Early-Career Resume Advice (for software developers)

My sister Jackie recently asked me to review her resume. She’s planning on taking a break from her PhD program in physics to try out work in software development through an internship (and if you’re looking for an extremely bright, motivated intern this summer, especially in the Seattle area, let me know). This is what the resume draft she sent me looks like, more or less:

NAME

EDUCATION
PhD Candidate, Physics, University of Washington

[4 lines about undergrad experience/awards]

FELLOWSHIPS/AWARDS
Prestigious fellowship
Academic award
Academic award
Academic award

TECHNICAL SKILLS
Java
InDesign
Matlab, Mathematica
etc…

Organizing her accomplishments this way is logical. Essentially, she put the academic accomplishments that she had spent the most time on, and that had been the hardest to achieve, first. Unfortunately, that isn’t the most effective way to organize a resume to maximize your chance of getting hired.

I’ll use Jackie’s case as an example below, but the same principles apply to anyone writing a resume where your existing experience isn’t a perfect match for the job description you’re applying for. This is especially applicable when you’re just getting out of school, or looking to switch careers.

A Resume That Will Get You Hired

The key insight to authoring an effective resume is recognizing that to a rough approximation, your future employer only cares about what an incredible person you are to the degree that your abilities can help them accomplish their organizational goals. Concretely, Amazon only cares about Jackie’s exclusive fellowship if it’s a useful indicator of her ability to close bugs, or whatever it is they’re looking for an intern to accomplish.

At the point where you’re writing and sending off resumes, it’s too late to change your actual accomplishments to more closely fit what your future employer is looking for. But you absolutely can and should present your work in a way that promotes a vision in your interviewer’s eyes of how you can provide value to their team.

There are a few important principles that will help you accomplish this: (1) putting your most relevant experience first, (2) sharing your experience in a way the interviewer can relate to and (3) emphasizing impact over difficulty.

Put Relevant Experience First

Jackie dedicated the top 1/3 of her resume to academic accomplishments that, while extremely impressive, are not great predictors of her ability to succeed in a business environment. The awards and grants she focused on may have their place on the resume, but it’s definitely not the thing readers will care about most. It would be better to put more relevant projects and experience first, and leave the awards for a more general nice-to-haves section at the end.

Share Your Experience in a Relatable Way

A PhD is ideally an experience in which you’re given an unsolved, vague problem and expected to probe, dissect and break it down over a long period until you’ve found a novel and effective solution that you can share with others. It’s not a coincidence that this is an exact description of what the very best (and highest paid) software engineers also do. However, a hiring manager won’t necessarily make this connection automatically, so in your resume find ways to make it for him. No matter what your background is, you’ve had experiences like this where you needed to solve big problems and were successful in doing so. Use your resume to paint a picture of how your experience demonstrates your ability to solve the company’s problems.

Emphasize Impact, not Difficulty

Consider the following resume bullet point, which I’ve suggested that Jackie add:

  • Conceived of, designed and implemented a software system to track and count the number of living cells in a colony over time, saving 300 hours of work over two months.

Now, it’s quite possible that the cell-counting project is 50 lines of glue code in Python that just calls out to OpenCV, took less than two hours to write, is irrelevant to her thesis and completely unpublishable. Despite all of that, its inclusion on her resume will quite possibly improve her chance of getting hired more than any number of published papers.

Companies care about how you can help them achieve their goals, which depends entirely on the impact of your work on the things they measure, and not at all on its difficulty. Share experiences that demonstrate you’re capable of making a real difference on their bottom line, not just that you’re a hard worker.

Conclusion

By keeping in mind the reader’s perspective and goals while preparing your resume, you’ll be much more effective in producing a final product that catches a company’s attention and gets you to the interview.

Published on January 9, 2016

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