Why Your Resume Sucks & How to Fix It

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Shredded paper in a waste bin - where the majority of resumes end up!I’ve seen a lot of software engineers’ resumes over the past few years. And most of them suck. Even the resumes of really good people who we’ve hired have often been very average.

Why is that? I’m going to tell you why, and then I’m going to help you avoid the same mistake. And while my experience is mainly in hiring for IT-related roles, this advice can be used by any job seeker.

The UX of Resumes

I think the common understanding of how to write a resume is wrong. It’s wrong because the common approach is to develop a resume that’s focused on the candidate. Here is the most important thing you need to know about writing a resume:

The resume-writing process should not be focussed on you, the candidate.
It should be focussed on the Hiring Manager.

The resume-writing process should not be focussed on the candidate, but on the Hiring Manager. Click To Tweet

Rule #1: No Templates

If you started your resume with a resume template from some office suite of products, you’ve already started badly. What does the person who created that template know about your industry, your country, the current job market and, most importantly, the people you’ll be sending the resume to?

If your resume is not designed with a Hiring Manager in mind, it’s probably not been designed at all. To design the right resume, you need to start with two blank documents. Two? Yep, TWO! We’ll get to that later. First, you need to fully understand Rule #2:

Rule #2: Know Your User

The Hiring Manager is the user of your resume. If it doesn’t satisfy their needs, it will be a failing resume.

So, what does a Hiring Manager need in a resume? Really just two things:

  1. They need to answer their common gating questions.
  2. Fast.

A man reading a thin paper in a cafe, possibly a Hiring Manager reading a resume.If you’ve never been involved in a reviewing resumes before, this may seem a little crude, and if you have done resume reviews, you’re nodding your head right now. You see, no one ever gets a job off the back of a great resume. It’s just a short and fast way to rule out candidates who won’t make it to the next stage. Not because they’ve done anything wrong, simply because they’re not as promising a prospect on paper as other candidates. It’s simply not possible to invest masses of time into every candidate who applies, so the resume review process is a quick gate.

What happens if you don’t meet the Hiring Manager’s needs? You can answer that yourself. If they can’t find the answers to their gating questions in your resume, do you think they’re more likely to (a) let you through without getting the answers they wanted, (b) chase you up by phone to get the important information you left out, or (c) let your resume fall into the waste bin?

And if the answers are in there but they can’t find them fast? Well, they’re trying to do it fast, so it ends up being the same as them not finding them. I’ve had a full-time recruiter tell me I should never spend more than 2 minutes looking at a resume. Personally, I’m not that cut-throat, but you should know that there are people who are literally time-limiting your resume and putting a very high bar on its efficacy in communicating to them.

So, the big question: What are the Hiring Manager’s gating questions? Ah! Here’s the catch. You don’t actually know! Not exactly. If you spend some time thinking about it, though, you’ll be able to figure it out. There are some obvious and common ones you should think hard about…

Obvious Questions

Pretty much every manager will want to know a few things about your job history; at the very least: “What companies have you worked for? In what roles? And for how long?” Other questions they might be interested in answering include: “Which country was each job in? Were you contracting, consulting, or doing in-house R&D? Did you have one role at that firm, or move through several?” Now, almost every resume contains the answers to these questions. Often, though, the answers are distributed across multiple pages, or buried in the detail, which fails the “tell me fast” test. A “job history in a nutshell” is a must-have. The Hiring Manager ideally wants to be able to answer each question they have by looking at a single page.

Think about this little detail: the Hiring Manager really wants to know how long you worked at each role, but most people list start and end dates. Those are important, yet to answer the question of “how long?” with only that info, the reader has to do calendar math in their head, when you could have just written “(2 years 4 months)” next to the dates. Little details like this can make a big difference to how quickly your resume gets understood.

