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On Resumes

Summary: A resume has to be a compelling sales document. Here's some pointers.

My son, newly-minted physics PhD in hand, is applying to become an astronaut. This week he asked me to edit the resume he'll send to NASA.

Throughout their teenaged and now adult years I've always encouraged my kids to write their resumes themselves, but then either let me do some editing, or to pass the document to one of a few trusted friends. When I feel a change is needed I describe why so they'll learn how to play the hiring game.

Over the decades I've read uncounted resumes. Some were pretty good; a few really shined, but too many just didn't hit the mark.

If you've never been on the other side of the hiring process, you may be surprised to learn that often the initial goal when reading a resume is to find a reason to discard it. When there's a big stack you know that, if you're lucky, there will be one or two great candidates in that pile. It's most efficient, if unkind, to toss those that are less than a perfect for the job.

The objective of a resume is to get an interview. That means it must be tailored to the job you're applying for. For example, if the iPhone people at Apple are hiring, your resume should stress any sort of RF experience (hardware or software) you have. If it's in the GUI group, be sure to highlight that graphics application you did some years ago. Each resume you send must be different and highly tuned to the specific job.

What a pain! But unemployment is a 40+ hour/week job. That job is, of course, to find work. Crafting a custom resume and cover letter is simply part of what one must do. Broadsiding the market with the identical resumes and cover letters is a sure way to find yours in the discard pile.

The resume is a sales document. Make it easy for the reader to quickly understand your strengths and how they match the job description. Start with a paragraph that gives an overview of your experience and competence. Avoid jargon and acronyms unless they are as common as USB or match the job description. That paragraph should be a well-crafted narrative to interest the reader in digging deeper. Think English, not engineering.

In the rest of the resume be wary of jargon. That acronym you've been using for years may be completely meaningless to other people. Everyone knows what FTP means; less common acronyms should have a very short description, like "RTPS (an interoperability protocol)".

Many engineers include an exhaustive list of the languages, CPUs, communications links, etc. that they have experience with. Often this is a limiter - "Oh, this fellow has never used a Cortex M4F!" Better is to list "Extensive experience with a variety of 8, 16 and 32 bit CPUs, e.g., PIC, Cortex, TI MCUs." Note that lists "PIC" and "Cortex," not specific part numbers. "PIC24F04KA201" tells the reader you've only worked with the one part. It narrows the field too much.

Don't list hobbies unless they complement your skills. Sailing - who cares? Have a ham license? Mention it; the reader may assume you have more electronics knowledge than you do. Don't discuss health - everyone assumes you're in good shape. Leave that divorce, bankruptcy, or custody battle off (I have seen these and more - one assumes the candidate is a fruitcake). Don't print it on pink paper (I've seen that), or include a picture of your dog (seen that, too). Use 1.25" margins so interested readers can make notes.

Above all, get friends and colleagues to read the resume. It's really hard to see mistakes that can be glaring to others. So many I've read mix up words. They're, their or there? Should it be its or it's? Circulate it to people who are really good at English - even non-engineers. They'll point out the grammatical and other mistakes. Your engineer pals can critique the technical content.

Try to have an engineer who has done a lot of hiring to read it. Ask him or her to grade it against specific questions:

 Is it an impressive resume considering my years of experience?

 If you were hiring and needed my skills, would you want to interview me?

 If not, why not?

 What's the weakest section?

 Even if you love it, give me one thing I can improve.

 On a scale of one to ten, how does it stack up against other resumes you've read - and why?

I've written extensively about resumes - there's more here: http://www.ganssle.com/sellurself.htm

Published January 11, 2016