Non-suck resumés

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years reading resumés and interviewing people. A really surprising fraction of those resumés have been really lousy; either uninformative, or full of meaningless junk, or just plain illegible. I tend to throw those out. On the other hand, good interviews with competent people leave me in a better mood all day… so in the interest of getting more of those in the future, I’m going to post a couple of notes on good versus bad resumés. (OK, to be honest: In the interest of not having to slog through any more piles of really bad resumés. It makes me feel like my brains are going to leak out of my ears.)

  • Format: Stick your name and contact info at the top. Then have major categories going down, sorted in descending order by what you’re applying on the strength of. (For instance, if you’re a new grad, you probably want to put “education” as the top category. If you have professional experience, or internships, or research experience, that’s way up there too. You almost certainly want to put a list of your other job-related skills way at the bottom, and other skills below that. Don’t skip the other skills; sometimes there are interesting ones there. Fluency in four languages is actually pretty interesting no matter what job you’re applying for, for example.)
  • If you’re wondering if something is worth putting on your resume: Semi-relevant job experience can be reduced to a bullet point or two under skills. Completely irrelevant job experience, if there’s a lot of it, is also a bullet point.
  • This document is meant to be read by humans. It doesn’t need world-class page layout, but it should be reasonably easy-to-read; that means well-spaced text, clear fonts, etc. Avoid things like tables with grid lines unless you’re a proficient graphic designer and know how to make them legible; 95% of tables aren’t, and they do more harm than good. Also, a resumé is an excellent place to demonstrate that you have full command of the language that you’re applying in. If you don’t speak like a native, run your text by someone who does.
  • Bullet points versus paragraphs: Either is fine, so long as it’s informative. A long list of papers you’ve published is surprisingly uninformative, although I know some resume readers like it. A few lines explaining what you’ve been working on for the past couple of years is completely critical; no matter how many paper titles you give, I won’t be able to fathom anything useful without that.
  • The person reading your resumé is not necessarily a specialist in your obscure sub-field. Telling me that you implemented the G87 patch to the GRU echoing transformer1 is kind of meaningless unless you give me some hint of what the hell those are.
  • Those objective statements… I don’t read them. I don’t know anyone who does. I suppose they’re traditional, but unless they say “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women,” they’re pretty much just visual decoration. Do not stress about getting them perfect.
  • People say your resumé needs to fit on one page. Damned if I know why; I’m perfectly able to turn a page. Although if there isn’t something on the first page that makes me care, I probably won’t bother.
  • Really, unless someone is hiring on the “anyone who’s at least marginally competent and/or has a pulse” rule, whoever is reading your resumé is looking for one good thing, not a critical mass of so-so things. So padding with a lot of boring stuff doesn’t really help; one good explanation paragraph of something cool – even if it’s nontraditional, even if it’s just some wacky project you’ve been doing in your spare time – can.

1 This is gibberish, not CS, in case you were wondering. At least, I think it’s just gibberish.

Here’s a sample of a decent resume, with comments interspersed.


Joe R. Hominid
100 W. Aardvark Dr., Buggersville, CA 94043
tel: 1-415-555-1212
jrhomind@cs.buggersville.edu

