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Tips for Technical Resumes

I get a lot of questions about resume writing. Here are my resume tips. Please excuse the formatting. (a better formatted version is here)

Tip 1: Know the audience

First of all, then writing it is important to play to your audience. Steven King always includes the elements that his fans expect. An action film is expected to have an explosion or something major in the first scene. A romance is expected to introduce at least one of the main people in the first five minutes. A resume has to be written for its audience too.

Who are the audiences of a resume?

What makes writing a resume difficult is that there are two audiences. First is the low-paid, non-technical HR clerk that receives the resume. If it gets past the clerk, it will arrive at the desk of the person that will be your future boss. Your resume has to have the elements that will please both of these people.

  • The HR clerk
    The first person to see your resume, sadly, is a non-technical, (usually low-paid), clerk. He is given 10,000 resumes a day and a list of what positions are open. This person then has to make a pile for each of those positions, and toss the rest. Your job is to make sure you get into one of those piles. The problem here is that this person does not know the difference between UNIX and Solaris, or that if someone knows Solaris 2.5 then they are hirable for a Solaris 2.6 job. Luckily, this person only reads the top part of every resume, so you can play to that: make make sure that you have an Objective and a "Skills" section that are customized for him. do not say "Solaris 2.6", say "Solaris 2.x" or just "Solaris" (people have forgotten about Solaris 1.x by now).

  • The Hiring Manager
    Each pile that the clerk created is handed to an appropriate "Hiring Manager." This person does understand the technology (or at least thinks they do) that you will be working with. So the rest of the resume must be in their language.

The most common mistake that I see is that people do not write anything for the clerk. Therefore, their resume never gets to the hiring manager. The "Objective Statement" at the top of your resume is what the clerk reads. Make sure you resume has one, and make it a good one.

Tip 2: A good Objective statement

A good objective statement tells a plainly-state title you would like ("UNIX programmer," "CGI Developer," "Project Manager," "Consultant") and a couple skills that you have ("excellent writing skills," "experience with digital audio technology," "excellent oral presentation skills", etc.).

You can also specify what industry or department you want to be in ("financial services," "telecommunication," ".COM", etc.).

Here are some good ones that I have seen:

  1. A position as a Senior UNIX/Linux Developer that lets me utilize my years of experience in the TDM cellular technology.
  2. A position as a Project Manager in the EDA industry that lets me utilize my excellent communication and presentation skills.
  3. A position as a Junior UNIX/Solaris Sysadmin (SAGE Level II) in the financial services industry that lets me utilize my superior Solaris knowledge.
  4. Experienced web-developer looking for projects that let me expand my HTML, VBNET, MS-CMS2k skills.

In that last example "expand" sets an expectation of being a little green at VB.NET, etc. Replace it with "utilize" if you want to set an expectation of already being an expert. Companies do hire both, so do not set unreasonable expectations.

A sample bad objective statement (this is a real example):

  • I am an expert in building large, scalable services based on open protocols.

That person did not get any calls back, even though he had built .COM infrastructures that served literally millions of users' email, web services, etc. The person was quite brilliant with technical things, but did not write a resume that would get past the clerk as it did not include any buzzwords or technology that the clerk could recognize nor a tangible position/title that was open. How could the clerk classify such a resume? It has to get past the clerk to get to the hiring-manager.

A better statement would have been: "A senior architect of UNIX-based (Solaris, Linux) email and web services that lets me utilize my experience in building extremely scalable systems with high up-times." He did change his resume to something similar, and soon started getting phone calls.

Tip 3: Buzzwords

Use 'em. There is a reason for them, it makes communication faster. I hate "buzzword compliant" presentations, but only when they aren't adding any value to the statement. When they appear on a resume they do add value because the clerk uses them (whether or not they know what they mean). Better-trained clerks are given a list of synonyms.

For example: they might be told "We need a Solaris sysadmin... but that means anyone that mentions Sun, SunOS, or UNIX should be considered. Oh, other synonyms for UNIX are: AIX, Linux, IRIX... a person that knows any of those but wants to learn Solaris is fine for this position." However, that does not always happen, so I am a little redundent: I include the word UNIX in addition to the name the vendor uses.

