I have spent many hours discussing and writing about how résumés are written, but I’ve never shared much regarding the way résumés are read. I’ve reviewed thousands of résumés, and my process has changed with the times. The description here describes how I read a résumé upon arrival in my inbox, with the only decision being whether I will schedule an initial conversation (with me).
Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a piece on résumés as a hiring tool. I hope to provide insight regarding details that trigger responses in an agency recruiter’s mind. I try to err on the side of “let’s talk” and not “no thanks”.
Keep in mind that (as an agency recruiter) my goal is to first determine whether my client would interview, and to potentially save everyone’s time (client, candidate, me). I’m looking for some number of positives where I’m convinced that we should speak, or a combination of negative flags that make it apparent that an interview (much less a hire) is unlikely. Technology has provided candidates the ability to shotgun résumés even when they are grossly unqualified/overqualified or would almost certainly not accept the job if offered.
The top of most résumés I see:
Location The only data point I retain on the first pass is location. Remember that I have to consider whether my client’s offer would even be entertained, which location can influence. Even if a candidate is not local, I continue reading.
A non-local location becomes a possible flag if the candidate seems rooted in their home city. If Jane’s résumé shows that she has worked in San Francisco for 15 years, the likelihood of a move to my client’s city should be lower. Assuming Jane later appears qualified, I would want to inquire about her thoughts on relocation before potentially getting too far along. Maybe she has a move planned already.
Email/Domain For certain positions I will visit a candidate’s domain to see if there are any items (work samples, technical blog posts) that might reveal something worth highlighting to my client.
GitHub I don’t read code, and I don’t click GitHub links on the first pass. Generally I won’t bother clicking it at all unless the experience section is lacking, in which case I check for personal projects or activity that might help get the candidate in the door.
LinkedIn Again, I don’t click it on the first pass. If I have difficulty understanding any of the résumé material or career history I may visit their LinkedIn for possible clarification.
What follows that top section varies, but I hope for a profile/summary:
Summary/Profile A well-written summary or profile statement is enough to prompt my decision to initiate dialogue without reading much further. I encourage my candidates and résumé customers to include one. Even if the profile isn’t strong enough to get an immediate “let’s talk” response, it should help steer the reader to which content is relevant.
One can sometimes predict a candidate’s level of confidence/overconfidence or even a blatant lack of industry knowledge from a summary. Entry-level candidates using terms like expert or master to describe themselves are a slight flag.
There is a trend for candidates to create summaries consisting of several bullets (5-15) of information. A summary is intended to be shorter by definition, and these summaries indicate someone who may not understand what is relevant.
Experience is usually next (education for entry-level):
Experience I’m obviously looking for accomplishments and the candidate’s ability to put them into clear and concise terms. Were projects completed? For more experienced candidates, I’m looking for consistency with respect to responsibility and role. An abundance of internal acronyms and company-specific jargon without context is a flag, indicating the candidate may be insulated. Is it clear what the candidate has done?
I’m also observing how the candidate weighs details of their own work history. Candidates tend to lead with and highlight the experience they feel is most important and valuable, which provides insight as to their objective. Those looking to distance themselves from code may list leadership and management responsibilities (project management, mentoring, training, hiring, etc.) before more hands-on duties (architecture, development, etc.), whereas someone disinterested in management will likely emphasize and quantitatively detail a challenging technical problem and the solution.
Dates I look at dates to see if there is a pattern of large employment gaps, but I won’t discount a candidate based on gaps alone. I pay attention to long tenures at organizations and whether someone was able to accomplish several things over years.
Employer Names These are particularly useful when I am familiar with a company’s technically rigorous interview process, as a candidate’s hire by such a firm should at least indicate interview ability (though admittedly not job performance). If I have knowledge regarding how well/poorly a company compensates their employees relative to my client, employer name reveals a high price tag or perhaps an ability to give a significant increase.
Locations As referenced earlier, I notice non-local cities (if listed) and assess the probability that someone would relocate if necessary. When a résumé lists different geographic regions for every job, it can be indicate a candidate willing to go anywhere for an interesting job or someone that chases the highest bidder. If someone is likely to be interviewing nationwide, the odds of any individual joining my client fade.
A skills section often follows:
Skills Obviously I scan to see if the list remotely resembles the job description, particularly if the client has any strict must haves. Hopefully by now I’ve determined what the candidate has done by reading the experience and not buzzword searching. I gauge whether the overall skill set resembles the typical preferred profile of my client based on past hires. Listing a clearly unrealistic number of languages or skills is a flag, with the judgment of “realistic” based upon overall experience while allowing for a degree of self-study.
