As seasoned job hunters know, the first step on the road to finding work is to write a resume that gets you the interview. Unfortunately, some of the traditional resume writing rules just do not work well in the software development industry. Here are 10 tips for writing a programmer resume that will increase your chances of getting the interview.
Note: This information is also available as a PDF download. For a more detailed look at this topic, see the blog post "Write a resume that will land you a programming job."
#1: Provide a skills list up front
The hiring manager wants to know if you have the skills the company is looking for. An "experience" section gives managers a good idea of how much experience you have, but if you have a "skills" section at the top of the resume, their eyes go there first. Sure, you may be making it a bit easier for them to weed out your resume. But on the flip side, you might bring to their attention some skills they would otherwise overlook. At the very least, the hiring manager will appreciate the skills list.
#2: Make the experience interesting
Most developers on the market have written a data-driven Web site or desktop application. To give a bunch of examples of these on your resume is not impressive. What does impress a potential employer is experience that has something unique about it, showing you've done more than just "Hello World" level work. If you've been working under unique constraints or in environments with high levels of transactions or zero tolerance for failure, that looks very good to the person reading the resume. So show me how your experience is different, and I will see you as different.
#3: Root out grammar, spelling, and other common mistakes
Over the course of my time hiring, I have seen all sorts of grammar and spelling mistakes on resumes. One of the most embarrassing was when someone misspelled the name of the college he graduated from. Resumes do contain some unique grammatical conventions, and software development work in particular often revolves around acronyms or oddly spelled words. But that is really no excuse. Check your spelling and your grammar. This tip appears on just about every resume advice article I have ever read, but it clearly needs repeating.
#4: Education counts, but not for much
Unless you are just entering the job market for programming or are applying for a very specialized position, your education is not terribly important. Sure, you need to put it on your resume, but list it last, please. The hiring managers who need or want to know about it can find it, and the others won't have to spend time on it. The world of programming changes often enough so that somewhere around seven years later, most schooling (except for "principles and theory" subjects, like mathematics or "pure" computer science) and certifications have little in common with the current working world reality.
#5: Get to the meat, quick
The traditional resume format includes a lot of information that's just not needed, in the mind of the development manager. Your summary and possibly even the objective are two such sections. There really is no way to provide a summary that describes most programming pros in a way that is accurate, yet shorter than a resume itself. This is why most summary sections read like so much useless drivel: "Seasoned programmer with 10 years development," followed by highlights of the skills section. Thanks, but no thanks.
The objective is often (but not always) just as useless. If you are looking for a change of pace, it offers a great way to keep the reader from pigeonholing you based on your skills and experience. The intermediate programmer looking to slide into a senior developer position can safely skip the objective. The senior programmer who wants to become a software architect or a DBA needs to state an objective. So avoid the summary at all costs, provide only useful objectives, and let the reader get to your skill set as quickly as possible.
#6: Formatting matters
The formatting of your resume is important. While the days of mailing resumes printed on premium stationery are long past, it is still a document that someone needs to read on a computer screen and on paper. That can be quite a balancing act, believe it or not. This is not the time to show off your inner Picasso, unless the position you are applying for is of a visually artistic nature. This is the time to enhance readability. That means using a larger font (10 to 12 points), a common font that all computers have (if your document format does not bundle fonts within it), and one that looks good both on the screen and off. My recommendations are Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Calibri, and Helvetica.
Use enough whitespace so that the document does not seem too dense, which will turn readers off. At the same time, don't waste so much space that it takes eight pages to print 200 words. Of course, the format of the file itself is important. My experience has been that 99.9% of the recruiters out there will ask for your resume in Microsoft Word format if you send it in any other format, so make sure that you can provide a document in the standard .doc format.
Always keep in mind that the resume is your primary tool for selling yourself. If readers can't consume the information in it, whether due to technical issues or readability problems, they will quickly move on to the next resume.
#7: Be cautious with the length
Regardless of how your document is formatted, try to keep the length between two and four pages, unless there are extremely special circumstances. People who spend a lot of time doing short-term contract work can have longer resumes, and people just entering the job market can have shorter resumes.
Overall, it is tough to properly highlight your technical skills and more than one position in the traditional one-page resume format. Two pages should be the baseline for any intermediate or senior developer. But after about four pages, the reader's eyes start to glaze over. Much like your education, the experience you had more than seven or eight years ago is not terribly relevant, but the hiring manager does like to see an arc of increasing responsibility or project difficulty.
#8: Properly document your history
Programming is not like most fields when it comes to employment history. For one thing, many programmers are contractors, which leads to an employment history that can look like a train. In addition, the dot-com bust is not too far behind us, and IT has always been an industry with a lot of bankruptcies, mergers, and acquisitions.
The problem is, no hiring manager likes to see a long list of short-term jobs. If your resume has a string of such jobs, with job titles that get bigger and bigger, you look like someone who has no loyalty. On the other hand, if the jobs seem basically the same (or worse, get lower on the totem pole), it makes the reader think that you may simply be unemployable. If you have a legitimate reason for the short-term jobs, make sure that the reason is obvious. For example, mark the contracting/consulting positions clearly.
#9: Don't put the reader at legal risk
No hiring manager likes to be accused of prejudiced or discriminatory hiring. Not only is it unethical, but it is illegal. So hiring managers who are trying to do the job right will be familiar with the list of questions they can't ask an applicant. Your part of the equation is to exclude this information from your resume. The hiring manager does not need to know your marital status, ethnicity, nation of origin, age, religion, or sexual orientation. There are a lot of other things the hiring manager does not need to know, either. If you include these irrelevant details on your resume, the hiring manager will feel scared and skittish. Leave these details out, please.
#10: "What a geek!"
In high school, you may have hated being called a geek. But today, you are trying to find work as a programmer. "Geek" is "gold" to hiring managers. Find a way to show them that you are smart, love programming, and are constantly growing, learning, and exploring new ideas. Talk about your relevant hobbies if you have any, like contributing to open source projects or volunteering to teach local kids programming. Let them know if you like programming or computers enough to deal with them outside of work.
It is a really simple equation for the hiring manager. While two candidates may be equal today, the candidate with passion will be far more advanced tomorrow than the candidate who treats it as "just a job."
Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.