This week we have a four page Java developer resume that needs help in a bunch of places. Again, I’ve redacted the content to protect the innocent.
The resume started with a SUMMARY. If you read my resume articles, I greatly appreciate summaries.
- I am a Sr. Java Developer with experience directly managing developers.
- He has extensive experience in the design and development of multi-tier applications using Java, J2EE, $LISTOF15TECHNOLOGIES.
I advise my Resume Raiders clients to avoid the use of first person (“I”), and I further advise any and all humans to never refer to themselves in third person. Using both within adjacent bullets highlights the issue.
As I’ve stated before, we can use implied first person on a resume, where “I am a Sr. Java Developer with…” becomes “Sr. Java Developer with…” and “He has extensive experience in…” becomes “Extensive experience in…“. These types of errors will be forgiven by many screeners and wouldn’t alone be an offense resulting in a deleted resume, but they get the reader to start leaning that way.
The second bullet listing of 15 technologies is another poor choice, particularly when many of these technologies were somewhat specific and rather niche. To say someone has extensive developing apps using Java, Spring, and Hibernate might be easy to believe. When you throw obscure technologies like R or Lisp into the mix (as this person did), it starts to sound like a bit of Buzzword Bingo.
The summary continues…
- Responsible for leading a team of four developers in developing Java based applications.
- Developed web application using $SERVERPRODUCT and $STANDARD compliant $COMPONENT using Java.
- Used $IDE as IDE tool to develop the application and $BUGTOOL for bug and issue tracking
We’ve quickly gone from a proper SUMMARY into a list of specific individual accomplishments more suited for the EXPERIENCE section. The intent of the SUMMARY isn’t to list several details so much as to provide an overview of what is to come.
The first bullet listing leadership is appropriate for a summary, but it should be generalized. We could take the top three bullets and write a pretty good summary: “Senior Java Developer experienced in both building web applications and leading teams of up to four developers.”
You certainly don’t need to reference an IDE in a summary, and it’s a bit redundant to mention that you used an IDE as an IDE or a bug tracking tool as a bug tracking to0l. That’s what the tools do – we know that already.
Next comes a list of 48 technologies divided into three columns of 16, bulleted and in alphabetical order. There are several problems with this.
For one, the bulleting and use of three columns makes it take up about a half page where five lines would suffice if listed using commas. Let’s assume we’re not grading our resume on space efficiency. What else is wrong?
Listing things alphabetically tells the reader absolutely nothing about your skills, because this method places no weight on any individual skill. You could be the world’s most prominent expert on XML, but if you list things alphabetically the reader might never even see that term. Writers should list technologies based on expertise and knowledge from most to least, where the first technologies listed would be considered primary skills and the last ones might be things you’ve been exposed to infrequently.
The sad part is that the rest of this resume was actually pretty good. The experience section had some solid accomplishments and a somewhat impressive work history. Hopefully the first impression wouldn’t cause a screener to jump to a conclusion and reject a candidate before getting to the good parts.
The lesson for resume screeners is to try and give the benefit of the doubt with the early material so you don’t miss any positive signals hidden in the end. The lesson for resume writers is to remember that screeners are reading top down, so make sure the material at the beginning is effective in keeping our attention.
Anyone who has either been a client of Resume Raiders or has read my articles about resumes knows that I am a firm believer in powerful summary/profile statements. There are many who feel a summary is not necessary, and in some cases that may be true, but I see an increasing number of resumes that either include a somewhat cryptic profile section or exclude a summary altogether (sometimes including an objective instead, which is worse).
