in Engineering

How to Write a Terrible Software Engineering Resume

By Jim Kelly

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The traditional resume might be on its way out in this age of LinkedIn profiles, but for the moment it remains a critical prop for any job hunt. Having read thousands of software engineering resumes over the decades, I can offer some advice about what to leave out of yours. Unless, of course, you enjoy interviews so much you’d hate to see them interrupted by a job offer.

1. Describe responsibilities rather than accomplishments

If you say you “built a data import API” or were “responsible for the login module,” you’re describing your area of responsibility. It is definitely useful to make your area of technical expertise clear, but you’re probably not talking about what’s most important to your reader.

Companies hire people they believe will add the most value to the business. What really matters to your reader is what business impact you had in your previous roles. He or she will probably know nothing about your data import API or how it contributed to company success, so it’s up to you to bring the company success to life in your description. Try “Built a data import API for broader compatibility, which allowed sales to bring in over 40 new major clients.”

If you don’t know how the project you’re working on now contributes to company success, stop coding until you figure it out. You’re actually writing your resume every day, in what you choose to work on and how you approach it. If you have a clear view of the business impact you’re after, you’ll make better prioritization decisions, you’ll communicate better about your project, and you’ll deliver more impact.

2. Describe activities rather than responsibilities

Responsibilities are less powerful than accomplishments, but if you really want to torpedo your resume, list activities such as “collaborated with customer support” or “received product requirements” or “participated in full product development lifecycle.”

You could say a lot of things in your resume, but you have only a few seconds of your reader’s attention to create an impression of yourself. You must choose what to write about, and your choices send a message about what you think is important. They create the impression that these were the most remarkable things you did in your role.

Spending your words on activities sells yourself short. “Collaborated with customer support” says, ultimately, that you had some conversations with your coworkers. “Participated in full product development lifecycle” says…well, it’s not clear what it says. Perhaps you sat quietly in scrum meetings? Even listing a more complex activity like “led and implemented batch job development” is a missed opportunity to talk about the bottom line: why the batch jobs mattered.

Look at you, brain the size of a planet. You certainly did more difficult things than these, and more importantly you did them to accomplish something valuable. Talk about the value you created.

3. Use lots of adjectives

So you’ve written “shipped video management app” on your resume, and it looks threadbare. An insufficient tribute to your majestic product. You’re tempted to dress it up with adjectives and adverbs, turning it into an “innovative video management app” or a “popular, highly interactive video management app.”

Resist the urge. Leaning on adjectives weakens your resume for two reasons. First, adjectives tend not to communicate much, because they mean different things to different people. There’s probably a specific aspect of the design you consider “innovative,” but the reader will not be able to glean anything in particular from the word. Adjectives tend to be vague and subjective, statements of your opinion more than your accomplishments.

Which leads to the second problem: adjectives undermine your credibility. The more you use, the more your resume sounds like a set of opinions open to debate rather than a documentation of facts. Extolling your “proven track record” even conveys a whiff of defensiveness. Either your resume proves your track record to your reader’s satisfaction or it doesn’t; claiming to have proved it just makes you sound nervous that your accomplishments don’t speak for themselves. If you feel uncomfortably boastful as you write your resume, you may be relying too much on adjectives.

Mark Twain advised, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” To get your accomplishments to scream off the page, state facts about them rather than opinions, and where possible back them up with numbers rather than adjectives. Say “increased video management app adoption from 3,000 to 800,000 users in 10 months.” Say “led development of three $10M+ products in past 6 years” and let the reader make conclusions about your track record. The conclusions about statements like these two will probably be positive – because management wouldn’t have entrusted you with the second and third projects unless you succeeded on the first.

Numbers are powerful statements of fact, so powerful that you may be scared to cite them because you don’t know them precisely. Kudos for your integrity – it’s important that any number you claim be honest and defensible. But they don’t need to be auditable or provable in court, nor is high precision usually critical. Estimate where appropriate. And going forward, figure out the key metrics defining the success of your products and keep a close eye on them every day. It will improve your decision making today, in addition to improving your resume tomorrow.

4. Send a text file

An ASCII resume in a text file conveys some geek cred but ultimately doesn’t make you look good. First, it doesn’t look good. At best it will appear to your reader in a single-size monospaced font with crude formatting. But it may get shot up in the feud between different devices and apps over line endings, column widths and wrapping conventions and stagger toward your reader double spaced. Or with your whole career squashed into a single line. Or lines may wrap awkwardly. If you left off a .txt extension, a number of people who need to read it may not be able to open it at all.

A well-formatted PDF sends a much better message about you. It demonstrates you know that your resume will pass through many hands, not all of which have emacs handy, and it shows you had your users’ needs in mind. It also shows you can be detail oriented and make something look presentable on a page. If you do any front-end work, that’s a critical skill to demonstrate. And even if you don’t, you will still need to communicate in writing internally.

5. Make it 10 pages long

Lean in close, that I may whisper a Great Truth of business communication: people do not read.

We hiring managers may read less than anyone. We get 1,000 emails a day and have 30 things competing for our attention at any one moment. Even 140-character tweets stretch our meager attention spans.

So, confronted by a 10-page resume, we’re prone to take one of three impressions. Perhaps the writer is not one of us. She comes from a distant galaxy where people have lots of time to write and read long documents. Do people there get any work done, we wonder? Would she adapt to our environment, with its deadlines and distractions and emails to turn around quickly? It takes a leap of faith.

Or perhaps the writer wanted to edit down the size but couldn’t. Maybe he gets caught in a compulsive frenzy of completionism in every project he takes on. Not an encouraging prospect. Or perhaps he doesn’t know what jobs and accomplishments matter the most for hiring decisions and career success, and would need close oversight to prioritize well. That might be fine for a junior candidate, but a junior candidate wouldn’t have been able to fill 10 pages to begin with.

Keep your resume to a page or two. Edit your recent jobs down to a few major accomplishments and earlier jobs further than that. Don’t detail roles that aren’t relevant to the job you’re after. Cast overboard the summary paragraph describing the conclusions you hope your reader will draw from what follows. Crop out the night class you took or the certification you got if it’s eclipsed by proper degrees or job experience. Less is more.

The alternative: The lean resume

Another Great Truth of Business: many hiring decisions are based on fear. Saying too much in the hope your reader will find something to get excited about is therefore a bad strategy. “Feeling their pain” is a trite saying, but still relevant; take a few moments to consider what the hiring manager doesn’t want from you, and calm those fears.

What you actually need to say explicitly is quite simple: if you want a specific role, list it as a job objective; if you have only a vague idea, leave it off. List jobs you’ve held. Then add objective facts, ideally with numbers, about accomplishments germane to the role you’re after. These can be job accomplishments, degrees you’ve earned, school projects, patents, publications, awards…anything goes as long as it’s objective and relevant. Then stop typing before you trip any alarm bells.

The best resumes, and the worst, persuade based on what they leave unsaid as much as what they say. By keeping yours focused and well presented, you will demonstrate qualities that set you apart without mentioning any of them. Your reader will see that you communicate clearly and factually, you produce high-quality output without fluff, you understand what’s important in this job, and you have relevant experience. The lean resume – one that is easy to work with – also communicates that you’re easy to work with.

Posted by Jim Kelly, VP of research and development.

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Jim Kelly leads development of Quantcast Measure and Quantcast’s advertising platform. As one of the company’s earliest employees, he has seen it grow from a small team to now more than 600 employees. Countless resumes have passed his desk, making him a fountain of knowledge for tips on how to stand out from the crowd.