How to Resume

Note 1: You can spell it “resume”, “resumé” or “résumé”. I’m going to go accent-less.

Note 2: This article represents my own views and experiences and is no way meant to represent the views, policies or practices of my company.

Intro

My company, Notarize.com, found itself well positioned in an environment where suddenly people want to do transactions on line rather than in person. Our traffic and business has increased massively in the past few months and we’ve attracted the attention of a lot of big companies that want to work with us. We’re building all kinds of new things to accommodate this new surge and we need new engineers.

Thus, I’ve been interviewing a lot of candidates lately, and looking at hundreds and hundreds of resumes. You may have heard things about how hiring managers spend so many seconds looking at a resume before making a decision. I’m here to tell you that this is absolutely true. When you have 30 resumes to get through and you have a half hour between meetings with plenty of other projects vying for that time, you learn to judge a resume quickly.

I know there are plenty of people out there on the other end of this process, so I wanted to share some of what I go through, and maybe it will help you in your job search. I hope that none of the examples come off as too demeaning, snarky or fun-poking. I’m just trying to point out some pitfalls to avoid and give you examples of why certain things are really bad.

First let me say that there is no magic resume trick that will guarantee you an interview. And there isn’t some special specific thing that all hiring personnel are looking for in a resume. What I’m looking for is a person who fits the qualifications we are looking for. That is obviously going to be different from company to company, and is even going to vary at different periods within a single company. Sometimes I might be looking for a senior engineer to fill a particular role. Other times I might be fine with hiring a more junior person or even someone right out of school. In the past we were only looking for local candidates in Boston. Now we are totally open to remote engineers.

So, while there is no magic trick that will automatically get your foot in the door, there are plenty of things you can do wrong that will annoy the person looking at your resume and get it rejected even though you might actually be a good fit.

Hiring managers are looking for specific things

When someone is looking at a resume, there’s a list of things they are trying to find out right off the bat to see if you are someone they should interview. If they can find that information quickly and easily, then they can make an informed, logical decision. If they can’t find that info, they’re going to start making guesses. And since you just made their job just a little bit harder, there’s a good chance they’re going to be just a little bit biased against you when they start making those guesses.

So rule number one of writing a resume is:

Don’t make the reviewer guess about anything. Make it easy for them to find out what they are looking for.

I swear to you, when I read a resume that gives me all the info I need up front, I silently thank the candidate. In fact, if I’m alone in the room I might even verbally thank them. I may not decide to interview them because they may not fit what I’m looking for in this round. But… if they fall into that maybe category, the fact that they made my job easy will nudge me towards bringing them in.

So, what am I looking for? Obviously, this will be different for different companies and different hiring managers, but I’ll tell you what it is for me. And it’s surprisingly little. Remember, I’m trying to get through it as quickly as possible.

1. Where are you located?

I don’t need to know your full address, or even necessarily your city. But are you local? In a different time zone? In a different country? Back when we were only looking for local candidates, this was a huge annoyance. It’s shocking how many people don’t put any kind of location at all on their resume. Sometimes you can get a hint by their phone area code if they give it, or the location of their previous jobs, but in the end, you are left making a guess. If I absolutely have to hire a local candidate, am I going to schedule a 30 minute screening call with you to find out where you live? Chances are I’m going to guess you’re not local and move on.

As I said, currently we are hiring remote engineers, but I still want to know roughly where you live. And I can only hire people who live in the US, so I really need to know at least that much.

2. What is your work history?

Where do you work now, or where was your last job? How long did you work there? What was your role there? What did you work with and what technologies did you use? And the same for your last few relevant jobs. This can be really brief.

Big Mega Corp, Senior Software Engineer, Jan 2017 – Present
Developed and maintained features on the Big Mega site and web apps. Used React, Typescript, GraphQL and Apollo. Was the tech lead for a team of 5 engineers.

This is beautiful. It tells me everything I need to know. You might want to pad it out a little bit, but not a whole lot more than that. Don’t list every thing you ever did over the whole time you worked for the company. Nobody’s going to read all that.

If you have any major holes in your work history, it’s nice to account for them. Not a deal breaker, but someone’s going to ask you eventually, so you should have an answer ready.

