria, key words to look for, etc. Often the first thing that will happen to your resume is that it will be scanned in and have keywords entered for it. By putting all the keywords in one place, you make it easier for them to find you :-).

My personal resume consists of:

  • Identification & Contact Information (bold, centered, etc)
  • Summary of Experience (a paragraph or two of very abbreviated, noun-and-adjective-heavy text)
  • Skills summary (in my case broken down into three sections: Operating Systems, Languages, Development Environments).
  • Employment History (Sometimes simply with the heading "Experience" if you have significant non-paycheck experience).
  • Education (just degree, university, date)
  • Accomplishments (stuff that doesn't fit anywhere else, like papers I've presented or articles I've written, etc). Come to think of it, I left this off my latest revision.

    I also think highly of using indentation and bold text to highlight critical details. My employment history, for example, has the job title first, on the first line, with the rest of the information indented. Typically:

    Job Title (maybe some key words in parens), Employer, Location, Dates.
         Job description here.
    Next Job Title,  Employer, Location, Dates.
         Next job description here.

    This approach lets the hiring manager quickly glance down the left margin of the resume and get a sense of your experience.

    Also, even if applying for a writing position, the actual english used in resume job descriptions does not follow the rules of english. It's not full sentences, complete with articles. It's more phrases, terse descriptions that are heavy on the nouns and adjectives, somewhat less heavy on the verbs and adverbs. People want the meat, not the side dishes. As an example, here's one of my job descriptions:

    Senior developer in start-up java/J2EE software development organization. Developed enterprise sourcing applications (contract management with pricing activation, spend analysis, online auction). Used Xerces, Xalan and Castor for modeling complex contracts as XML, using XSLT for processing, in EJBs running on WebLogic. Involved in all phases of development process (requirements analysis, specification, architecture, development).

    Gary responds:
    >OK, you asked for opinions. I am an employer and have hired and
    >fired. I would count a stable job history as a good thing when
    >reviewing resumes. I would worry about someone who can't keep a job
    >and bounces in and out of work every six months.

    This can be an issue, but it depends on the industry and the field. I'd probably freak Gary out, because I've been a contractor since mid-95. Tons of six month and 12-month contracts. However, look more closely and you'll see that I did four different contracts for one of the top 100 banks in the US. In some fields, looking at a young professional who's spent too long at one job will bring to mind the question "what's he/she afraid of? Why aren't they getting more exposure to the field?" In my father's day people would look at your resume and be concerned if you didn't spend 10 years at each job. Stability is relative.

    >So I wouldn't necessarily think a one-page resume is a bad thing.
    >In fact, even if your job history goes too long for one-page, a
    >single-page /summary/ in front of a fuller resume might also be a
    >good thing. When you're reviewing a stack of resumes, it's
    >refreshing to find one that can tell you what you want to know

    Amen brother.

    Specific Resume Advice

    Somebody privately mailed me about my post and mentioned that they keep several different versions of their resume. I didn't want to get too side-tracked in that post, but I do recommend keeping a very long "story of my life" resume and cover letter. Start from that, and cut material and move things around to suit the particular situation, to emphasize your experience that is more directly applicable to the job at hand.

    Building your resume can be very difficult, due to a combination of personal blind spots and natural reluctance to recognize and promote your own qualities and strengths. It's usually very helpful to talk to other people about your resume. Show your resume to them. Talk about your particular jobs and what you did there and see if they find that accurately reflected in your description. Make sure you talk to people both inside your industry and career field and outside (the insiders to get a sense of nuances that aren't obvious to an outsider, the outsiders to challenge your preconceptions).

    A general piece of advice I usually tell people is, when you're starting out, sit down and list all of your life experiences - mostly jobs, but other things can qualify if you're short of job experiences. For each experience, list the different qualities that it taught you about, or that it gave you an opportunity to display. In general, you can categorize these qualities by three different dimensions:

    Career - the qualities specific to your job type, i.e. specifically being a programmer, or writer, or artist, or engineer. Include all the career-specific buzzwords (e.g. for a programmer: programming languages, methodologies, tools, specific hot fields (example, and god am I dating myself here, "e-commerce"), etc).

    Industry - the specific industry that the job duties involved. I wanted to label this one "problem domain" but I decided that was a bit too high-falutin' a term. For example, if you did a lot of programming in the financial industry, or working with specific financial packages, standards or niches in the retail industry, those details would go in this category.

    Professional - the hard-to-quantify issues like responsibility, planning, leadership, etc. Basically all the management feelgood words that will illustrate your growth as a professional.

