Resume Mistakes and Tips

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Resumes. You get a lot of conflicting opinions on them. In some cases, conflicting facts. Programmer turned recruiter Aline Lerner did a study and found out that both developers and recruiters do a lousy job of using them to predict whether the candidate will do well (albeit for different reasons). Could it be because people spend 30 seconds reading them? I’m not being snarky, that’s been measured. I’m sure that hurts some and helps others. But like it or not, they’re here to stay in one form or another, and what’s on them can help or hurt you.

I recommend quarterly reviews of your career, and this is a great time to update your resume and LinkedIn profile. If you procrastinate until you’re looking for a job, A) you may forget things (see “Quantify” below) and B) major updates to your LI profile raise eyebrows.1 If you’re not looking, you can honestly tell your boss you’re trying to keep it up to date to improve networking opportunities. And it won’t hurt to show off your value to your employer as well. A week before your annual performance review is an excellent time to update your profile.

The two you need are Word and LinkedIn. Elaine Wherry of Meebo did a test of recruiters and found that despite claims to the contrary, they all used LinkedIn exclusively to find developers. I’m sure some would use Github or StackOverflow (and many do check them), but (perhaps by design) there’s no way to contact you on those services. Yes, you’re going to get contacted by clueless people.2 But the alternative is being completely invisible to those looking to hire you. Not all will be recruiters, either; some will be managers or leads with whom it would be good to connect.

If your work involves anything visual, such as front-end or UI work, you may want a fancier¬†Word template for your resume. However, I’ve seen something as simple as a two column resume completely screw up the resume parser and the result was horrible. So be very careful with anything fancy.

Remove it. Everyone has the same objective: get the job. You’re more likely to put something that turns them off than gets them excited. Save this for the cover letter and give yourself more real estate.

First, remove the alphabet soup. I don’t mean the acronyms developers should know, like ORM, MVC, API, etc. Those are all fine. I mean the TLAs your corporate overlords made up:

Enhanced the QPR system for the AR/AP division of IDS.

Nobody outside your company knows what that means! I’d wager that some outside of IDS don’t know.

Furthermore, say exactly what you did. Do you have any sentence that begins with:

  • Involved in…?
  • Participated on a team that…?
  • Worked on a project that…?

Or even “enhanced” from the previous example. The rest of that sentence won’t get read. They’re not hiring your team or buying your product, they’re determining if you personally are a good fit. We write these things because we feel insecure about what we did, but something is better than nothing, and it’s almost certainly more impressive than you think. Be sure to describe both your role (architect, programmer, manager, etc.) and detail what that software did. E.g.,

  • “Modified the security configuration to allow social sign-in from Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn (OAuth 2).”
  • “Conceived and created an Apache Mahout job to generate a list of complementary products, then implemented custom tracking using Google Analytics Enhanced Ecommerce to show it generated $30K in additional sales per month.”

I looked at my own profile and discovered clarifying what I did actually made me look better.

Knowing the financial (or other quantitative) impact you had on the project (like the second example above) is very powerful, but few non-managers do this. Talk to your manager, ask what effect your work has on the bottom line. If they don’t know, your organization isn’t using metrics effectively – a great opportunity for you if you’re interested in management.

If you have a lot of experience, tailor it to the job you’re applying to, and organize it from most to least impressive. If you developed a system from scratch, leave the soft skill stuff like “gathered requirements” and “documented the API” for last. Yes, they’re important, but since every developer does these things, they don’t make you stand out in any way.

If you didn’t know, you can save your LinkedIn profile as a PDF. This way it can be your “system of record” including everything, from which you pull out the relevant bits. You can condense less relevant entries with a one line summary and “(Inquire for more details.)” or “(Edited for brevity.).”

You probably know that typos will get your resume tossed in the trash. Managers think that if you couldn’t take time to proofread it then you must not be serious.

I’ve heard developers say, “If they dismiss me because of typos, I don’t want to work there!” Well, two things about that: while developers and recruiters can’t predict performance from resumes, Aline Lerner found that typos predict bad interview performance. If you can’t get the resume right, you’re probably not practicing for the interview, either. And two: the compiler doesn’t tolerate typos, either! We’ve got a job that is very detail oriented and bugs can cost insane amounts of money. When your first impression is of a person who is careless, it just puts a big FAIL stamp on your resume.

Don’t forget, it’s most effective to catch bugs in requirements, which is why every job requires great verbal and written communication skills. Well, a resume communicates your value to the company. First by telling them what you can do, but also your command of English. It’s a famously difficult language, but you only have to get a single page right and you have as much time and help from friends (or professional resume writers) as you need.3

I’ve observed that some people who’ve learned English as a second language put very little emphasis on capitalization – even on their own name. Or the opposite, capitalizing words that don’t require it. My hunch is it’s caused by coming from a different alphabet and grammar where capitalization rules are different or non-existent. Similarly, many languages have a different plural form, and English has exceptions, so pluralization from those writers appears random. The easy solution is to get a strong English writer to proofread it for you, or hire a pro.

And if you want to improve your writing in general – even if you’re a native English speaker- there are a couple great books. My personal favorite is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace:

I like it because it’s very clear itself about the guidelines and how to apply them, with many examples. I was writing much more clearly by the second chapter. This is in contrast to the oft suggested Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which is more suited to professional writers. Another book (which I haven’t read, but is highly reviewed and free online), is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Both are oriented toward writing nonfiction.

A lot of developers have a number of Github projects that show off their skills. I’ve heard some say, “Github is my resume.” The problem is, Github is a terrible resume format. A number of managers have complained about how annoying it is to find exactly which projects you contributed to and what you did. Keep in mind, these are managers like me who have a Github account and projects of their own there. Furthermore, you want to control your own story. So I recommend having a list of projects with descriptions that detail what you did, the reasoning behind your technical decisions, and a direct link to your list of commits. LinkedIn has projects and this is a good place for them.

Lastly, your name may be limiting responses to your application (or how often recruiters contact you):

Another possibility is age discrimination. Personally, I have not seen that, but I’m sure it exists. The way around that is removing your graduation year and possibly early positions if they are no longer relevant (likely if you’ve a long career).

Finally, there are many questions that are illegal to ask you in interviews: race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, etc. Do not put these on your resume, including a photo. It makes HR people nervous, and a few have a blanket policy of rejecting them to avoid potential lawsuits.

And I know, it’s on your LinkedIn profile, because it makes it easier for connections to identify you (especially if you have a common name). We live in a world rich in irony. You can always remove it if you think it’s interfering with your job search. However, you’re probably better off using a quality photo of you smiling and looking friendly. Who doesn’t want to work with that person?

Discrimination against anything is beyond stupid (and illegal), but you should be aware of it, lest it unfairly shake your confidence.

If you have other resume tips, let me know!


  1. You can shut those off, though. []
  2. I regularly get contacted by people trying to sell me development and recruiting services, despite the fact that we’re direct competitors. []
  3. BTW, if you know of a good technical resume writer I can refer people to, let me know. []