http://www.joerandomhominid.net/


Objective A research-oriented position with a practical bent
Education
Ph.D. in Computer Science, University of West Buggersville
Thesis Title: Sustainable Fishing with Bayesian Regression
Advisor: Prof. Moshe Zuchmir
2001-2006 (Expected)
M.S. in Electrical Engineering, University of West Buggersville (GPA: 3.8/4.0) 2000-2001
B.S. in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Southern Turkmenistan Glorious University (GPA: 3.7/4.0) 1992-1996
Tells me: This guy is a fresh Ph.D., applying on the strength of that. I’ve never heard of Prof. Zuchmir, but that may just mean that I don’t know him. Maybe one of my colleagues does. There’s a time gap between his BS and his MS – I’ll check the rest of the doc to see what he was doing then.
Professional Experience
2002-Present: Research Assistant, University of West Buggersville, CA, USA
In partnership with the Buggersville Fisheries Institute, developed a system for continuously monitoring the nearby water ecosystem and directing fishing vessels to optimize long-term sustainability of the fishery with minimal economic impact. One team developed a cheap sensor that monitored eight environmental variables; we deployed over 500 of these. I worked on developing computer models based on Bayesian networks to combine monitoring information with model fishing schedules to predict the long-term health of the region. This included the theoretical development of the model, implementing a working version in C++, and developing and maintaining the system as we used it in real life. Fishery yields increased 15% during the time of our project, versus a 10% decrease for neighboring fisheries.
This is a great paragraph, and I’d pull him in for an interview on the strength of it alone. Why is it good? It shows that the person knows what the overall project is and why it’s important (a shocking number of people seem able to work on a small piece and have no idea why they’re doing so), it explains what the individual’s actual role was (I’m not so interested in a super-duper project if the candidate’s main contribution was to sanitize the telephones), and it shows evidence of several important skills: the ability to do the theory work underlying a computer model, the ability to implement a real system and keep it running (don’t underestimate that! There are a lot more people with skills in theory than the ability to build a real system. If I’m hiring an engineer, rather than a pure theorist, that’s actually the critical bit), the ability to work as a significant part of a larger project, and it’s a strong hint that the person must have some common sense.
2001-2005: Teaching Assistant, University of West Buggersville, CA, USA
Teaching assistant for undergraduate data structures, undergraduate algorithms, and the graduate machine learning intro. Duties included teaching sections, developing problem sets, and grading papers.
Also good to know. Less critical than the research experience, so the text is shorter.
1996-2000: Enlisted Sailor, US Navy
Served in the US Navy as fire control aboard a number of surface ships. Honorably discharged at the rank of Petty Officer 3rd class (E-4).
Even though this isn’t technically relevant, it tells me what was happening during the four-year gap, and any serious job you held for that long is interesting. For the purpose of this resumé it’s mostly flavor, on a par with the “other skills,” but it gives me a sense that this candidate is used to discipline and professionalism — potential strong points. E-4 is a bit of jargon, but “PO3rd class” explains it partially and there’s no other good way to encode that information.
Etc. etc.
Publications A big list goes here, I don’t feel like making up a bunch of entries
I’m not going to read this in detail, but if he has a range of publications that’s interesting to know, especially if they’re not all with the exact same list of authors. (That would just tell me that the principal investigator of the group is the kind of guy who publishes everything) If he has conference papers, invited talks, etc., those should get top billing and maybe their own subsection.
Technical Skills
  • Fluent in C++, C, Python, x86 assembler
  • Experience with machine learning techniques, especially Bayesian networks and SVM’s
  • Was sysadmin for a 20-machine Linux cluster for the ecology department, 2001-2005.

Sysadminning is one of those “partially relevant” jobs. It’s evidence of some real-world experience, which is good, but for a research-type position it doesn’t get top billing.

Other Skills
  • Fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese, Classical Greek
  • Volunteer firefighter, Buggersville Fire Department, 2000 – Present

Massively relevant? No. Shows that he’s got a range of interests, can probably think about things other than the narrowest details of his field, and is generally kind of neat? Yes.

Disclaimer: This is not the official position of my employer, or anyone else except me. I offer no guarantee whatsoever that if you follow this, you will get interviewed, hired, even noticed by a potential or current employer, or even not be shot at by them. Nor is any warranty, express or inferred, offered in conjunction with the reliability or usefulness of this advice.

