Show (Don’t Tell) Me That You Haven’t Stopped Learning

Whether through my recruiting work or my resume writing and coaching, I frequently review resumes that lead off with some kind of statement alluding to the candidate being a dedicated lifelong learner. Intellectual curiosity and a desire to keep skills current is something that many hiring companies will value, so it’s generally a good idea to convey those traits if you possess them.

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Then as I make my way further down the resume, I try to see if there is anything to back up the claim. In most cases, there is little evidence to support that the candidate has made any independent efforts to pursue learning. Why the disconnect?

When engaging many of these candidates in conversation and digging deeper, I often learn about several examples that indeed validate the dedication to learning. It wasn’t that these people were lying. They just simply didn’t think some of these things were worth mentioning or often didn’t know exactly how or where to list these activities within the structure of their existing resume. I’ve had resume clients that omitted five or more worthwhile items from their resume that would clearly make a difference in an interview decision.

Below are some common examples of details that hiring companies will regard as evidence of intellectual curiosity which are often overlooked by candidates, and how to list them on a resume.

Meetups and Conferences

Being a leader, a speaker, or even just an attendee at technology events is something a potential employer should notice. Conferences can be listed specifically (city, date) or a more general listing can also work. Listing a few presentations is also appropriate if you’ve presented, and details can include title, date, and the name of the group.

Where to ListYou could create a section “Community Activity” or “Presentations” depending on your level of involvement. If it isn’t enough to warrant a full section, a catchall “Other” heading can include some more random mentions.

Volunteering

Projects like websites for religious or service organizations are often considered rather trivial by highly experienced candidates but are definitely worth listing if they demonstrate the use of technologies that differ from the day job. Helping out or mentoring school students in tech (robotics clubs, career days) also qualifies here.

Where to ListA “Volunteer Experience” section is useful for someone with a couple things to list, or an “Other” section would also work.

Side Projects

Home automation projects, personal websites, or simple apps that have only one user (you, your spouse, your kid) are all worth noting if it shows something you had to learn.

Where to ListNew grads almost always have a “Projects” section on their resume these days, so that has become a rather common header. Links to the code are a bonus.

Reading

Listing what you read can come off as a bit unusual sometimes, so this is probably something that only those who have little else will go with.

Where to ListThis might be a small subsection under “Education” 0r perhaps a “Recent Readings” list in an “Other” section.

MOOCs, Courses, and Training

With the abundance of free or inexpensive offerings today, millions of professionals are signing up for subjects that either interest them or that they know may interest potential new employers. Some have better reputations than others, so do some research if planning to invest significant time or money in these efforts.

Where to ListUnder “Education”, but below degrees. Unlike the listings in the“Experience” section, any non-degreed learning will not be listed in reverse chronological order, but rather by order of importance.

Undersell and Overdeliver

This week I received a multi-paragraph email from a job applicant who was applying for a developer position I had advertised with one of my clients. There was no resume attached or even referenced, which is highly unusual (sometimes there is nothing attached but a reference to an attachment). Maybe he forgot.

The email was almost exactly what I might have coached an experienced candidate to write in applying for this position. He demonstrated quickly that he had read the requirement and done at least a minimal amount of research on the company. His professional interests seemed to align nicely with the job responsibilities, he mentioned experience with the languages and frameworks we sought, and even linked to a couple project sites and GitHub repos so we could look at his code. The words he used were encouraging – “significant experience with…“, “I thrive in a…“, “worked extensively with…” – while indicating that he met the requirements of an ideal candidate. As you can imagine, I was quite interested.

I replied to express my interest and asked if he had a resume, which I use as a framework for an initial screening conversation and eventually is sent to the client if we agree to move forward.

The response noted that he’d forgotten to attach the resume, and he took the opportunity to reinforce his candidacy with a reference to a number of recent “larger projects” and further encouragement for me to view his code. When I finally opened the resume, I learned this candidate had no professional experience at all, and the projects referenced were all part of a recently completed 12-week boot camp.

It’s important to note here that the position I had listed was for an experienced programmer, and my hiring client would not consider anyone entry-level regardless of academic credentials. My client would not deem this candidate qualified for this particular role, but let’s pretend for the sake of this article that I did have an entry-level position available.

A Credibility Problem or Honest Misunderstanding?

When I learned that this candidate had never worked in a professional environment and had only been programming for a few months, his description of his experience now became a bit confusing. Larger projects? Significant and extensive experience? Thriving in and accustomed to certain environments?

Most professionals that have been in the industry would not consider a few months to be significant or extensive experience, and large projects in the industry aren’t typically completed in a few weeks. How would someone know what type of environment they thrive in if they’ve never been in a professional environment?

