How to Make HR Dump A Programmer's Resume

We all like to think that applying for a job puts your résumé in front of your prospective new boss: a hiring manager who understands the technical background you carefully explained in your career summary. But most programmers apply for new jobs through the Human Resources (HR) department, which exists to eliminate candidates rather than to find them. If HR decides your background isn't right for the job, the hiring manager will never know about you. Even when you know you have the job skills the company wants, you can be eliminated for arbitrary reasons.

Most guides to writing résumés and CVs reasonably encourage you to write for the knowledgeable person with whom you'll interview: someone who can appreciate your brilliant achievements. This can be a particular problem for software developers because so much of the résumé is in-depth technology descriptions that a recruiter is unlikely to understand. A programmer easily can apply for a job whose duties are beyond a well-meaning HR pro's personal technical knowledge.

Obviously, the best strategy is to go around HR whenever you can, and eliminate the middleman. But when you're faced with a perfect-sounding job to which you can only apply by writing to something-or-other@craigslist.org, HR is unavoidable. So in a marketing sense there are two audiences, the staffing person and the manager, and you need to answer the concerns of the first before the second will hear about you.

Instead of continuing to complain about the situation, though, I decided to ask HR and staffing professionals how they eliminate you. That is: When an HR pro is looking at résumés from software developers applying for programming positions, what makes the recruiter hit Delete without thinking twice? What items in a résumé makes them crumple up the paper (virtually) and throw it in the circular file? What makes them think, "Whatever made you imagine you are qualified?!" A few dozen people responded to my query, and helped me learn how you can keep your résumé out of their trash bin. I don't promise you'll like this list of their criteria. But it doesn't matter if you agree with their perceptions; they are still between you and that job interview.

Let's start with the most obvious lesson: You need the buzzwords. Most HR professionals rely on a keyword matching process and an automated applicant tracking system — those tedious web forms you fill out. If you don't have good "key words," you won't show up on their radar as having the right experience.

These systems are understandably literal. A human might see "Paris" and recognize, "That's in France," but a search algorithm will not. So you have to be far more explicit than you think you ought to be. You know that J2EE experience counts as Java; an HR person who types "Java" into a résumé search system will only find that experience if "Java" is mentioned in your document.

Despite the expectation that you'll have the right list of technical qualifications, many HR professionals also want you to write in business terms and avoid technical jargon. Yes, I realize that appears to be contradictory advice, but it behooves you to find a balance. Sharon Blaivas, a former recruiter at Goldman Sachs who's now a resume writer for shakeupmyresume.com, says HR professionals want to see résumés that are pleasing to the eyes and understandable — not "a bunch of techno babble thrown on a page from margin to margin making the reader fear that the candidate won't work well with non-technical people." Your résumé may never see paper, Blaivas says, but it should have a clean appearance and nice formatting.

However can you do both?! Another recruiter suggested you dumb things down a bit. That is, he said, "Create a resume that a layperson will understand. Yes, include the technologies used and maybe a bit about your methodology, but make sure it's readable to the point that a non-techie friend can get the gist of what you've accomplished in each job. Keep that tech-oriented résumé for the hiring manager to review."

Perhaps that more in-depth technical overview is suitable for a web-friendly page to which you can direct the hiring manager (should you be lucky enough to get past HR). Because, continued the recruiter, IT folks are notorious for long resumes—painfully long resumes. "Much of this is due to the project-based nature of their work. However, they need to show some discipline," he says. "A resume is not a CV. It's not a data dump. It's not a bio. It's a marketing tool used to market YOU as a candidate." Or as one recruiter once made clear to me: the job of your résumé is not to get you a job. It's to get you an interview.

The HR people are indeed looking for the academic background and certification "achievements" that irritate the heck out of techies who might have the right technical background without a college degree or personally believe that vendor certifications don't accurately judge ability. One HR pro listed the things he looks for, from higher to lower importance, as:

  • Academic education
  • Technical experience
  • English level
  • Right language structure and sintax [sic]
  • CV arrangement

But that's just the start. Here are more mistakes you can make in trying to get past the HR department:

Misrepresenting how long you worked with a particular language or technology. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr, author of The Trouble with HR cites software developers who'll emphasizing proficiency in a new programming language in a way that isn't credible. Just as you and I have seen job ads calling for five years of experience in a technology that hasn't existed for five years, some folks pad their résumés in an equally dumb manner.

