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IT and BI Career Development - March 2009
Competing in the IT Job Market – Ten Best Practices for Technical Resumes

by Jennifer Hay
Published: March 1, 2009
Jennifer Hay provides ten best practices to ensure that your resume will stand out from the others.

Your resume tells a story about you. It describes your breadth and depth of knowledge in specific domains. It describes the activities you did to develop skills, hone talents, and acquire knowledge. It adds depth to your story by listing where you’ve worked and in what job titles and roles. This is information about you and what you have to offer. It tells your history but it also describes your future – where you want to go.

Regardless of your circumstances – employed or seeking a job, secure or uncertain – it is a good idea to have an up-to-date resume. When economic times are particularly harsh, it is even more important to be prepared. A well tailored resume will help you do just that. As a technology professional, your resume requires special attention to the blending of business and technical expertise. In this following article, I’ve listed ten best practices to make your resume stand out.

Best Practice 1: Introduce Yourself

Start with an introductory paragraph. This paragraph, often called the summary of qualifications, has the most prominent place on your resume and is your opportunity to make a good first impression. You’ll have 30 seconds at best so make the most of it.

I call this paragraph the why hire me statement. It describes all the reasons why the reader should look further – give them a reason to keep reading to the end of the resume. Consider this to be like your elevator speech; keep it short, concise and focused on results. Avoid the temptation to use much overused and nearly meaningless buzz words. Who doesn’t claim to be results-oriented and self-motivated? You want to stand out from the rather substantial crowd around you, not blend in.

Best Practice 2: Describe Yourself as a Valuable Employee

Make a statement about the value that you offer. Most often this is done by describing past achievements and the positive results that they produced. For IT professionals, writing about accomplishments without direct links to technology is difficult. Making a connection to business value seems unnatural for those who often think of their activities as technologically focused.

Think of the value in two ways:

The value you provide within your team. A collaborative team has interdependencies that require joint effort and achieve shared goals. A successful team is both effective and efficient.

Effective means that the team produces results that really matter to someone. How did you contribute to being an effective team? Perhaps you were the requirements analyst who ensured that you built the right systems to really meet business needs. Or maybe you were the tester who improved user trust and confidence by making sure that they don’t see the bugs in a system.

Efficient means that the team is conscientious about using resources – money, people, tools, technologies, and the time of busy business people. How do you contribute to team efficiency? Are you the facilitator who ensures that meetings are agenda driven, focused, and productive? Maybe you’re the optimizer who gets the most from existing technologies, or the innovator who finds quick and inexpensive solutions to pressing problems.

The external value that you provide: When looking beyond the team, value can be defined in terms of your individual contributions and/or the contributions made by the team. Someone or something benefits from the team’s efforts. Who is it and what do they gain? If it’s a thing such as a process, ask why a new or updated process was needed. What was the problem and how did the process changes fix the problem? If it’s a person, ask what capabilities they now have that were previously missing.

Children use the why, why, why method not to intentionally irritate their parents, but to get more and more information. For resume writing, we’ll use the “so what?” method. We’re looking for results – you did something and something positive happened. Here’s how it works.

  • Defined and developed data architecture for data warehousing, BI, and operational systems.

So what?

  • Set standards for data structures, data naming, data storage, and metadata management.

So what?

  • Improved the consistency of data design practices across multiple applications and were better able to track data through multiple systems.

So what?

  • By tracking data through multiple systems, I was able to identify inconsistencies and redundancies, to correct the inconsistencies, to remove the redundancies, and to improve the overall quality of the data.

So what?

  • With improved data quality the information delivered became more reliable and trustworthy; business and IT relationships improved and continue to do so today.

So what?

  • Defined and developed data architecture for data warehousing, BI, and operational systems that resulted in improved data quality. The information delivered became more reliable and trustworthy; business and IT relationships improved and continue to do so today.

Best Practice 3: Know your Career Objective

Your career objective tells a potential employer what you want to do. A clearly defined objective states your commitment to achieve a particular goal. It becomes a personal reminder of what you want to achieve and keeps you focused on specific results. A targeted objective makes for a more effective job search and puts you in a better position to evaluate work situations.

