A skill that emerges naturally for managers after conducting a relatively small number of recruiting efforts is the ability to recognize common anti-patterns in resumes that are contra-indicators of good developers. I’m not talking about the major faux pas that have been repeatedly covered in generic articles about job hunting, but rather the nuanced messages that are communicated to a technical hiring manager who has learned to read between the lines. This article is intended as cautionary advice to help prospective developers avoid the most common and damaging mistakes beyond simple typos and grammar considerations.
Risk Level: For senior candidates, most of the mistakes described below are fatal to your candidacy. For more entry level technical positions I am more likely to let these types of issues slide, but do use them to differentiate candidates that are otherwise equally qualified, so it still makes sense to be mindful of them.
Tip #1: Don’t be hyper-specific
One of the most effective ways to portray yourself as a novice or one-trick-pony is to pile on the trivial details when describing past jobs or projects. I understand that you are proud of your accomplishments, and know how easy it is to get wordy when drafting the Book of Moi, but remember that a resume is a brochure, not a biography. The prime objective of a resume is to get you booked for an interview, not to close the sale. The interview is a much better forum to brag about the implementation specifics of the “Monolith 3.0 Infrastructure Upgrade Project” because it allows you to adjust the message as you deliver it to hone in on whatever aspects resonate with the interviewer.
The key problem with being too specific arises from the undesirable subtext it creates. I think this is demonstrated well in the following excerpt from a real resume submitted for a Web developer job that I was trying to fill.
“Created stored procedures to fetch query results from the database for higher performance. Involved in writing complex SQL queries that required data from multiple tables using inner and outer joins.”
Gems of this type are hardly rare. I see variants of this exact statement so often in developer resumes that I can now spot them as quickly as if they were marked with a yellow highlighter pen. My mind automatically drifts to the same questions every time I see something like this…
Question 1: Why is this person making such a big deal about menial
tasks like writing a stored procedure and using specific join types?
Option A: They find writing SQL/Stored Procs very difficult and consider it a major accomplishment to have done so.
Option B: They didn’t have much to talk about in the resume and are padding it with trivialities to seem more qualified.
Option C: They just learned about joins and are proud of that accomplishment.
Question 2: Why call out that they wrote the procedure specifically to query data?
Option A: Maybe they have never written a query that modifies data, are they that inexperienced?
Option B: Are they trying to educate me about what a stored procedure is? Do they think this isn’t common knowledge? Perhaps it isn’t to them.
Another example from the same resume:
“Designed online store by using ASP.Net. This system allowed user to order the products from the store and user can accept the order or cancel the order. “
Question 3: Did this person do substantial work on the project or just write the code for the “Accept” and “Cancel” buttons?
My advice to the author of this resume would be to take Vince Lombardi’s advice and “Act like you’ve been there before.” By assuming the details, it conveys a tone that the candidate considers the specifics of optimizing queries as routine and not worth bragging about. The discussion about the specifics of the clever optimization technique are best saved for the interview. Here is a reworked version that generalizes the same sentiment without dwelling on the trivia.
“Substantially improved performance of company’s core accounting package by profiling and optimizing database access code.”
Another major problem with getting too far into the weeds on a resume is that it implies that the resume is a comprehensive. By being asymmetrically specific about experience with various technologies, it has the effect of implying that the applicant is less competent in skills that are described more generally and not skilled in those that are not explicitly mentioned. In the above example, by specifically calling out experience with SELECT queries, it leads the reader to the conclude that the candidate might not be able to form other types of queries.Be mindful that what you do say often speaks volumes about what you don’t.
Tip #2: Don’t egregiously add keywords in the narrative sections
It could be argued that being specific in a resume gives you an opportunity to get all the buzzwords in, and this is true. The gatekeepers to most jobs are recruiters and HR people who use keywords from the job requisition to locate candiates on sites like monster.com and internal recruiting databases often without understanding their meaning. For this reason, I like the idea of separating out the keywords in to a separate “skills” section on the resume. This makes it easy for recruiters to scan your list of competencies by grouping them together, and makes the narrative parts easier to read for the hiring manager who doesn’t need to be prejudiced by that level of detail.
Here are a couple of examples from resumes that work a little too hard to jam keywords into the job history.
“Debugged and fixed the bugs which reported in TestTrack Pro by Seapine Software, Inc. according to SDLC.”
“Designed the database in SQL Server using database normal forms to prevent data redundancy and ER (Entity Relationship) diagrams.”
Although it is amusing, I’ll forgo a discussion on whether using normal forms actually “prevent ER diagrams.” If only…