Tech résumés are piling up faster than the local landfill. It's more important than ever to have a strong résumé that is sure to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, techies are notorious for producing résumés as dense and inaccessible as a secure coding manual, volume one.
In the hot job market of yesteryear, techies could get away with it: Poor résumés didn't matter much, only a pulse. In today's crappy environment, though, a well-written résumé can make all the difference between being able to pay that mortgage or not.
[ Worried about your tech career? Find out how to protect yourself in the recession with InfoWorld's 2009 IT career survival guide. | No matter what your technology focus, make sure you possess the 30 skills every IT person should have. ]
The five essential tips for a good tech résumé
That's why InfoWorld has compiled a list of five essential tips for writing the perfect tech résumé:
1. Drop the detail. "The No. 1 problem with most technical résumés is that they are way too long," says Martha Heller, managing director and recruiter at search firm ZRG, who sifts through more than a dozen résumés daily. Résumés often come in at six pages when they should be only two pages. (You can get away with three if you're covering a decade's worth of multiple job stints.) Remember, "résumé" is French for "summary"!
So why do techies tend to write résumé tomes? The reason is that good technical people understand the value of documentation and detail. After all, Heller says, "The mentality is 'If you don't document your work, does it really exist?'" No doubt this kind of thinking has made its way on to the résumé.
There's also a fear that the technology important to a potential employer just might be a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer, which you worked on in the 1980s but failed to mention on your résumé. Driven by this unfounded fear, nervous techies fatten up their résumés with every technical detail since the dawn of computers.
Rest easy, advises Heller. "With the pace of technology change, there is no way that a piece of technology that you have not touched since 1985 is going to help you get a job right now," she says, "so just leave it off the résumé."
2. Abolish your objective. "Don't put an objective on your résumé," says Carole Schlocker, who runs iSpace, a technical staffing firm. How to put this gently? No one cares what you want. Companies want to know what you can do for them.
An all-too-common résumé starter: "Objective: To use my technical skills in an enterprise-wide environment to grow with the organization and help them to be competitive and profitable." The objective starts with the desires of the applicant and plays into the rotten stereotype of the me-first, prima donna techie.
In lieu of an objective, try a summary with a maximum of four bulleted points. If it runs longer, then it's really not a summary but the exposition itself. Here's an example of a two-bulleted summary:
* Over 10 years working with Oracle applications, customizing them for global organizations
* Specific expertise in the following Oracle modules and versions: Oracle Procurement and Spend Analytics, Oracle Hyperion Financial Management
In summaries, avoid generic words and phrases like "project management," "sales support," "leadership," "team player," "problem solver," and "excellent communication skills." That's because summaries are too short and can't provide the proper context for these words, so they end up being meaningless and waste space.
3. Get your résumé in search shape. Most tech résumés go through a whirlwind lifecycle, from keyword search to a nontechnical hiring manager or a recruiter to a CTO or a tech-savvy CIO who is looking to fill a specific need. The challenge is to write a résumé that speaks to these different readers. And that first reader is usually a résumé-search application, not a person.
To get past the search filter, you'll need to do a little research on jobs in demand during a recession and related job descriptions. The goal is to find the acronyms, the résumés, and the keyword phrases that the software will be looking for. This can be an arduous task, and there's no getting around it, but things can go a little faster if you have multiple versions of your résumé touting different keywords.
Keywords are tricky, too. For instance, do you fill your résumé with the term "Access," "MS Access," or "Microsoft Access"? All, of course, mean the same thing. But what will the search value? "It's probably safe to use two of the three," says Schlocker.
The keyword decision process, says Schlocker, goes something like this: "Most corporate recruiters are just out of college. These are young kids who are very good with search engines. They get a job description, enter in keywords, and then start searching. That's how your résumé is going to come up." Or not.
It's also good practice to use keywords and acronyms (along with their spelled-out names) in both the technical skills list and inside the body of the résumé. Not only does this optimize the search, but human eyes down the road will be able to connect technology to the job.
4. Highlight the right certifications. Despite the best efforts of applicant-screening software, hiring managers are still flooded with résumés and have to separate them quickly into yes and no piles. Certifications can be a very effective way to do this. Right or wrong, nontechnical hiring managers often use certifications to help them evaluate technical skills.
On the other hand, too many certifications littering a résumé can result in a death by a thousand cuts. "If someone looks like a certification junky, and they're moving from job to job, the certification suddenly becomes a liability," says Heller. That's why it's important to choose technical certification training wisely.
While certifications pale in comparison with work experience, having the right certification can tip the scales in favor of an applicant. According to Foote Partners' fall 2008 survey of more than 22,000 IT professionals, which covers some 170 certifications, the most valuable certificates today settle mainly into two camps: architecture and security. Microsoft and Cisco certifications also got good grades.
5. Balance tech and business. Describing your prior job descriptions in only a couple of paragraphs is more art than science -- that is, there are no hard and fast rules. Yet there are some helpful guidelines.
For starters, a prior job description should start with a general statement similar to a summary bullet. For example, "Financial services technical expert with a specialty in large-scale networks with excellent uptime."
The body should have technical detail that, critically, shows the technology's impact on business. Both the hiring manager and the CIO want workers who understand technology's role in the business, especially in times of financial stress. The most recent previous jobs should contain the most detail, while older jobs require only company name and job role.
With prior job descriptions, techies often make two glaring mistakes. The first one is writing in excruciating detail the basic job description of, say, a network admin. The hiring manager may not understand it, and the CIO already knows it. "Don't waste the space," says Schlocker.
The second mistake is describing technical projects, challenges, and relationships without any context. Metrics can provide this context. As a lead systems admin, for instance, how many people did you manage? If you built a network, point out the number of people it supports.
Conversely, while it sounds cool to say you reported directly to the CIO, the recruiter may feel duped after finding out it was at a five-person company. "I don't know anything about you and your technical skills if I don't know anything about the environment," Heller says.
More do's and don'ts
You should also make sure you take care of the basics, since lack of attention to these details leaves a bad impression. And in this environment, you can't afford that.
Make sure to put your name and page numbers on your résumé, such as "Jane Jones, page 1 of 3," since a résumé will change hands and be shuffled with other résumés.
If your formal education and certifications are impressive, go ahead and put them on the first page.
Tech résumés tend to be dense, like lines of code on a computer screen, yet it will help to have some white space in your résumé to make it easier on human eyes.
Present your résumé as a Microsoft Word document. "It's standard in the industry," says Schlocker.
Avoid the first person -- "I" or "me" -- in the résumé.
For e-mail addresses on résumés, use a Gmail or a Yahoo address if you use a free e-mail account. E-mails from AOL addresses can reveal your age -- and yes, age discrimination exists. If you're using an e-mail from a personal domain, make sure it's professional. "I once saw an e-mail with [name]@studinwestla.com," says Schlocker. "You'd be shocked at what I've seen ... that shows a lack of judgment."