The worst kind of resume is a list of technologies

Are you having a hard time getting responses to your resume? Do you know you have the skills for a job, but have a hard time convincing the company to hire you?

If your resume starts out with a long list of technologies you are selling yourself short. Knowing and using programming languages, libraries, and so on is a critical job skill for a software developer, but it’s only part of what makes a good programmer. And the skills you aren’t mentioning may well be keeping you from getting hired, even if you already have them.

In this post I’ll discuss:

  • The most important part of your resume: the opening paragraphs.
  • Why starting with technologies is a mistake.
  • What to lead with instead.

The most important part of your resume

Recruiters spend very little time reading resumes, and more broadly people tend to skim when reading. That means the first thing a reader see when they read your resume will have the most impact. The lower on the page, the less likely it is to be reached.

You should imagine the hiring manager as looking for some hint or phrase that will make them think “aha, this sounds promising, I should keep reading.” And you should also imagine them giving up looking after less than 10 seconds.

That means you need put the most important pieces of information at the very top of your resume. The first sentence, the first paragraph, no lower. Your goal isn’t to convey everything, you just want to make yourself sound interesting and relevant enough that the recruiter keeps reading.

For example, let’s say you worked in bioinformatics two jobs ago, and you’re applying to a bioinformatics job again. Your opening paragraph should mention your biotechnology work; that way the reader will be motivated to keep reading. Having given that motivation, you can still do the normal reverse chronological job history in the second part of your resume—but perhaps the paragraph for your current job should be a little shorter if it’s less relevant.

Don’t lead with a list of technologies

Since you need to make yourself sound interesting in the first few seconds, a list of technologies is a bad way to start. Merely claiming to know a technology doesn’t tell the hiring manager how useful of an employee you’ll be.

In some jobs knowing particular technologies will give you a head start, which is why some recruiters foolishly use technology keywords as a filter, but it’s never really enough to do your job as a programmer. So spending precious moments of attention listing the technologies you know is a bad way to convey your value:

  • Many of the technologies you know won’t be relevant to the company. If a company only uses Ruby, the fact you know Idris is unlikely to be relevant.
  • Even if you’re listing a technology the company does use, mentioning it isn’t very compelling proof you can do anything with it. Can you read existing code and fix small bugs, or can you create a completely new project from scratch with it? Those require different levels of skills.
  • Even if you’re the world’s foremost expert at a technology, that doesn’t mean you’ll be productive. Will your boss have to tell you exactly what to do, or will you be able to work independently?
  • Most companies use many technologies, and add more technologies over time. If you know Python but refuse to learn other programming languages, you are a far less useful employee than someone who doesn’t know Python but is able and willing to quickly pick up whatever is needed.

What to do instead

Instead of opening with a list of technologies, open with a paragraph demonstrating the ways in which you’re a valuable employee, ideally tailored to the company you’re applying for. Specifically, you want to convince the hiring manager you can do the job they’re hiring for, which is either solving problems, or at more experienced levels identifying and solving problems. Writing software is merely a means to that end.

So you want a starting paragraph that emphasizes:

  • Your ability to solve real, relevant projects with your skills.
  • Your ability to work independently.
  • Your ability to learn quickly.
  • Your relevant domain knowledge, if any.
  • Your ability to work with others.

And you want to include just enough real-world examples that you will convince them to keep reading. Once you’ve got them reading the main job-listing section of your resume you can go into much more detail.

You can still have a list of technologies if you want, but don’t waste the precious first half page of your resume on it. Personally I don’t bother: I just mention names of relevant technologies at the jobs where I used them.

If you’re currently looking for a job, go look at your resume, set a timer for 10 seconds and read it from the start. What will the recruiter learn about you? And is that all you want them to know? If all they’ve learned is that you know tool X or language Y, it’s time to make some changes.

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