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Resume rules
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jducoeur
Conducted an interview this morning; suffice it to say I wasn't blown away in general, but the worst of it was the resume, which was almost Platonically bad. Let's count up the problems, each of which serves as a cautionary tale:

Check your freaking English: seriously, if you're going for a professional position (and programming is definitely a profession), there is absolutely no excuse for poor English on the resume. It's not just a matter of using the right words -- syntax matters, and not knowing when to appropriately use "a" and "the" looks bad. (Moreso when you don't have the excuse of being Russian.) Having syntax errors in the very first sentence is going to handicap you from the get-go. If you're not a native speaker, have someone who is one check it over for you; if you can't even do that, I am forced to wonder whether you fail on "not a team player" grounds.

Additional buzzwords don't make it better: listing all of the source-management tools you've ever used doesn't impress me. Listing them all as "SourceSafe"s mostly convinces me that you don't know what you're talking about. So does listing "Agile" and "Scrum" as separate methodologies if you're not prepared to explain the difference to me correctly. Listing HTML as a "development language" isn't *quite* as bad as listing test-driven development as a "technology", but it's close.

Formatting matters: not quite as important as the proper English point above, but again goes to looking professional. Having most of the resume look like one run-on paragraph, with no variation in the line spacing to separate the jobs, makes it look like it was written by a tenth grader. (And really, most of the computer-savvy tenth graders can make it look better than that.) It doesn't have to be a work of art, but at least make the effort to find a decently readable template -- if it's slapdash and hard to read, it comes across as a disrespectful waste of my time deciphering it.

Know your resume: folks often point out that having a three-page resume can be a negative. Here's a sharper point on that: listing something on your resume that you don't remember clearly is a Very Very Bad Idea. As an interviewer, I'm going to ask you about the things you list. If you keep having to ask to look at my copy of the resume, and then have to spend thirty seconds remembering what that line was talking about, you're doing yourself a disservice. If it isn't important enough for you to make the effort to bone up on it and have it fresh in your mind, it isn't important enough to list on the resume.

Don't inflate: the uber-sin, that trumps all the others. If you list yourself as "Architect" -- if you claim that you have *ever* been an Architect -- I am going to treat you like one. And if I discover that your actual skills are those of a conventional Senior Software Engineer, it's going to go worse for you than if you said that in the first place. When you say that you "re-architected" a software system for a client, and I find on drilling down that all you did was perform fairly conventional refactorings, I'm going to get downright annoyed.

All of this boils down to two points, which (uncharacteristically) I'm willing to say are hard and fast rules if you're interviewing as a programmer:
  • Make the effort to make your resume look adequately professional.

  • Don't brag, don't inflate, don't fill it with puffery -- keep it real, honest, modest and limited to things you're prepared to talk enthusiastically and knowledgably about.
None of this is rocket science, and there's no good excuse for violating it...
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None of this is rocket science, and there's no good excuse for violating it...

It isn't as if we do a good job at teaching simple English, much less the highly specific skill of decent resume writing.

Who teaches you what is "adequately professional"? How many interviewers actually give critique on the resume? Classes in this stuff are actually pretty darned expensive...

Frankly, I'm not demanding much -- this really is on the level of finding a resume template for whatever word-processing software you're using, and working with someone with good enough English to sanity-check. I'm *not* asking for specialty skill in resume writing -- I'm asking for the basic ability to *write*. If you can't do that, you can't do the job: communication is an important part of software engineering, at least anywhere above entry level.

For someone who is applying for a $60k+ job, I don't think that's unreasonable -- it's just setting a pretty low minimum bar for basic communication skills.

As for the critique point, I've already brought that up in this particular instance: that somebody should pass on a (much gentler than the above) set of tips of how the candidate could do better...

I agree. For more senior level positions, the resume is the first indication on how well you can communicate. At an Architect level, being able to effectively communicate is a critical job requirement (I'm currently recruiting one, so I'm sensitive to this issue)

For PM candidates, I've been accused by recruiters of being brutal but when I explain why these issues concerns me that have to agree.

Well, PMs I get *really* hard-assed about. But that job is *mostly* about communication (or at least, a combination of communication and organization). For an engineer below Architect, I only demand adequate communication skills; for a PM, they had better be actively good.

And I've worked with too many bad PMs who proved to be net negatives for the project for me to give ground there: my bar is, plain and simply, whether having this person on it is going to be easier than doing the damned job myself. A depressingly substantial number fail that test, for a variety of reasons...

My point is not that you should not have basic communications skills as a reasonable bar. I'm more thinking that:

1) What you're talking about is actually more specialized than "is adequate in English" - some of your points are about content, rather than grammar.

2) Training in these skills isn't stressed these days.

My perspective on this comes from recruiters - I've dealt with a bazillion of them in the past few years, and they need to groom resumes before presentation to clients.