Last (first for entry-level) is usually education:
Once I’ve come this far the decision is made and the information here is unlikely to make me reconsider. I’ll glance to see if it’s a school I recognize as having a good or bad reputation, whether overall or for the program completed. I check if the graduation year matches with the earliest listed experience experience, as that may expose internships or a past career change. I don’t pay much attention to GPA for experienced candidates, and certifications tend to be ignored with few exceptions.
There may be other details on the résumé that don’t fall into these categories.
Personal Projects/Meetups/Hobbies Some candidates will dedicate a section to these or list them under experience. These don’t matter much for those with interesting professional experience, but can help push a questionable candidate into the let’s talk group.
References I’d never encourage a candidate to list the names of references on a résumé, as I think it’s disrespectful to the reference. Unless the reader recognizes a name, the information is useless at this point and unnecessary. References will be requested when necessary.
There is significant variation in résumé format across candidates. Name and contact information is always on top, but on any given day a recruiter might see the next section as Education, Skills, Experience, or even (gasp) an Objective.
Career length influences which section comes first. Entry-level candidates usually choose Education, while veteran candidates gravitate towards experience and accomplishments. Unfortunately, going from a glance at contact information to dissecting intimate project details doesn’t make for a smooth transition. It’s jarring. A section that serves as a buffer to introduce résumé content that also subliminally instructs the reader on what content to pay attention to will help.
And remember the résumé’s audience. Most recruiters and HR personnel don’t have the background of the candidates they assess, so reviewers benefit from any guidance (even subliminal) provided to understand content. Since few grow up aspiring to the glamorous world of tech recruitment, the industry is typically stocked with C students.
Since a résumé “states your case” to employers, let’s look at lawyers…
The Purpose of Opening Statements
When trial attorneys present cases to juries, they don’t immediately start questioning witnesses. They start with opening statements. Why?
The opening statement informs the jury as to what evidence they will hear during the trial, and why that evidence is significant to the case. The statement is a roadmap on what the attorney wants jurors to listen for (or ignore) during the trial and which elements are critical to the case. It provides background information and announces what is forthcoming.
Before trial, jurors know nothing about the case. Without opening statements, jurors may get lost in trivial details while missing out on the important elements the attorney wants them to hear. Attorneys can’t trust a jury’s ability to make those decisions independently, so opening statements influence thought process.
It is paramount that attorneys present their case in a manner consistent with their opening statements. Diversions from that roadmap will cause the jury to distrust the attorney and detract from the attorney’s credibility.
Back to résumés… Just as jurors know nothing before trial, recruiters know nothing about applicants until they open the résumé. Job seekers today are less likely to provide a cover letter (with recruiters less likely to read them), and résumés are often given brief initial screening by untrained eyes. This creates a problem for qualified applicants who may be wrongfully passed over. What is the optimal strategy for expressing experience and ensuring that even novice reviewers will properly identify qualified candidates? An opening statement.
The Purpose of the Profile
Profiles are the opening statement in a case for an interview, with the résumé content that follows the evidence. The Profile introduces experience to be detailed later in the document, which tacitly baits reviewers into seeking out evidence to specifically support (or refute) those claims. A résumé without a Profile makes no claims to be proven or disproven, and doesn’t give the reader any additional instruction on what to seek.
When Profile claims are corroborated by details of experience, it results in a “buy” from the reader. The Profile was a promise of sorts, later fulfilled by the supporting evidence.
When a Profile doesn’t reflect experience, it exposes the candidate as a potential fraud and detracts from any relevant experience the candidate does possess. Qualified candidates with overreaching Profiles put themselves in a precarious situation. Even well-written Profiles are a negative mark on applicants when the claims are inaccurate or unsupported. Just as attorneys must lay out cases in accordance with their opening statements, experience must match Profiles.
Typical Profiles Are Noise, Not Signal
The overwhelming majority of Profile statements are virtually identical. Words and phrases like hard-working, intelligent, dedicated, career-minded, innovative, etc. are, in this context, mere self-assessments impossible to qualify. It’s fluff, and contributes résumé noise that distracts readers’ attention from signal.
Useful Profiles clearly say what you have done and can do, and are ideally quantified for the reader to prevent any misunderstanding. If a temp at a startup is tasked to find résumés of software engineers with Python and Django experience, he is unlikely to ignore résumés with Profiles stating “Software engineer with six years of experience building solutions with Python and Django“.
For candidates attempting to transition into new roles that might be less obvious to a reader, a Profile must double as a disguised Objective. These Profiles will first state the candidate’s current experience and end with what type of work the applicant seeks. “Systems Administrator with three years of Python and Bash scripting experience seeks transition into dedicated junior DevOps role” provides background as well as future intent, but the last seven words are needed to get the average recruiter’s attention.
