I know a lot of you developers are probably looking for a better job—or any job at all—these days. And you may be thinking that you have a perfectly good resume. But if you’re talking about that thing you’ve got stored over at Monster.com, or the rag you passed around to get your last job—back when the tech boom had turned job hunting into a buyer’s market—you may have a pretty sour realization coming. Since the tech boom’s gone bust, you’re going to face some pretty stiff competition for fewer open positions. Are you sure your resume can stand up to that?

If you have your doubts, I’m here to help. As someone who has seen and built his fair share of resumes, I’ve accumulated a fair bit of wisdom that I’ve distilled down to five rules. So let’s take a look at my “five rules of the resume.”

Rule one: The goal of a resume is to get you an interview
I find it easiest to tackle problems by setting clear goals and then coming up with a plan to achieve each goal. What is the goal of a resume? To get you that great new job, right? Well…yes and no. Achieving gainful employment is the ultimate goal, but what is the specific goal of any resume? To describe your skills? Get you an interview? A new job?

Now, repeat after me: “The goal of my resume is to get me an interview.” Keep this in mind, and it will help you decide what makes your resume a good one or a bad one. If including something in your resume doesn’t serve the ultimate purpose of landing you an interview, it has no business being there.

Rule two: Keep the presentation simple
You’ll want to keep the presentation of your resume as simple as possible. I sometimes see developer resumes where the job seeker sees the resume as a chance to show off his or her computer skills, by perhaps creating it in Word with an embedded Excel spreadsheet. Don’t bother. For a technical job, an overdone resume is unnecessary and can actually work against you. I’ve seen some strange resumes that were formatted in all sorts of ways. I’ve seen resumes that looked like textbooks, like folders, and like presentations. I even had one sent to me origami style, folded into the shape of a swan. But my advice is to just keep it simple.

Don’t use fancy paper or fonts
Unless you are going for a true executive position, don’t bother with fancy paper. No odd colors, textures, or college logos, just plain white 8 1/2 x 11 paper is all you need. I’ve never given an interview to a candidate simply because he or she used textured gray paper, nor have I thrown away a resume simply because it was on white paper.

While you’re tossing out that hot pink paper, go ahead and ditch the weird fonts too. Just stick to the common choices (e.g., Arial or Times New Roman work fine), and make the font size somewhere between 11 and 14 point. Tiny fonts make recruiters crazy. Oh, and print your resume in black ink only.

Don’t write a book
The average recruiter or HR person looks at a resume for around seven seconds before deciding on an interview. I call this fact the seven-seconds rule. Don’t expect a recruiter to read a book in that time. Keep your resume to fewer than three pages in length, unless you want to include a keyword list as page three. Any paragraph with more than four or five lines should probably be pruned.

Corollary to Rule 2: Always include a keyword list

As far as I’m concerned, developers should always include a list of keywords with their resume. In it, you should include every language you ever used, even the ones you think no one uses anymore. Ask the COBOL programmers who got rich fixing Y2K problems if you’re wondering why.

The only exception here is for a scannable or electronic resume that’ll be stored in a database and searched against at a later date as positions become open. If that’s what you’re after, then the sky is the limit, but a scannable resume is a completely different animal than the resume you’d send in response to a newspaper ad, and as such is beyond the scope of this article.

Don’t obfuscate your objective
By all means do include an objective statement in your resume, but keep it simple. A single declarative sentence is all you need. And make sure to list any titles or job codes as worded by the company. I’m a recruiter, and I’m here to tell you, we recruiters are lazy people. Don’t make us look up the job code for you. We may get it wrong and send your resume to the wrong people.

Don’t include personal information
As far as which personal information you should include in your resume, just list your name, phone number, e-mail, and address. To protect yourself from possible discrimination (not to mention protecting the employer from potential lawsuits), don’t add your photo if you’re submitting to a company in the United States. However, if you live in a less-litigious part of the world, a photo may be a good idea. It’s also advisable to not include information about family, health, age, religion, ethnicity, or marital status. You’re actually protecting the company as well as yourself by not including this sort of information.

Now, you probably already know better than to list your birth date, race, and political affiliation. However, it’s still possible to give away some of this information indirectly. For example, your age may be apparent from your work history.

Rule three: Don’t highlight your weaknesses
Make the format of your resume work for you, not against you. The last thing you want is for your resume to highlight your weaknesses. So choose the proper type of resume. Briefly, there are two main resume types: Chronological and skills based.

The chronological is the more traditional of the two, and is the resume most people are accustomed to seeing. A chronological resume starts at the top with your most recent job and goes back in time as you work down the page. This is generally the best choice for someone with a good strong work history; a true career path; and least three strong, sequential jobs leading up to the one he or she wants. On the other hand, if you have little or no work history, you’re changing careers, have skills learned through training instead of job experience, or you don’t want your age to be apparent from your resume, a chronological resume may not be the best choice for you.

A skills-based resume, on the other hand, emphasizes skills instead of previous employment. I recommend this format for you young developers out there who may want to emphasize the skills you’ve learned over your short work history, or if you don’t want to give away your age from your work history. A skills-based resume lets you highlight your skills without connecting them to a particular job, so you don’t have to differentiate between the skills you learned in class and the ones you learned on the job. It has four parts:

  • Your objective—Remember not to obfuscate it.
  • Your skills—Start with your best skill, and work from there. Give one or, at most, two sentences per skill. Bulleted lists work well here.
  • Your education and certifications
  • Your employment history—Again, only one or two sentences documenting your employer, job title, and primary function are necessary.

My last formatting tip may come as a shock to you: If your word processor has them, go ahead and use the wizards. The more conservative resume wizards are quite good, and can provide you with a solid framework to start from.

Rule four: Leave them wanting more
This is the shortest rule, but it’s probably the hardest to adhere to: Leave the reader wanting more from you. Don’t try to put your whole history on your resume, just stick to the highlights and save the good stuff for the interview.

Rule five: Think like a lazy recruiter!
My last rule is probably the least intuitive of my rules of the resume, but it stems from a simple fact: Recruiters are lazy. So, you have to think like a lazy recruiter. Remember the seven-seconds rule, and use it to your advantage.

Word your resume like the ad
Recruiters often just cut and paste job descriptions and terminology from source documents when creating advertisements. They will later refer back to those documents when reviewing resumes for qualifying skills. Make it easy for them; word the job descriptions on your resume exactly as the qualifications were worded in the ad. That is the best way to make sure you are understood.

For example, if you want a job as a Delphi programmer, and the ad you’re answering reads, “Three years Delphi development experience in a manufacturing environment,” you want those exact words to appear on your resume. Of course, this approach does involve tweaking your resume to fit each specific job, but it is well worth the effort. Besides, you’re already editing your resume to include the job code in your objective, right?

Hit them over the head with it
Put all that important stuff you want seen near the top of the resume. Bold the specific terms that you think the recruiter will be looking for, like that job code and position description. Watch that you don’t bold more than two or three words though, or you will dilute the effect.

Include contact information on each page
Put your contact information on every page of your resume so that if a page of your resume somehow gets lost, the hiring manager can still contact you. Just include it near the bottom of the page.

Good luck in your job search
All of my resume rules are important, but rule five is probably what will give you the biggest advantage when seeking that interview. Following these rules involves a bit more work, but it’s work your competition probably won’t do, which gives you an advantage.