Stories about Software


Resume Skills for the Job Seeker with Upward Ambition

It strikes me that, lately, I write a lot about how to make it in a free agent world (or how to get there).  So today, I’d like to switch up it a little and give a nod to those of you in the salaried world, and perfectly happy there to boot.

But don’t expect me to talk about a resume skills section or what have you without at least a little realpolitik and a little cynicism.

The resume-interview one-two punch is a stupid way for employers to find employees.  Full stop.  But it’s also the prohibitive incumbent and the system that you’re going to have to navigate.

So let’s focus on resume skills today and give you a fighting chance at navigating the process.  In fact, let’s go beyond just navigating it and look at how to maximize how it works for you.  This has two essential components.

  • Filter the riff-raff employers out of your search as quickly as possible.
  • Impress the ones you care about.

Let’s look at how you can tune the resume skills section to help with both.

The resume bot 9000 is the only one that cares about your resume skills section.

The Anatomy and Purpose of a Resume

First of all, let’s consider the purpose of a resume.  Lansing Community College, winner of the SEO sweepstakes for “what’s the purpose of a resume” has the following to say.

The purpose of a resume is to provide a summary of your skills, abilities and accomplishments. It is a quick advertisement of who you are. It is a “snapshot” of you with the intent of capturing and emphasizing interests and secure you an interview.

Who am I to argue with an institution of higher education?

That all sounds exactly like the ostensible purpose of a resume and a very sunny assessment besides.  It’s your own tiny commercial in print, and, done right, it gets you interviews.

But let’s be a little more blunt about the way things work.

You put together a resume, trying to stuff as many self-aggrandizing tidbits as you can in there while looking plausibly humble.  Then you fire it off for the viewing displeasure of an extremely bored person whose main mission is to find reasons not to call you.

This resume filtration will feature two passes, usually.  These include an automated or semi-automated pass to disqualify anyone without the magic acronyms and a second one to disqualify anyone that seems fishy somehow.

To navigate this minefield, you put together a resume with the following sections.

  • Basic contact information.
  • Employment history, including job titles, job descriptions, and accomplishments.
  • Education.
  • The resume skills section.
  • Some people include an “objective” which should probably be “straight cash, Homie.”  (Just kidding — no one appreciates honesty here, so I’d just omit this altogether)

What do Resume Skills Look Like?

In this particular post, though, I’m going to focus on the resume skills, so let’s not worry about the other sections too much.  The standard advice there is usually good, particularly the part about trying to quantify the accomplishments at your various jobs as much as possible.

It’s the resume skills section that features the great tragedy among the broader, lesser tragedy that is this whole process.  I’m talking about this, lifted from a hypothetical resume for one Amy Jones, “midlevel software engineer,” on Monster.com (hey, they’re still truckin’, apparently!).

You’ve got a coherent narrative there for a little while with what I assume is her current job.  Then, right after that, Amy belches out a list of skills like some weird Youtube comment spam, including ending with “and more!”

It’s merciful that she spares us the “more,” though because it probably includes inanities like “detail-oriented” and “self-starter.”

We all do this.

I did this, many years ago, when I still made resumes.  It’s half cargo cult and half FOMO, wanting to make sure that we don’t get knocked out in that first round where Resume Scanbot 9000 filters out anyone missing JDeveloper or Eclipse.

It’s completely understandable, and you should stop this immediately.

Impress the Prospective Employers You Care About

Wait, what?  Stop with the tech stack diarrhea?  Are you serious?

Completely. Just don’t do it anymore.

In this section, I’ll tell you what to do instead..

For the sake of an example, I went looking for jobs on Monster and found a job description for a .NET developer.  Here’s a screenshot.

Go through this list looking for every skill that you have, and make note of it.  Then, when you’ve gathered them up, you’re ready to create your resume skills section.

But, instead of a comma-delimited regurgitation, you’re going to build a table, and it’s going to have this format:

  • TDD: Led a series of lunch & learns that increased TDD adoption by 40% in our group.
  • A+ MSCA/MSCE certifications: earned on the first try with a perfect score (or whatever, I have no idea how certs work).
  • CI/CD: Contributed to a temporary DevOps initiative where we used Jenkins to go from 1 build per week to 10 per day.

Hopefully you get the idea.

You’re going to turn your resume skills section into the “here’s how I’ve knocked all of your stuff out of the park.”  (Just omit anything you can’t speak to).

Filter Out Riff-Raff Employers

At this point, I can imagine your objection.  If I’m not mistaken, it probably takes the following form.

Are you crazy?!  Do you know how much work it’s going to be to make a custom resume for every single company I apply to?!

Yep, I do.  It’s a lot of work.

So much work, in fact, that you’ll probably apply to way fewer companies, filter out the bottom 90%, and not passively let recruiters match you with whomever floats by.

In other words, this will force you to filter out the riff-raff.

Oh, did you think I was going to tell you to do something where the riff-raff just filtered itself out?


The thing about riff-raff is that they’re going to want and need you more than you want and need them.  You’ll need to actively avoid them in a market this much in your favor.  And you should do exactly that.

The resume alphabet soup game is a race to the bottom for both sides.  You’re spamming the resume skill section to attract the most employers with the least effort, and they’re using the Resume Bot 9000 to match endless wave of candidates with the least effort.

Does that really sound like the beginning of a beautiful relationship?

Don’t do this.  Every company on Earth these days wants and needs app dev.  Pick your spots and focus a lot more effort on landing somewhere you really want to be.

Building Toward the Shot Term and Long Term Future

An interesting thing happens if you take this approach, as well.  It focuses you and tees you up pretty nicely for the interview.

After all, they’ve made it clear what they need, and you’ve created a tailored list of reasons that you’re a fit.  You’re framing the conversation and making any freewheeling questions they ask you much more likely to be favorable to you.

“It says here that you led TDD lunch & learns — tell me about that.”  That’ll probably go a lot better than a trivia question like “tell me 4 points of difference be the London and Chicago schools of TDD.”

But think even bigger.

Learning to zero in on what companies value and speak concisely to your ability to provide that is an incredible career skill.  And you can use an otherwise stupid job application process to practice something with actual value.  This will serve you well as you navigate the promotion process, negotiate job offers, and even go out on your own.

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6 years ago

“ability to perform a wide variety of tasks” should just be the whole PID 😉 what a mess! They might as well do away with all the formalism and just make a list of keywords: ability, tasks, independent, C#, SQL, TDD (we don’t actually do this but we want to see if you’re paying attention), XP programming AND Agile (mutually exclusive of course), communication skills – excellent…. Maybe there’s an automatic job description generator out there somewhere that everyone’s using…just check the boxes for what your current tech stack is, then add some edge case techs, some others where you’re… Read more »

6 years ago
Reply to  Erik Dietrich

Spoken like a true efficiencer! Why waste the time and effort? Opportunity costs abounds while you suffer through the process. I guess that would a leap toward commoditization though. Next up – add an auction to get the price just right. Just need to change the game for the interview a bit. Make it a quick 30 second meet and greet since we make our judgments within the first few milliseconds anyways. And heck, why not just make that happen en-masse? First (and only?) round of interview – gather up all matches on both sides all at once at some… Read more »

6 years ago
Reply to  Phil

Indeed commoditization (more exactly employer desire to commoditize software development — but they are succeeding) is at the root of these pathologies.


[…] grant you that this is easy for me to say as a free agent.  But software development in general is marketable and you’ll quickly land on your feet even if this play doesn’t work […]