Just as Objectives are altered to match requirements, consider tweaking a Profile to highlight required skills. A candidate that identifies herself as a Mobile Developer in the Profile might not get selected for interview for a Web Developer position, even when the résumé demonstrates all necessary qualifications. How a candidate self-identifies suggests their career interests, unless stated otherwise (see paragraph above).
Based on the importance of having Profile/experience agreement, it’s suggested that the Profile is written last. Lawyers can’t write an opening statement before knowing their case, and candidates should have all of their corroborating evidence in place before attempting to summarize it for clear interpretation.
Assume your résumé reviewer knows little about what you do, and that they need to be explicitly told what you do without having to interpret it through your listed experience. Identify yourself in the Profile as closely to the job description (and perhaps even title) as possible. Make sure that all claims made in the Profile are supported by evidence somewhere else in the résumé, ideally early on.
Even though there are hundreds of articles professing the beauty and efficiency of the one page résumé, not a day passes where I don’t see a five pager. The issue of length has even surfaced amongst college undergrads applying for internships, who seem to have increasing difficulty trimming their list of accomplishments and experiences into a single page (really). This is a troubling sign for future HR and recruiting professionals tasked with selecting applicants, as job seekers who are unable to shorten their credentials will continue to have difficulty in their search.
The amount of time a recruiter or hiring manager spends reviewing any single résumé varies by the individual. When offered a single page résumé, the reader is much more inclined to give that page a proper scan to make a fair assessment. A two page offering should get a proper review as well.
Over the past few years my clientele shifted from a mix of mostly mid-market companies and a few startups to almost entirely startups, and that shift has resulted in a wider palette of languages requested by clients. Where my business was about 95% Java for the first 10+ years of my career, today it is closer to 25%. As I’ve written before, my business veered naturally from a pure Java focus when a considerable amount of the Java talent I have represented in years past started to migrate and show interest in diverse languages and ecosystems.
Unlike the boom periods for startups in the past, it appears that today’s startup is much less likely to choose Java as the primary development platform. Many developers who did Java work for startups in the mid 2000’s sought higher ground in the late part of the decade when small shops took a hit, and found themselves working for large companies and more corporate environments.
Flash forward to the past few years and the resurgence of startups. Many of those engineers who took shelter in the larger firms are now interested in establishing themselves once again as a major contributor on a small team in a startup, and when I have represented some of these highly qualified developers to startups now, I’ve been met with the feedback ‘The candidate’s résumé appears too enterprisey‘. As an aside, I don’t get that response nearly as often for Java engineers that stayed with small companies.
The enterprisey label, in my experience, seems to be used in two situations that can often (but not always) go hand-in-hand. First, enterprisey is often used to describe candidates that come from large development shops regardless of the languages used (although Java and .Net platforms are the norm), where the bias is that the development culture and the broader company culture make that candidate less likely to succeed in the startup. This is the result of preconceptions surrounding development methodology, possible unnecessary complexity in applications, a slower release schedule, or the impression that developers in these larger environments are sheltered from tasks related to data, devops, sysadmin, and QA that are frequently handled by developers at startups. The label may be applied liberally to virtually any candidate coming from a company larger than the hiring firm.
The second common enterprisey tag is used on any developer using Java or .Net regardless of the employer size, due to the predominant viewpoint that other language communities have developed regarding Java/.Net being wrought with and plagued by dozens of frameworks and bloated stacks. As someone who sees thousands of résumés a year, it is clear that résumés of Java and .Net developers are often significantly longer than those of developers in other languages, but there could be several factors at play there beyond just the number of potential bloat items (insert Java = verbose joke here). At a distance, the résumés of Java developers can resemble an eye chart, with acronyms outnumbering actual words. One hiring manager of a Scala shop provided this gem:
“The laundry list of legacy enterprise technologies (JMS, JMX, etc.) doesn’t do anything for me.”
The word ‘legacy’ seems particularly cruel there.
Sadly, many of those making hiring decisions in these startups are quick to dismiss a highly-skilled talent simply because of their experience working for a larger company or their primary language being in the Java or .Net worlds. Whereas an interest in, say, functional languages is now often used by startups as an indicator of ability, the prolonged use of Java or .Net at a large firm can be a detriment when applying for work in any other language or polyglot environments.
So how can engineers labeled ‘enterprisey’ escape that bias and be accepted by smaller shops with different languages?
