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A Guide to Technical Resumes For Embedded Systems Developers

By Jack Ganssle

Written in 2004. There's also a page about becoming an embedded person here, and the results of the 2014 salary survey for embedded people is here.

How fast things change! Not long ago I got a dozen or more emails a day from companies and recruiters looking for developers. Some were so desperate for people they were willing to pay extraordinary salaries and bonuses. Wags were pronouncing massive shortages of engineers over the coming decade.

Now I'm flooded with mail from developers who have lost their jobs or feel their company is in danger of failure. Rare indeed is the message from a company trying to hire.

Macroeconomics mostly baffles me, but it does seem there's a pattern to our industry's boom and bust cycle. The early 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and now all saw recessions of greater or less magnitude. For some reason the start of a new decade brings a slowdown. Those of the 80s and 90s even changed the political climate as incumbent presidents lost their reelection bids.

Electronics always gets hit hard in these recessions. No surprise there; there's little special about our business and so it's natural it too should decline in sync with the rest of the economy. The 90s subordinated common sense to a fury of stock market irrationalities. Many analysts sagely pronounced high-tech as being recession-proof. Too many folks believed them and spent as fast or faster than they earned. We heard the same nonsense about technology in this decade.

Lifetime employment, once a staple of businesses like IBM, is long gone. There is no job security anywhere anymore. Despite Dilbert's buffoon-like portrayal of managers, I sure don't envy their roles. Can you imagine responding to non-negotiable forces like demanding stockholders, or empty bank accounts? By far the biggest expense for most high-tech companies is salaries. So there's little surprise that's the first place most outfits economize. It's awful and brutal, and horribly impacts people's lives, but in our capitalistic economy I can conceive of no alternative. Some would say the problem stems from the greedy Madoff/AIG/Enron culture where the top dogs earn (or steal) millions or billions. Perhaps. Surely that's worth cleaning up. But a problem that's a few tens of billions in the United States' $15 trillion economy is in the noise.

The moral is that bad times always come. A hot economy is the prelude to a downturn. To us little people that means being prepared for the inevitable troubles. Squirrel away money. Avoid credit card debt. Bucks in the bank give you options and flexibility when the company folds, or when all engineers are told to take a 10% pay cut "for now".

Lawyers tell us to audit insurance policies and wills regularly. Nothing wrong with that, but I think it's more important to manage life than death. In the best of times and in the worst of times routinely update and tune your resume. Pretend you are a tired boss tasked with hiring, made a bit cynical by digging through a pile of resumes with their exaggerated claims. How can you appeal to that person?

It's a competition, in a sense a battle against your peers. The resume is your main and perhaps only tool to get a foot in the door. It's the key that may get you admittance to the interview. Post-interview, most employers review the resume, make notes on it, highlight the good stuff and problem areas. It's circulated for comments.

A crummy resume - and in bad times, anything that's less than stellar - will doom your job search.

Suggestion: Subscribe to my free newsletter which often covers job issues in the embedded systems industry.

 

Sales and Marketing

This critical document is a selling tool. A lot of us hate the thought of sales and marketing. I remember as a very young and very naive engineer telling a group of older folks how engineering is so "pure" and unsullied by the grittiness of sales and marketing. They all laughed, and rightly so.

Everything we do is sales. How do you convince your boss to get new development tools? Sell him. Show how the benefits outweigh the costs. Want to get your colleagues to start using UML or eXtreme Programming? Better sell them, hard, since change is always difficult. Show them the upside of the change. Be prepared to push for some time, as the biggest changes need the most selling. Hit them on all fronts.

Successful sales means we must speak the customer's lingo. Too many engineers never get this, and talk to their bosses about bits and bytes when those individuals really want cost/benefit ratios. Write your resume to communicate clearly what you've done to someone who probably doesn't have a clue about your specific field.

Acronym overuse is a mistake. None of us know them all; worse, a lot are industry-specific. Few folks not building colorimeters, for example, know what CIE means. It's best to describe your projects in terms any working engineer knows.

An example snore-inducer: "Worked on DOB-EKV project, used Shear/Mellor in C++ on Galaxor's 3.12 compiler running CDC1412."

Yuk. Who cares what compiler, let alone version, you used? What did the system do? Who used it? Did it work? Was this a big job. or did it take you 6 months because you're incompetent?

Better: "Wrote the DOB-EKV star tracking software for Marshall Space Flight Center. Used Shear/Mellor methodology and an object-oriented design. I wrote 25k lines of C++ running on an ARM11 processor. Six month project that flew successfully."

Most resumes start with career goals. They're a waste of space, and are better handled in the cover letter. Let's face it: the prospective employer, at this early stage, cares little about you as a person. Most are thinking only in terms of "can he do the work?"

