The terrifying reality regarding your resume is that for all the many hours you put into fine-tuning, you’ve got 30 seconds to make an impression on me. Maybe less.
It’s unfair, it’s imprecise, and there’s a good chance that I make horrible mistakes, but there’s a lot more of you than me, and while hiring phenomenal teams is the most important thing I do, I’m balancing that task with the fact that I need to build product and manage the endless stream of people walking into my office.
But here’s a glimpse. I’m going to walk through the exact mental process I use when I look at a resume. I don’t know if this is right or efficient, but after fifteen years and staring at thousands of resumes, this is the process.
The First Pass
Your Name. It’s simple. Do I know you? Whether I do or not, I’m going to immediately Google you to see if I should. Oh, you a have a weblog. Excellent.
Company Names. Do I recognize any companies that you worked at? If I do, I don’t look at what you actually do, I assume that if I recognize the company, I’m in the ballpark. If I don’t know the company, I scan for keywords in the description to get a rough idea. Hmmmmm… networking words. Ok, you’re a networking guy.
Job Description and History. Here I’m looking for history and trajectory. How many jobs have you had and for how long? How long have you been in your current role? Where’d you come from? QA? Or have you always been an engineer? This is when I start looking for inconsistencies and warning flags.
Other Interests and Extracurriculars. Yeah, this is part of the first pass. I’m eagerly looking to find something that makes you different from the last fifty resumes I looked at. More on this in a moment.
So, we’re done. It’s been ten to twenty seconds and I’ve already formed an opinion. There’s a good chance that I’ve already made a call whether to move forward on you. If there are other folks checking the resume out, I can certainly be convinced to take a second look, but a basic opinion has been formed.
Before we move to the second pass, let’s talk about the parts of your resume I didn’t look at and never will.
Professional objective. This is likely your lead paragraph and I skipped it. Career center counselors across the planet are slamming their fists on their desks as they read this because they’ve been telling students, “You need to write a crisp career objective. It defines your resume.”
Yes, it does, but I still don’t read it and it’s not because there isn’t good content there, it’s the time issue. See, if your resume is sitting in my inbox it means someone has already mapped you to an open job in my group. Reading your objective is going to tell me something I already know. Besides, my job title and description scrub will tell me whether we’re in the ballpark or not. If I’ve got a Jr. Engineering position open and you’ve got 10 years experience, I’ll figure out that mismatch when I look at your history.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include this objective in your resume. As you’ll see below, there’s more to the process than just me reading your resume, and different folks are looking for different content.
Skills. I skip the skills section not only because this is information I’ll derive from job history, but also because this section is full of misinformation. I’m not going to say that people lie in the skills section, but I know that if a candidate has heard the word Linux in the workplace, there’s a good chance they’re going to put Familiarity with Linux as a skill on their resume.
Besides, again, I know you’ve goofed around with Linux because you said so in the description of your last job, right?
Summary of Qualifications. Similar to Skills, this is another skip section for me. Here’s a good example from an imaginary resume: “Proven success in leading technical problem solving situations”. This line tells me nothing. Yes, I know you’re trying to tell me that you’re strategic, but there is no way you’re going to convince me that you’re strategic in a resume. I’m going to learn that from a phone screen and from an interview.
Unlike Skills, which I find to be a total waste of time, I will go back to Summary of Qualifications if we end up talking. When you write “Established track record for delivering measurable results under tight schedules”, I am going to ask you what the hell you mean on the phone and if your answer isn’t instant and insightful, I’ll know your qualifications are designed to be buzzword compliant and don’t actually define your qualifications.
The Second Pass
If I can’t decide whether to schedule a phone screen after the first pass, I go for another. The goal now is, “Ok, I saw something I liked in the first pass, is it real?” This is when I do the following:
In-depth Job History. I’m going to actually read the job history for the past couple of jobs. Not all of them, just the last two or three. What I’m doing is fleshing out my mental picture of you. I’m looking for more warning flags. Do your responsibilities match your title? How long were you at your most recent job? If it was a long time, can I get a sense of how you grew? If it was short, can I figure out why you left? Do your last two jobs build on each other? Can I get a sense of where you’re headed or are you all over the place?
Your job history, — your professional experience — is the heart of your resume. This is where I spent my time vetting you and this is where you should spend your time making sure I’m going to get the most complete picture of who you are and what you’re going to bring to my team.
School. Yeah, this is the first time I’ll notice whether you went to college or not. I purposely do this because I’ve found over years of hiring that a name brand university biases my opinion too early. There’s a lot to be said for a candidate who gets accepted to and graduates from Stanford or MIT, but I’ve made just as many bad hires from these colleges as great ones.
Seeing a non-Computer Science degree is not a warning flag. In fact, I’m a huge fan of hiring physics majors as engineers. For whatever reason, the curriculum for physics has a good intersection with computer science. Any technical major for me is perfectly acceptable, and even non-technical majors with a technical job history make for a resume worth thinking about.