This disconnect could be the result of a couple possibilities.

If we’re giving the full benefit of the doubt, a boot camp graduate might consider these projects large just based on having no real project history to use as a baseline, and words like significantand extensive can be relative. A few weeks of experience could be classified as extensive when compared to someone that has never programmed.

At worst, the candidate is trying to represent a level of ability that he is rather unlikely to possess. Even the most intensive programs, whether they be boot camps or degreed, aren’t promising their graduates the ability to claim significant experience with large projects upon completion… are they?

Now this candidate would potentially be perceived as having a credibility issue, and, unfortunately, that label would stick even while under consideration for an entry-level job that he is likely qualified to do. What’s even worse is that an entry-level candidate has very little leverage in the hiring process without the credibility issue. So now we have what might be considered a somewhat homogenous entry-level candidate that starts off on the wrong foot.

Could he recover? Of course, it’s possible, but it shouldn’t be necessary. A more transparent approach which details the strengths and weaknesses is always a better option.

The Perfect Resume

Between my “Worst Resume of the Week” series being published over the past couple months and my continuing work reviewing and rewriting resumes at Resume Raiders, I’ve been too focused on the negative lately. Let’s change that, if only for a day. I thought I’d take the opposite approach and provide a guideline for what I’d consider the perfect resume.

Let’s jump right in.

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Top

Contact info – First and last name, bold and in a bit larger font than the rest of the resume. Address, phone, and email address in a smaller font to save space.

Links – Links to LinkedIn, GitHub/Bitbucket, Stack Overflow, and similar sites are often a nice touch. Even if you don’t have a ton of material on those sites, their presence helps create a three-dimensional person beyond just the resume. A link to a personal website or technical blog is also helpful if the content has some relevance or demonstrates a skill.

Summary – Two or three sentences that encapsulate you as a candidate. If we crossed paths at a conference and you had 15 seconds to explain why I should interview you, what would you say? Spare me the self-assessments about being a hard worker, team player, and having a great attitude. Everybody says those things. Instead, tell me what you do and how long you’ve done it, and areas of specialty or interest.

Let’s say you’re a full-stack web developer with seven years of Python experience primarily working in the healthcare space. Let’s also say that you are applying for my listed full-stack Python developer position at my healthcare startup; you could let the resume reader work his/her way through the resume, put together the clues, and eventually (hopefully) discover, “Hey, this candidate looks like a full-stack Python dev with healthcare experience!” Or you could just tell us that right away and eliminate the very realistic chance that the reader won’t pick that up.

Middle

Experience –  Include job title, company, and dates. If you’re unemployed, don’t list the dates as ‘2010 – present’ and then play the “Oh, I didn’t update my resume yet with the end date” card. It comes across as deceptive. Update the resume before you send it out.

If it’s likely someone wouldn’t have heard of the company, a single line in small font to describe the employer can be helpful to provide context.

The experience details under each job could include a few sentences in paragraph form about your responsibilities, and then have unique and novel accomplishments listed below that in bullets. Quantifying things is usually helpful. How large was the team you lead? Do you have metrics on the performance improvements, lines of code, other factors?

Include at least the most relevant technolgies you used during the projects or overall job; languages, frameworks, and databases are usually enough here. It’s often redundant to list things like IDE’s or version control tools under experience, since we’ll list them as skills and hiring firms aren’t likely to require n years of experience with Eclipse and Git.

Bottom

Skills – This section is somewhat for the benefit of an automated scanning software (see ATS) and somewhat for the benefits of human reviewers who may be looking for certain skills required for the role. Separating skills into categories will make it easier for readers to find what they are seeking. Categories may include languages, frameworks, databases, operating systems, and usually some type of catch-all (tools or other). When it comes to communication and soft skills, show me, don’t tell me. “Hard worker” isn’t a skill.

Education/Certification – It should be clear how much education you have and whether or not you completed the program or earned the degree/certification. The name of the school and course of study should also be included. Unless you are a fresh grad, don’t waste space on specific classes towards a degree.

Other – Any other information that might indicate your experience and ability will usually be included at the end. This could include publications, users’ groups and Meetups, conferences, presentations, volunteering, community leadership, or a host of other things. Don’t include lists of references.

That’s it. Any questions?

Thank You Notes: They’re Not Just About Gratitude

Thank You notes have been part of the job search tradition for many years, and although the typical delivery format has been updated (email is fine), I tend to find that candidates still primarily view the note as a gesture of gratitude or a formality. I suggest that job seekers instead view the Thank You note as an opportunity to maximize their chances of an offer.

