How to write a good CV (resume)

At present, since we have a number of job openings for software engineers and technical leads at work, I’m spending quite a lot of time reviewing CVs.

It is frequently a depressing experience – not because everyone that applies is not suited for the job, but because their CV does not tell me enough to confidently make a judgement about whether or not the candidate is suitable for the role. People tend to fall into one of three traps:

Too brief

This tends to happen with students and other people with less experience, but not exclusively so. They provide so little detail that I end up wondering “well, do you have what it takes, or don’t you?”. If your CV doesn’t help me answer that question, it’s not doing its job.

If I’m feeling charitable and you have given me enough to get curious, I might put you through for a phone interview so I can try and get a bit more information out of you; but it’s also fairly likely that this will lead to a rejection.

(The worst example of a “too short” CV we received was a few years ago. It was no more than one third of a page of A4, in 10pt Courier font, and it listed every role the guy had worked in, going back to his Saturday job in Sainsbury’s in the 1970s – but didn’t tell me anything useful about the software roles he’d apparently had since then).

Too long

For some reason some people feel the need to describe every project they have ever worked on in excruciating detail, and/or mention every tool, piece of software, buzzword and programming language they have ever heard of. This leads me with two problems: firstly, there is far too much to read (so I won’t read it all – I rarely read beyond page 3 of a CV and if I do I’ll be skim reading); and secondly, I won’t be able to tell which of the myriad list of “skills” are the ones you are actually strong in and which you just mentioned because you are trying to play “buzzword bingo” and tick some recruiter’s boxes.

The worst of all CVs have a very long list of buzzwords (typically under a general heading like “skills”) and then a really short and non-specific “experience” section that tells me nothing at all about what you actually did. These are both too long and too short. What I want to see is a short list of specific and relevant skills (if you must) and more importantly an experience section which demonstrates that you actually do have the skills you proclaim to have and have put them to good use.

Besides which, one of the skills we need in pretty much all our roles is the ability to communicate complex technical information clearly and concisely, often in writing. Your CV is your first test of this skill – if it’s too long and waffly then you fail.

Too vague

Several resumes I have reviewed for our technical lead role in Los Angeles in particular have fallen into a weird trap where I’m left wondering “why are you actually applying for this job – do you really want it?”. The candidate sets themselves up as some kind of uber-genius (either technically, or as the CTO of some company that made millions of dollars while simultaneously cutting costs, leveraging synergies, saving the planet and making a team of a bazillion employees so fantastical happy that they skip to work singing every day). I can tell that most of it is puffery, but how much? Is there anything underneath the gloss that is actually relevant to the job we have on offer? It would be much better if they took a more humble approach and were honest about what they are looking for.

Just right

A few years ago I wrote a page on our website that explains what I and my colleagues are looking for in a good CV. It’s still entirely true today, so check it out, and stick to it. You are not the exception that proves the rule – sure, you might have 30 years’ experience but you should also be able to summarise the most important bits of it into two or three pages.

And finally, if you are a recruitment agent, please put in a bit of effort and coach your candidates into how to write a good CV. Don’t send in any old rubbish just because it’s what the candidate gave you – and certainly don’t cut and paste what they gave you into some weird template that screws up the formatting and puts your agency logo everywhere. I actually want to read good CVs, and if you make sure the CVs you submit tell me what I need to know it will make your candidates more likely to get the job.

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