Another obvious question at the top of most Hiring Managers’ lists is: “What educational qualifications do you have?” Again, it’s present in most resumes, but where? It’s surprising how many people put this as the last thing on the last page of their resume, almost like a footnote. Again, the information is there, but not somewhere that the manager will see it quickly. I’m guessing people do this because they see their resume as one long reverse-chronological history, but often this is one of the first bits of info a Hiring Manager will want to know.

Some Common But Not-So-Obvious Questions

Here’s a question the Hiring Manager may be asking and which you may not be answering: “Can this person communicate using the written word?” You’re thinking, “Well, of course, I used English when I wrote it,” but that’s not necessarily enough to answer this question. It’s not uncommon today to see resumes where there isn’t a properly formed sentence in the whole thing. Instead, there’s endless lists of bullet points, all of which contain fragments of sentences or just lists of words and phrases. Use English. Use paragraphs. Write. Communicate as if the reader is reading, not scanning for keywords.

Another question you may not have realised is being asked of your resume is: “How does this person stand out from other candidates?” Are there things about you which are exceptional compared to other employees in your industry? You need to make sure they’re explained, and that they’re impossible to miss. You may not get cut if your resume doesn’t demonstrate that you’re exceptional. However, having one that explains (succinctly!) why you’re a head above the rest boosts your chances of getting to the next round phenomenally.

Some Questions Hiring Managers Aren’t Asking

Here’s some things Hiring Managers usually aren’t asking, but which are in many resumes anyway! Click To Tweet

How does the About Us page of your previous employer describe the company?
Quite often I see the first paragraph of every job role in a resume has obviously been lifted straight from the company’s marketing material. Don’t do this. While what the company as a whole does is interesting, the Hiring Manager is much more interested in what you did at the company. Usually the relevant background can be summed up in one short sentence, often less than ten words. Example: “FakeInsure provides retail home, car and life insurance.” (Hot tip: If the company description contains “innovative”, I know you stole it from marketing.)

What’s the full list of every technology you used on each project?
Do you really think someone cares which logging library you used on a project for six months in 2009? I care about understanding how deep your experience is in the few skills that you specialise in, and about getting a general feel for how broad your skill set is. And on that note, “How does the candidate rank their own expertise in their 20 most-used technologies?” is also something most Hiring Managers aren’t asking. For the skills where they think it’s important to know the depth of your expertise, they’ll make sure they test you using their own scale.

Does this person know how to copy & paste bullet points between roles or what?
Seriously. I’ve seen resumes with 5 roles and 8 bullet points under each, with at least half of the points being exactly the same between each role. If you’ve done a bunch of common stuff in every role, just write that at the top! (And using a sentence instead of bullet points!)

What are the rest of the questions Hiring Managers are asking?

That’s the spirit! If you’re asking the question above, you’ve finally got the hang of it. You’ve realised you don’t care what you want to say about yourself, you only care what the resume reader wants to answer about you.

Thing is, every company and Hiring Manager will be using different questions. The same people will use different questions for different roles. I can’t hope to tell you everything they’ll be thinking. And this is where the two blank documents comes in.

When you’re getting ready to apply for a job, the second document you want to write is your resume or CV. Note that carefully – you write it second! The first document you write is a list of questions – the questions you believe the Hiring Manager for this role will be asking. Put it in priority order. Once you’ve got that list of questions, you’ll know exactly what you need to write in your resume.

Pro tip: You can legally cheat here. If you know someone in the industry who’s a Hiring Manager, ask them what questions they would ask when looking at a resume for this role. Take their responses with a grain of salt, though. Questions will change from company to company depending on the hiring needs, the culture and the current team’s capability.

Wait a Minute. If the Resume is Based on the Role…

Does this mean you need a different resume for every role you apply for? The answer is… possibly. It depends how different the roles are that you’re applying for and, consequently, whether you expect Hiring Managers to be asking different questions.