Résumé and bio de-enterprisification – That’s not a word (yet), but the concept would be to go back and make sure your résumé/bio/LinkedIn profile/etc. doesn’t read like a corporate Buzzword Bingo card. Eliminate or modify anything that may appear steeped in bureaucratic process and procedure, and be wary of any items that can be perceived as indicative of a glacial development pace. References to project length and time between releases should typically be avoided. Emphasize new development over maintenance tasks, and accomplishments over process. Listing too many tools, frameworks, and specifications will often work against you and may be considered an indicator of your dependence upon them. Shortening the résumé is almost always the way to go here, and three + page résumés generally smell of enterpriseyness.
Develop other language credibility – Any code that you can point to that does not run the risk of being labeled enterprisey is better than nothing. As stated before, some startups perceive functional programming interest as a marker for ability, so even an implementation of a typical interview exercise in a functional language (or one different from your primary) has value. Provide links to this code on your résumé and reference any personal projects that are applicable.
Stop calling yourself ‘LANGUAGE Developer’ – I do it too (all the time), but you should not. Use whatever you feel is appropriate – Software Engineer, Programmer, Developer, Geek – but stop inserting a language when describing yourself on paper or verbally. And perhaps more importantly, stop thinking of yourself as a LANGUAGE Developer. Sometimes you may need to dumb it down so the clueless recruiter will find you, but try to minimize those instances the best you can (and do you really want that recruiter to find you anyway?).
Express your outside interests – Just because you get paid by some insurance company to write Java/.Net apps all day doesn’t mean that is who you are. If you are exploring other languages through books, conferences, and self-study, make that known in whatever way may be discovered during your job search (résumé, blog, social media, etc.). Hobbies like robotics, Raspberry Pi, and Arduino are probably unrelated to your job but not necessarily unrelated to your career. Any technical interests beyond the primary function of your job demonstrate at least some level of versatility and the ability to adapt outside of your enterprisey 9 to 5.
Every so often I will receive a résumé from a software engineer that includes a list of technical certifications. These days most candidates tend to have none listed, but over the years I’ve seen some include anywhere from one or two certs up to ten or more certs, and it seems the number of companies willing to certify tech professionals has continued to grow. Vendors like IBM and Oracle each offer over 100 certifications, while Brainbench lists almost 30 tests on Java topics alone. At prices ranging from the $50 neighborhood up to $200 and more, the technology certification industry seems quite lucrative for the testing companies. But what is it all about for engineers? What (if any) value do certifications have for your marketability, and could having a certification potentially result in the opposite of the intended effect and actually hurt your chances of being hired?
When do certifications help?
There are some situations when certifications are absolutely helpful, as is the case for job seekers in certain industries that generally require a specific cert. A certification that was achieved through some relatively intense training (and not just a single online test) will also usually have value, much like a four year degree tends to be valued above most training programs. If a technology is very new and having skill with it is incredibly rare, a certification is one way to demonstrate at least some level of qualification that others probably will not have.
When and why can certifications actually hurt?
Professionals that have very little industry experience but possess multiple certifications usually will get a double take from hiring managers and recruiters. These junior candidates are perceived as trying to substitute certifications for an intimate knowledge that is gained through using the technology regularly, and more senior level talent will note that the ability to pass a test does not always indicate the ability to code. Many of these job seekers would be much better off spending their time developing a portfolio of code to show prospective employers.
Experienced candidates with multiple certifications may have some stigma attached to them due to their decision to both pursue them and then to subsequently list them. Some recruiters or managers may feel that these professionals are trying to compensate for having little depth in a technology or a lack of real-world accomplishments, and that the candidate wrongly assumes that a cert shows otherwise. Some that evaluate talent might get the impression that the candidate obtains certs in order to feel validated by (or even superior to) their peers, and that the cert is more driven by ego than a desire to learn. Lastly, there will be some who feel that over-certified technologists are ‘suckers’ that should have spent their (or the company’s) money and time more wisely.
The greatest value of certifications
Having spoken to hundreds of programmers certified in any number of technologies, I found that the majority claimed to find more value in the process of studying and test preparation than with the accomplishment of passing the test and getting certified. Pursuing a certification is one way to learn a new skill or to get back to the basics of a skill you already have. Certification tests are a great form of motivation to those that take them, due to the fact that there is:
- a time deadline – If you decide you want to learn a technology in your spare time, you probably don’t associate any particular date in mind for learning milestones. Certs are often scheduled for a specific date, which motivates the test taker to study right away.
- a time cost – Preparing for a test like this comes at the expense of other things in your life, so most that pursue certs understand the time investment required.
- a monetary cost – Shelling out $50 to $200 of your own money is an additional motivator. It’s not that much for most in the industry, but it is a lot to pay to fail a test.
- a risk of failure – If you are studying with others for a test, pride will also be motivating.
As the pursuit of certification seems to be the greatest value, keep this simple fact in mind.
