Tech Life A sea of mediocre resumes

A Brief Glimpse

Just back from Scotland for recruiting. Same universities as last time, St. Andrews and Edinburgh. Last year, this is the trip that inspired the A Glimpse and a Hook article, so it’s appropriate that this year’s trip forces a revision.

scottish gate

I bagged on the objective section of the resume in the Glimpse piece, using the argument that I found objectives pointless, but after a solid week of scrubbing, thinking, and talking about resumes, I’m prepared to get proactive. Sure, many objectives are crap. The question is, why are they crap?

A crappy objective section in a resume suffers from the same issues as the rest of the resume: standardization. Your first resume started with a question: “How do I write it?” A kind person whipped out a resume, showed it you, and it resonated with you so you copied the structure. Problem was, you didn’t stop there. You also copied the style of the writing. You borrowed the boring, vanilla language where you described your hopes and dreams in the language of business. “I am a motivated team player looking for a high growth opportunity at a company which does not blow.”

Yuck. The only interesting word in that objective is blow.

I’m a fan of grabbing the bright ideas of other people, but I’m a bigger fan of you tweaking their ideas and making them your own. Your resume, like your objective, should give me a sense of you and where you’re going. I want to see a little ego and I want to see your character because I’m not hiring a flat piece of paper, I’m hiring a person. But when I start, all I have is the paper.

Professionally Pointed

I update my resume every six months whether I’m looking for a new gig or not.

A resume refresh gives me perspective. I don’t get a report card much anymore, just a yearly focal review which pretty much tells me what I already know: grew a little here, fucked up there… a bit more money.

A resume revision doesn’t remind me of how I’m doing, it forces me to think about where I’m going. Your objective, like your resume, is a snapshot of your professional life. In a few brief sentences, you need to clearly describe your professional goals in your own voice. You need to explain where you are professionally pointed.

Here’s my current objective:

I need to work with bright people who don’t take no for an answer and are crazy about well-designed software. If these people aren’t there when I show up, I work hard to find them.

Is this everything I’ve ever wanted to achieve? No. Will the reader understand all of my skills, all of my capabilities? No. Will they get the idea that I value design, people, and might be a little crazy? Yup.

When you’re thinking of your objective, I want to think of yourself sitting at bar. You’re two drinks in and you’re pitching a friend about what you want to do with your life. While this casual, egotistical, mildly trashed tone may best suit high tech gigs, seriously, what do you have to lose being yourself?

Resume Stress

You’re stressing as you work on your resume because usually when you’re updating your resume, you’re in need of a job. In this stress, you fall back on convention — on standardization — because getting the resume done feels less important than the job hunting and being original takes a lot of work.

Problem. There are a bazillion people out there who are looking for the same gigs you want. The barrier to entry is not that someone can hunt down a job opening; the barrier to entry is getting noticed amongst a sea of mediocre resumes.

Here is an audacious goal for your resume: to get you to a point in your career where you no longer need a resume. It’s the point that in your chosen industry people know who you are and what you are capable of. And they want you doing it at their companies.

It’s a tricky lifetime goal, one that I’m still working on, but that’s the goal I want you to think about when you’re stressing about your professional objective. It’s not your next job you need to stress about; it’s your career.

13 Responses

  1. I really like this post, and though I just recently got hired at a company, I’ve already noticed myself getting complacent about marketing myself, which essentially a resume is.

    I think that’s another important point, in that most people view a resume as a list of job qualifications they believe they have for a position they’re applying for, when in reality, you are marketing yourself.

    You have to think of yourself as like companies think of how they want to sell their products or services. In other words, what your advocating is using a resume like a personal brand.

    Great post.

    -Don Kim

  2. Redoing your resume is actually a really good exercise.

    I recently received a promotion and HR requested that I update my resume so that it would be current before taking on my new position.

    I would say that in addition to redoing your resume once or twice a year, you take the time to update it when some major career event happens. This way, you’ll always have an up-to-date copy that already includes your major achievements.

