For those of us in tech, a resume often feels like a necessary evil. It feels like an old and antiquated way of getting a company’s attention. Don’t these companies already know everything about us? Engineers shouldn’t need to look for jobs. Jobs should be looking for us! Just stuff a few key words in a PDF, ship it, and voilà! You’re off to the interview.
Yet, they remain as crucial as ever. Every tech job I’ve ever heard of still requires it. In fact, I’d wager that having a good tech resume is even more important now than it has ever been. Long gone are the days when you could just mention you write a little code and get several shots at an interview without even applying.
In this present environment, candidates apply to over a hundred jobs at a time and barely get a few callbacks. The market is flooded with early career talent all vying for their shot. Even mid-level and senior engineers are struggling. What gives?
Well, your resume is garbage.
Here’s why your tech resume is garbage
Now, I obviously woke up this morning and chose violence in picking this article title. But I really need it to sink in that your resume isn’t nearly as good as you think. Most of you (yes, you) have a steaming heap of junk you call a tech resume that does little for you. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on and it shows.
However, numerous aspiring and current software engineers I’ve spoken to believe their tech resumes are decent. They may have even paid for the trash they have. I am solidly convinced they are in denial. But don’t just take my word for it. Go ask a tech recruiter or hiring manager and they’ll tell you the same thing.
How do you know if you have a garbage tech resume?
So how do I define a garbage tech resume? If your resume features one of the following problems, then you’re going to want to keep reading.
Problem #1: It’s a copy-pasta of your past job descriptions
Did you write your resume by taking job description bullets, rearranging the words, then pasting that in a doc? If so, then you are guilty of the worst resume sin. Having reviewed plenty of tech resumes for my coaching clients, most resumes I receive suffer from this problem.
Paraphrasing bullets from your previous job description may seem like the right move for building a good resume. Nothing is further from the truth. As the name implies, the job description describes what anyone in the job was responsible to do. It doesn’t tell your reader what made you uniquely impactful in the role. And that’s really the whole point of the resume.
Problem #2: It’s highly aspirational and fluffy
There’s probably little you wouldn’t do for a tech job with great pay, stock, and benefits. You tell yourself, “For the right price, I’ll do whatever you want…just pay me!” You know this. Recruiters and hiring managers know this too. Unfortunately, they are not just going to take your word for it.
To them, you are a stranger who will say anything to get the job.
You may genuinely be a fast learner, exceptional problem solver, prolific bug fixer, and an expert communicator. And these are all nice, fluffy words.
But here’s the thing. Saying what you can do is not the same as being able to actually do it. Your reader is looking for quantifiable evidence. Make all the claims you want. If you aren’t backing it up with hard data and numbers, your tech resume is going in the trash. Your hubris and big words are not going to get you the job by themselves.
Problem #3: It’s irrelevant to the job description
Let’s suppose that, on its own, your resume is fantastic. You use the right action verb phrases, have tons of experience, and a decent set of skills. None of that will mean anything if it has nothing to do with the job for which you’re applying.
Early career tech talent and career transitioners struggle with this the most I find. Due to a lack of experience and knowledge about tech roles, they sometimes don’t understand what’s relevant and what’s not. And many candidates I’ve met either don’t read the job description or don’t customize their resume to the role.
Some of you reading this may have submitted your resume to literally hundreds of positions and wondered why no one seems to care. It could be because you’ve done a poor job of showcasing how your skills line up to the job description using your resume.
Fortunately, there are tools like Resume Worded that make it easy to quantify how relevant your resume is to a given job description. I recommend you use these frequently and aim for something like 80% or better.
Here’s how you should actually build your resume
For most tech folks, your resume is probably beyond minor tweaks and touch ups. You need a floor to ceiling renovation. We’re going to spend the rest of this article discussing how you can make your resume an actually awesome one.
Step #1: Keep data on your accomplishments
The work of building a great tech resume doesn’t start with picking a banging template. It starts with you writing down all of your key accomplishments and impact metrics so that you can easily refer to them throughout your resume. You basically need a “brag book.”
Keep running totals of bug fixes, implemented features, dollars earned or saved, users served, satisfaction ratings, and percentages of improvements. Also take note of difficult problems you’ve solved or of times when you exceeded expectations and beat deadlines.
Some of these things are going straight into your resume. Other things are going to need to be authorized or obscured so that you aren’t leaking confidential or proprietary data.
Now forget the fact that you’re building a tech resume for a moment. Any good engineer knows that keeping track of data and basic analytics is important to the job. You should know how the work that you do impacts your users, your organization, and the bottom line.
If you don’t know these things, then you should ask your manager or your product manager. Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues to write reviews for you and to include specific, quantifiable data. Always understand the value that you bring to an organization (in dollars and cents, if possible).
Pro tip: You can also use social media to post updates to your followers about things that you’ve accomplished. I’ve done this not only to have a log I can reference later, but also to attract recruiters and managers. It’s a great way for folks to discover me who are interested in my skillset before I ever need to share my resume. Just be careful not to post anything proprietary or confidential that could get you fired.
Step #2: Read the job description
Again, we’re not writing the resume just yet. We’ve got more research to do. Read the job description so that you understand exactly how you need to tailor your tech resume. Here’s what you’re looking for in the job description (JD for short):
Keywords, concepts, and phrases
These are the words that should be on your resume if they describe your experience and expertise. Not only are you looking for languages, frameworks, and tools, but also soft skills and key values. If the JD mentions cross-functional communication, then your resume should speak directly to this. If the JD mentions problem solving, you should include a bullet or two on your resume about your impact as a problem solver. Make it easy for your reader to do a simple keyword match between your resume and the JD.