List your strongest skills first. People evaluating resumes only read the first 3-4 items. I see many "skills" sections that list 20 operating systems or 20 languages or 20 vendors and that is a fine way to show that you have a lot of experience over many years. However, the person reading your resume is only going to read the first 3-4, so make sure those are the ones you want to work in. do not list them in chronological order: that just emphasizes out-of-date technology.

A friend listed the languages she knew in the order she learned them. Which of the these two would a clerk find most useful if he/she was told to find a "Windows C++ programmer".

  1. BASIC, Pascal, C-64 BASIC, AppleBasic, Cobal, Fortran, C, awk, C++, Visual C++, Perl
  2. Perl, Visual C++, C++, awk, C, Fortran, Cobal, AppleBasic, C-64 Basic, Pascal, BASIC.

Number 2 is the more appealing, right? List the technologies you want to work with first.

Delete the super-old technologies like Commodore 64 and Apple II.

A concise way to list skills is to group them:

  • Operating systems: Unix (FreeBSD, Solaris, Linux), Windows 95/98/2000/NT, and others.

Tip 4: Use industry classification like certifications and SAGE Job Classifications

Who cares about certications? I do not, but the clerk does. If you have any certifications, list them. Consider getting certified on topics that you feel you could pass without studying very hard. It will help you get past the clerk.

If you are a sysadmin, use the SAGE Job Classifications to describe yourself and/or the position you are looking for. More and more HR departments are using them, and certainly the cool companies that you want to work for are using them. However, explain enough so that someone that has not read http://sageweb.sage.org/resources/publications/8_jobs/ will understand what you mean. That is why the above example was redundant: "a Junior UNIX/Solaris Sysadmin (SAGE Level II)". Also good would be "A SAGE Level II (Junior) UNIX System Administrator".

Tip 5: Never lie

I shouldn't have to say this, but do not lie on your resume. do not exaggerate your skills. do not claim you have certifications that you do not have. Companies would rather know that you do not know something but are willing to learn than be surprised to discover that you misrepresented yourself.

I had rather poor grades in college so I did not include my GPA on my resume. I was honest when asked for my GPA during interviews: the first interview was with someone that did not complete college, and was unconcerned with GPA: he thought experience was more important.

I once interviewed someone that claimed they had designed LANs and WANs only to discover that they had talked about it with friends, usually while drinking at parties. If he had said he is looking to get started in LAN/WAN design, I might have hired him and enjoyed teaching him the rules of the road. Instead, I ripped up his resume after he left.

If they do not discover you are misrepresenting yourself (google is a great thing), then they'll be surprised when your job performance is not what they expected and end up terminating you after a few months. do not waste their time. There are jobs out there for every skill level no matter where you are.

Tip 6: Your filename

Never use a filename like "resume.doc" when sending your resume as an attachment. Name the file something like "resume_tom_limoncelli.doc" so that if the HR person saves it, s/he will be able to easily tell yours from someone else's... and your resume will not be overwritten the next time someone else sends them a file called "resume.doc". (Thanks to Tina for that tip!)

Example Resume


Here's the beginning of my resume, altered slightly to demonstrate the above tips:


THOMAS LIMONCELLI
123 Main Street
Townname, ST 12345
+1 123 456 7890 [email protected]

Objective: An architect-level senior system administrator (SAGE Level IV) UNIX or Network Administration position that uses my technical and inter-personal skills; or a role evaluating new technologies especially in the security and networking marketplace.

Skills:

  • Operating systems: Unix (FreeBSD, Solaris, Linux), Windows 95/98/2000/NT, Cisco IOS 7.x-12.x, plus some experience with AIX, HP-UX, OpenVMS, NetBSD, OpenBSD and others.
  • Programming Languages: Perl/CGI/mod_perl, C/C++, HTML, Unix shells and tools, awk/sed, SQL, Python, Pascal, BASIC.
  • Network Products: Cisco Routers, Cisco Switches, Cisco PIX Firewalls and Cisco IP Telephony equipment (ICS7750); Checkpoint FW-1; Linux/Unix firewalls (IPFilter, IPFW); Avaya Cajun products; Network General Sniffer, tcpdump, Ethereal, Snort.
  • Network Technologies: FastEthernet, Gigabit Ethernet, FDDI, OSPF, BGP, ATM.

