How to Write a Resume

Several years ago, I wrote an article on FurAffinity about how to write a resume. It was pretty popular, and so I thought it incredibly relevant for this site.

I was a hiring manager for awhile, and now a part of my job is interviewing and screening candidates for jobs. So this article comes from the perspective of someone who's actually had to hire people.

Please note that these tips are geared towards technology jobs; however, that being said, I've had friends with other lines of work follow this advice and go from getting no calls to lots of interviews. So I think there's information of value no matter who you are!

Understanding the Process

The key to writing your resume is to understand how it is being 'consumed' by potential employers. So the first step is to understand who's going to be reading your resume and why.

For a tech job, there's usually between two and four people that will be reading your resume. They are, in the order in which they will receive your resume (first to last):

  1. The Recruiter - This is a guy who goes out and actively solicits people for resumes. My "day job" is not as a recruiter, but for the purposes of this site, I'm the recruiter.

    He or she has what is called a "job req", and that job req is pretty much what you see on Indeed or on this site. This guy has no power to actually hire you; their job is to take the job req and find people that meet the requirements.

    While this person cannot hire you, they are (in the tech world) essential to the process. If you can't pass their check list, you're not getting anywhere. At least not in the tech industry -- recruiters are less common in other fields.

    The recruiter is usually not technically inclined, and is mostly interested in checking off the skill list. They may not know much, or anything, about the company they are finding people for. Usually, they will ask simple questions and ask you for "years of experience" in different skills.

    "Years of experience" is a meaningless metric. What does that mean? Did you spend those years continually using that skill? Did you use it every week? Every month? It means absolutely nothing, yet most recruiters will ask you for it and even rely on that to determine your eligibility.

    My advise? To compute years of experience: Figure out how many years you've been working, then figure out each skill's years of experience by approximately how much of your job(s) have used that skill.

    For instance, if I have 10 years of experience, and about half the time I used PHP and the other half Java, I would probably say 5 years each. Unless I used both continually, in which case it would be fair to say 10 each. Think of your years of experience as percentage of your career that you have used each skill, with '1 year' being the minimum value and your total number of years worked being the 100% value.

    It's a stupid game, but you have to play it to get to get past this first road-block.

    And if you go for one of my jobs, no, I will not be asking for years of experience! I give a proper technical interview.

  2. HR - The Human Resources department of the company you want to work at. For some jobs, your resume goes straight to HR because there is no recruiter. For other jobs, your resume goes from the recruiter straight to the hiring manager. My point is, not every job goes through both recruiter and HR, but some do.

    HR doesn't know or care what you do. They are an even cruder filter than the recruiter; often, they get hung up on things like "does this candidate's education match the requirement?" rather than stuff that actually matters.

    Just like the recruiter, they have a check-list. Anywhere from 20% to 100% of resumes that go through HR will make it to a hiring manager. I've had organizations where HR let pizza drivers with no applicable education or experience get through their filter for senior level jobs due to poor HR screening.

    Unlike a recruiter, HR will never call you. They just look at resumes and either pass it along or throw it out. Recruiters, on the other hand, will usually smooze you a bit and have some kind of interview on the phone before passing you on to their customer (the hiring manager).

    A huge part of writing your resume is getting past these first two filters. We'll touch on that in the next section.

  3. The Hiring Manager - This is the person you want to talk to. By the time your resume has gotten this far, it's probably made it through at least a couple filters. The exception is, of course, extremely small companies which have neither an HR staff nor a relationship with a recruiter.

    The hiring manager is stressed out. She or he is short staffed and probably needed you to start yesterday. They do not want to read your resume, but they have to because they only have so much time in a day and they can't talk to everybody.

    Your resume has to stand out to the hiring manager without making them "work for it". You want everything they need to know to be laid out in a good, logical way so that they will put you on the top of their list of people to call.

  4. Others on the Team - Depending on the job, your resume may also get passed to other people you could potentially work with.

    The hiring manager's manager, for instance, would be pretty common. Sometimes the person you're going to work for does not have authority to hire, but can make recommendations to their boss.