If you’ve held at least one or two jobs that are relevant to the position you are applying for, only list those relevant jobs. I really don’t care about your cashier or security guard or dog walking experience if you are already an experienced software developer. If you are straight out of school and are looking for your first role in a new career, then, yeah, list other jobs you’ve had that show you can actually hold a job and haven’t just been leeching off your parents for your entire life. 🙂

3. What technologies do you know?

Somewhere in a sidebar or something, list the technologies that you are experienced with. Keep this high level and don’t get too hung up on any kind of experience rating system. If I’m looking for someone who knows Ruby on Rails and right there at the top of the list is Ruby on Rails, you’re getting an interview (assuming everything else listed here checks out).

If Rails is two-thirds down a list of 87 different technologies, programs, platforms, languages, tools and frameworks, I’m going to think, “They don’t really know Rails. They just used it once.”

Of course, don’t lie. You’re going to get caught. And you won’t get the job.

DON’T make this a wall of acronyms. A dozen or so high level items is great. Languages, frameworks, high level technologies. “React, GraphQL, Apollo, TypsScript, Ruby on Rails, Postgres SQL, Redis, AWS, Heroku” and you’ve won me over. I don’t need to know what editor or IDE or shell you use, or what OSes you like or what phone you use. I don’t care that you have used Microsoft Office or Photoshop or Gmail, Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer 9. I saw a resume recently that listed every CSS property the person had experience with. Literally. It was several lines of, “CSS color, CSS fonts, CSS padding, CSS margins, CSS borders, CSS spacing, …”. Don’t do that.

4. What education do you have?

To be honest, if a candidate has more than a couple of years of experience in the field, I personally don’t pay much attention at all to their education. Of course some companies require degrees, and other hiring managers might be more hung up on this, so you should definitely put it down, but IMO it should come below any relevant job experience.

I’ve seen some candidates with 10-20 or more years of engineering experience listing their GPA, dean’s list status, academic achievements, from the 1990s. Totally irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.

If you are right out of school and looking for an entry level position, that’s a whole different story. In that case, your education is one of your big selling points, along with any personal and school projects and internships and coops you might have done.

5. What is your work authorization status?

This is a sensitive one because it can start to get mixed up with bias and exclusion and discrimination. But the bottom line is, a company needs to know that it can legally hire you.

If you’re a citizen or have a green card or some kind of visa that means you can start work tomorrow, let them know that up front. If you need visa sponsorship or transfer, that’s also important. Some companies may not be able to accommodate that, but hiding that fact and bringing it up at the last minute isn’t going to change that situation.

Other tips

Show, don’t tell.

“I’m a fast learner, a hard worker, super responsible and get along great with people.” This is like a sign that says, “Best pizza in NY!” Everyone says it and everyone reading it ignores it. Show what you can in your experience section, and the rest should come out in the interview. I’m not saying don’t talk positively about yourself, but don’t go overboard and don’t really expect it to have much of an impact.

Don’t exaggerate.

A pet peeve of mine is candidates who list multiple “CEO”, “CTO”, “Founder” roles on their resumes. And when you dig into it, you find out that this means they published a couple of mobile apps with a friend when they were in college.

If I’m hiring a junior software developer, your “CEO” experience is irrelevant. If you’re positioning yourself as a CTO, why are you applying for a developer position? This isn’t to say I don’t want to know about these kinds of projects. They are cool and very relevant. Just don’t try to impress me with inflated titles.

How long?

A really complete resume that answers all my questions and is one page long is a thing of beauty. But in reality, it’s often tough to get everything in to a single page without cramping it. Especially if you do have several jobs worth of experiences. I don’t have any problem at all with two-pagers. But more than that is too much. I had one resume come in a while back where page one was a table of contents to the other 8 pages. I kid you not. Guess how much of that I actually read. About 20% of the first page. Maybe.

Summary

Again it’s all about answering the things the hiring manager needs to know to determine if you are a fit or not.

If you are not a fit, you are not going to get the job. Period. You can hide things and obfuscate and misdirect. But all that is probably not going to help you get an interview. And if it does, you’re still not going to get the job. Because you’re not a fit.

If you are a fit, making your resume clear and answering those questions right up front is the best way to get in the door.

One Comment

  1. According to the “National Centre for Voice and Speech” the average rate of speech for English speakers is 150 words per minute. Divide that in half and you have an answer of 75 words per 30 seconds. Is it possible to create meaningful resume in 75 words?

    Or let’s say that hiring manager role should be to create the best strategy to hire the best candidates and actually all resumes are completely irrelevant. What is the best objective and fair strategy to find a right candidate in a new abnormal 2020? Why not create a bounty competition to solve the problem, real problem you are (or your company) currently working on? You could pay the winner one month salary up front for intellectual work and then hire such person.

    Reply

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