    This last can be particularly hard to self-assess, and it helps if you have somebody experienced to talk to about it. The first step is, come up with the simplest, most minimal job description. This is what you'll be tempted to put in, and this is what people will assume about a job - unless you take care to tell them otherwise.

    Look at your minimalist job description and compare it to what you really did. Consider how closely you were supervised. Whether you were closely supervised or not, consider how much you contributed to the company above and beyond the minimalist job description. Look at aspects of what you did that required more than rote mechanical order-following. Look at when you were expected to exercise judgement and perception. Look at what aspects of the job were left to you to determine. Look at what you were expected to do without being told about.

    Word choices - the precise word you use to describe something can have a major effect. Write with an eye towards active voice instead of passive voice, and choose words appropriate to your field.

    For example, for a software developer, say "developed", "implemented", "engineered" or "programmed" instead of "created" or "maintained". Instead of saying "Created script files to gather statistics" say "implemented network usage statistical tracking and analysis of network security risks." Rewrite the passive voice "Web page design and implementation" to the active voice "designed and implemented web pages and CGI scripts in Perl, Python and C."

    Many buzzword acronyms are so well known that you don't have to spell them out (e.g. SQL stands for Structured Query Language - or was that Standard Query Language? - but nobody knows or cares). Always include the acronym, though, even if you spell them out. Standard publishing practice is to use the acronym and include the full name in parentheses after the first use, but I reversed it above. No real big deal, just felt better that way. Including both is important, though, because you don't know whether the HR person wrote down "Microsoft Foundation Classes" or "MFC" after talking to the programmer.

    Product/Domain is related to either specific products or specific businesses or industries. Some cases, like Oracle RDBMS, are fuzzy, or maybe they're both a domain and a technology. In general, you probably want to emphasize the technology aspect over the domain aspect, so you don't lock himself into a domain. But you should include the domain aspect in the job description in case it wins you any points. If you have a chance to customize the resume for submission for a job that involves a domain you specifically has experience in, like for example financial products, you want to emphasize that domain.

    so once you've assembled this categorized set of descriptions, you need to boil it all down. For each job you should develop a set of three (or more) descriptions, oriented towards each of the three categories. Build a resume for a specific position based on what's more relevant. If your industry-specific experience for a particular job is relevant, use the industry-emphasizing description. If the job involves a lot of responsibility, professional level work, etc, use the professional-emphasizing description. If the job is a very specific, technically-targeted job, use the career-emphasizing description.

    Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow...

    A quick word on "why you left/are leaving your previous/current position."

    Almost everybody today will accept that you are simply looking for a new job. If you're currently employed, people will not have a problem with you simply saying you're looking for more money, or looking for a new challenge, or looking to expand your career, etc. They will also not have a problem with keeping the fact that you're job-hunting confidential.

    If word does get back to your boss, you may not be comfortable telling them you're hunting. It is not unethical to job hunt and it's also not unethical to play your cards close to the chest - if their behavior is such that you're uncomfortable telling them you're hunting, that's a pretty good indicator of something...

    Tell them some recruiter got an old copy of your resume from a web database, or somebody snagged it off a web page. I've had my resume on a web page since the web existed (and I had it in my .plan file before then :-). If somebody tries to give you some nonsense about having an up-to-date resume on your private web site, just treat it like the nonsense it is, i.e. shrug and say in a bewildered tone, "what's the problem?".

    If you were fired (aka "asked to leave"), avoid any acrimony or any sort of negative comments about the job or employer. To quote Pulp Fiction:

    "That's pride fucking with you. FUCK pride. Pride only hurts. It never helps."

    If your parting was less-than-amicable, the best way to handle it that I know of is simply to say "the company/job/I changed and I was no longer happy there, and it started to show in my work."

    This covers pretty much every kind of bad situation: it doesn't lie, it doesn't sound self-serving, and it doesn't dwell on any negative issues about you.

    Of course, you shouldn't bring it up unless they specifically ask you - and most places probably won't even ask, these days. Also, most former employers won't even talk about why you left - at most they'll confirm the fact of employment and the dates, and maybe the offical job title. Companies have been sued for giving out negative information about former employees, and they'll tend to avoid taking chances.

    NEVER LIE. Any lie can crop back up and cause major problems for you, and frankly you never need to lie. Most negatives are complicated and subjective enough that there's room for debate, but opening the door to debate is always a losing proposition. Focus on the positive aspects and avoid discussing negatives. Be careful in what you say, think carefully about how you phrase things, but above all, never lie.

    See original (unformatted) article


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