Use the process of creating your resume as an opportunity to clarify and define your career objectives. A generic objective such as “I want to work for an organization where I can use my excellent programming skills” casts too broad a net and is better left out. Use a specific job role such as Infrastructure Specialist/Network Engineer or subject areas such as desktop support, help desk or IT support to distinguish your goals. If you can’t articulate what you want, then you leave it to the resume reader to impose his/her own interpretation.

Best Practice 4: Present Yourself in the Best Format

Choose the format that best highlights your strengths. There is no a one-size-fits-all resume format. Each person brings different perspectives, education, experience, and expertise. A resume should be designed to present your strengths in the best possible light. Looking good in a photograph depends on the angle from which the picture is taken, the lighting, and the frame in which the photo is presented. Looking good in a resume depends on the perspective from which you describe yourself, the characteristics that you choose to highlight, and the structure within which your resume is framed.

There are no strict rules for resume formatting, but three common formats and some general guidelines are helpful:

Chronological – This format lists your experience in reverse chronological order so the most recent work history comes first. If you’ve had few jobs because you’re new to IT or have been with one employer for an extended period then a chronological resume might work well. Figure 1 shows an example of employment history in a chronological format.


(mouse over image to enlarge)

Functional – This format is also known as a skills-based format. First it lists your skills organized into major categories such as Process Improvement, Quality Assurance or Operating System Administration. If you’ve had lots of different jobs within IT you’ll need a format that emphasizes your skills and experience and removes the focus from timelines. Figure 2 illustrates employment history presented in a functional format.


(mouse over image to enlarge)


Combined Functional and Chronological – This format starts with listing experience chronologically and adds functional formatting within each job listing. Figure 3 shows an example of the combined format.


(mouse over image to enlarge)

It’s not always apparent which format works best when you start writing a resume. So if you’re just getting started, chronological makes a good beginning. Once you’ve listed the chronological information then you can hunt for repetition, patterns, or categories of skills that suggest functional organization. Ultimately you may want to draft both chronological and functional formats so that you can compare them side by side to make a good decision.

Best Practice 5: Highlight what Interests You and Hide what Doesn’t

Diminish prominence of those skills no longer of interest. Don’t highlight the skills and activities that you no longer enjoy. When you have a “been there, done that” attitude, you need to make a decision. You can exclude these items entirely because they’re not relevant or you can include them but diminish their prominence. When included at the same level of significance as the things that you really want to be doing, they hide your interests, obscure your message, and confuse the reader.

Consider this example: You’ve spent the past year designing, developing and implementing data marts for sales, marketing, and customer analysis and reporting. You learned a lot but you’re ready to move on to something new. Don’t sacrifice valuable resume space to explain each project in detail. Condense it. Summarize it. There were similar activities so you don’t need to repeat them. Focus on what you learned and apply it to what you want to do next.

Even when you minimize things that no longer interest you, you will be asked about them in interviews. Be prepared to position them to convey the right message: “While designing and developing data marts, I learned a lot about choosing the right data structures for many different kinds of analysis and reporting requirements. This is why I would be a good choice as a data architect.”

Best Practice 6: Include Your Industry and Applications Knowledge

IT professionals tend to discount their business applications knowledge. They see their value in terms of expertise with tools and technologies. Learning about business and business applications is often treated as preliminary work that must be done before getting on with the real work – the technology piece.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The prospective employer knows the value of business and application knowledge. Knowledge of business applications is every bit as important as your technical knowledge. It should command space on your resume. Consider, for example, a healthcare employer who is seeking a database developer for their claims management systems. You have lots of Oracle experience but the employer uses SQL Server. If you mention only technology, your resume is lost in the crowd. When your resume also describes your claims processing experience including the fact that you have worked extensively with Common Electronic Data Interchange (CEDI) for Medicare claims, you now stand out from the crowd. The wise employer knows that it is faster, easier, and cheaper to teach an Oracle developer to work with SQL Server than to teach a SQL developer the healthcare industry.

Best Practice 7: Show Yourself in Different Lights

Consider creating multiple versions of your resume. Each job listing is unique in its combination of tools, technologies, experience, skills, industries, etc. Present your background and experience in light of these distinctions. One technique is to write a cover letter that pulls relevant information from your resume and matches it to the job listing. This works well if your cover letter and resume stay together, but they often become separated during screening, review, and routing processes. Your resume needs to stand on its own without assuming an attached cover letter. To accomplish this you may need different versions.

