Advice for Writing a Technical Resume when you don’t have a lot of work history.

Marco Rogers asked a very good question on Twitter:

Marco Rogers@polotek

I talk to a lot of people new to tech from non-traditional backgrounds, e.g. bootcamps or self-taught. I’m looking for good information for those people on how to build out a strong resume when they don’t have work experience yet. Advice is fine, links to resources is better.

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I’ve been on both sides of the interview table for many years now, both searching for jobs and as a hiring manager. In my years of management, I’ve read though thousands of applications, this article is full of suggestions gleaned from that experience, should it be helpful to you.

When it comes to writing a resume, It’s helpful to think about the human aspect first and foremost. Imagining a hiring manager’s perspective will give you an edge because it helps speak to them directly. Remember, a coveted position at a reputable company commonly requires the team to sift through anywhere between tens and thousands of applications. Their staff is materially impacted in the time and energy it takes to review every candidate and evaluate those who make it in to the interview stage. Attention to details will help your odds of standing out in the crowd.

Here are my general suggestions to make the best possible resume.

#Formatting is important

Spelling, grammar and formatting are all crucial to a well-written resume. Typos and errors are clear red flags, so please pay attention to what you write and how it is written. These types of mistakes give the impression that you either lack attention to detail or are unwilling to go the extra step. As trivial as this might seem, it will serve you well to use spell check and get a second set of eyes on your resume before submitting it.

A few formatting tips to keep in mind:

  • Use headings to separate sections
  • Use lists to help summarize highlights and things scannable
  • Use a good font and font size that makes the content legible
  • Use line spacing that lets content breath rather than packing it close together
  • Make good use of bold and italic for pertinent information, but don’t abuse them

I don’t have a strong opinion on charts that show off your skills or lists of hobbies — though, I will say I’ve noticed them more frequently on the applications of beginners. You might unintentionally communicate you have less experience by including it.

#If you don’t have a lot of work history, it’s totally OK to throw in open source projects!

Or side projects! Or working on your own site! A few folks mentioned this in the Twitter thread and it’s solid advice. A good hiring manager should know that Senior-level candidates don’t grow on trees — they want to see work that shows you have promise.

This is problematic advice in some ways, as not everyone has time on the side to devote to projects. Including these isn’t a hard requirement for a good resume, but if you’re otherwise lacking relevant work experience, including personal projects can show the kind of work you’re capable of doing as well as the kind of work that excites you. I’ve taken chances on folks with slim-to-no work experience but with a solid portfolio site, GitHub contributions, or even a few CodePen demos that show potential.

#Call out your contributions in your work experience

Each time you list a work example, answer this: what did you accomplish? This is a good way to provide valuable information without unnecessary fluff.

Here’s an example that would catch my attention:

Due to my team’s work refactoring the product page, we were able to meet the demands of our customers, which resulted in a 25% growth in sales. We also took the opportunity to upgrade the codebase from React.createClass to React Hooks for all of our components, ensuring a more flexible and maintainable system.

This tells me you can work on a team to deliver goals. It also tells me that you understand technical debt and your part in being proactive in maintenance. That’s the sort of person I want to hire. Write the outcomes from the point of view of what you provided for the team.

#If so far your experience is limited to a code bootcamp, it’s great to talk through that.

Every job applicant is coming from a different background and from varying degrees of experience. It’s safe to assume you are not the most experienced person in the pool.

And that’s OK!

For example, let’s say your development experience is limited to online or in-person coding bootcamps rather than commercial projects. What did you learn there? What were you interested in? What was your final project? Is there a link to that work? When I’m hiring someone who’s coming in early in their career, I’m mostly looking for curiosity and enthusiasm. I’m probably not alone there.

#Don’t be too long… or too short

We mentioned earlier that hiring is a time-consuming job. It’s good to keep this in mind as you’re writing by making your resume as brief as possible — ideally on a single page. Two pages is OK if you really need it.

Keeping everything short is a balancing act when you’re also attempting to include as much useful information as possible. Treat that constraint as a challenge to focus on the most important details. It’s a good problem if you have more to say than what fits!

At best, padding a resume into multiple pages conveys you’re unable to communicate in a succinct manner. At worst, it shows a lack of respect for a hiring manager’s time.

#Make sure there’s a way to reach you

I cannot tell you how many resumes that lack the following essentials: name, email, and phone number. Seriously, it happens even on resumes that are otherwise very impressive.

Your name and contact information are hard requirements. I don’t want to search around for your email if you’re applying. To be honest, I probably won’t search at all because I’m busy and there are many other candidates to choose from.

#Preparation is your friend

Make sure your accompanying cover letter (yes, you should include one) communicates you’ve done at least a little research on the company, conveys you understand what they need in a candidate, and how you fit into that need.

I will personally adjust my the descriptions (not the job titles, but the takeaways and outcomes) in my own resume so there is a direct connection between my skills and the position.

Your work and education details should be reverse-chronological

Your most recent work is more important than your oldest work. It’s a better reflection of what you’re capable of doing today and how fresh your skills are in a particular area. The same goes for your education: lead with your most recent experience.

The person reviewing your resume can decide to continue reading further if they’re compelled by the most recent information.

Wrapping up

If you want to stand out in the crowd, make sure your resume is one that represents you well. Ask someone to help you proof and use spellcheck, and make sure you’ve put your best foot forward.

And don’t be discouraged by rejections or unreturned messages. It’s less likely to be about you personally and more likely due to the number of people applying. So keep trying!

 

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