Writing a Resume


Given the surge of layoffs over the last few months, there’s a lot of people looking for new roles. Often resumes are a few years old, or perhaps misaligned for available roles. Here’s some tips on freshening yours up.

Focus and Brevity

I’d have written a shorter letter if I’d had the time — the full encyclopedia of what you’ve done where is on LinkedIn. A resume is not that. Two pages is all you get, and don’t use two if you can make one work. You’re trying to stand out.

Outline

  • Contact Info – 1 line. Name, Role, email, phone. No one cares about your location at this point: tax and commute implications are part of negotiating, not part of “should we talk”.
  • Professional Highlights – no more than 5. These are 1-2 line statements of your big successes and their outcomes.
    • “Built a partner ecosystem to deploy Retroencabulators, reducing deployment rework and contract churn by 20% YoY.“
    • As an individual contributor on a team, it can feel like you don’t have projects to call out because you were just doing your job. So describe the job – you need to take credit because you’re asking people to believe that you will add value if they hire you. Bring some numbers. “Handled 40% of a 3x surge in customer rescheduling calls during weather-related shutdown of services.”
      Work Experience – This section is a more detailed variation of the professional highlights. I use a tabular form to lay it out.
  • Header row: from month/year to month/year, company name(s) at the time I worked there, highest title I received
  • Three to five rows of highlights, with more detail, no more than five lines. This is where you talk about technologies and sprinkle any SEO fodder you want to use.
    It’s important to limit the work experience section to work that is relevant to the job that you’re applying to. You can collapse non-relevant roles – this is a true story, not a legal form. Three examples:
  • No one really cares about what you were doing over 10 years ago. My resume has a rollup section, “1997 to 2004, 2 startups , 2 telcos, 1 VAR, and Intel – Sales Engineer, Application Engineer.” where I briefly cover that I was working between college and the relevant stuff. Every time I refresh my resume, this gets more vague.
  • If you’re new to corporate work, you can handle all the babysitting, camp counseling, dog walking, retail work, and gig-jobbing the same way. “From this time to that time, I did a lot of stuff to make money. The relevant skills I learned are: $1, $2, and $3”.
  • If you were out of work for a while, I don’t care, but some might. If you want to address it, put in a single line like “This time to that time, Sabbatical” or “Off Market”. As a hiring manager reading a resume, I don’t really need to know that your mom was sick or that you went to monastery in Nepal or that you just couldn’t get a job for a while.
    Education, Certification, and Patents – Table again, but simpler: years attended, institution, degree awarded (if any). I collapse all this stuff because in my story, the work I’ve done is more relevant than the degree I’ve gotten. The next time I’m job hunting I’ll probably cut this down to a single line. For someone just starting out with a degree and little experience, this will be a well expanded section. That person should mention classes taken and projects completed that have relevance to the resume’s story.
  • Other, Personal, and so forth… Just Say No. I don’t need to know your social media account or that you’re running a side-gig website to buy and sell guitars. At worst, you’re providing a reason to filter you out by inviting scrutiny on irrelevancies: maybe the recruiter hates musicians, or maybe some tweet you posted three years ago will annoy the HR intern that’s screening the slush piles, you don’t know. At best, you’re taking up space that isn’t necessary. If the resume gets to me, I’m not going to pick yours over an equivalent one because you’re on a weekend soccer team, I’m going to put both resumes into the pipeline and see who makes it through.

Grammar, Spelling, and Style

There is a school of thought that it’s unfair to expect a resume to have high quality grammar and spelling. I firmly disagree with that statement. I agree that a non-native English speaker will struggle with idioms, but anyone can use the red and blue squiggly lines in their word processor. Grammar and spelling show your attention to detail. Get them right.
Style is more subtle — the resume should have consistent tense and voice, and no use of metaphor. Pick a sentence style, such as “I did this for that outcome” or “performed this task for that outcome” and use it for each of the bullet points in the entire document.

Format

PDF is greatly preferred, using default san serif fonts. Minimize the chance that your document will render weirdly on someone else’s screen. Maximize the chance that you’re producing the one to two page desired outcome.

Getting Attention: Cover Letters, Intro Emails, Contacts

Now for the hard part — putting the document in front of a hiring manager. Applying through company websites does sort of work to put your resume into consideration; the problem is, any company you’ve heard of, so has everyone else. The more applicants that a role has, the more stringent the recruiter and hiring manager will be about rejection. Most of the times that I’ve been a hiring manager, it’s been at the end of a pipeline that would have rejected me sight unseen for not having a computer science degree from a top ten engineering school, for instance. I got into those companies by joining them when no one had heard of them.
A cover letter will do nothing to get through an automated candidate management system, and to be honest, I don’t find them useful as a hiring manager either. Put that energy into writing a better resume and networking towards what you want.
There’s the dirty word: networking. A lot of us introverted folks like to be focused on our work, sticking with our team and doing our best. But when you lose a job, it’s time to change that behavior and put yourself out there. Talk with anyone you know who can talk about work; maybe they’ve only got advice or a shoulder to cry on, but maybe they’re also able to introduce you to someone who needs an entry-level Retroencabulator installer.


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