Just because you get a certification doesn’t mean you have to list it on your résumé.
As a recruiter who is about to
celebrate (as if recruiters celebrate such a thing) mark fifteen years in the technology industry, I am starting to see that many of the contacts I made back in the late 90’s are now having some concerns about ageism during a job search. Any failed interview for older software professionals may cause a raised gray eyebrow and a thought that age and not their skill was a factor in the decision. Companies that freely apply catchall terms such as “overqualified“ or “not a cultural fit” in a rejection only serve to cloud the engineer’s mind and cause him/her to wonder if these are just the politically correct or legal code words to signify “You’re too old for us”.
Much has been written about older professionals being dogged by myths surrounding work effort, production, energy, and whether employees with families are more likely to work less. Start-ups are often portrayed as testosterone-and/or-alcohol-fueled code marathons only welcome to young males, which hurts the many start-ups that are not. But even hiring managers who have read studies and evidence that debunks these myths may still be guilty of judging candidates based on perception, so another blog post about why all companies (start-up or mature) should consider hiring older workers may not be helpful. The goal of this post is to help these more experienced candidates maximize their chances of being considered for jobs, and to make sure they are evaluated based on their skills alone during interviews.
Just as you would find at a nightclub, ageism starts with the person at the door. During a job search, the doorman is the person screening resumes. Therefore, the resume is the first item of consideration when trying to combat the problem. Let’s look at some common resume mistakes that expose candidates to ageism.
Mistake #1 – Your resume does not need to include every position you have had in your life, and it doesn’t even need to list every position you have held in your field. This is by far the most common way that candidates expose themselves to possible ageism. If you have been in the industry for over twenty years, the work you did at the beginning of your career is hopefully quite different than what you are doing now. Trim down your resume to a manageable size by eliminating jobs that are the most dated and least relevant. Although there is nothing wrong with removing outdated experience, add the phrase ‘Additional experience provided upon request‘ if you feel it necessary.
Mistake #2 – The ‘Education’ section of a resume does not need to include graduation dates. The graduation date is arguably the easiest and most accurate way to put an age number on a candidate, using the formula
Age = (current year - graduation year) + 22
By including the date of graduation you are simply making it easier for them to discriminate. When hiring managers or recruiters see dates that seem like the distant past, they will do the math in their head subconsciously and label you with a number. “This guy graduated in ’81? That makes him, what…54?” Don’t put the date on the resume if you feel that your age could be used against you. This isn’t dishonesty (putting an incorrect year would be dishonest). There are several details about you that are not listed on your resume, and graduation date should not be required.
Without a graduation date, the formula for quickly approximating age generally becomes
Age = (current year - year of hire at earliest job listed) + 22
If you consider the point listed in Mistake #1 and you decide not to list early and irrelevant job(s) right out of school, and you also do not list your graduation date, you can potentially take years off of your perceived age.
Mistake #3 – Your resume does not need to include every technology that you have ever used. A resume of a very senior engineer could potentially contain an impressive and lengthy list of technologies in the skills section if he/she were to offer a comprehensive inventory of the various hardware, tools, languages, operating systems, databases, protocols, etc. that have been used during the span of their career.
Keep in mind that certain technologies or buzzwords are likely to trigger a visceral reaction based either on the age of the technology itself or how that technology is generally viewed by the industry. Languages that are out of favor in today’s programming culture are probably the most common issue. To have experience over a long period of time and with several tools is undoubtedly valuable, but unless a technology has significant relevance to the jobs being sought the risk of including these details may outweigh the benefits.
If you followed the advice above regarding your resume, the next step will be interviews. In interviews, you want to make sure not to play into any of the myths or the fears that are commonly associated with the hiring of older workers. Below is a list containing many of the most stereotypical generalizations or assumptions common to ageism and how to best avoid them.
Older hires will not be able to put in hours. The availability issue is more closely associated with start-ups that may require more office time, and this perception is amplified when a start-up is staffed primarily with young, childless, and single employees. Being honest about your desire for work/life balance is best for all parties involved, but don’t let the interviewers assume that because of your age or family situation that you are only able to work 40 hours if you are indeed open to more. Clarify the amount of time you are willing to commit to working in or out of the office to prevent false assumptions.
Older hires will retire soon. Answering the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” with “Retired in Florida” is probably not the best answer, but honesty about your expectations is always best. Don’t let the employer assume that you are planning to retire soon if that is not the case. If you can not afford to retire in the near future, it may be helpful to let a hiring manager know that fact in order to allay this potential fear. The amount of time technology professionals of any age spend at any one company is lower than it used to be, so having an older employee on board for three to five years could have value to the company that is not much different than the average tenure of a young hire.
