Thoughts on writing a resume
Yesterday I attended a resume critique session for lower year Software Engineers. I was able to critique four or five resumes and noticed a few common mistakes people tended to make. I wish I could’ve gone through more but my time is limited and I hope that through writing this blog post, I can reach out and help significantly more people than I ever could going over resumes one at a time.
When I solve problems, I often prefer to take a step back and tackle them from first principles. How does this apply to resume-writing? Well the fundamental challenge is to successfully advertise yourself to recruiters… recruiters who are often looking through large piles of resumes trying to find the best candidates to interview. I really want to emphasize this point, it is often the case that recruiters do not have significant time to spend reading your resume given how many others they have to go over. Understand this constraint and create a resume that optimizes for it.
Highlight what makes you exceptional
One way to make a positive impression in a short time frame is to highlight the achievements that distinguish you from the crowd. Highlight them as aggressively as you can within aesthetic and organizational boundaries. These achievements could include programming competition awards, a mobile app getting X amount of downloads, basically anything that you did that someone else most likely couldn’t have done as well. Optimally, they should be able to be seen and understood with one cursory scan of the resume. Consider experimenting with your friends to see how noticeable they are.
I saw a few resumes last night that had some really impressive achievements listed. For example, this person ranked in the top 2% for some programming competition and had multiple very successful side projects. Unfortunately, these achievements were all near the bottom of the resume and I had to trudge through hefty job descriptions to finally notice them. There were definitely ways to make these achievements more apparent.
Exceptional achievements are what many recruiters like to see and should not be underestimated. If you have them, leverage them as much as you can!
LEADERSHIP over INDEPENDENCE
A common trend I noticed last night was that people really liked highlighting that they were the sole developer on a project, that they “independently” built this piece of software. What they’re trying to say here is that they did a lot of work and have the technical capabilities to build something without significant help.
Those are all great things to have, don’t get me wrong, but there is a much better way to phrase things. Recruiters are often looking for developers that are great communicators and team players. Emphasizing independent work does not attest to how great of a team player you might be and almost makes it seem like you worked as a separate entity from your team. Regardless if that’s true or not, you want to show the best of yourself on your resume.
So instead of writing…
Independently built this feature or software…
I suggest writing this…
Lead the development of this feature or software…
Leadership is a very positive quality that all companies value highly. It does not rule out working well independently nor does it rule out being a great team player. In fact, it makes it sound as if you’re great at both!
Be concise and easily understood
Some of the resumes I critiqued last night had many bloated bullet points. These points spanned multiple lines and discussed in great detail the technical aspects of the project. It seemed like the authors were trying to express the fact that they did a lot of work. They decided to do so by cramming as much information into a bullet point as it was stylistically acceptable.
The reality is, a recruiter usually has a limited technical background and likely wouldn’t be able to appreciate the technical details of a project. Even for developers, if they were short on time, they are unlikely to put in the effort to read and fully understand the details. Sure they could infer that you must have worked hard from the amount you wrote, but they are left confused as to what you actually built and how important the work was.
I think the best way to approach this is to split the point into two. Use the first point to describe, concisely and at a high level, what your project is about and why it is significant. Use the second point to state directly that you worked hard, that you did a lot of things behind the scenes to make your project a success.
For example, instead of saying…
- Learned Node.js and PostgreSQL to build an application that blah blah blah
Break it into these points…
- Built an application that does this and is important because blah blah blah
- Learned Node.js and PostgreSQL for project. Researched and implemented these algorithms to make these features of the application possible etc.
Now, your recruiter not only has a good idea about what you worked on, but also doesn’t have to infer that you are hardworking and capable. You took the initiative and expressed confidence by stating it directly.
WHAT over HOW
This point is somewhat related to the previous point. Some resumes last night had the tendency to prioritise technical details over what the work was able to accomplish. For example, the technical aspects were either elaborated on first or bolded. As software engineers, we tend to get caught up in the details of the underlying design and the code. This is perfectly reasonable, writing software is not easy and it’s these details that result in technical success. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, it is often the case that the resume screener either does not have a strong technical background or does not have the time to understand these details, especially if it was outside of their domain. You are much better off describing the results of your work and their importance before following up with the technical elements. The reader will have an easier time understanding your work and you will more likely hold their interest.
I’m also going to go on a whim here and say that people are generally more interested in the results rather than how the results were achieved. Do car commercials ever spend significant time showing off how a car was built or how they were able to achieve that high mileage?