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Published in: on November 17, 2006 at 14:23  Comments (42)  
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42 Comments

  1. Motivation
    One of the things I always keep an eye out for is some indication of self-motivation. Does the resume list independent projects? Have they contributed to some open source app? A web page that shows their projects is invaluable… even engineers need a portfolio.
    The thing that is the hardest for me (and one of the reasons I don’t like hiring) is assessing a candidate’s potential. It’s straightforward to judge someone’s level of skill or knowledge, but how do you predict whether they can be trained? Since we do a lot of hiring out of college this is especially important, as most candidates haven’t had much experience yet.

  2. Motivation
    One of the things I always keep an eye out for is some indication of self-motivation. Does the resume list independent projects? Have they contributed to some open source app? A web page that shows their projects is invaluable… even engineers need a portfolio.
    The thing that is the hardest for me (and one of the reasons I don’t like hiring) is assessing a candidate’s potential. It’s straightforward to judge someone’s level of skill or knowledge, but how do you predict whether they can be trained? Since we do a lot of hiring out of college this is especially important, as most candidates haven’t had much experience yet.

  3. The GRU was an intelligence agency in the USSR, kind of a weird little cousin to the KGB.
    g87 is a file format for trajectories, apparently, but the only reason I know that is a Google search.
    So a “G87 patch to the GRU echoing transformer” might be crazy spy stuff with Cold War artillery or something!
    Or maybe not.

  4. The GRU was an intelligence agency in the USSR, kind of a weird little cousin to the KGB.
    g87 is a file format for trajectories, apparently, but the only reason I know that is a Google search.
    So a “G87 patch to the GRU echoing transformer” might be crazy spy stuff with Cold War artillery or something!
    Or maybe not.

  5. Friend,
    I work as an internship program coordinator for an environmental NGO, and my work focuses on developing and managing contracted projects from the Bureau of Land Management.
    This means that my job is largely focused on recruiting, and that I see a lot of resumes (easily several hundred in a month).
    Your advice is sage and timeless. It is also not understood by the vast majority of the job seeking public.

  6. Friend,
    I work as an internship program coordinator for an environmental NGO, and my work focuses on developing and managing contracted projects from the Bureau of Land Management.
    This means that my job is largely focused on recruiting, and that I see a lot of resumes (easily several hundred in a month).
    Your advice is sage and timeless. It is also not understood by the vast majority of the job seeking public.

  7. While it isn’t in any way pertinent to qualifications or abilities, I think quoting Conan the Barbarian in your objective statement is, at the very least, a guarantee that the person could be fun (or terrifying, if they’re serious) to work with.

  8. While it isn’t in any way pertinent to qualifications or abilities, I think quoting Conan the Barbarian in your objective statement is, at the very least, a guarantee that the person could be fun (or terrifying, if they’re serious) to work with.

  9. And it would definitely have a higher probability of getting read. :)

  10. And it would definitely have a higher probability of getting read. :)

  11. Re: Motivation
    I still have my original resume lying around from when I was hired at PlaceWare. In particular, I have a copy that was printed out by one of the guys who made the decision to pull me in for an interview; he gave it to me when he left after the Microsoft transition. (Trivia for Yony – the guy’s name was Jerry Morrison, and I think he’s at Google now.)
    Jerry said that the number-one thing that made my resume stand out from most college-hire applicants is that I provided lots of URLs that described my various projects. I had several links to my projects in the HCI Lab, I had a link to a page with BotSquads screenshots, I had a link to the specification for Thumbcode – heck, I even had a link to the IUC Website I built under the short-lived auspices of Volcano Computing. Ahh, the memories.
    The point being that my resume demonstrated a proven history for tackling various random interesting projects, and it showed an ability to take what I learned in my coursework and actually apply it in novel situations. Also, by providing relevant URLs directly on the resume, I showed that I was confident in my accomplishments, and that I welcomed scrutiny. Jerry could read about the projects, their successes and failures, and conclude that there was actual substance behind the resume.

