Jul 8, 2021

As a manager, I review a lot of resumes. In perfect world, I could read hundreds of resumes and give each a fair, objective chance. The reality is, I need to filter things quickly, while still avoiding my internal biases. With that in mind, I wanted to suggest some simple guidelines candidates can use to help make my life easier, which in turn, offers a better chance moving forward in the process.

I should also clarify, this advice is really targeted at folks applying for programming jobs and may not be helpful for other fields.

Use a template, but not the default.

Unless you’re looking for a design position, I’d skip spending too much time on the formatting. The large sidebars where you call out your interest in hiking, crypto and wine, while look nice, don’t really help. Instead, pick a simple template and use it to constrain your content. As a manager, I don’t have a lot of time to read through resumes with much depth, so as an applicant, it is your job to make it easy for me to pick out the critical experiences that might make you a good fit for the role. By using a template (that is likely professionally designed), you can rely on its design elements to give you signal that your content could be improved.

If things look cluttered or there is a wall of text, rethink the content. If you have page breaks in the middle of some bulleted content, try to fix that. If nothing seems to be working, try another template. Don’t be afraid to adjust the blocks offered in the template as well. Getting rid of space dedicated to your address, list of skills or references is perfectly OK if it helps communicate your experiences more quickly and clearly.

Prioritize the most critical content.

Writing a summary about your passion for technology or how you’re a lifelong learner isn’t terribly valuable. The truth is as a software engineer, I expect you to always be learning new things because that is part of the job. Pointing out your passion or connecting your personal life to the job might sound nice, but it also is a prescription for burnout. If you want to code on the weekends or at night, I’m not complaining, but I’m also not expecting it. The point is that when you bring this sort of information in your resume, it may or may not land the way you think. What’s more, it detracts from the single most important topic, your experiences!

The most critical aspect of your resume is your experience. Through your experiences, you can establish your mastery of technologies alongside your ability to contribute value. You can call out big wins and include stats that direct attention to measurable value. There is also the opportunity to take your seemingly unimportant past career and clarify how it helped you learn the soft skills that will make you a great teammate and someone that can represent the team to the rest of the organization.

If you don’t have a lot of work experience, that is OK too. Be honest and do your best to raise awareness of what you’ve learned and done so far. You don’t want to inflate your school projects or internship to seem more than they are. If you’re still a junior engineer, then no amount of hype is going to change that and that is OK.

Get rid of the fluff.

Similar to the sidebar with personal information, you also don’t want to include things like your address or a photo. Historically, people included this sort of information because you needed to send letters or potentially recognize the person. But, our virtual world doesn’t require this sort of thing and it opens the door for biases. If someone adds a photo and the person is a typical white male programmer, the person might immediately skip you in order to build a more diverse team or they might choose you because of similarity bias. In either case, you’ve potentially distracted from your experiences and value as a team member. The same goes for the address. The reviewer might look it up on google maps and may feel you live in a ritzy neighborhood and want too much money. Similarly, they might think you live in an inexpensive neighborhood and assume you could be cheaper to hire!

I realize this makes folks reviewing resumes look pretty bad. The reality is reviewing resumes is really hard to do well. Adding extra fluff opens the door for the reviewer to make mistakes and consider elements of your life that don’t matter. Taking this fluff out ensures the reviewer can be focused on what matters and you get a fair shot to move along in the process.

Understand you can’t be trusted.

When reviewing a resume, I know people inflate their contributions and skills. Resumes are marketing documents and will often stretch the truth. As a manager, I need to evaluate the performance of folks on my teams and after a while, I get a pretty good idea of what is feasible over time. When someone lists experiences that seem too good to be true, I become skeptical. When you list your experiences, you want them to be reasonable. Saying you single handedly increased performance by 200% by reimplementing the entire application is not a reasonable individual contribution.

A laundry list of skills or matrix defining your expertise with different technologies is another useless addition. When I review a resume with a list of languages and technologies, I skip it completely. If you used JavaScript in your experiences, then I can assume you know the language in a professional environment. Saying you know 10 different languages, SQL and every Open Source DB implies you’ve done some tutorials or have googled this. I can respect that adding these to a resume is helpful for search optimizations, but that is about it.

Be yourself.

When looking for a job realize that not every job is the right fit for you. I had an interview when I first started out and the interviewer was downright mean because I didn’t know about an array_reverse function in PHP. I didn’t get the job and that was definitely for the best. I didn’t get a good vibe from the culture and was on the fence about the work. It simply wasn’t a good fit for me.

When you write your resume, keep in mind you’re looking for the right fit. Some people excel in organizations that are large while others should try to work in small companies or even start ups. If you don’t move forward in the process, it probably isn’t the right fit. You want to be honest about your experiences and what you offer. You want to help share what makes you great in the hopes that the organization and team wants to add the value you provide. The converse is that if you end up getting the job based on a resume that isn’t honest, you’ve set yourself up for a potentially bad experience that could lead up to experiences you may not want on your resume going forward.

It’s Just a Job

At the end of the day, these are just jobs. I know we are passionate about technologies and excited about the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that a job is there to pay you money for your time and contributions. It should not be where you meet your emotional or relational needs. But, it is a place where you may have some of these needs met, and that is OK. The point being is that if you’re honest and clear with your resume, you give yourself the best chance of finding a position that you’re a good fit for. That is going to be best for your career and for the team you end up joining. Good luck!