Managing your resume versions can become a project in itself. There are software vendors who will be glad to help. If you are using a do-it-yourself-method, keep it simple. A spreadsheet should suffice. Keep separate copies of each resume distributed and create a unique identifier by embedding some of your metadata such as company name, job title, and date sent in the file name.

How do you know when you’ve exceeded your version limit? When you can’t clearly recall each version, you’ve gone too far. The purpose of the resume is to get an interview. In the interview, your resume acts as a reference, but not as a script. If you need a content management system to keep track, you’ve over the edge.

Best Practice 8:  Feature Your Proficiencies

List the right amount of technical skills. If the first page of your resume is covered with a massive grid listing all your programming, language, and database skills, then you’re a true geek. You derive your value from the technologies you use. The rest of us need to strike a balance between technology, and business applications and processes. When too many technologies are listed, it is hard for anyone to see which are current and in which you are most skilled.

Throughout your career, you’ll be exposed to many different technologies and will achieve varying levels of expertise in each of them. They don’t all matter to your current job search. My preferred technique lists technologies where you have greatest proficiency on the first page of the resume under the heading Technology Summary. You can optionally list other technologies with which you are familiar in a less prominent place under the heading Other Technologies. The other technologies will be recognized by automated resume scanners but placed so they don’t hide your primary technical skills from the human reader.

Best Practice 9: Age Gracefully and Let Technology Do the Same

Remove the really old technologies. It’s a resume, not an antique show. No one cares about your ability to optimize IDMS queries, or about your programming skills in ALGOL or PASCAL. Including nearly forgotten technology will not help you get the job that you want. But it might help you get a job that you don’t want.

Some older technologies are still widely used today. Where these technologies overlap with your experience and ability, you’ll need to give it some careful thought. There are employers who do care about your ability to program in COBOL. But do you want to be a COBOL programmer again? Many companies have legacy systems that someone has to operate, maintain, and enhance. If you decide to stop chasing technologies and step back from technology’s leading edge, that someone could be you. It’s a choice, but be clear about your motivations. It will impact your career.

Best Practice 10: “Right Size” Your Resume

Make the size of the resume match the length of your experience and the breadth and depth of your skills. Your resume is not a novel. It is a snapshot summary of your work history that provides highlights of your achievements. When you have lots of experience, it isn’t realistic to list everything that you have ever done. Every sentence or phrase in your resume should say something important about your qualifications; otherwise remove it.

If you are a recent graduate with minimal experience or relatively new to IT, then it’s unlikely your resume will extend past one page. You simply do not have enough to say, and it doesn’t impress anyone to “bulk up” with excess words. If you have depth of knowledge and long experience in IT, a one-page resume is probably impractical. Don’t try to condense your resume down to one page if it means tiny margins and small fonts, but don’t treat a 20+ year career as an excuse to produce a five-page resume.

Here’s a good test. Review your resume sentence by sentence and ask yourself.

  • Is this skill relevant for my desired job? If so, how relevant is it?

  • Does this skill combine with my other skills to create a powerful message?

  • Is this skill recent?

If you can’t say that a skill is recent and relevant, and that it works well with your other skills, then there is no reason to keep it. Non-related items distract the reader, confuse your message, and eat up valuable time.

Summary

Review and update your resume on a semi-annual basis whether you’re looking or not. If you’re employed but concerned in these uncertain times, then you’ll be prepared as issues arise. If you’ve lost your job, then it’s your marketing collateral. If you’re not looking but open to exploration then use it to create opportunities. Your resume is about you and your future.

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Recent articles by Jennifer Hay

Jennifer Hay - Jennifer combines career coaching and resume writing skills with a broad knowledge of information technology to provide specialized and targeted career guidance services to IT professionals. Jennifer's varied background of IT positions, technical training, career counseling, and educational advising make a solid foundation for IT career counseling. Her interest in the human side of career development makes each career plan personal and individualized. Her unique and IT-specific assessment methods help people to make the best career decisions. A disciplined approach to planning and action helps to turn decisions and plans into real career successes. Please visit Jennifer's website or contact her through email at jhay@ITresumeservice.com.