Older hires have low energy or are less productive. Older candidates should be more aware of their perceived energy level and body language during interviews. It’s good advice to job seekers of all ages to try to schedule interviews during the hours of the day that you feel you perform best and are most alert. Be sure you are well rested, fed, and look alive.
Older hires have dated or irrelevant experience. Eliminating some of the older experience on the resume helps showcase current skills while avoiding the appearance of stagnation. When giving anecdotal answers, try to focus your material first on what is most relevant and most recent. Referring to projects that ended thirty years ago is not advised unless the lesson learned was incredibly valuable.
Older engineers only want to manage. If you have been in leadership roles but are looking for something more hands-on, you must make that very clear during interviews and in initial correspondence when applying for a job. The assumption will always be that employees expect more responsibility as their career progresses, but many software engineers simply want to stay in the code and are not interested in managing. Don’t let your interviewer assume that you want to manage if you do not. A willingness to mentor employees while also being hands-on will add to your potential value.
Older engineers are less teachable and may have strongly reinforced bad habits. This line of thinking is amplified if the candidate has been in the same professional environment for many years, and the suspicion is that engineers become overly accustomed to a single way of working and won’t easily adapt to new ways. If you have had the same employer for a long time, try to emphasize any major changes that took place during your tenure and how you were forced to learn new things or leave your comfort zone. If you were an agent for change, be sure to bring that fact up during conversation.
Older hires will not be a culture fit. Culture fit is something older engineers probably didn’t hear much about in the beginning of their career, and ‘not a fit’ can be used as a blanket term for rejecting candidates without having to give a specific reason (which potentially exposes a company to discrimination lawsuits). Try to learn about company culture before the interview so you can at least be aware of their values and the image they want to convey, even if that image is not really who they are.
Stay relevant. Keep up to speed on what technologies are popular with the cool kids, even if you do not use them on the job. If you have time to spend a few hours and tinker, that experience may pay off in your next job search. Knowing what others in the industry are doing is as simple as reading articles every few weeks.
Never stagnate. Older engineers that overstay their welcome at a company will have an incredibly difficult time finding work if a job search becomes necessary. When senior engineers are the victim of layoffs after being employed for 15 or more years, a long and difficult job search is often the result. Being stuck in the same role with the same technologies at the same company for a long stretch could become comfortable, but it will not be an asset when changing employers. Your first loyalty should be to yourself and your career, and not to your company. In my experience, older professionals that have not stayed at any job for a long stretch (>10 years) have the most prospects.
Keep a positive attitude. Many engineers are quick to actually dismiss themselves as candidates due to age, and they don’t even bother applying to companies they feel will reject them based on ageism. Other candidates have self-defeating attitudes about their plight or their perceived inability to improve their situation. Do not fear rejection, and learn from mistakes made during job searches.
Share your knowledge. Engineers that have a reputation as teachers, advisers, and mentors will always have an easier time finding work. Whether you write technical blog posts, present to user groups, or do informal talks during lunch, you will develop a reputation as someone who uses your experience to make your teammates better. Think of your experience as a positive asset for a new employer, and be known as someone who is always willing to guide younger technologists.
Be open to non-traditional employment options. Job trends and careers have changed drastically over the past 30 years, and the traditional ‘graduate college → get job → retire with pension‘ progression isn’t realistic today. If you haven’t already, give consideration to contract/consulting work, contract-to-hire or alternative employment options. Older professionals may find that ageism is less common in temporary hire situations.
After reading the tremendous response to Why You Didn’t Get the Job (a sincere thanks to those that read and shared the post) I realized that many of the reasons referenced were specific to mistakes candidates make during interviews. At least a handful of readers told me that they didn’t get the job because they didn’t even get the interview.
With a down economy, most of us have heard accounts of a job seeker sending out 100, 200, perhaps 300 résumés without getting even one response. These anecdotes are often received by sympathetic ears who commiserate and then share their personal stories of a failed job search. To anyone who has sent out large quantities of résumés without any response or interviews, I offer this advice:
The complete lack of response is not due to the economy. The lack of response is based on your résumé, your experience, or your résumé submission itself.
My intent here is to help and certainly not to offend, so if you are one of these people that has had a hard time finding new work, please view this as free advice mixed with a touch of tough love. I have read far too many comments lately from struggling job seekers casting blame for their lack of success in the search (“it wasn’t a real job posting”, “the manager wasn’t a good judge of talent“, etc.), but now it’s time to take a look inward on how you can maximize your success. I spoke to a person recently who had sent out over 100 résumés without getting more than two interviews, and I quickly discovered that the reasons for the failure were quite obvious to the trained eye (mine). The economy isn’t great, but there are candidates being interviewed for the jobs you are applying for (most of them anyway), and it’s time to figure out why that interview isn’t being given to you.