Organizational values and the ideal candidate
Every company has a different set of things they care about. A set of values defines their company culture and their ideal candidate. Make sure to speak in their language. Your resume should reflect the values of the company for which you’re applying if you’re going to attract their attention. Not all companies have a strong or well defined culture, but many tech companies will. Look for these insights in the JD, not just for resume prep but also for your interview prep.
Quick note: Usually no one is ever a perfect fit for a position. The ideal candidate doesn’t exist! Your job isn’t to be perfect. Your aim is to be as strong a fit as you possibly can be. Don’t let the fact that you’re not a 100% fit prevent you from applying for a role. Being just 50-60% can be enough if you have a solid resume and a good personal brand.
Filtering criteria for trimming down your resume
If you have many years of experience like I do, you may struggle to trim out things that may not be helpful to your application. Use the job description to filter out anything in your experience that isn’t directly useful for highlighting technical or soft skills. Remember that a good resume full of irrelevant information still won’t get you the job in most cases.
Step #3: Fill out the resume sections correctly
It’s clear that many tech folks have not been trained on how to build good tech resumes. I can tell because I see folks picking, choosing, and arbitrarily inventing sections for their resume that have no business being there.
You don’t really get to pick the sections you want to have on your resume. Know your audience. The recruiter is looking for very specific things, so give them what they want. Or, don’t complain if they ignore your resume because you ignored conventions.
There are only really five or six sections that your resume should have, tops. Anything more than this and you’re probably doing too much. Let’s break them down one by one.
First, a quick note on formatting
There tends to be an inverse relationship between the prettiness of a resume and its actual quality. Don’t get carried away with styling and fonts. It’s probably going to get sucked into an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and spit out without all the pretty colors you spent so much time perfecting.
Stick to plain text and use proper heading styles. Focus on the content, minimize blank whitespace, and pay attention to alignment and indentation. Don’t make the font too small or too big. Use between 10 and 12 point font to keep it readable in print and on screen.
Remember, the best resumes are usually not the prettiest. The best tech resumes are densely packed with accomplishments, succinct, and straightforward.
Name, Title, and Contact Info
At the very top of your resume, you need to have your full name, role title, and contact information. In America, you should never put your picture on your resume. Do include your phone number, email address, and LinkedIn profile. You can optionally include your GitHub profile and website, but be warned. Only list your website and GitHub profile if you’ve invested the necessary effort to make it good. Putting a link to a GitHub profile full of copy-pasta unfinished tutorials is going to work against you, not help you.
As the name implies, the summary should summarize, not make a bunch of unvalidated claims. Don’t put anything here that you’re not going to backup in your experience or projects section. Remember my warning about aspirational and fluffy resumes. About three sentences should be enough to hook your reader. Any more than this and you’re probably doing too much.
Make sure to include your title and what makes you uniquely good at this role. Focus on the value that you have already delivered and cite the impact that you’ll speak to in more detail in your experience section. This section will likely be one you will tailor for every distinct role for which you apply.
Also, there’s no need to rate your skills on your resume. I’ve seen a lot of cute resumes with “strength meters” next to the skills. This is a waste of space. Don’t offer this information unless explicitly requested by your recruiter or your interviewer.
It’s fine to split up your skills by categories, but don’t get wild with this. In most cases, you should avoid unnecessary line breaks or columns in your skills list. A simple comma separated list will do just fine.
This section is the most important part of your resume, hands down. All of your evidence goes here. You are going to focus on your impact. Using a bulleted list, you are going to provide around two or three bullets to describe your effectiveness in each role.
The easiest way to figure out what to put into your experience section is to use the resume formula. Defined by former Google executive Laszlo Bock, the resume formula helps you to describe your impact with quantifiable metrics and details. The formula is simple: “Accomplished X, as measured by Y, by doing Z.” You won’t use these exact words of course, but the order matters.
Now when I say impact, what I mean is this: what did you do for the business that made a difference in your customers’ or users’ lives? How did you make money, save money, save time, or drive efficiency? What was the result of you specifically doing the job as opposed to someone else? These are the kinds of questions your experience section must answer.
Be ruthlessly efficient and focused on things sought in the job description. Minimize or remove everything else that is not related or relevant. Don’t let emotion get involved. However, do recognize that non-technical experience can be incredibly useful on your resume if it clearly highlights soft skills needed for the role.
Pro tip: At the end of your experience bullets, feel free to add programming languages and key tech in parenthesis. This makes it easier for a recruiter to see where you’ve used key tech or skills in context.
For students or recent graduates, place the education section right after the professional summary. For everyone else, it goes last. List everything post-high school and after including colleges, universities, bootcamps, and certification programs. You don’t necessarily need to include your grade point average (GPA), but I’d personally include it if it’s a 3.5 or above.
If you are a student or recent grad, listing relevant courses can be helpful. Otherwise, there’s no need since your experience should take care of demonstrating the necessary expertise.
When you think you’re done with your resume, you’re still not done! A great resume does you no good sitting on your hard drive or in the cloud. You need to make it discoverable. Copy all the good stuff to your LinkedIn profile, personal website, and optionally your GitHub.
If you’re having trouble landing your ideal tech role, consider investing in my coaching services. You can book a complimentary consultation with me at morganlatimer.com so I can assess your resume and LinkedIn profile.