Which also stands as a cautionary tale - if your candidate is coming through a recruiter, you cannot trust the resume as a measure of the candidate's skill. In fact, if the recruiter gives you a crappy resume, that reflects on the recruiter more than the candidate.

You'd think that recruiters, who only get paid when matches are made, wouldn't butcher resumes so badly, but...ugh. When I've talked to recruiters I have made two non-negotiable demands: (1) I will approve prospective companies before you contact them on my behalf, and (2) you are more than welcome to make suggestions on my resume but I retain control. Some have said no to one or both of those, and I was glad to have that data up front.

Huh -- it honestly hadn't occurred to me that a recruiter would rewrite a resume without permission. But I'm very, very selective in the headhunters I actually work with. (I'll allow almost any of them to establish loose contact with me, but there have only ever been three who I have trusted enough to actively work with...)

1) What you're talking about is actually more specialized than "is adequate in English" - some of your points are about content, rather than grammar.

Sure -- but they still aren't rocket science. They boil down to "tell the truth and don't brag". Again, I think that's an appropriate minimum bar.

And the truth is that, in this particular case, I consider it possible that the candidate isn't *intentionally* fibbing -- he may just have no idea what he's talking about. But that's almost worse for someone with claims to have a decade-plus of experience. I'm fairly forgiving for someone who is applying entry-level, but if you're claiming to be senior, these rules become very sharp.

In fact, if the recruiter gives you a crappy resume, that reflects on the recruiter more than the candidate.

I have no idea whether this was through a recruiter or not, but that's true.

That said, it just underscores that you can't trust the recruiter to make it all better -- it behooves you to make sure your resume is as good as you can get it. (Remember, I did intentionally phrase this as lessons for readers to learn from...)

O.W.L. Online Writing Lab at Perdue University. You can teach yourself all the grammar, punctuation, and syntax you'll ever need. Worked for me. (I sure didn't get it in public school -or college.)

Well, on the other side of the table. That's a very common part of the role of Architect at a startup -- since the company is growing, I have to conduct a fair number of interviews. I've probably done at least 30 here at Memento...

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My own favorite resume moments;

1) Going to check with HR that we wouldn't be in danger of an age discrimination lawsuit if I downchecked a resume for listing the date when they got their degree as "1885".

2) Trying to decide if it was a red card or just a severe yellow card for a Technical Writer resume to list a previous job title as "Principle Writer" and whether to count double if it was at a company known for its lack of principles.

3) Tech Writer applicant who listed their Java skills as 10 on a 1-10 scale, 10 at "God" level. Just for the heck of it, we scheduled an interview for them with Google's Chief Java Architect (who went along with it). We also had the foresight to schedule a 15 minute empty period right after it, since, as expected, they needed a bit of a lie down after really getting a "10" level Java interview.

Going to check with HR that we wouldn't be in danger of an age discrimination lawsuit if I downchecked a resume for listing the date when they got their degree as "1885".

Hah! Yeah, that goes to one of the basics: have somebody proofread the bloody thing. I don't really downgrade for simple typos like that, but it doesn't help you.

Trying to decide if it was a red card or just a severe yellow card for a Technical Writer resume to list a previous job title as "Principle Writer"

Ouch. Same point, but worse. Yeah, if you're trying to get a writing job you *really* can't afford dumb mistakes like that.

Sysadmin and programming are detail-oriented jobs. Yes, you can usually fix your mistakes in real life. In a resume, you have already had time to get a code review, pass it through QA, and do a beta test. There had better not be mistakes on it by that point...


I've chaired a number of searches for English professors and deans. . .
I'm sure you know what I'm about to say, but at the risk of redundancy, here goes:

The resumes and cover letters are often even worse than the ones you describe. And these are people with doctorates (or at least they claim to have doctorates. . . )

To be fair, I'm not wholly surprised -- I don't necessarily expect someone with a doctorate to be a good writer. (Heaven knows, most dissertations I've looked at have been fairly dreadful.) Even someone specializing in English Lit needs to understand how to read and analyze more than how to write.

Not that any of that is *good*, of course. I'm just not surprised by it...

The last person I interviewed listed C, C++ and Java as the first three languages on his language list. When I asked him where he was on a scale of 1-10 in C++, he said 6 or 7. When I started asking him C++ questions, he finally admitted that he hadn't programmed in the language for 10-12 years. It went downhill from there.

I list the languages on my resume in the order I learned them. Is the NewThink approach to list them in order of how good you think you are in them?

Though, while I haven't programmed much in C++ in about 10 years, I can't imagine interview questions that would stump me in the language, unless you want specific syntax. On the gripping hand, what I did was language-level constructs (I effectively wrote a C++ variant of 'lint' with an eye towards enforcing that certain things not be done), so my understanding of the language may have started out a bit deeper than most people's. What sorts of things were you asking?

