Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Excellent Communication Skills," and Other Resume Blunders to Avoid

There is plenty of good resume advice floating around the inter-tubes, but I still feel like some low-hanging fruit is being missed. Sometimes good formatting and having a friend check your grammar and spelling isn't quite enough. So, after doing recruiting for my company for about the last year, I've compiled a list of some of the lowest-hanging-yet-often-unpicked fruits I've found.

Excellent Communication Skills

Call it a pet-peeve of mine, but I'll pretty much automatically deduct points from a resume that includes this statement. A resume is supposed to be a set of cold, hard facts about your professional history; not a list of fluffy, subjective adjectives that you would like to use to describe yourself. But wait, aren't communication skills important? Especially in an industry whose populous is notorious for lacking social skills? Yes, of course. The problem is that writing "excellent communication skills" on your resume tells me precisely nothing about your communication skills. Graduating with a 3.6 GPA, working on Android applications at your last job, and holding a Top Secret clearance are all good things to put on your resume because they tell something factual about yourself. Not only factual, but factual and easy to compare with other candidates. I can easily compare who has a better academic history, more android experience, or the highest level of clearance by comparing resumes. The only conceivable way I might look at a resume and try to deduce the applicants communication skills would be by looking at how well written it is, but in general I don't even do that. Bullet points are trivially easy to write correctly and the one's that don't never make it to me; HR effortlessly filters those out before they make to a technical recruiter. The cover letter is your chance to showcase your written communication skills, not your resume. And note that I said "showcase" your written communication skills, not assert them. If you really are good at communicating then show me, don't tell me. At best, this is a waste of a line on your resume.

JAVA, HTML, SQL, XSD, JDBC, Python, XML, MATLAB, C/C++, JavaScript, Visual Studio, Subversion, XSL, Android, Eclipse, Git

Do you have a line on your resume that looks something like this? What am I talking about, of course you do. Every programmer has a line somewhere on their resume where they list every programming related technology they've ever come into contact with. I understand that you need to throw a little bit of alphabet soup on your resume to get past the HR drones who only know how to search for key acronyms, but does it really have to be an unordered list? And why did you put programming languages, markup languages, version control software, IDEs, and a mobile operating system all in the same list? I can tell you're trying to tell me something here, but it's just not getting across. What I really want to know is which languages and technologies you are best with, but that information is hopelessly lost in the clutter. I usually assume that people have ordered this list in order of best to worst, so this person is probably best with Java, right? Which is weird, seeing as they incorrectly capitalized it as "JAVA," but whatever.  So when time comes for the interview and I softball a Java question like, "can you explain the difference between an abstract class and an interface?" and they respond, "oh I don't really remember, I took a Java class freshman year and I haven't really touched it since," I'm about ready to pull my hair out. Essentially your resume didn't tell me anything useful about your technical skills so we'll have to start from scratch. Try reformatting this list to something like:

Best With: C/C++, XSL, XML, XSD, Subversion, Visual Studio
Proficient With: Java, JDBC, SQL, Android, Eclipse
Familiar With: Python, MATLAB, JavaScript, HTML, Git

Suddenly everything makes sense. I can tell from your "Best With" line that you've been doing a lot of XML parsing in C++, using Visual Studio as your IDE and Subversion for version control. From your "Proficient With" line I can tell that at some point you probably made an Android application that interfaced with an SQL database, and the "Familiar With" line is a catch all for the rest. After reading this, I know what your current skills are and what positions you might be best for, and I have a good idea of what I should ask you on a technical interview.

You may disagree with this point on the grounds that people already elaborate on what they've been working with in their employment history section of the resume, so this might seem redundant. I disagree, I think the "list of relevant skills" section (or whatever you choose to call it) is easier to read quickly, and your resume should strive to tell your story as quickly and efficiently as possible. Also, people tend to do the same thing in their employment history section; while describing a project they've worked on they'll make another "alphabet soup" of every technology they came into contact with while working on it. Your "list of relevant skills" section is your best opportunity to talk directly about yourself and your skills.

BS Computer Science, Some University, August 2001 - December 2008

This one is subtle, but once you notice it you can never unnotice it. Why on earth did you just voluntarily tell me that it took you seven years to graduate college? You shouldn't lie on your resume, but don't go out of your way to write negative things about yourself. Unless you're making a point to show that you graduated college in three years or less, remove the date that you started college; it's not doing anything for you.