If you apply for a job and don’t receive a response, there are only a few possibilities as to why that are within our control (please note the emphasis before commenting). Generally the problem is
- a mistake made during the résumé submission itself,
- problems with the résumé, or
- your experience.
Qualified candidates that pay attention to these tips will see better results from their search efforts.
Your Résumé Submission
Résumés to jobs@blackholeofdeath – The problem here isn’t that your résumé or application was flawed, it’s just that nobody has read it. Sending to hr@ or jobs@ addresses is never ideal, and your résumé may be funneled to a scoring system that scans it for certain buzzwords and rates it based on the absence, presence and frequency of these words. HRbot apocalypse…
Solution – Do some research to see if you know anyone who works/worked at the company, even a friend of a friend, to submit the résumé. Protip: Chances are the internal employee may even get a referral bonus. LinkedIn is a valuable tool for this. Working with an agency recruiter will also help here, as recruiters are typically sending your information directly to internal HR or hiring managers.
Follow instructions – If the job posting asks that you send a cover letter, résumé, and salary requirements, this request serves two purposes. First and most obviously, they actually want to see how well you write (cover letter), your experience (résumé), and the price tag (salary requirements). Second, they want to see if you are able and willing to follow instructions. Perhaps that is why the ad requested the documents in a specific format? Some companies are now consciously making the application process even a bit more complicated, which serves as both a test of your attention to detail and to gauge whether applicants are interested enough to take an extra step. Making it more difficult for candidates to apply should yield a qualified and engaged candidate pool, which is the desired result.
Solution – Carefully read what the manager/recruiter is seeking and be sure to follow the directions exactly. Have a friend review your application before hitting send.
Spelling and grammar – Spelling errors are inexcusable on a résumé today. Grammar is given much more leeway, but frequent grammatical errors are a killer.
Solution – Have a friend or colleague read it for you, as it is much more difficult to edit your own material (trust me).
Price tag – As you would expect, if you provide a salary requirement that is well above the listed (or unlisted) range, you will not get a response. Conversely and counterintuitively, if you provide a salary requirement that is well below the range, you will also not get a response. Huh?
Suppose you want to hire someone to put in a new kitchen, and you get three estimates. The first is 25K, the second is 20K, and the third is 2K. Which one are you going to choose? It’s hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure you aren’t going to use the one that quoted you 2K. Companies want to hire candidates that are aware of market value and priced accordingly, and anyone asking for amounts well above market will not get any attention.
Solution – Research the going rate for the job and be sure to manage your expectations based on market conditions. Another strategy is trying to delay providing salary information until mutual interest is established. If the company falls in love, the compensation expectation might hurt less. There is some risk of wasting time in interviews if you do not provide information early in the process, and most companies today will require the information before agreeing to an interview.
Canned application – By ‘canned’ I am referring to job seekers that are obviously cutting and pasting content from previous cover letters instead of taking the time to try and personalize the content.
Solution – Go to the hiring firm’s website and find something specific and unique that makes you want to work for that company. Include that information in your submission. If you are using a template and just filling in the blanks (“I read your job posting on _____ and I am really excited to learn that your company _____ is hiring a ______”), delete the template now. If you aren’t willing to invest even a few minutes into the application process, why should the company invest any time learning about you?
Too eager – If I receive a résumé submission for a job posting and then get a second email from that candidate within 24 hours asking about the submission, I can be fairly sure that this is an omen. If I get a call on my mobile immediately after receiving the application ‘just to make sure it came through‘, you might as well just have the Psycho music playing in the background. Even if this candidate is qualified, there will probably be lots of hand-holding and coaching required to get this person hired. Reasonably qualified candidates with realistic expectations and an understanding of business acumen don’t make this mistake.
Solution – Have patience while waiting for a response to your résumé, and be sure to give someone at least a couple/few days to respond. If you are clearly qualified for a position, you will get a reply when your résumé hits the right desk. Pestering or questioning the ability of those that are processing your application is a guarantee that you will not be called in.
Your objective – If your objective states “Seeking a position as a Python developer in a stable corporate environment“, don’t expect a callback from the start-up company looking for a Ruby developer. This applies even if you are qualified for the job! Why doesn’t the company want to talk to you if you are qualified? Because you clearly stated that you wanted to do something else. If you put in writing that you are seeking a specific job, that information must closely resemble the job to which you are applying.
