Co-Ops, interns, fresh-from-bootcamp developers, lend me your keyboards….
I have been very fortunate in being able to build a co-op program in conjunction with the engineering program at a local university. Both in targeting hiring entry level developers and during the time that this program has been running I have had the great (mis)fortune to read hundreds of entry-level resumes. Through the reading of so many resumes I would like to give some direct feedback to new and entry level people.
First of all try and remember this: resumes suck. There is no getting around it. This will be a common theme from me on this blog. The main reason I don’t like resumes is very simple. How old are you while reading this? You may be in your early 20s. Let’s say that today is your birthday and that you are turning 20. You have now lived 7,300 days or approx. 175,200 hours. Take all of that time, life, lessons, who you are, your personality, experiences, and who you are as a person and cram it all down into at most 2 pages of paper. A formatted 2 pages with lots of bullet points and super-duper simplified statements. If you are reading this and you are older than that, then the numbers are even worse. Resumes suck!
However, we as a society still use this format for a lot of things. Resumes, dating apps, obituaries. How can you describe yourself or someone else in just a few words? There is absolutely no way I am going to try and change society with this blog — so let’s do the next best thing. How do you create the best resume possible?
Before we jump into this deep end of the resume pool let me preface this discussion by stating that I am not an expert. These are my opinions and ideas for making a resume stand out. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). You may run into someone totally different than me that may think that other ideas are the only way to go. There are also tons and tons of amazing resources on the internet in regards to writing resumes. In order to put your best face forward you absolutely should read from many sources and pick the best path that you feel represents you, your ideas, and your beliefs. It should also be noted that this post is written for people attempting to get their first engineering or programming position. Now with all of that out of the way, here are some DO’s and DON’Ts that I believe will make your resume read better.
DO Try And Understand What A Resume Is Used For
Here are the things that my team uses a resume for. First it is used to attempt to gauge whether or not a person is qualified for the target role. In this first filter pass through that is it. No more. This is important because in many, many cases the first person reviewing a resume is not the hiring manager at all — it is usually a person in a HR role that is helping the hiring manager out. In order to make it through this first pass review there are a few things to remember:
- Make sure your experience and skills are at least in the ballpark for the role. This first filter pass of resumes should throw out someone that only has experience flipping burgers at a quick serve restaurant for a highly technical role.
- Be aware of geographical considerations. Maybe the company doesn’t want to pay moving fees. Maybe they aren’t open to remote work. Maybe they don’t want to deal with worker visas for someone from another country. If you fit any of these scenarios and the job posting does not call out anything in regards to location you may want to tailor your resume to call out if you are willing to relocate or shoulder any financial burdens that would come with you not being in the same location as the job posting
- Check your spelling and grammar. Seriously… I cannot stress this enough. The very short amount of time it takes to find an online site to do a check like this is absolutely worth it. If nothing else go set up a free google account and dump your resume into a google doc. Look for any spelling errors. This is such a simple and easy thing to do that it blows my mind that people skip over it! If you aren’t detailed enough to take a minute or two to check your work on something important like an application and resume, then how am I supposed to trust your level of detail on some critical code?
DON’T Over-Emphasize Things That Aren’t Relevant To This Role
Look — I get it. My brother was an Eagle Scout. I saw how much time and effort it took to achieve that honor. But unless the Boy Scouts are suddenly giving badges for C# or for writing device firmware, it doesn’t tell me a lot. The same goes for being captain of the volleyball team, going on church mission trips, and having perfect attendance in high school. These are great achievements. Maybe you are super proud of these achievements. Maybe your resume is super short and you want to pad it some more. I usually completely skip over these things so quickly that they might as well not be there at all. I understand that this may sound harsh. I am not telling you to remove them altogether. You might get lucky and have a fellow eagle scout as the hiring manager and get a few extra bonus points there. But you need to know that pretty much none of these items tell me how well you will be able to work with me, on my team, and with the other people that are already here. These things are fine to list if you feel the need but don’t try and eat up a bunch of space with them!
But… but… we are talking about an Engineer role and I was on the robotics team in high school! that must get me some brownie points, right? This depends. How long ago was this experience? 4 years ago? Longer? Yeah, sorry, not so much. Look, unless you have continued that interest in your own time and have spent the last few years perfecting your dish washing robot — how much of your high school structured robotics work do you actually remember now? Be honest — it can’t be that much. The same goes for your high school ranking and diploma. The same even goes for a college degree. Somewhere along the line, I usually use between 5–10 years down the road, that degree doesn’t matter near as much as what you have been working on recently. Don’t get me wrong — definitely list any degrees or certifications. But think back to what you were doing 5–7 years ago. How much of that do you really, truly remember? Maybe you are thinking that one English class and that wonderful book that you can almost quote line for line — but maybe that is only because you have re-read that book 12 times since then.