Is the NewThink approach to list them in order of how good you think you are in them?

Absolutely. Sort of like the inverted pyramid structure of a newspaper story.


The list of languages and technologies should be ones you're willing to be grilled on. I've programmed in C#, Bliss, Ada, PL/1, and other languages over my career - and was quite good at it at the time - but my resume just says "other languages" so it's clear that I've done more, am nimble at learning languages, can talk about differences between languages, but couldn't answer specifics about them because it's been a while.

I also don't care about syntax. When I'm interviewing, I'm looking for an understanding of higher level concepts. I don't care about corners and oddities - I had one interviewer ask me if I knew about the Java "transient" keyword, which I'd never seen. Once he explained what it was, I could talk all about serialization and its issues.

My question to the interviewee was to check his understanding of OO techniques and to see if he knew what RAII was. Since we do a lot of threading code with locks, I simply wrote "lockPointer->lock(); ... /* arbitrary code */ ...; lockPointer->unlock();" asked him if there was anything wrong with the code, and if it could be improved. If you can't do 5 minutes worth of riffing on that, you're not a 6 or 7 in the language, or in Java, or in OO techniques.

Ah -- yeah, that's a common problem. Many engineers really don't realize how quickly the skills rust, and sometimes sincerely believe themselves to still be as good as they were when they were in practice. I'm fairly sympathetic to that one, and it's tricky to judge, because most engineers can pick the skills back up pretty fast when they get back into it; unfortunately, that makes it hard to evaluate the interview.

This is why I tend to get a bit over-precise on my own resume, and distinguish between "currently fluent", "have done major projects", and "familiar with". That's more detailed than the usual recommendations, but I prefer to avoid any confusion on this point. (Especially since I list something like 25 languages...)

> Many engineers really don't realize how quickly the skills rust, and sometimes sincerely believe themselves to still be as good as they were when they were in practice.

This is very true. I spent 5+ years writing in C++ with some C, but the last 8 years or so have been almost exclusively Java. A few weeks ago, I started on a project in C++.

While Java and C++ are similar at a high level, there are a lot of differences in the details. There's been a lot of moments that would have been embarrassing to have an interveiwer watch. (How do I right a finally block? I can't make this reference point to a new location? What does that compiler error even mean?)

It's only been a few weeks, but I think I'm now close to where I was when I was writing in C++ all the time. However, I am glad I wasn't interviewing for a C++ job a month ago.

Oh, heavens yes. Simply going back to a non-garbage-collected environment seriously changes the way you have to think. (I'm mostly done with C++ at this point, mainly because that point alone has such a big impact on my productivity...)

In a resume, the place to appropriately use "a" and "the" is never. At least according to the fancy management placement service I used to work for. I spent a year creating very professional resumes for very high level people, and the very last thing that was alwas done was to run a find function to make sure that articles did not appear anywhere in the resume. It's one of the areas where resume grammar is different from real grammar.

Three pages being a killer is also outdated. Given the economy of the last twenty years, lots of people in volitile fields - like aerospace - have three page resumes. The only alternative is to leave huge chronological gaps (a huge no-no) or to omit valuable experience.

There is no excuse for poor formatting.

In a resume, the place to appropriately use "a" and "the" is never.

Well, yes and no. In this case, the Summary begins: "I am experienced Senior Developer", which is clearly not starting off on a good foot. (Although now you have me wondering whether the candidate somewhere saw that rule, and misunderstood how to apply it. If you're going to do a *narrative* Summary paragraph, that *does* need to be real English.)

And really, while I know what you mean about resume grammar, I think it's a bit overstated -- when applied uncritically, it can result in a pretty unreadable resume, and as someone with at least partial hiring power, I do *not* want to see that. Resume grammar is its own weird beast, and it does use a lot *fewer* articles, but there are places where it is quite difficult to avoid them while still being readable. (Indeed, it's hard to do without "a" and have things make sense. "The" is a lot more avoidable, in my experience.)

Mind, I believe you about what the placement service required. But IMO it goes too far, and is likely to hurt someone's chances if their resume winds up in front of me. I know not to expect normal English, but I had damned well better not have to struggle to understand it. If the placement service is making *my* job harder, they've failed...

"Indeed, it's hard to do without "a" and have things make sense. "The" is a lot more avoidable, in my experience."

Actually, it's not - I did it professionally for a year. You just need some facility with the language, which it does sound like your candidate was lacking.

Summary paragraphs are more difficult, but they're also something of a dinosaur these days. They're great if you need to fill some space, but they're no longer de rigueur.

"If the placement service is making *my* job harder, they've failed..."

Well, yes. Which is why they hire people like me - and when I left there, I went on to a field where precision in language is MUCH more important. The sort of place I was working wouldn't be generating resumes that people at our levels would be seeing though - they catered to a much more highly placed pool of executives who generally received our services as part of a golden parachute.

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