    Sometimes, a hiring manager will have your potential co-workers review resumes or even interview you as well.

    The same advice applies to this group of people as does the Hiring Manager.

So, you basically have two "audience groups". You have the recruiter and HR, which are only interested in "bullet points". The check-list of skills to make sure you qualify. Neither recruiters nor HR do a lot of reading, so you better be ready to have your skills out in front.

The other group is the hiring manager and your potential co-workers. They're interested in your skill list, too, but they are probably more interested in your work experience and the proof that you can do what you say you can.

The perfect resume caters to both groups and gives everyone what they want to see in the most efficient way possible.

Start at the Top

The first page of your resume should be treated like you're forging it from gold. Don't waste it. You may have read other articles that say, do whatever you can to make your resume one page long. In fact, back in college, I had a class that covered resume writing and they said exactly that.

They're wrong! But there's a kernel of truth.

You want your resume to cover everything you've done within reason -- we'll get to that further down. It is okay to have a 5 or more page resume even!

- HOWEVER -

That first page is the most important one, and you must do your best to use that page efficiently.

How Not to Start a Resume

Most people, especially those fresh out of college, will put an "Objectives" section at the start of their resume. The objectives are usually a politically correct version of this statement:

I really, really want this job but I know I'm not allowed to say that. So I will put something generic about wanting to further my career. Please, please, PLEASE! don't put me on a team full of idiots and please don't micro-manage me!

This is terrible. It tells me nothing, it wastes space, and you're inviting people to make psychological judgments based on what you write here. When you're reading a hundred resumes, you'll find most people's "Objectives" are more or less variations on the same statement.

Even worse are people that bake their list of skills into the objectives. That makes the recruiter and HR people's jobs feel like a treasure hunt. Guess what, they're not going to work that hard, and your resume is going to wind up in the trash. Never bake anything important into an "objectives" section.

So how should you start it?

I like to use a "Summary" section instead. The summary is a one or two sentence statement that gives an overview of who you are and what you do. Here's the one from my resume:

[Tanabi] is a senior software engineer with expert experience in C++, C, Java, Python, PHP, and more.

If you have anything special that you want to get right out in front, then put it here. For instance, awards, advanced degrees, special certifications. Here's some more summary examples:

[Name] is an AWS-Certified DevOps engineer with extensive experience with Amazon tools, Python, and Terraform.

[Name] is a Ph.D in astrophysics with a specialization in planet-destroying super-lasers.

[Name] is a Hugo-award winning author who made the [whatever] series of books. He is also a competent technical writer with 15 years experience.

I'd say the shorter it is, the more likely people are to read it. So the rewards for keeping it brief just keep adding up!

The Skill List

Your resume is about what you can do, and then providing some proof as to why you think you can do it. The sections that cover this are the skill list and the past employment sections.

Most people leave this critical section off! Especially non-technical people; but frankly, every job and every resume can benefit from a skill list. A simple menu of what you're offering. Both the recruiter and HR really want to see this list, because it makes their lives easier! They will use your skill list as a check-list to make sure you qualify; even the hiring manager will do the same before digging into greater detail.

Baking your skill information into more narrative form will do nothing but make the people trying to hire you do more work. Trust me, when you've seen literally hundreds of resumes, you're completely sick of the whole "reading" thing.

This should be right after your summary section. Simply label it "Skills", and make either a bullet list or a table of what you know and how well you know it. Try to group your skills by strength, putting stronger skills together at the top of the list.

If you have a relatively small set of skills, then a bullet point list is fine, such as:

If you have a lot of skills, you can use a table instead. Here's a tiny snip of my resume as an example:

UNIX OS: Solaris (6 - 11), Linux (RedHat/CentOS, Debian/Ubuntu), AIX, HP-UX, MacOS X, BSD (Free, Net, Open) 19+ Years: Administering, setting up, configuring, advanced troubleshooting, automation, developing. Both virtual and non-virtual. Specialization in Solaris and Linux.
Windows: Windows NT, Windows 3.11 - Windows 10 19+ Years: Small scale administration, "power user", developing. Both virtual and non-virtual.
Databases: Database design and normalization, SQL. PostgreSQL, MySQL, MS SQL Server, Oracle, SQLite 19+ Years: Administering and developing. Mostly PostgreSQL, MySQL, and SQLite. Familiarity with Oracle and MS SQL Server.