Ok, so that second pass took another 15 to 30 seconds and we’re done. You’ve just given me the opportunity to change your life by potentially bringing you in for an interview and that chance is over. Next!
What’s unfair about what just happened is this. You spent hours working on your resume. You sent it to close friends for review and you edited it. You agonized over the different sections and you stressed about the tone, and here I am, the hiring manager, and I read 1/10th of your work in 30 seconds.
Don’t despair. There are some easy things you can do to improve your chances.
Differentiate, Don’t Annoy
Design your resume to downgrade. Your resume needs to withstand some formatting abuse. Go get your resume right now and convert it to plain text. Can you still see the different sections? Is your job history still cleanly formatted? Can you still see the different jobs as well as the start and stop dates? Screw around with the margins, too. Where are your line breaks? They’d better not be after every line because that means visual chaos if a well-intentioned recruiter starts messing with fonts.
Never include a cover letter. I don’t read them. Recruiters don’t pass them on. Make sure the key points of your cover letter are living in your career objective and your job history.
Embrace honest buzzword compliance. Remember, I’m not the only who is going to read your resume. I’m likely the most qualified to make a call whether you’re a fit for my job, but before your resume gets to me, its going to be passed through a couple of different recruiters and these folks are just as busy as I am.
The lifeblood of the recruiter is the keyword. Java, C++, Objective-C. The more specific relevant keywords and buzzwords you can shove into your resume, there more likely you’re going to make it past the initial cut.
As I said above, I skip the Skills section because most folks already know that recruiters are just searching for specific words when they’re sourcing candidates, so they shove every possible buzzword into their resume. Know this, if you claim to Strong Java Background in your resume, I’m going to be compelled to figure out how strong your skills actually are. Don’t include any keyword or buzzword that you aren’t comfortable talking about at length.
Differentiate, don’t annoy. You’re likely going to start developing your resume from a template. Maybe you’ll use a friend’s resume that you like as a starting point. Excellent. How are you going to make it yours?
Remember, I’ve looked at thousands of resumes, which means I’ve seen all the standard templates. I know when you’re using Microsoft Word and I know when you’ve developed a format of your own. Right this second, I’m flipping through a dozen college resumes and the ones I’m spending time on are the ones that grab me visually, where there is something different. On this one, the fellow put a subtle gray box around each of his section headings. On this other one, the candidate used a nice combination of serif and sans serif fonts to grab me.
A couple of subtle visual differences to your resume goes a long way toward keeping me engaged in reading it, but remember, we’re engineers here and efficiency matters. Differentiating your resume to the point that I can’t quickly parse it is going to frustrate me. You’re not applying to be a visual designer; you’re an engineer. Keep to the standard sections and don’t make me work to figure out who you are.
Sound like a human. Here’s a doozy, this intern says he “planned, designed, and coordinated engineers efforts for the development of a mission critical system”. ZzzzzzzzzzZzz. What did this guy actually do? I honestly don’t know. Let’s call this type of writing style resume mumbo jumbo and let’s agree that usage of this style is tantamount to saying nothing at all.
What was the mission critical system? Why was it critical? How in the world did an intern plan, design, and coordinate the engineering efforts? I’m a fan of giving interns real world work, but it’d take a world-class intern to plan, design, and manage engineers on whatever this mission critical system is.
Take time to write your resume for a human. You need to hit all the right buzzwords and keywords to get yourself past the layers of recruiters, but I’m the guy who is really going to take apart your resume, and if you’re saying nothing with resume mumbo jumbo, I’m learning nothing. Give me specifics and give them to me in a familiar tone. I’m not an automaton; I honestly want to know what you do. Tell me a story.
Include seemingly irrelevant experience. This applies mostly to college types who lack experience in high technology. You’re going to stress that your job history doesn’t include any engineering and you’re thinking your summer working at Borders bookstore is irrelevant. It’s not. Any job teaches you something. Even though you weren’t coding in C++, I want to know what you learned by being a bookseller. Was it your first job? What did you learn about managers? How did you grow from the beginning to the end of the summer? Explain to me how hard work is hard no matter what the job is.
A Glimpse and a Hook
A resume will never define who you are. It’s not the job of your resume to give me a complete picture, and if you’re struggling to include every last detail about who you are, you’re wasting your time. Your resume should be designed to give me a glimpse and a hook.
The glimpse is a view into the most recent years of your professional career. It should convey your three most important accomplishments and it should give me a good idea where your technical skills lie.
The hook is more important. The hook will leave me with a question. Maybe it’s something from your other interests section? How about an objective so outlandish that I can’t help but set up a phone screen. I’m not suggesting that you make anything up, I’m asking you to market yourself in a way that I’m going to remember. A resume is not a statement of facts. It’s a declaration of intent.