This Week’s Resume
The inspiration for this post was a resume that led off with a somewhat long summary that I won’t include to protect the innocent, but here are some highlights:
Quick learner…motivated…team player…self-driven…solutions-focused
After reading the summary, even the most experienced technical professionals would have a hard time guessing
- What this person actually does for a living
- Whether this person is entry-level or senior
- Why this person might be a fit for almost any position imaginable
Although the claims being made are considered positive attributes, they could apply to candidates in virtually any profession with any range of experience. When the introduction doesn’t bring the reader any closer to a decision, we may wonder how patient the reader will be before abandoning the task. In the case of this resume, omitting a summary (and getting right into the experience) may have yielded better results, as at least the reader would not have wasted any amount of time on material that doesn’t help solve the problem.
If you choose to exclude a summary statement, what is the result? It forces the resume screener (let’s assume it’s a human) to go through your document and arrive at their own interpretation of who you are. If the reader’s interpretation does not match the job requirement the resume is trashed. What could possibly go wrong?
The choice to omit a summary is equivalent to blindly trusting an unknown person to read a document and arrive at the same conclusions as the writer intended. From experience, I can tell you that the aforementioned “unknown person” can be almost anybody. At best, it’s a highly technical person with an open mind who understands your experience and is interested in learning more. However, it is almost as likely that the person is a temp six months out of school that doesn’t know the difference between CoffeeScript and COBOL who was tasked with managing the jobs@ email inbox simply because nobody his time is considered the least valuable to the company.
A poorly-written summary can potentially do even more damage than a blank space. Most summaries are only guilty of being a waste of space, with lists of trite phrases, corporate-speak, and self-assessments that mean absolutely nothing to the reader. These don’t necessarily hurt the candidate’s chances of interview, but they require the screener to both read further and interpret correctly. It’s a missed opportunity.
Being that the summary is essentially the tl;dr of a resume, if a summary seems to indicate that the resume belongs to someone lacking the experience sought (to include relevant skills at the appropriate career level), why would anyone bother reading further? Even resumes of candidates who are highly-qualified for a job can lose their reader if they overshoot on the summary (emphasizing inapplicable expertise, overstating management vs hands-on experience, et al).
Include a summary and use the space to clearly lay out what you do and the amount of experience you have doing it. If a stranger can’t easily determine these things after reading your summary, you are better off removing the summary entirely.
It’s not surprising to see the increased use of resume templates by technology professionals, as the industry avoids the need for reinventing the wheel by creating new frameworks and templates. I would imagine that perhaps 50% of the resumes I see in my recruiting work and my resume business were built using a template.
So far I have never used any templates when writing resumes for Resume Raiders, but I understand the temptation. The problem with resume templates should be obvious to anyone who has been forced into using a framework/language/tool that was unfit for the task at hand. The resume template has to somehow work with the material that is to be showcased – otherwise the resulting document will have issues.
Our inaugural Worst Resume of the Week candidate, Template of Doom, is a fine example of a template gone wrong.
This is a relatively common two-column template that I see frequently used by developers and designers with varying levels of success. I’ve deleted the actual content to protect the guilty party, but does anyone see the problem?
The person who selected this resume surely had the option to include some text fields or other blocks in the left column, but didn’t take advantage. In this case, one can only surmise that the template user simply liked the color red. Unfortunately, now a one page resume has turned into a three page resume because most of the page is just a block of red.
A two-column resume can work for some people, but that format is rarely effective with for resumes longer than one page. This user included name, contact info, and links (GitHub, LinkedIn, blog) in the marked white box. The space below that box could have been used for relatively short bits of information, which might include education, certifications, or technical skills.
If you choose to go with two columns, make sure you actually need (and will use) the second column – otherwise it looks ridiculous.
The content has been deleted for obvious reasons, but this resume included the words “I/me/my”over 20 times. The use of first person is not generally recommended, but the repetitive use of first person starts to sound like someone taking full responsibility for tasks that may have been a team effort.
Use the first person, but avoid the pronoun. “I developed a…” becomes “Developed a…“, and so on.
Most templates include default section headings, and it’s assumed almost all users will want to include details for common default sections such as Experience or Skills. The issue is when the default headings are kept from the template but don’t apply to the individual user’s career history.