  12. Re: Motivation
    I still have my original resume lying around from when I was hired at PlaceWare. In particular, I have a copy that was printed out by one of the guys who made the decision to pull me in for an interview; he gave it to me when he left after the Microsoft transition. (Trivia for Yony – the guy’s name was Jerry Morrison, and I think he’s at Google now.)
    Jerry said that the number-one thing that made my resume stand out from most college-hire applicants is that I provided lots of URLs that described my various projects. I had several links to my projects in the HCI Lab, I had a link to a page with BotSquads screenshots, I had a link to the specification for Thumbcode – heck, I even had a link to the IUC Website I built under the short-lived auspices of Volcano Computing. Ahh, the memories.
    The point being that my resume demonstrated a proven history for tackling various random interesting projects, and it showed an ability to take what I learned in my coursework and actually apply it in novel situations. Also, by providing relevant URLs directly on the resume, I showed that I was confident in my accomplishments, and that I welcomed scrutiny. Jerry could read about the projects, their successes and failures, and conclude that there was actual substance behind the resume.

  13. A friend of mine who is a research psychiatrist has hundreds of applications per year from people who wish to do their postdocs with her.
    She tends to throw out any application which mentions the television show “Frasier”, and she gave an extremely coveted postdoc to a fellow who began his essay with “My interest in mental health was born in large part from my love of listening to Slayer…”

  14. A friend of mine who is a research psychiatrist has hundreds of applications per year from people who wish to do their postdocs with her.
    She tends to throw out any application which mentions the television show “Frasier”, and she gave an extremely coveted postdoc to a fellow who began his essay with “My interest in mental health was born in large part from my love of listening to Slayer…”

  15. Actually, I think there are some management positions for which crushing your enemies and evoking lamentations from their women are *requirements*.

  16. Actually, I think there are some management positions for which crushing your enemies and evoking lamentations from their women are *requirements*.

  17. And if the company calls, you know you are guaranteed to have a hiring manager with a sense of humor, which is definitely nothing to sniff at. :)

  18. And if the company calls, you know you are guaranteed to have a hiring manager with a sense of humor, which is definitely nothing to sniff at. :)

  19. I dunno if marketing people read ‘s LJ, though…

  20. I dunno if marketing people read ‘s LJ, though…

  21. I concur wholeheartedly about the Conan quote. But my question is . . . did you know already or did you have to look it up? If the former, I applaud you, fellow geek. *smile*

  22. I concur wholeheartedly about the Conan quote. But my question is . . . did you know already or did you have to look it up? If the former, I applaud you, fellow geek. *smile*

  23. The quote? From memory, although I did look it up to make sure I remembered the phrasing properly. Wouldn’t do to misquote someone with a big sword.

  24. The quote? From memory, although I did look it up to make sure I remembered the phrasing properly. Wouldn’t do to misquote someone with a big sword.

  25. Not sure. But I know some other people in the crushing enemies & lamentations field who do…
    (Now that you mention it, that would make a pretty good business card)

  26. Not sure. But I know some other people in the crushing enemies & lamentations field who do…
    (Now that you mention it, that would make a pretty good business card)

  27. Remembering: Nice.
    Potential for misquoting?: “I see your point, sir. I suggest a new strategy, R2: let the Wookee win.” (Arg, I thought I knew it, but thought it would be prudent to look it up because, well, that would be quite embarrassing on several levels if I got it wrong. I had it slightly wrong.)

  28. Remembering: Nice.
    Potential for misquoting?: “I see your point, sir. I suggest a new strategy, R2: let the Wookee win.” (Arg, I thought I knew it, but thought it would be prudent to look it up because, well, that would be quite embarrassing on several levels if I got it wrong. I had it slightly wrong.)