Let’s take some examples. If you’re a software engineer applying to an algo-trading company, they’re very likely to be interested in whether you have previous experience in finance, or coding complex algorithms, or in writing high-volume, high-performance code. If you’re applying for a design agency consulting role, they’re probably more interested in whether you’ve got experience in doing small projects quickly and interfacing with customers. These managers have different questions which are answered by different information.

However, it’s possible your resume may answer the questions of all the different roles you’ll apply for, and that’s okay. What’s important is to write that first document – the list of questions you expect the Hiring Manager to be asking – each time you apply for a role. Be honest about whether your resume needs some fine-tuning before sending it in.

Be careful about trying to craft a resume that is everything to everyone, because it can end up being 50% irrelevant to everyone. In the example above, the agency won’t care much about your algorithm chops, and the algo-trading place may not care much about your people skills. You could put both in, but it may give the wrong impression, i.e. that you’re looking for a role where you get to repeat those previous achievements.

On Length

Lots and lots of pages... not something to aim for in a resumeThis should be obvious. For Hiring Managers to review your resume quickly, it needs to be short. Ideally, two pages or less. Three at the most. Someone managed to put all of Elon Musk’s career on one page, so I’m sure you can manage with two!

On Design & Formatting

Good design and formatting can grab the Hiring Manager’s attention and contribute to them finding the answers to their questions quickly. Here’s some quick tips: make section headings obvious; don’t follow bullets with long sentences; don’t have a hierarchy of bullets; in general, avoid bullets; don’t use tables; don’t write the exact dates of your tenure, months are good enough; don’t use a margin that takes up 1/3 of the page; use consistent styling throughout; use contrast to highlight the most important bits; don’t use bold to highlight every 5th word.

Again, a chance to legally cheat: If you have a friend who has visual design skills, you’d be very smart to get them to help in the design of your resume. Don’t be shy – most design folk love little projects like this. Even better, you can learn the simple skills you need to format it better yourself.

One More Thing

Robot reading, similar to software that searches resumesI haven’t been telling the whole truth. The Hiring Manager is the most important consumer of your resume, but there are other users, too: the recruiter and, increasingly, the recruiter’s candidate searching software. So, while I, as a Hiring Manager, don’t care for reading long lists of technologies, recruitment software loves reading that kind of stuff. If you leave it out, there’s a chance you might not be prioritised by the software for the roles you want. Hence, you might like to give a quick thought to how you’d like your resume to be found by recruitment software – basically, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for your own CV – but be careful not to stuff up the Hiring Manager experience for the computer’s sake. The advantage here is that software reads resumes very fast, and it doesn’t care if information is at the start or the end of your resume, or even if it’s invisible because it’s white-on-white!

Your Resume Action Plan

Here’s the tl;dr:

  1. Start your resume writing by thinking about and writing down the questions the Hiring Manager is most likely to be asking to pass resumes on to the next round.
  2. Put the answers to all those questions in the resume in a way that’s quick to assess.
  3. Don’t put in information that doesn’t help them answer their questions.
  4. Keep it short and well-designed.
  5. Don’t submit a previously-written resume to another role without thinking about whether this Hiring Manager is asking the same questions as the last one you submitted it to.

Try It Out!

If you’d like to test out your new resume-writing skills, apply to Tyro Payments! We’re hiring for heaps of roles at the moment, including Software Engineers, Testers, and Operations / DevOps folk. We’ve just expanded our Software Engineer recruitment to accept applicants from all over Australia and abroad, so if you’re planning to move to Sydney, this could be your chance! Here’s some links where you can find out more about Tyro and the roles we currently have open. Make sure you mention my blog when you apply. 😉

Image credits: “Shredded !” by Craig Sunter
“reading…” by Hans Splinter
“Edges of a thick book pages taken in macro” by Horia Varlan
“Reading” by Katy Tressedder

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One thought on “Why Your Resume Sucks & How to Fix It

  1. I like your point of “4 year 6 months” against every job. I can’t calculate how long this guy worked for .. I’m going to tune my CV tonight !

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