Education:

  • BA in Computer Science, Drew University, Madison, NJ
  • August 1987 - May 1991

Work History:

Director of Operations, Lumeta Corp, Somerset, NJ

  • July 2000 - Current
  • Designed, built, and ran corporate IT infrastructure plus production service architecture for 25-person startup, provided technical advice to marketing, sales, product development. Built datacenter, LAN/WAN, VPN (SSH), firewall (PIX, Checkpoint, FreeBSD IPFILTER), fileservice (NFS, SMB, SAMBA), print service, backups (Amanda), compute servers (FreeBSD UNIX, Solaris, Linux) and web services (Apache HTTP server). Deployed Cisco AVVID IP Telephony solution (7750 with 7960 phones). Created simple web content management system for web developers to draft, qa, and ship new releases of web site. Designed architecture for use of Lumeta intranet security products as a service (ASP) including security analysis, data storage architecture, scheduling and backups. Designed (and often implemented) new features for Lumeta intranet security products. Consulted to customers via sales, engagement, and post-engagement presentations. Managed 2 direct reports.

Senior Network Architect (MTS), Lucent Bell Labs, Murray Hill, NJ

  • September 1996 - July 2000
    ...
    ...
    ...
    ...

References available on request.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Best of Blog

7 Comments

A couple of disagreements:

* Don't bother with an "objective". That should be covered in your cover letter.

* Replace the Objective with a Summary. See my resume as an example.

* Don't put References at the end. It's assumed, and is now noise.

* If your resume is over one page, make sure you have all contact info on every page.

* Keep your resume in many different formats. Be able to give the employer whatever format they want. At the very least, keep a web version, plus .doc, plus plain text. PDF if you want.

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing is worth knowing can be taught.
Oscar Wilde

What do you thing about this order:
1- Objective
2- Technical Skills
3- Work Experience
4- Education % Degrees
5- Other knowledge/Activities?
Thanks.

@laoukouracampus That order works too. Each country has a different tradition. Also, it depends on what you want to emphasize. If you don't have a lot of experience, but have just completed school, list your education/degrees towards the top. If you want to emphasize work experience, put that towards the top.

The resume of an individual who wants to apply for a certain position needs to be clear and concise for the people who will be reading and receiving it. The reason individuals don't get hired even if they are already experts in that certain position is because they have not taken into consideration the content of their resumes. I once had a problem in doing my resume therefore I wasn't hired for the job. When I changed it into something that will definitely catch attention and let them fully understand it, I was hired on the spot.

Thanks for sharing the blog post on tips to create a good resume.It was really helpful.Thanks again.

Have to agree with Andy, and wanted to mention a book everyone should be using (IMHO).

"PS You need a Resume", by Gayle Howard (profession resume writer for others, 10+ years), transformed mine from shredder fodder to getting interviews; here are a few of her pointers:

* first should be a summary of what it is you do. This should be clear to *anyone*, CEO to clerk, of how you can benefit them. use buzzwords as you would in normal conversation.

* Provide skills and technology summary sections (grouped, etc.). certs and buzzwords go here.

* For work experience, use the CAR method: what [C]hallenges did you face, what [A]ctions did you take, what [R]esults did that produce? Mine went from a boring list to clearly emphasizing what I've done, demonstrating benefits to potential employers.

* Don't be repetitive.

* Don't be repetitive.

Listing specific technologies I'd used at previous employers (one line per employer) helped get my current job. This solves the "current vs old" situation in #3.

I include a few (related) personal interests as well. Employers aren't hiring half of you; they need (and get) a whole person. This fills in gaps from strictly talking shop; 5 lines at most, at the very end (i.e.: "Increasing profits by wisely lowering systems administration overhead", "gardening").

It's easy to forget that the main point of a resume is to get an interview; think of it as starting a conversation, a 5-min introduction on paper. You can find mine on LinkedIn. (=