DO Focus On What Makes You Unique Including Relevant Personal Projects
You know that book that you have re-read 12 times in the past 5 years and you almost know it by heart? I want to know about those things that you can quote by heart — just not the books. I really, really want to know about the fun and unique things that drive you. Let me give you an example. A while back I attended a co-op fair at a local college to try and find new co-ops for our team. We brought along a nerf gun and talked up a super fun team and projects and had a LOT of attention at the booth. We got over 100 resumes form interested people. How would you stand out among 100 other people that are going through the exact same classes that you are taking?
It was painful to sort through all of those co-op resumes. Every one of those resumes had the same projects, classes, and code on them. They were so boringly consistent that my eyes glazed over while reading them. Fortunately, those of us in the booth tried to write down a rating for everyone that stopped by. Most everyone got at least a generic 3. Some people got a 4 through their interest or excitement when we spoke. Some got a 5 due to a deep level of interest and a potentially good culture fit through that brief conversation. Some got a 1 or a 2 because we could tell that they weren’t really interested or were trying to buckshot approach of just giving everyone there a resume so that they wouldn’t be left out.
So what makes you stand out? What can you put on a resume that will get you past the first couple of filters and onto the interview stage? Current extra-curricular projects are huge. What personal projects are you doing? What learning are you doing outside of class to show your level of interest in this as a career and not just a job? How are you showing someone else that you are dedicated to this and love doing it? You may be one of the lucky ones here, glancing down at the mechanical keyboard that you build reading this on one of your 4 raspberry pi’s. You may be on the other end of the spectrum and outside of your school classes you aren’t doing squat. That is OK — you can still build this skill set on your resume.
The best way I can position this is to think of your efforts like a portfolio. Artists carry a collection of their art with them to show off — so be an artist. Create a GitHub account and start building your portfolio. This doesn’t have to be some humanity-saving amazing app. Upload your school project once you have completed that class. Show off your coding skills. Go search google for trending GitHub repo along with the coding language of your choice. Look at the results and go clone one of those repositories and try and build it, then read and understand it, then try and change it in some meaningful way. There are TONS of things out there that you can go play with and in doing so you will stand out so far and above your peers because most of them don’t understand that you and your work are the portfolio and you need to show that off.
DON’T Overthink Everything — But Remember That You Have Some Leverage Here.
As for my last point on your first resume, make sure to not overthink things. Resumes suck. Boiling down who you are as a person into 1–2 pages of paper is not fun. With your first resumes your goal should be to tread water through the first couple of rounds of the process. Make it your goal to get to the interview stage where you get a chance to really express yourself. That is the key. So as you build up yourself, your resume, and your portfolio just know that some places and people will think differently. Some may throw resumes out for one little thing that they are specifically looking for. That is ok. There are other jobs out there. There are other amazing, fun, and interesting places to go explore.
As I am writing this I am almost 40 years old. My parents and grandparents, for the most part, did one job with one company for most of their lives. I am currently on my third major role in my career. I don’t know when you will read this but it will probably be sometime in 2020 or beyond. By the time that you are my age you may still be in your first big role, but chances are that you will be on your third, fifth, or seventh role by this point in your career (~20 years in). That is ok. The world is a different place. The one thing I want to close this post with is that you need to remember that even though you see a job and convince yourself that it is your most perfect, amazing, and wonderful dream job and you would cut off an appendage to get it — try and step back and look at it a bit differently. First, while it may seem perfect now in 3–5 years you will look at it differently. You could also wash out in the first few rounds of resume filtering because the HR person doing the filtering is having a bad day and spilled coffee on your resume and decided to throw it out instead of dry it and actually read it. These things happen. There are more jobs out there.
You also need to remember that this is not a one-way street. Companies need talented people. You have leverage here. By submitting a resume you have already used that leverage. How? Posting a job description is nearly as hard as writing a resume. How do I write a description for a role in less than a page? How do I describe the wonderful culture and other fun stuff we do while dropping in the boilerplate company paragraph and the standard buzzwords in the bullet point lists? The initial stress of hiring for a new job is not on you — it is on me as the hiring manager! I am basically writing a marketing plan to get the best, most talented people in to my team because that is what will give me the best chance of success. So hopefully it simplifies what you have to do if you view your resume as simply a response to my initial marketing work on a job description with a message (your resume) implying how amazing and talented you are. Then we both get to get in a room and interview each other to see if we are both a good fit to go start working together to build amazing things.
So — try not to stress too much about your resume. It sucks — just like everyone else’s. And that is ok, because my job description sucks too. And good luck to both of us in our search!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on October 20, 2019. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.