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By Jack Ganssle

Resume Follies

Published 4/28/2003

I worked with an analog designer for many years, one whose skills were adequate but less than stellar. A nice guy, though, he became a close friend during the battles of getting products to market. One day I asked about his background; turns out all of his education was in the digital arena, his analog expertise limited to that learned in college.

"I needed work, and this looked like a good opportunity. Don't tell the boss, but I just tuned my resume to meet the skills requested in the advertisement."

"You lied, then," I countered.

"Well, let's say I emphasized my bit of analog experience and embellished the rest."

Decades have passed since then, and I've often wondered where our ethical boundaries lie in creating a resume. Moralists might claim that absolute unrelenting honesty is the only policy in any ethical quandary. I have doubts. My late grandfather was a tough old salt, a tugboat captain whose unedited honesty made my grandmother's existence a living hell. Never would a banal kindness pass his lips unless provably correct. Even a "you look nice today, honey", the sometimes not-quite-true social grease necessary in all relationships, was, to him, an unacceptable violation of the ninth commandment.

Parents practice a bit of truth management when they praise the young child's random crayon slashes, comparing these to great art. We help budding drivers gain experience and confidence by complementing the newbie on a rough start in first gear. because it's not quite the gear-crunching whiplash start of just a few days earlier. When the big boss pushes for C++ on an 8051, a wise employee will cite the dearth of compilers rather than publicly explore the depths of the boss's ignorance.

So where's the line on resumes? How honest should they be? The oldest trick in the book is editing by omission. It's self-destructive to note that you were fired from that job; better wait and see if questioning during the interview drags up that unhappy event. A short stint from 6/99 to 8/99 might look a bit better if described as "1999". And I'd recommend leaving off the detailed description of that stint in the mental ward (which one resume I had the dubious pleasure of reading described at length).

Wholesale fabrication of experience, though, strikes me as being unacceptably dishonest. Though companies are getting quite aggressive in looking for felony convictions, debt problems, manufactured diplomas, and much else, it's still rather hard to prove that Joe Coder never actually did write the Linux TCP/IP stack. Careful questioning at the interview may reveal the deception, but a surprising amount of experience listed on any resume goes unchallenged.

What do you think? What resume-polishing advice would you give to a developer who has experience shortfalls or employment gaps? How much truth management is ethical?