  29. The most important piece of information…
    I know you said it, because it does bear repeating.
    1) Put your name and contact information at the top.
    I used to be a manager, I used to hire people. I’d get 200-ish resumes for a systems administration position, and I’d usually get between 5 and 10 that would have no contact information at all, and 1 to 3 that just had a name at the top.
    I’m a harsh judge of resumes, like the bad ones gets tossed, the ones that feel like they’re too ‘fluffy’ for lack of a better term get tossed into the maybe pile, and the good ones will usually get at least a call or a long internal debate over which of the good ones should get a call first.
    Having said that, if anyone feels like harshing on my resume…
    You can send comments directly to the email on the resume

  30. The most important piece of information…
    I know you said it, because it does bear repeating.
    1) Put your name and contact information at the top.
    I used to be a manager, I used to hire people. I’d get 200-ish resumes for a systems administration position, and I’d usually get between 5 and 10 that would have no contact information at all, and 1 to 3 that just had a name at the top.
    I’m a harsh judge of resumes, like the bad ones gets tossed, the ones that feel like they’re too ‘fluffy’ for lack of a better term get tossed into the maybe pile, and the good ones will usually get at least a call or a long internal debate over which of the good ones should get a call first.
    Having said that, if anyone feels like harshing on my resume…
    You can send comments directly to the email on the resume

  31. Re: The most important piece of information…
    You should spell check that page.
    Also, offering an HTML version of the resume is preferrable since some folks (especially random browsers like me) will not bother with a PDF since opening it is much slower than opening an HTML version of it. Even the additional click through creates a barrier to people reading your resume.
    I am also tired of browsing through piles bad resumes. On the other hand, it is a convenient way to screen out people who have poor written communication skills, though sometimes I am afraid that some good candidates don’t get a chance simply because they don’t put sufficient effort into their resume.

  32. Re: The most important piece of information…
    You should spell check that page.
    Also, offering an HTML version of the resume is preferrable since some folks (especially random browsers like me) will not bother with a PDF since opening it is much slower than opening an HTML version of it. Even the additional click through creates a barrier to people reading your resume.
    I am also tired of browsing through piles bad resumes. On the other hand, it is a convenient way to screen out people who have poor written communication skills, though sometimes I am afraid that some good candidates don’t get a chance simply because they don’t put sufficient effort into their resume.

  33. Monica Goodling, Alberto Gonzales’ senior counselor, took the fifth and refused to testify before Congress about the prosecutor scandal.
    I wonder whether there’s something to hide, or whether she took one look at the Libby trial, decided her memory wasn’t all that hot either, and took the fifth in order not to tell the jury the wrong date of a conversation she can barely remember under oath. Granted, it’s a stretch, but I know that’s what I’d be thinking about if I were in her shoes.

  34. I know, listening to them lecture Gonzales before asking him questions, they sounded like they’d already pretty much had it with his shenanigans to date. I was relieved.

  35. And, creepily, Loyalty Day
    -Greg the elder™

  36. it’s certainly telling
    It’s certainly clear and telling of his (and the general corporate media conscious’) style of thinking and planning and perspective on the universe. Is it any wonder that failure is already eminent (beyond inevitable) for companies like TW that refuse to embrace new media?
    Pathetic…
    Hi by the way…. I keep *meaning* to visit your blog more often…
    -Otter

  37. What do you think will happen next?

  38. us “normal folk” appreciate the explanation
    No – truly – I’m not being facetious. It’s interesting and important to me personally to learn about these things from a surface perspective…. even if I’d never care to invest the time to understand the detail. :)
    -Otter
    P.S. Side-swiping your state and heading for Seattle tonight on holiday. See ya.

  39. *blink*
    *blink*
    Oh. My. God.

  40. I first heard the leningrad Cowboys a few years ago at a club and have been digging their music ever since. I’ve had Sweet Home Alabama in my mp3 collection for quite sometime now.
    If you’ve never heard it, find their cover Stairway to Heaven. It’s phenomenal.

  41. This post is super useful right now. Like, I’m printing it out.

  42. [...] Non-suck resumés « Yonatan Zunger’s Blog (tags: to_read resume) This post is under “Delicious Links” and has no respond so far. If you enjoy this article, make sure you subscribe to my RSS Feed. [...]


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