  3. @Daniel Most important: Be vocal about what you do. Be it blogging or participating in open source or something else. If you don’t tell, people won’t know; no matter how brilliant you are. Learn to write, to communicate. It takes a while until you gain traction, but if what you do is only slightly relevant, people will notice.

  4. Being yourself in your resume and introductions is what you need to do. The two things I always looked for in a hire was passion and how much I thought I’d enjoy working with them.

    The last time I sent out my resume, I started my email with “I like Godzilla movies, but more on that later.” I don’t know how well received that was, but I got the job.

  5. Jeff Standen 17 years ago

    “You’re two drinks in and you’re pitching a friend about what you want to do with your life. … what do you have to lose being yourself?”

    I think that’s the real gem in your post. I’ve learned to really respect people are comfortable enough with themselves to be brutally honest. Even if that honesty isn’t what I particularly want to hear.

    I’d much rather see a resume from a “designer who gets slightly neurotic about misaligned pixels” or a “programmer who gets a rash when within 10 feet of complacency”.

  6. Swombat 17 years ago

    Here is an audacious goal for your resume: to get you to a point in your career where you no longer need a resume. It’s the point that in your chosen industry people know who you are and what you are capable of. And they want you doing it at their companies.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how you go about doing that? It’s not so easy to become a minor industry celebrity… perhaps an article outlining some good ways to achieve that would be a good follow-up to this article.



  7. This actually got me excited about updating my resume. Thumbs up.

    Hopefully my professional objective of “To rock this bitch” sets the right tone.

  8. James 17 years ago

    You did a great job of reminding us about the importance of the resume:

    I’m hiring a person. But when I start, all I have is the paper.

    I hire in an academic research setting but I’m looking for the same kind of energy. I read hundreds of resumes a year and 80% of them have two fatal flaws:

    1. They don’t address subtly, blatantly, or outrageously the talents or skills that I’ve asked for in the posting.

    2. They don’t write a cover letter telling ME in an honest voice about their objectives – even though I put the suggestion in the posting.

    If you have to write a generic resume to shotgun at conferences then make sure it’s not bland and don’t use the words ‘motivated team player’ ever. Also, if you use a CV and not a resume format for dog’s sake write something that brings you out of the paper and into human form. A CV is really supposed to be supporting documentation for a talented human, folks.

  9. Big Mad Kev 17 years ago

    I recently Just moved jobs twice in one year after 7 years at one place. I can tell you updating the CV took so long and was so hard that I never want to do it again.

    So yes I will update it once/twice a year like a good boy and also when major things happen including projects that way it will make it easier if someone asks for it on the off chance.

  10. It’s good to have a real resume that addresses the Truth of who you are and where you want to be, but it is also important to make sure that it is seen by a real human who will understand the subtleties of your language and tone.

    Too often, my intentions have been thwarted by mindless resume filtering software (didn’t use the right buzzwords!) and HR folks who just don’t get it .

    The only method that works, is to get the resume directly into the hands of the person who is looking to hire – and if he doesn’t understand what you’re talking about, you don’t want to work for him anyway.

  11. BabyGotMac 17 years ago

    This is a truly great post. I’ve not done a resume in about 5 years, but I may this weekend just to see how I’ve grown.

    When I interview people (for work or socially), I tend to ask a leading question about something they like and let them go with it; I want to see their enthusiasm and passion. Not buzzwords and rote quotes.

    PS: Got your book and loving it. Thanks.

  12. Stewart 17 years ago

    Couple of questions (out of interest):

    Why Scotland?

    And why only St. Andrews and Edinburgh uni’s?

    Another very useful and thought provoking article.

  13. Great advice, i havent updated my resume since i started my business full time. After reading you post, i realized that it will be fun to do it. And lo and behold, when before i tried to make things sound better, now i can tell them as it, and they still sounds kinda too good to be true. I am pleased. 🙂