A little less obviously, developers sometimes claim technology expertise in their summary, Taylor says, but they fail to show any actual work experience with the language. For some recruiters, this is a major turnoff — one that'll get your application dumped immediately. If you list a technology in your technical summary, then you should be ready to pass a technical screen on that technology. Don't exaggerate experience, particularly with self-proclaimed labels. "Someone a year out of school and no prior experience calling themselves a test architect," for example, is a fast trip to the trash heap for at least one recruiter. Don't try to give vague arm-wave to get noticed, either. One hiring manager rejects applications with "lots of buzzwords that mean nothing," such as "familiar with the SDLC." She wrote, "Which SDLC do you mean and how does you're being familiar help me?" Don't use words like "familiar" because they are too mushy; does that mean you can recite back a list you memorized for an interview question or that you actually understand what activities are appropriate when? "I see this a lot on resumes with little experience in an effort to make the resume look bigger," the manager says.

Software developers need to learn the art of leaving out irrelevant skills. For example, Taylor says, a developer who proclaims proficiency in basic business applications such as Microsoft Word is working against herself. "A programmer I am interested in hiring should have enough relevant experience that padding a resume with trivial items is unnecessary," Taylor says.

That also means leaving out experience, such as the stint in high school where you worked at a retail job, when you've had more than ten years of experience. "Telling me about high school or college clubs, honors, and the like when you're a mid career professional is just silly," wrote one HR pro. "FORTRAN, COBOL, and other obsolete programming languages really make you question how strong the programmer is in object oriented best practices," said another.

None of the HR people I interviewed for this post said so directly, but long ago I was advised to leave off my résumé any technology that I didn't want to work with today. I may once have been a goddess of OS/2 system internals (well actually, yes I was), but if I'm not prepared to accept a job doing that today... leave it out.

Don't be irrationally loyal to a system or exhibit your pride in being an early technology adopter — not with the HR people, anyway. Submit a résumé in .doc rather than .docx or Open Office's .odt. If a recruiter can't open your file, I was advised, she's not going to try very hard to find a way to view it.

Here's three résumé items that will get one technical recruiter (at a 70 person firm in the Pacific Northwest) to hit the Delete key:

  • Hasn’t worked in 9+ months without addressing reason why. Even in this economy the mid to senior level developers are finding jobs with only a few months gap. So unless you tell me right away why you haven’t been working (school, travel, etc) I am going to assume you aren’t very good.
  • Out of the country and looking to work remotely. I haven't found a client yet that is open to paying a fee to find them this type of candidate.
  • No experience in the language/tools relevant to the position. Missing some of the tools is fine, but if you are a 10+ year embedded C developer, my client won’t look at your résumé for a job requiring 5+ years of Java experience working on web apps.

Some advice given by recruiters is certain to rub programmers — oh, excuse me, software developers — the wrong way. For example, Marsh Sutherland, president of Walden Recruiting feels the word "programmer" elicits old school mainframe programming. "Modern titles are software engineer and developer," Sutherland says. I'm not sure that most techies would agree (but then I just had a reader write a long diatribe about the difference between "journalist" and "reporter," making a distinction that nobody I know in the profession would recognize). But it's what the recruiter thinks that counts, because it's the recruiter's hand on the DELETE key.

More important, perhaps, is the language used in your résumé that's meant to appeal to the techie manager to whom you hope to report, not to the HR person who has to examine the résumé. One HR pro was ready to dump "silly job titles that are screaming to be noticed," such as "Web site dazzler," which "seemingly never get you noticed." Stephanie Krebs, who works at Sapphire Technologies, is also turned off by "programming guru" because she sees it as overselling; someone always knows more then you, Krebs says. (Perhaps the lesson here is to have a buttoned-down résumé for when you submit to an HR department, and the personable appeal-to-other-techie version for when you know you're applying directly to a technical manager.)

That's plenty of negative advice, isn't it? All sorts of things you should avoid doing. But what do HR professionals and job recruiters want to see on a programmer's résumé? We'll cover that in the second part of this series, next week.

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