23 February 2006

How resumes work

Recently, on Slashdot, someone asked for practical advice on resumes, specifically how potential employers look at them. I've been on both sides of the hiring process, and so I wrote up a guide to explain how resumes, interviews, and the hiring process work.

How companies read resumes

Or, "what happens after I hit send?"

Companies can get hundreds of resumes for entry-level tech positions. The first pass someone will do with this stack of resumes is triage - eliminate the obviously bogus applications.

See, of those 200 applicants, 180 are coming from people that shotgun the same resume to each opening they find. These resumes are easy to spot because: 1) there's no cover letter, and 2) the resumes are keyword soup (C++JAVAFORTRANPL/1LISPSNOBOLPOSTSCRIPTVIC-20!!!)

So, you're in the lucky 20. You wrote a cover letter saying who you are, and you wrote a resume that focuses on the strengths, interests, and experience that you have that apply to the company and the specific opening.

You're now in round 2 of triage. At this point, someone with tech experience will go through the 20 surviving resumes to pick out the best 5.

So you've made it to the top 5 - great! Now, for each of these five, an HR person (or someone filling in for this role) will either arrange for a phone interview or an in-person interview. If it's a phone interview, you should have no problem (you do have a cell phone, right? Put it on your resume so they can call you during the day).

An in-person interview during the week? What if I can't get away from my current job to interview?

When I originally posted this to Slashdot, it was in reponse to the question "they want to interview me, but I can't get away from work to do it. Will the interviewer be understanding?" I address this in the following paragraphs.

The in-person interview will take up a great deal of the company's time. Even if you're only there for an hour, you might be interviewed by eight people. That's eight person-hours of time spent on something other than coding, QAing, or running the things. That's also eight people who have to sync up their schedules to meet you!

So the HR person goes down the list of five possible in-person, and one can't come in during the week. The other four will get interviews, and if none of them get an offer, you might get called back. Alternately, if you have a stunning resume or have demonstrated an ability to walk on water, you might get to meet with the hiring manager later in the day.

My advice is for you to take a personal half-day, even if you are an hourly employee, to do interviews. Alternately, either schedule a 1hr interview around lunchtime, and be prepared to do a second 1hr if more people need to interview you from the same company, or ask for a phone interview. Companies may prefer the phone option because they can get a sense for you without spending 8 person-hours. But if they like you, you will still have to do the in-person interview later.

Last tips on getting noticed

If you want your resume to be noticed, do your homework on the company. Spend an hour researching them - what they do, who they are - and think about what *you* can do for them. With that knowledge, write a 3 paragraph cover letter about why you are interested in what the company does, and how you think you can help. Also, make a customized resume for the company that emphasizes your interests as they fit with the company (this is especially true if you have a lot of experience - it helps you focus and helps the person reading the resume to fit you into their model of what they are looking for.)

Best of luck with your search!

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Updated 27 Feb 06

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