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Sending a Thank You note does allow a candidate to check off the “Meets Minimal Social Obligations” box that an employer may wish for in potential employees. We will lead the note with an expression of appreciation, but an effective Thank You note will go farther than just a show of gratitude for an hour of someone’s time.

What other mileage can we get out of the note?

Reminder

Perhaps the most important potential use of the Thank You note is as a reminder to the interviewer. This is your “Don’t You Forget About Me” moment. An interviewer might meet with a handful of candidates in a day and as many as 20 in a week during active hiring binges, which can make it more challenging to stand out from the pack (particularly if your interview falls somewhere in the middle of those 20).

Once we’ve shown the obligatory gratitude, we want to somewhat tacitly remind them of both who we are and what we want them to remember about our interview. As opposed to writing “In case you forgot, I was the chubby guy in the Uber t-shirt,” we want to refresh the interviewer’s memory by conjuring up a part of the interview that seemed to go particularly well. Good examples could be a project that had specific relevance to the employer, an interesting solution to an interview exercise, or even some shared professionally painful experience broached during the conversation. Think about what was memorable and make a comment about that moment, and hopefully the interviewer will have felt the same way.

Follow Through and Continuation

The Thank You is also a chance to provide a bit more information that might bolster your candidacy or demonstrate that you’ve given more thought to the interview since it ended. Maybe you mentioned a language/tool you’ve used that the interviewer was unfamiliar with. Sending a link with further reading material related to a discussed topic could show thoughtfulness, prove that you are someone who follows through, and can also start a continued dialogue with the interviewer that can serve as a type of bonding.

Interest

Lastly, the Thank You is a way to summarize your interest in a more eloquent manner. Interviews often end rather quickly and abruptly, and even the most skilled candidates may not find an opportune time to express their interest clearly and effectively. The close of the Thank You can relay both your level of interest and the reasons.

Conclusion

Instead of just viewing a Thank You note as an obligation, use it as a tool to highlight and revisit the best parts of your interview.

Things Geeks Should Know About LinkedIn

As much as LinkedIn seems to be turning into the worst parts of Facebook, flooded with tired memes that include phrases like “Only geniuses will get this math problem correct” or “Don’t scroll past without saying AMEN!“, having a LinkedIn profile is still generally considered a good idea for technologists. It can store business contacts in one convenient place, help you get found if you are open to new opportunities, come in handy if you are actively seeking work, and even double as a resume in a pinch.

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As a technologist, you probably spend much less time on LinkedIn than I do in my recruiting work and for Resume Raiders (which added LinkedIn review services last year). In talking to clients about their LinkedIn profiles, I’ve learned there are a handful of things that aren’t obvious to most users. Here are a few common misconceptions or unknown features:

  • A picture is worth 1,000 clicks (but sadly, no Amens) – LinkedIn’s search algorithm includes “Profile Completeness”, so profiles that are more complete should rank higher. If you click on Profile>Edit Profile from the dropdown menu, the Profile Strength meter should be in the upper-right of your screen. A full circle means your profile is complete, and filling out sections and adding a photo will help improve your completeness ranking and visibility.
  • Vanity URLs – By default, your LinkedIn profile might look something like http://www.linkedin.com/in/guido-van-rossum-8a35124z. That’s not a big deal for most people, but try putting that monster URL on a resume (which I do recommend to my resume clients) and it takes up a whole line – so now you have to decide whether to delete your PhD or your Nobel Prize to keep it one page. To set a vanity URL, go to Profile>Edit Profile and you should see the current URL under your photo (or where your photo should be). If you hover over the URL, a gear icon will appear to the right of the URL. Click the gear and on the right side of the screen you will see a “Your public profile URL” section, with your current URL and a pen icon. Click the pen and you can edit this URL to make it shorter. Just don’t forget to update any sites where you listed the previous URL (I am not aware of any forwarding for changed URLs). Take my advice, and don’t be like Guido van Rossum (who didn’t take my advice).
  • Drag and drop – Sections on your LinkedIn profile can be reordered to highlight your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. For recent grads we usually put Educationsections near the top of resumes, so why should a LinkedIn profile be any different? While in the profile edit mode, hovering over any section will bring up an arrow on the right side which allows you to drag and drop sections.
  • Don’t set off any alarms – Have you ever gone on LinkedIn and seen a bunch of notifications about your co-worker Sam saying “Sam has added new skills to his profile” and “Sam has added a new summary to his profile” and “Sam has one new recommendation on his profile“. Guess what? Sam IS ABOUT TO GET PAID!  Many users are afraid to update their LinkedIn profile because it alerts connections (READ: co-workers, your manager) that you made a change, which often indicates a job search. While in editing mode, you should see a “Notify your network” reference in the right sidebar with a slider to turn on/off publishing profile changes to your connections. If you want to keep changes private and avoid annoying your network with a notification every time you add the newest hot JavaScript framework as a skill, switch it off.
  • Direct Contact – Recruiters who use LinkedIn may not have the most expensive accounts, which (to simplify) may limit how often they can invite people to connect. If you’d like people who see you on LinkedIn to reach out and rather they didn’t send a connection request every time, why not include your email address in the Additional Info section?
  • Got something to say? – If you have things you want to write about but aren’t interested in setting up and maintaining a dedicated blog, LinkedIn gives you the option to write posts that can be read by your professional network without having to go through all the hassle a blog can bring. It automatically broadcasts the content, allows you to tag articles to be found by people you aren’t connected to, and maybe your content will get you found. After logging in you should see the option to “Publish a post” on the right side above your feed. The editor is clean (though you’ll probably use Emacs), it allows comments, and you can even access some metrics on views and likes – though sadly, no metric on Amens.