Instead, start the resume with a well-written, hard-hitting career summary that tells the reader (in one sentence) what sort of job you're looking for. Follow that with a sentence or two that states what you're really good at, that tells the company how they can use you effectively: "Though I have written over 50k lines of GUI code in the Windows environment, I'm one of the best 8051 assembly and C programmers around. I can build tight, fast interrupt handlers for you, and am a master of working with an RTOS. If your product has performance constraints, limited memory resources, or tight timing, I'm the man for you."

Traditionally this sort of salesy prose goes into the cover letter. That's a mistake. They get only a fraction of the scrutiny devoted to the resume. Figure anything in the cover letter will be forgotten or de-emphasized, so make sure all of the meat, everything you want to say, is in the resume itself.

The second paragraph should be a summary of your skills, written in clear concise English with a minimum of jargon. It's never a laundry list of languages and tools we've used; rather, write an honest (and salesy) assessment of what you're good at. Don't pretend to be an expert at everything. No one is. Consider this format: "Expert at C (have written over 200k lines), C++ (150k), assembly (100k). Very good at Perl, Fortran. Have completed projects in Modula, Pascal, Ada, and Algol." The evaluator will appreciate the easily read information and the honesty.

In the experience section, list your jobs chronologically, working from the present to the past. Always note the start and end dates, including the month, for each job. Any attempt to paper over an employment gap will be discovered so don't even try to fudge the dates. And do include your job title.

Describe what you did - without acronyms and jargon - at each job. Pretend you're reading the resume; what would you like to see in a candidate? I want to see what the candidate actually did. That means write with active voice. Tell a (short) story about your accomplishments, citing examples that scale to other companies.

Usually the resume ends with the usual long, dreary and boring list of languages, environments and tools you've used. Skip this. No one cares. If you've followed my advice the reader already knows the highlights of this. A wise reader realizes that anyone can learn how to use a debugger or a new IDE.

If you have other affiliations or experience that is relevant to a prospective employer, by all means include the information. Be specific. Add dates, dollars, or other quantitative information.

Resumes targeted at US companies should be 2 or three pages long. A single page is appropriate for a new grad; 5 pages is too much. Note, though, that overseas longer is better; 5, 7 or even 10 pages may be OK if you have a lot of experience. At that length figure on more descriptive prose and fewer bullets.

Include lots of contact information. The experienced resume reader expects a pretty high BS factor. Prove your points by including references (don't make the reader ask for them), and phone numbers and contact names for every job. The ideal reference is a former supervisor. Always include the reference's relationship to you, thus cheating the reader's natural assumption that these are your best buddies. Find powerful, compelling references. Don't have any? It's your responsibility during your career to develop these relationships. Find and nurture people who can, over the years, aid you in job searches.

If you had one bad experience, leave the contact information off for that one job and be ready to explain the circumstances, honestly, in the interview.

Everyone understands that if you're looking around while still employed you'd rather not have the current boss contacted, but it's best to be explicit about your wishes.

Be sure it's easy to contact you. I've seen resumes with neither email nor phone. That hardly speaks well for someone wanting a cutting-edge technology job.

In the USA, if applying for an engineering/software job, don't call the silly thing a CV (curriculum vitae). That's pretentious, used mostly by people applying for academic jobs.

Don't include personal information about your kids, your hobbies or your pets. Believe me - no one cares. The space eaten up by these words is simply wasted. And worse, your avocation may be the resume-reader's pet peeve.

Be sure to mention you subscribe to, and read, The Embedded Muse. Increasingly managers tell me they expect professionals to be subscribers. And list all post-college training you've had.

Honesty

Never, ever, lie on the resume. The truth has a nasty habit of surfacing. These days companies check on degrees, immigration status, and more. For a few hundred dollars you can now have anyone investigated in at least surface detail. Many companies routinely run such checks.

But an honest approach doesn't mean you can't practice a bit of truth management. For example, why not customize the resume for a particular job opening? If you know the firm uses 68HC11s, and you have that experience, emphasize it. Devote a greater part of the document to your expertise with this processor. If you have no 68HC11 background stress the transferable skills: C is pretty much the same thing on any small microcontroller. Sell the reader on your competence in their area of interest.

You can go too far with the truth. One resume I've kept for years was for a person applying for a medical job. Under "mental health" she wrote "better, now that I have full custody of my kids", and then goes on for several paragraphs about the details of her breakdown. Discretion is the better part of valor.

I worked for years with an engineer who later admitted he had no analog experience, though was hired as an analog designer. He told me: "I just lied about it all." Sure, he got the job, but that's a lousy approach to life. And he was quite awful at the work, later being relegated to an almost clerical position.