I have my skills grouped by both type and years experience. Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of how my skills are presented and I'm still working on refining it. When you have a long work history and a lot of skills, striking a balance between showing everything and presenting it in a logical fashion gets very difficult.

However, regardless of how you do it, laundry list them! And try not to waste space. Your "Summary" and "Skills" should both fit on the first page if at all possible. It is way better to show too many skills rather than too few, you just never know what will be relevant and what will set you ahead of everyone else.

Professional Experience

Once your summary and skills are laid out, the next most important thing is your professional experience. Your employer wants to know what you've done, where you've done it, when you did it, and what exactly you were responsible for. Try to make sure things that show up in your skill list also show up in your professional experience somewhere.

A manager that is interested in you will use your professional experience list to determine how old your knowledge is on certain topics, so keep that in mind. Also, avoid the words "part of the team that did..."

"Part of the team that did..." is code for "I didn't really do any of it". Whenever I see "Part of the team..." I will dig into the candidate and ask them to tell me what, exactly, their involvement was. 9 times out of 10, this turns into a very flustered candidate that has to admit they actually did very little of the work.

Take personal responsibility for your work, and reflect what you were responsible for in your resume.

Your professional experience should be a set of entries that look like this, with your latest experience presented first and your oldest presented last:

Your Job Title, Bolded
Company Name, Location City, Location State (Start Year - End Year)
Brief text description
  • Bullet
  • List
  • of
  • key
  • responsibilities
  • and
  • skills

Try not to put a lot of white-space in the resume. Make it legible, but don't let it get artificially long because of spacing problems or inefficiency. The longer your resume is, the more likely someone is to miss something.

Also, try to be brief but comprehensive. As noted above, make it about what you did rather than what your team did.

If you resume is getting too long, cut the "short description" out of your older jobs and reduce them to bullet points. Only do this if you've had a lot of jobs -- in my case, as a contractor, I've got 19 jobs on my resume because many of my jobs have been 6 month engagements.

Don't leave any jobs off unless they are profoundly irrelevant (such as jobs you had before college). First, you don't want a gap in employment history if you can avoid it. Secondly, you never know what is relevant! It could be something you did in a past job is shockingly relevant to this new job, and stuff like that really makes you stand out over other candidates.

If you have some past jobs that are now really irrelevant, you can mention just the job title and company name and not go into them deeply. There are very few cases where I would recommend completely leaving a job off the resume.

As a hiring manager, I really dig into the past jobs. When I'm about to interview someone, I print their resume and I circle or underline things in their job history that I want to talk about. The skill list is the most important thing to get your resume to the hiring manager, but your professional experience is what will get you the interview.

So don't skimp on either! When in doubt, go long.

Education Counts... Kinda

Any kind of education or certifications you have should be included on the resume, as the last item on your resume after Professional Experience unless you are fresh out of college and your education is your primary qualification. In that case, it makes sense to put education up front.

If your highest level of education is High School or GED, but you've been working for awhile and you're not going for your first job, then leave it off. Anything that doesn't make you stand out isn't helping you, and this is not helping you.

Some jobs have a minimum education requirement. A lot of tech jobs "require" a bachelors degree. That being said, if you've been in the industry 10 years, nobody cares what your college education was. HR or a recruiter may arbitrarily decline you because you don't match their checklist if you mention you just have a High School degree; however, if you leave it off, you'll probably pass the gate if you have the other requirements.

Let's face it; unless it's pretty close to entry level, nobody cares about your college days.

On the other hand, if you do have an advanced degree of some kind (Associates, Bachelors, or the like), then you should mention them even if they are irrelevant to your current field of work.

If you have a degree in English but you're now in a tech field, putting that degree on your resume gives proof that you could stick to and complete something. And if you happen to be applying to a really generic job, such as office work, your associates degree in underwater basket weaving is more impressive than people with just a GED or High School.

