Resume, Aim, Hired

Recently, I was at a company website browsing for jobs. As usual, I ran into a typical catch-22: Every career advisor on the planet will tell you to customize your cover letter and résumé for the position, but I have yet to run into a website that lets you upload a different résumé or cover letter for each position. Being a software architect, I immediately had to think about how to fix the problem. I came up with an idea I figured was simple, and incorporated feedback I’d heard from recruiters about their own frustrations with the hiring process.

I took that idea and contacted a recruiter I had met in the course of my job search, Michael Long at Rackspace.  Michael is in charge of the website and responsible for helping drive the next generation of their recruiting tools, so I figured he would be a good person to ask. (@theredrecruiter on Twitter) Michael told me it would make a good blog post, that I had a good understanding of where a recruiter is coming from because of the sheer volume of résumés they are dealing with.

So hence this post. I’m proposing a simple approach for résumé submission that both recruiters and job hunters can use to work around a problem in recruiting systems as they exist today. I’m hoping that by bringing job hunters and recruiters together that we can work out something that will make it easier for job hunters to demonstrate they are a good fit, and make it easier for recruiters to find job hunters. (If you are a recruiting systems developer, email me at for my thoughts on how you can fix this in the next generation of recruiting software.)

Background of the Problem

Sending out résumés is both important, and one of the least effective ways to get a job. It’s an important part of the process, because a résumé is how you market yourself to employers. Even if you’ve done all the online stalking networking career counselors recommend as necessary for finding a job, at the end of the day, you still need a résumé for people to look at.

So you need a résumé, and you want one that is a good as you can possibly make it. I think of this résumé as the Networking résumé, others call it the Generic résumé. This is the résumé you send out to people when you don’t know exactly what the position will look like. 75% of jobs that are filled before they are ever published, so you want a résumé that’s kind of broad because you’re trying to network your way into a Job. You can see mine by going to my LinkedIn profile. If I have a firm nibble from someone, I can then take my Networking résumé and make it more focused for a position by going deeper. Another approach is to tie position requirements to specific past positions in my résumé, etc.

If you’ve successfully networked your way to a hiring manager, you’re already in the top .2% of résumés for this position. The recruiters I’ve been talking to say that they can get 2800 résumés for a position. Meanwhile, the hiring manager may be only willing to look at 5 résumés or .2%. If you can network your way to the hiring manager to be that sixth résumé, you’ve raised your chances from 1 in 2800 to 1 in 6.

At that point, your chances are much better for getting an interview. Because hiring managers don’t hire résumés they hire people. As a hiring manager, for every position I’ve ever hired for I really only wanted two qualifications:

  • Brains
  • Attitude

That’s because I’ve been writing software for 20+ years and managing and building software teams for 11+ years. At the end of the day, I can teach someone a technology, but I can’t make them smarter. You can probably teach attitude, but unless you are a Drill Sargent for the Marines, you probably don’t want to. So while I would like them to know X or Y, if they’re smart enough after 30-90 days it won’t matter and I’ll have to put up with them as employees for a lot longer than that.

So while hiring managers want Brains and Attitude, you can’t take Brains and Attitude to HR and expect them to use that to filter résumés for you. They’ll agree with you that B&A are the most important qualities, but they can’t use it to filter résumés. So as a hiring manager, you have to go through this fiction of creating requirements for the position. Generally, by the time you’ve created this shopping list of requirements, these requirements describe someone who can’t possibly exist. What I’ve heard recruiters call variously Bigfoot or a Purple Squirrel. Because what the hiring manger typically does is fill the job req with “would be nice” requirements, because their two main requirements, Brains and Attitude can’t be used.

Aside: While its true that occasionally, I will have a specific need for a particular technology, or broad class of technology, and that will have to go into the description for the position. But its always for a broad class of technology, rarely a specific one. It always makes me laugh when I see a position that requires “knowledge of particularly SVN”. Really? Are you going to not hire someone because they used CVS, Git or SourceSafe? Of course not. You want some experience in using source code control, but that’s a “would be nice” requirement. Or another requirement I’ve been seeing lately: must know LAMP. Does the recruiter know that means Linux-Apache-MySQL-(PHP,Perl,Python)? Or do they want the specific packaging of those things together? Are your software development engineers really going to be writing Apache config files?

So you now have a list of must-have requirements, and a list of would-be-nice requirements. Sometimes job posting separate them out, some times they don’t. Hopefully as a hiring manager you’ve prioritized them and had an informal conversation with the recruiter about what you’re really looking for because most recruiters have found that even some of the “must haves” are optional. HR then publishes the requirements and immediately receives a deluge of résumés. With a typical recruiter working 10 job reqs at a time, 2800 résumés each is 28,000 résumés to shift though. Career counselors will also tell you that you need to customize your résumé for the position you plan on applying for. The reason they tell you this is because while a hiring manager might spend 60 seconds looking at your résumé, a recruiter can realistically only spend 10 seconds.

A recruiter is going to take the list of requirements for the position, and spend 10 seconds trying to figure out how many of them you meet. They do not have the time to solve puzzles; they are not going to realize that your experience with Padrino means you must know Ruby and are probably a Ruby expert. They aren’t going to know that knowing Mongrel is probably better then knowing Apache if they’re doing Rails. They probably won’t know that RoR is Ruby On Rails. From your résumé, they have no way of telling if you are smart and have a good attitude. The only thing they can do is to try to find matches that get as many of the requirements as possible; and the hiring manager may not have even told them which ones are most important.