Conclusion

LinkedIn isn’t always the most useful platform, and most tend to agree that it’s getting worse. However, spending a few minutes to optimize is probably a wise investment. And change your password.

How NOT to Appear Desperate in a Job Search

Whether you are happy employed, “between jobs,” or suffering from habitual unemployment, it’s helpful to be conscious of the image you are projecting during a job search. There is real potential damage to job seekers who appear desperate, with two rather simple explanations.

1 – Employers may be more likely to take advantage. Applicants that appear the most desperate for work may be offered a lower salary and fewer responsibilities than their experience warrants. This can have short and long-term impacts on a career.

2 – Desperate candidates may appear to be selling damaged goods. Even stellar qualifications can be tainted by desperate acts. Overly-aggressive tactics may give the employer the impression that something is wrong with you, and that makes your candidacy seem inherently flawed without even considering further information.

Consider salespeople. Better yet, consider recruiters!

What if a recruiter called you about a job and rambled on for an hour without taking a breath, saying the hiring company is the hottest around and are a much better employer than Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.? Then they emailed you when the call ended to reiterate the same information. You might feel this recruiter is pushing pretty hard, and it might make you a bit skeptical about the job. Suppose the job at this company isn’t a great fit for your background, yet the recruiter insists that you should interview anyway. Suspicious?

Try to picture this from the other side. Applicants should state their qualifications, but should also use some discretion to prevent the appearance of overselling.

What NOT to Do

  • Overly-aggressive follow-up – Recently I received a phone call from a job seeker who wanted to discuss a position he had recently applied for through my website. I didn’t recognize the name, and when I looked in my inbox I found his application timestamped five minutes earlier. Immediate follow-up will almost always give the impression of desperation at worst and a lack of social skills at best.

WARNING: Language

The video above is from the comedy “Swingers” where the main character Mikey calls a woman he had met at a bar earlier in the evening and ends up leaving several awkward voicemails. Later in the movie Mikey and his friends debate the optimum wait time between meeting someone new and contacting them to ask them on a date.

  • Pandering – While it’s often recommended to tweak or customize a resume to address specifics of a job requirement, there are limits to how customized a resume should be. As an example, listing the hiring company name and job title in a resume’s objective is a clear example of overdoing it. (Don’t write OBJECTIVE: Seeking job as ‘JOBTITLE’ working for ‘COMPANY’.) Cutting and pasting elements of the job description into your resume is also frowned upon. Cover letters can (and should) include the hiring company name. Putting it on the resume is a mistake.
  • Underconfidence – Even highly skilled, qualified candidates can sometimes underestimate or understate their own skills and marketability. This is a common stereotype of technical candidates and there is a clear sector of the industry that is deeply uncomfortable talking about accomplishments.
  • Open to any job – Applicants who apply for positions that are either not a match for their skills or well below their career level will be looked upon as potentially flawed. Unemployed job seekers are often too quick to abandon their quest for the ideal role, and many voice their willingness to accept virtually any job offered.
  • Pleading for response/action – A polite request for a response to a job application or for an interview will be appreciated, but anything resembling begging will bring the applicant’s qualifications into question. Competitive candidates under the current favorable market conditions (it’s a seller’s market) don’t need to ask for a response.

Conclusion

Even if confidence doesn’t come naturally to you, you need to recognize during job searches where genuine interest by a qualified candidate may be mistaken for desperation, and to balance a general interest in finding work with maintaining your dignity. There are clearly times when a job seeker is at a competitive disadvantage, but displaying confidence in your marketable skills (and honesty about weaknesses) is helpful to both get better results from applications and improve your position in any negotiations.

Worst Resume: Bad Starts

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.

SUMMARY

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.

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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.

SKILLS

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.

CONCLUSION

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.