Editing

I've read hundreds, maybe thousands of engineers' resumes over the years, and am struck by how many are so poorly edited. If you can't be bothered to get the tedious English details right, then who's likely to believe you'll take the time to make perfect software?

Write it and then proofread it. Put the doc on a shelf and reread it a week later. You'll be amazed at the mistakes that leap off the page. Have several friends go over it; if one's an English major, so much the better. Make sure a techie pal or two checks the details as well.

Try to get a boss-type, one who actually hires people, to edit the resume. That input can be invaluable. Remember your target audience isn't yourself or technical peers - it's someone who's making a selection based on how well the document matches their needs.

The lingua franca in the USA is English, yet so many of these important selling documents are written in what appears to be a corrupt technical argot. Butcher the language and you'll surely convince readers of your poor education. Which seems a very bad way to apply for a job.

There are important differences between your and you're, between there, their and they're. A downtown billboard shouts the ad agency's thoughtless approach to work due to the mix-up of your and you're. These sorts of errors are inexcusable and easily avoided, and are deadly on a resume.

It's OK to mangle the grammar a bit; clarity and brevity is much more important than a gripping storyline. Don't be chatty but do use active voice. Convey the information in an easy-to-read concise way.

We all want our resume to stand out, but resist the urge to be too quirky. Don't print it on bright orange paper. Don't include a photo of your dog or a bio of your spouse. I've seen all of these. It's a sure way to put off the suits who often make the big decisions.

When times are hard want ads generate a resume avalanche. Stand out by carefully matching your skills to the prospective employer's needs, and by concisely, cogently and honestly documenting your prowess.

Excerpt from a terrible resume

(What NOT to put in your resume... even if it's true).

 


Joe Coder

1 Coder Court, Coderville MD 21231
(410) 555-3647 (home)
(410) 555-1214 (work)
joe@hotmailyahoo.com

Career Summary

My dream job is being part of a small team building great 8 or 16 bit embedded systems in C and assembly.

Though I have written over 50k lines of GUI code in the Windows environment, I'm one of the best 8051 assembly and C programmers around. I can build tight, fast interrupt handlers for you, and am a master of working with an RTOS. If your product has performance constraints, limited memory resources, or tight timing, I'm the man for you.

I'm an expert at C (have written over 200k lines), C++ (150k), assembly (100k). Very good at Perl, Fortran. Have completed projects in Modula, Pascal, Ada, and Algol. Greatly experienced with the VxWorks and uC/OS real time operating systems, as well as with the CAN bus and internet protocols. I've used UML on big projects and am a certified UML trainer.

Experience

The Code Dudes - Chief Programmer (4/00 to Present). Supervisor Jack Dude, 410-555-3322.
I designed, coded and tested all of the firmware in the company's Wacko 2000 ground beef analyzer, which used 12 68HC11 processors communicating over a CAN bus. 35K lines of C developed in 6 months using Lint and code inspections. Delivered 2 months ahead of schedule and 8% under budget. Handled picoamp-level analog inputs at microsecond rates; developed unique FIR filters to smooth the noisy raw data. I became an expert using uC/OS in this 14 task system. I implemented an embedded web server for remote maintenance of the product using a commercial TCP/IP stack.

The Code Dudettes - Programmer (1/97 to 4/00). Supervisor Jacky Dudette, 410-555-5435.
I was part of a three person team that designed, coded and tested the firmware in the company's range of colorimeter products. I implemented firmware on the 32 bit PowerPC, the 16 bit 186, and the 8 bit 68HC05 and Z180. I wrote some 150K lines of flash-based C++ on the PowerPC product, and over 100K lines of C on the 8 and 16 bit processors.

The PowerPC product used VxWorks and was developed using Wind River's Tornado environment. We modeled the entire system in UML before generating code, using Rhapsody to back-annotate changes into the model.
The Z180 system was resource and timing constrained. I wrote it entirely in 32k of assembly language as it had to respond to events at 50 usec intervals. The system simulated a phase-locked-loop, so real-time response and analog stability were critical issues.

Other Affiliations

Member, Advisory Board, Dufuss Corporation, 1997 to present. In this role I help the startup evaluate technical options such as language selection, tool use, and advise their programmers on appropriate process issues.

Publications and Papers

I presented three papers about UML modeling at the 2002 and 2003 Embedded Systems Conferences. My article "Extreme UML" ran in Embedded Systems Programming in August, 2002.

Education

  • BS in Computer Science, 1996, University of Southern North Dakota. Top third of class
  • Four weeks of UML training from iLogix, 2000
  • Three weeks of training from Wind River on the Tornado environment and VxWorks.

References

  • Jack Dude, former supervisor. 410-555-3322
  • Jacky Dudette, former supervisor 410-555-5435
  • Professor John Seagul, head of CS department at my alma mater, 410-555-6587