In these situations the headings may actually highlight an area of weakness instead of a strength. Job seekers without certifications, formalized education, or volunteer experience are better off deleting those sections entirely instead of listing “NONE” or trying to force an entry that may shine a light on a shortcoming. Just because a template includes a section doesn’t mean you should list that section on your resume.
Many templates will also include an objective section, which is now considered a bit passé.
Use templates with caution. Two-column templates are almost exclusively beneficial to single page resumes. Avoid using first person pronouns. Don’t think you need to keep every section recommended by the template.
Being terminated from a job unexpectedly can launch a flurry of emotions that may cause the newly unemployed to act irrationally or erratically as they begin their search for the next job. Within hours a fired individual might experience combinations of shame, anger, rage, regret, and loss. This is natural.
In this situation, a clearly defined plan will be instrumental in transitioning from the emotional responses to taking action for your future. A plan can also prevent many common and easily-avoidable mistakes that can have a negative impact on a job search and even a career.
Below is a checklist for what to do and activities to avoid at this critical juncture.
What to Do
- Breathe — This is first for a reason. Millions and millions of other people have experienced this process and gone on to great things. This not a time to panic.
- Gather — Access to documentation related to your employment may become difficult, so get it early. Employment contracts that typically contain details or restrictions regarding IP rights, NDA’s, and non-compete agreements may be critical to the job search. Information about benefits or perks tied to employment that will now expire should also be found.
- Solidify references — Although employers in the industry seem to be less and less concerned with references, that lax attitude may not apply to the unemployed. Having even one or two people from the employer can mitigate the negative implications of termination. Touch base with former co-workers who are likely to have positive impressions of your work, and just find out if they are willing to provide a reference if and when you ask.
- Define a target — Many job seekers start randomly applying for jobs without first considering the type of work they would ideally like to do, resulting in unattractive job offers which are often accepted due to the added pressures of unemployment. When you go to the grocery store while hungry, you may be more likely to buy things you normally wouldn’t. Having a defined target for the type of job you want acts as a shopping list, and you may be more disciplined in your selection process.
- Update — Once the target job is defined it’s time to update the resume and public profiles with the end goal in mind. Tailor the material towards the type of role you will be seeking, and be sure that employment details match across all profiles (particularly for the most recent job).
- Prepare an explanation — When you are an unemployed job seeker, the reason for your unemployment may be the elephant in the room. It is likely that you will be asked about your departure from the most recent employer, so having a somewhat prepared response (without sounding overprepared) may be preferable to improvisation. Practice the expanation, and the repetition should help remove any emotional connection from the words.
- Reach out — Many people send blasts or personal messages to connections before completing the steps listed above, resulting in out-of-date materials being used to qualify you for jobs that you may not even want or be able to accept. There is a natural tendency to want to start the search process ASAP, but approaching the job search only after full preparation will prevent many potential hiccups. Former colleagues, friends, and recruiters may all be helpful in identifying opportunities and helping determine whether your expectations for the search are realistic.
What NOT to Do
Go on a public rant/burn bridges — Public statements (or even private ones that may become public) about your departure often come back to haunt you later. Cooperation from your previous employer can be important based on the steps listed above, so keeping that relationship intact is necessary.
Blast the news — Although reaching a wide audience is effective to save time, the act of a blast can make job seekers sound desperate. Make communications of your availability private when possible.
Rust — Being that it’s difficult to predict how long the period of unemployment may last, it’s possible that skills may being to atrophy over time. There can be some stigma towards unemployed candidates that haven’t touched technology since their termination. Be mindful of these facts as your job search continues, and using the downtime to investigate new technologies can demonstrate intellectual curiosity and interests.
Having a termination in your job history will be a small blip that can be unrecognizable to others if it is handled professionally. There is no reason a firing should have any lasting impact on employability or marketability if you take the proper steps.