Solution – You may choose to have multiple copies of your résumé with multiple objectives, so you can customize the résumé to the job (just be sure to remember which one you used so you bring the correct résumé to the interview!). As there may be a range of positions you are both qualified and willing to take, using a ‘Profile’ section that summarizes your skills instead of an ‘Objective’ is a safer alternative.
Spelling and grammar (again) – see above
tl;dr – To any non-geek readers, this means ‘too long; didn’t read‘. To my geek readers, many of you are guilty of this. I’ve written about this over and over again, but I still get seven page résumés from candidates. I have witnessed hiring managers respond to long-winded résumés with such gems as ‘if her résumé is this long, imagine how verbose her code will be‘. (Even for non-Java candidates! #rimshot) Hiring managers for jobs that require writing skills or even verbal communication can be extremely critical of tl;dr résumés.
Solution – Keep it to two or three pages maximum. If you can’t handle that, get professional help.
Buzzword bingo – This is a term that industry insiders use to refer to résumés that include a laundry list of acronyms and buzzwords. The goal is to either catch the eye of an automated search robot (or human) designed to rate résumés based on certain words, or to insinuate that the candidate actually has all the listed skills. Software engineers are probably more guilty of this than other professionals, as the inclusion of one particular skill can sometimes make the difference between your document being viewed by an actual human or not. When candidates list far too many skills buzzwords than would be reasonably possible for one person to actually know, you can be sure the recruiter or manager will pass based on credibility concerns.
Solution – I advise candidates to limit the buzzwords on your résumé to technologies, tools, or concepts that you could discuss in an intelligent conversation. If you would not be comfortable answering questions about it in an interview, leave it off.
Gaping holes – If you have had one or more extended period of unemployment, hiring managers and recruiters may simply decide to pass on you instead of asking about the reasons why. Perhaps you took a sabbatical, went back to school full-time, or left on maternity leave. Don’t assume that managers are going to play detective and figure out that the years associated with your Master’s degree correspond to the two year gap in employment.
Solution – Explain and justify any periods of unemployment on your résumé with as much clarity as possible without going into too many personal details. Mentioning family leave is appropriate, but providing the medical diagnosis of your sick relative is not.
Job hopping – Some managers are very wary of candidates that have multiple employers over short periods of time. In the software world it tends to be common to make moves a bit more frequently than in some other professions, but there comes a point where it’s one move too many and you may be viewed as a job hopper. The fear of hiring a job hopper has several roots. A manager may feel you are a low performer, a mercenary that always goes to the highest bidder, or that you may get bored after a short time and seek a new challenge. Companies are unwilling to invest in hires that appear to be temporary.
Solution – If the moves were the result of mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, or a change in company direction, be sure to note these conditions somewhere in the résumé. Never use what could be viewed as potential derogatory information in the explanation. Clearly list if certain jobs were project/contract.
Listed experience is irrelevant/unrelated – This could be a symptom of simply being unqualified for the position, or it could be tied to an inability to detail what you actually do that is relevant to the listed job requirements. I would suspect that most of the aforementioned people (that received no responses to 100 submission) probably fall into the unqualified category, as job seekers tend to feel overconfident about being a fit for a wider range of positions than is realistic. Companies expect a very close fit during a buyer’s market, and are willing to open up their hiring standards a bit when the playing field starts to level.
Solution – Be sure to elaborate on all elements of your job that closely resemble the responsibilities listed in the posting. Instead of wasting time filling out applications for jobs that are clearly well out of reach, spend that time researching jobs that are a better match for you.
You are overqualified – The term ‘overqualified’ seems to be overused by rejected applicants today, as there is no real stigma to the term. It’s entirely comfortable for a candidate to say/think “I didn’t get the job because I possess more skills at a higher level than the employer was seeking“. When a company is seeking an intermediate level engineer, it isn’t always because they want someone earlier in their career than a senior level engineer (although in some cases this could be true). Rather, they want the intermediate level engineer because that is what their budget dictates or they expect that senior engineers would not be challenged by the role (and therefore would leave). There are also situations where companies will not want to hire you because your experience is indicative that you will only be taking this job until something better comes along. A CEO applying for a job as a toll collector will not be taken seriously.
Solution – Be sure that your résumé accurately represents your level of skill and experience. Inflating your credentials or job titles will always work against you.
The time you spend on your job search is valuable, so be sure to use it wisely. Invest additional effort on applications for jobs that you feel are a great fit, and go above and beyond to be sure your submission gets attention. As a general rule of thumb, you want to be sure that whoever receives your résumé will get it into the hands of someone who has a similar job to the one you want, not just someone trained to look for buzzwords. Employees that have similar experience will be the best judges of your fit. If you aren’t getting the response you want, do not keep using the same methods and expecting a different result.