So before you submit your résumé to a company web site, you need to customize that résumé for the position. It just makes sense. For the recruiter the job opening is like a hole in a jigsaw puzzle of a certain shape. The more your résumé matches that hole, the more likely the recruiter will put your résumé in the Yes pile.

For me this is especially true, because I have enough experience that I exceed 90% of the requirements for any Director of Software Development position out there because that’s what I’ve been doing (duh!). For a VP of Software Development position I’m running about 60-75%.  For the remaining of requirements, chances are in the last 20+ years, I’ve done something similar or used a similar technology. So while I have no way of telling, I suspect its easy for recruiters to slot me into Senior Manager/Director slots; anything above that I expect I’ll have to network my way into. That doesn’t particularly bother me, that’s just how hiring works.

Ok, so we’ve can see that sculpting your résumé to make you a perfect fit is a good idea; you want to use the same terms as the job posting and so on. There’s a catch 22 though. Even though it makes sense for the job hunter and it also makes sense for the recruiter to have customized résumés I have yet to see an HR system that let’s you submit a customized résumé on a position by position basis. Plus, job postings on company websites can often be somewhat virtualized. Companies who need a certain type of position filled may leave a position on their website for months, purely to collect résumés. Recruiters can then search through that collection looking for a match without having to deal with duplicates.

So you are not able to submit multiple résumés, and even worse, submitting a custom résumé may actually be to your detriment because too specific a résumé might preclude you from a later search. With all the barriers to entry for the job hunter, it’s really not surprising that only 5% of positions are filled purely from someone submitting a résumé. That’s one of the reasons recruiters tell you to network, network, network, because the best recruiters actually care about candidates, and they fully realize the system is broken.

My Solution: Aim the résumé

Here’s what I’m doing to try to improve my odds. I call it “Aiming” my résumé. One of the the best ways to customize your résumé for any position is to take the list of job requirements, copy them to the top of your résumé, and rewrite them to state your actual qualifications. I’ve heard that stated by several recruiters. It makes their job easier, and saves them time. Since most of the HR résumé submission programs want an ASCII résumé, its even easy because you don’t have to worry about screwing up your résumé’s layout.

So at the top of my Networking résumé, I do exactly that. I take the requirements and annotate them with exactly how I am qualified for their position. I also clearly state where I am not a match. This should indicate to the recruiters the following:

  • I have actually read the job description and I think I can qualify I am not merely résumé spamming. This should immediately put me in the top 10% of applicants because a common recruiter complaint is that people apply for jobs they can’t do. That’s not really surprising, the recruiting systems actually encourage this behavior.
  • I will be honest about what I can or can’t do. That should put me in the top 1% of applicants, because again, people fudge. Again, you can’t blame them when you read job requirements that say “must know SVN” or “must know LAMP”. I would never claim to know MySQL because I think its a crappy database so I never use it. But I would probably say I know LAMP.
  • It is probably worth reading my résumé a little more closely, even if I’m not a match for this particular position. I might be a good fit for the next one.

The nice thing about this approach for the job hunter is its relatively quick, 10 minutes instead of 2 hours spent tweaking a résumé to be a perfect fit for a position and then fixing your résumé formatting afterwards. (Aside to recruiters: As a candidate, I would be more willing to spend 2 hours tweaking a résumé if candidates were provided more feedback. Most résumé submissions are a complete black box. You don’t even know if someone has looked at your résumé. )

To deal with the issue of being able to submit only one résumé and the fact that the position advertised might not be the one the recruiter is actually filling, when I get multiple matches what I do is rank them. Since as a job hunter I don’t have any visibility into whether a recruiter has reviewed my résumé, I upload a aimed résumé for one week and set a timer for a week later. When my calendar reminds me I target a different position and I upload a differently aimed résumé.

So lets put that all together. Given a position I’ve targeted, I’ve pulled out the following 5 requirements to illustrate:

  • Deep understanding of the end-to-end software development process in a complex business environment.
  • Knowledge of service-oriented business and webscale ecommerce.
  • Understanding of software system architectures.
  • Strong working knowledge of software development tools.
  • Extensive experience with and strong working knowledge of development platforms and technologies, including Java, LAMP, Ruby on Rails, PHP, Python.

Note the classic mixture of some vague statements in the requirements, along with some demonstrable skills. What exactly is a “complex business environment” exactly? So here are the same requirements, as aimed by me. Note that I’m making references to later on in my résumé, much like you might do in a cover letter. The nice thing about aiming your résumé is it can stand in place of a cover letter, especially for technical positions.

Note to HR personell: This resume has been aimed, see for details. + means I qualify for this requirement, – means I don’t, ? means I need clarification.

+ Deep understanding of the end-to-end software development process in a complex business environment.

At PACE, my last job, I was responsible for overseeing everything from design through to operations and deployment.

+ Knowledge of service-oriented business and webscale ecommerce

At PACE, we had a complex site that did e-commerce, allowed end-users to manage their data, a separate website for customers that they could use for end-user support, and services for customers that let them deliver software licenses from their own e-commerce systems.

+ Understanding of software system architectures.

+ Strong working knowledge of software development tools.

I have 20+ years of experience at all levels of software development. I think that the Design Patterns book by the Gang of Four was a watershed moment for software development.

+- Extensive experience with and strong working knowledge of development platforms and technologies, including Java, LAMP, Ruby on Rails, PHP, Python

Breaking these out: +Java, +Linux +Apache -MySQL +(Perl, Python) -(PHP), -+ Ruby on Rails (Used it a long time ago for a short project)

Ok, so we’ve discussed the problem, and I’ve explained my idea. Now we’ll see how it works! Follow me on Twitter if you’re interested in further posts in the series as I proceed through my job search.

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