I am frequently asked about the value of technical certifications as they related to one’s career prospects. Thousands of developers have invested millions of dollars and countless hours studying for exams that, assuming they pass, provides a document suitable for framing and enables them to put a single line and fancy acronym on their resume. Often at the bottom.
I don’t have any technical certifications (I’m not a programmer). I do have a World’s Greatest Dad mug. I didn’t buy it for myself, as that would feel like cheating. It was a gift from my wife. There are many other dads of varying ability that own mugs making similar superlative claims about the owner’s parenting skills.
Do I Need the Mug?
If I was somehow required to prove my parenting skills for some Best Dad Talent Showcase, I probably wouldn’t incorporate the mug into my demonstration. I might instead change some diapers and show that I know how to feed and play with my baby, and hopefully the baby would react positively. Observers might get a sense that I was a pretty good dad.
But let’s imagine that I did walk into the Best Dad Talent Showcase with mug in hand, proudly waving it around and pointing to it (and then to myself) as if the mug were some genuine award? I imagine the judges might become suspicious. Spectators could be thinking, “This guy might be an incredible dad – perhaps even the World’s Greatest – but a great dad wouldn’t need a World’s Greatest Dad mug to prove his point.”
If I was a brand new dad with no clue how to parent, that mug might be the only thing I’ve got to compete with the experienced dads. The fact that someone felt strongly enough about my abilities to buy me the mug might sadly be the best chance I have.
Certifications Are Not Mugs
The analogy between certifications and my mug is clearly imperfect (it was mainly an opportunity to brag about and photograph my mug), but I hope the message comes through. Certification tests from the more reputable vendors are generally regarded as quite challenging, and I would never mean to imply that the certs can simply be bought or earned simply as one might buy a mug.
The intended takeaway is that when experienced professionals pursue, earn, and advertise that they have certifications, it might actually raise some eyebrows instead of instilling confidence. Just like the World’s Greatest Dad wouldn’t need a mug to prove his worth, a strong technologist pursuing certs might be considered to be overcompensating for some possible skills deficit.
What If I Had Fifteen World’s Greatest Dad Mugs?
This perceived overcompensation is largely due to the fact that one rarely pursues just one certification. I tend to find that certs come in bundles, and someone might list from three to fifteen different certs on a resume. When I see multiple certs on a resume, the first impression is not generally positive.
Going back to my mugs, what if you came to my house for coffee and found that I had fifteen World’s Greatest Dad Mugs? You might find that a little strange, and if you discovered I had bought them all for myself you might even suspect that I had some sort of complex about my own parenting ability.
The greatest value of a certification may be the journey and not the destination. The pursuit of a cert provides a learning goal to be achieved within a deadline, and the financial cost (whether on the individual or an employer) gives added incentive to study and perform. One may find that removing multiple certs (particularly older ones) from a resume may improve results.
My work requires me to talk about compensation history and expectations with thousands of technology professionals across a wide range of experience every year. We start with a discussion of job search criteria and what types of opportunities are most attractive, then talk about technical background and experience, and by the time the topic of money surfaces I’m usually in a decent position to guess their current salary and talk about their market rate.
The recent DZone Developer Happiness Survey concluded that over 40% of readers felt they were underpaid. 40% was well above what I expected, and from my personal experience I would put the number closer to 15-20%. That’s still a significant number.
Market Rate is Tricky
I’ve never taken the time to try and develop some kind of elaborate mathematical formula for market rate, as I’m not qualified to do so and my expertise tends to fall into a couple specific markets. There is also nuance that needs to be considered on both the candidate and employer side.
A few examples:
- Two candidates with identical technical experience might expect different salaries depending on the business model of the employer that hires them. The consulting company that expects to bill out the hire (say at an hourly rate where rate > salary/1000) probably offers a higher salary than an insurance company, because the employee’s value to the consulting company is easier to accurately quantify. A software product company may fall in between.
