How I Read a Technical Resume
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.
When candidates don’t list their graduation years, how do you regard them? Also, do you advise candidates to list trade schools or coding bootcamps?
I actually advise many candidates not to list their graduation year when it is in the candidate’s best interest. I don’t hold that against them, nor do I ask when they graduated due to potential legal concerns. Regarding bootcamps, I’d usually advise that the include them unless it is rather irrelevant.