Writing an Idiot-Proof IT Resume
April 9, 2002

A resume is not a computer program. It's not data that gets crunched and delivers a 0-vs.-1 binary resolution. It's a document that needs to communicate an IT professional's skills and experience. That sounds obvious, but ask any IT recruiter about the resumes that pass across his or her desk every day, and you'd be surprised at the blunders committed by IT professionals. Or maybe you wouldn't—in which case, you probably need to take a hard look at your resume to see if it's likely to wind up in an IT recruiter's recycling bin. To get the lowdown on the mistakes made most often by IT professionals when putting together their resumes, IT Careers Center Managing Editor Lisa Vaas recently spoke with Adrian Barbour, a recruitment manager at Anteon Corp.'s Applied Technology Group. Barbour is in charge of recruitment for the government contractor, headquartered in Fairfax, Va., which has a staff of 5,400 IT, e-business, engineering, environmental and medical support professionals.

ITCC: How many IT resumes do you deal with, and what's your overall impression of their effectiveness?

Barbour: I look at thousands of resumes every year. A good resume should be focused on 1) getting an interview and 2) centering on a focus statement. A lot of [what people put on their resumes] doesn't feed into that.

ITCC: What are some typical mistakes you see IT professionals make on their resumes?

Barbour: One of the most common is that they'll give a long laundry list of applications or operating systems, but they don't explain any of it in the actual body of the position. They'll list Java, C++, then at the bottom they'll say, 'I did programming for this and did a database,' but they won't tell you what type of programming they did or what database they used. You have to relate functions to the position you've held.

No. 2, not being specific in objective. Is it software? Is it engineering? They want the hiring manager to figure out from their resume what they want to do. That's an annoying thing for an HR person. HR people want an idiot-proof resume, one that says, 'I'm a networking administrator.' Then the HR person can say, 'OK. Do they have enough years of experience? OK, that's what we want.' Not one that's all over the place. If they have a multiplicity of skills, they need to divest those into different resumes.

If they're a Web person, they need a Web resume. If they're a systems administrator, they need a systems engineering resume. It makes a lot of sense, but you'd be surprised how many people don't delineate it clearly. They say, 'OK, do you think I can fit anything you do? Let me know.'

A technology recruiter doesn't want to think for the candidate. I time myself on how much I spend on them on average. I give approximately 1 minute per resume.

ITCC: So you're saying that IT job seekers should be considerate of IT recruiters' time?

Barbour: I see about 2,500 per week. That's about 150 per day. Businesses don't see HR departments as a value-added feature. They're typically understaffed. Most HR people are overworked. That's a bad remedy when you're trying to find a job. If [recruiters] get 800 resumes in, they'll sort for the ones they'll easily recognize as a good fit for the position.

ITCC: What are some basic decisions IT professionals should make when putting together their resumes?

Barbour: If it's government or civilian—you need to make a decision on that. On the government side, they're interested in citizenship status and on your clearance level—how soon did you get it, and what level is it. [Also,] they're interested in your exposure to government-based databases, their operating systems.

Working for the government] is a very different culture. Government contractors and agencies are interested in your ability to work in that kind of structure. It's more hierarchical. They use the same products as the public sector, but differently. If a person comes in with experience in the civilian sector, or an even more liberal culture, like a dot-com, then they don't tend to understand how the agency works. They have a hard time.

Then you have your two major types of resume: chronological and functional. On the government side, chronological is the most applicable. Functional is OK, but it's for someone without a lot of experience, or a jack of all trades, trying to highlight different pieces. Whichever format you use, you have to have a clear strategy: What are your objectives and target market.

ITCC: You've given tips for preparing a civilian- vs. a government-focused resume. Can you slice those more finely for advice?

Barbour: Find an industry where you want to work. Defense sector? Engineering? Healthcare IT? Aerospace? Dot-com? Those are totally different industries but use the same software and operating systems. You have to do homework to find out which sectors are doing well, and preferably before you have a degree.

Identify companies where you would like to work. Look at career pages, job descriptions. Usually those will give you an idea of what operating systems and what equipment they're utilizing. You have to make sure your resume reflects that skill set. Try to use the same buzzwords and jargon. If they say 'We want someone with object-oriented programming, OLAP, data warehousing,' and you have it but don't highlight it in your resume, you'll have less chance of a hit.

ITCC: What are some differences between an IT manager's resume and a more hands-on, technical person's resume?

Barbour: On the IT side, skill sets weigh more heavily than personality. On the management side, it's the reverse. If you're doing MIS as a manager or any type of CIO function where you interact with business people who aren't techie types, you need to work on facilitator skills and team management skills. You get a degree or you do seminars, you do training, you read books.

People skills are an area in which techies are very, very weak. They're geared more toward data. They don't realize you could make your life very difficult if you piss off the person who's in charge of the purse strings.

ITCC: What's the worst resume you've ever seen?

Barbour: One that gave me their life story. 'I was born in such and such a town, my mom's name was Jean, she had me when she was XX, she took me to blah-blah grammar school.' And it was photocopied, off a typewriter, and it wasn't centered. Half the text was cut off. Unfortunately, I'm very restricted on what I can say. I'd like to recommend that such people get resume advice, but I'm not allowed to say that