- Value of certain technical skill sets is also a factor, where someone showing production experience with a new language or framework may benefit from supply and demand inefficiencies much more than older and established language users.
- Different employers will place a different value on past experience. Startups may value those with startup experience higher compared to those from larger companies, so three years of Python experience can be worth different amounts depending on where the experience was earned and what company is hiring. When we start to consider both new and old technologies at a variety of employer types, it’s easy to see how confusing market rate might become.
- Salary tends to plateau at certain experience levels, so a salary difference between 15 and 20 years of experience is often attributed to the types of work much more than the overall years.
This nuance is a potential issue with much of the publicly available salary data. For one, much of the data is self-reported and unverified, and those in the industry have little personal incentive to underreport earnings in anonymous salary surveys. If tech pros want to maintain high salaries, overreporting salary might be a better strategy, as the data may be used both by candidates negotiating offers as well as other employers trying to make sure their own offers are competitive.
How to Find Out
Agency recruiters (aka “headhunters”) — If you feel that recruiters are useless bottom-feeders on the industry, this is your chance to use a service of theirs for free. Any experienced recruiter with knowledge of your market should be able and willing to give some insight into your earnings potential. The pushy ones will want to meet you face-to-face (a ten minute phone call is a reasonable request, as they will need some info to give an accurate estimate), and of course they will try to recruit you. Tell them that you are first interested in hearing their opinion on your market rate, and if you decide to explore opportunities you may consider their services based on how they handle this request.
Poll some friends — Asking others how much they earn has historically been considered a bit taboo (at least in the US), but industry insiders are exposed to data and their input can be useful in your quest. Instead of the “How much do you make?” question, one alternative would be to ask friends what they think your market rate should be based on your background (just like you asked the headhunter). And use extreme caution if you choose to speak to current co-workers about any compensation topics.
Research — You can spend hours on various sites that claim their data is more accurate than the others. The potential utility of that data has been discussed above.
Interview — This is the most accurate method to get your answer and also might help to keep interview skills sharp, but unfortunately it’s also the most time-consuming. Some in the industry take issue with the act of interviewing in order to discover market rate, but as long as you are (A) at least slightly open to the possibility of accepting a great offer and (B) are honest in all discussions with interviewers I see no ethical issues.
Just because you feel underpaid doesn’t mean it true, but it’s worth exploring to find out. The problem can potentially be corrected without leaving (or even threatening to leave) your current job.
Interview preparation often means different things to technologists depending on their level of experience. It seems that more and more material written about interview prep seems focused on junior level developer interviews at the most visible employers (“the Big 4”), causing worried job seekers to spend hours memorizing algorithms and data structures or the code to the most commonly asked problems to solve.
After someone gains a few years of programming experience, their interviews tend to focus less on technical memorization and more on professional accomplishments and to some degree on self-awareness. Being prepared for a potentially deep technical conversation still is important, but studying for an interview should also include a healthy dose of reflection and the preparation for anecdotal questions.
Here are some questions you might expect to see:
- What professional accomplishment are you most proud of, and why? Some may take this opportunity to brag while others might stress the value of their team during the efforts.
- What are the biggest challenges you face in your current position? Be careful to sidestep being perceived as overtly negative about your employer.
- How does your work (or $PROJECT) impact the business? Several hiring managers have privately expressed to me that their biggest pet peeve was when developers had little understanding of their relationship to the big picture.
- Tell us about a professional disagreement you had with a difficult boss/co-worker and how the situation was resolved. This one is also tricky, and some humility goes a long way.
- Tell us about a mistake that you made that had an effect on your team or product, what caused the problem, and how it was fixed. Everybody messes up, and the ability to both accept fault and learn from mistakes is a valuable trait.
There can be many examples of questions that require reflection. One useful exercise is to review your resume before an interview to refresh your memory of various projects, and consider both the positive and negative experiences for each. Having to improvise stories can be a difficult task in front of an audience, so practicing answers may be helpful.