Also, any certifications you have, relevant or not, should be put under education. I'd even put things like pilot license, commercial driver's license, or other unusual certifications. These little things can sometimes give you an edge over other candidates and you wouldn't even guess it from looking at the job.

References

Never put references on your resume. Put: "References Available Upon Request"

Personally, I never check references. Let's face it, you're not going to provide a reference that will say bad stuff about you. You'll provide references for people who will be supportive. Some people might even provide references willing to lie for them.

Some places insist on checking references for whatever reason. I think it's a protocol thing. As such, you should have some references ready, but you should not put them on your resume. Here's why.

Unscrupulous Recruiting Companies

Okay, okay. I'm kind of in the business now, so its sort of like shooting myself in the foot here. But we're a sleazy lot. Recruiters make money by finding people and putting them in jobs. They either get a cut of your hourly take, or they get a lump sum based on annual salary. What's worse, they make more money when you make less -- at least in the case of the hourly rate jobs.

What I'm saying is, if a job pays $40/hour but they can get you to go for $20/hour, then they will pocket the difference and you'll never know. Recruiters can and will take up to 60% of the take if they are able to. (Or even more, but they can rarely get away with that!)

There's not a lot you can do about that, other than squeeze the recruiter when it comes time to talk about money. But what I am telling you, is recruiters are sleazy. Except me, honest! :) But I'm not really a recruiter, I'm an engineer who does this on the side to help out.

Though I use this as an example to show you the kind of guys you're dealing with. Another recruiter trick, is they will take your references, call them under the guise of checking references... and then try to pitch them jobs. Yup, it happens.

Save your references some spam by not putting them on your resume as a result. If you haven't interviewed with a hiring manager yet, but a recruiter wants your references, ask them for what purpose. Tell them that you've heard some recruiters just use that as a way to get more recruits.

Don't pass over the information unless you feel comfortable and that it is necessary.

Tips For References

So, as mentioned above, you should have some references "on deck" in case you need them. Typically, a company will want at the very least a manager reference and a co-worker reference. I've heard of some companies wanting as much as four references but that's kind of rare.

Make sure to sync up with your references before using them. You should make sure they know that they may get called, and you should also make sure they know what role they are playing.

What do I mean by that? Well, specifically, make sure that your manager reference knows he or she is your manager reference.

Sometimes, you are able to get a manager for a past job to vouch for you. But realistically speaking, you can't give your current manager as a reference. In cases where you don't have an actual manager reference, you'll have to do the next best thing. Maybe there was a friend that lead the team on a project, or a manager from another department that you trust, that you have to use instead of a direct manager.

I'm not encouraging lying, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Just make sure your stories are straight and your manager reference knows what role they are supposed to play. And that he or she is comfortable playing that role! Flustered references aren't very useful.

Tailor Your Resume

So here's a trick a lot of people don't think of. Let's say there's a job you REALLY want. Instead of just sending your resume off as-is, you can tweak your resume first to 'spin' it in a more fitting way.

Let me be very clear here before we go on; do not lie on your resume! The chances you will get caught are very high and not worth it. When I say "spin", I mean, make certain resume items more prominent than others.

This can be as simple as going through your resume and marking key words in bold. Or it can be as comprehensive as a re-write to really hit all the points of the job requirement extra hard and to make you look absolutely perfect for the job.

When I'm looking for a job, I'll actually have usually two or three different resumes, each one 'spun' a different way, so that I can pair resumes to jobs. For instance, if I'm going for a PHP developer job, I'll have a PHP-focused resume. For a DevOps job, something more Python, Jenkins, and other deployment-tool oriented.

Of course, this approach will not work if you are "carpet bombing" your resume into tons of different jobs. But if there's one job you really want, this extra effort is totally worth it and often pays off.

And that's it!

Remember to spell check your resume, and make sure your name, email, and phone are on it. Location isn't a bad idea, either, but you probably don't need to waste space with a full address.

Have someone read your resume, too. Feel free to submit your resume to me and I'll give you my opinion on it. You can contact me at 'answers AT tanabi DOT org'.

Good luck out there!

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