How to Write a Résumé (CV) like an Adult

A friend of mine wrote me the other day asking if I could help her look over her CV. She’s self-taught in R and Python and is trying to break into data science, but has been stuck trying to get a callback for over a year now.

I suspect that a lot of the advice I had for her may be valuable to other young people still growing into their professional identities, so I’m publishing it here for posterity, but with an important caveat: if you think your CV is the #1 bottleneck in your job search, you might need to revisit your approach.

(In the interest of privacy, I won’t be including a copy of her CV, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.)

Hey Renee,

Sorry for the delay.

Critique

I have a more unconventional approach to written communication, so don’t take my advice as gospel. But I would encourage you to change the way you think about a CV.

For starters, consider the difference between a college admissions officer and a technical hiring manager: one has to decide who deserves an opportunity, and the other has to decide who is equipped to help the company reach its goals.

Your CV (like most CVs) describes your positive qualities, the things you’ve spent your time on, and the things you can do. This is really good for a college application, and really bad for a job application. Why? Because:

  1. anyone can lie about what they can do, and
  2. hiring managers are under a lot of time pressure, so they don’t have time to read through fluff.

Anyone can lie about what they can do

On a college application, you prove that you were on the tennis team by writing authentically about the experience of being a tennis player. Unless you’re applying for a sports scholarship, no one’s going to actually check to see your tennis swing.

On a software job application, your writing is not proof of your work; your work is proof of your work. If you don’t have previous job experience, sample projects hosted online are a must. It’s fine if they’re buggy; it’s better than nothing. No past experience + no existing projects = no confidence.

Another trick I like to use is “social proof”: if you have positive feedback from other people about your work that was posted somewhere public (like GitHub issues), create a section for those quotes in your CV, with links to original sources.

Hiring managers don’t have time to read through fluff

Q: What’s the difference between these two sections?

  • R & SQL - can perform the entire workflow of data analytics from collecting, cleaning, transforming data to generating insightful result of outputting, visually displaying and reporting data
  • HTML & CSS - can design a website with these two languages
  • Python - fluent with built-in modules and quick to find out other third-party modules to achieve tasks

vs.

  • R & SQL
  • HTML & CSS
  • Python

A: One takes ten seconds to read, and the other takes half a second. The extra information is just fluff—if you don’t know Python’s standard library and can’t find third-party libraries as needed, it shouldn’t be on your CV in the first place.

Remember that whoever is reading your CV has probably read a dozen other CVs that day, and has to get through a dozen more before they have to head out and pick up their kids from soccer practice. Their time is precious, so don’t waste it. Say only what you need to, and nothing more.

What do you need to say? Just this: “Out of all the CVs you read today, I am the best one to help the company meet its goals.”

For these reasons, I would remove your Profile section (or cut it down to one line maximum). What goes through someone’s mind when they see “I’m a quick learner and a problem solver”? Not “Ah perfect, just what I needed,” but rather “Okay, I can skip this part.” And that’s dangerous, because after that happens two or three times, they start to think “Okay, I can skip this person.”

So what can you do better?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s okay to describe your personal qualities; just make sure that 1) those personal qualities are going to make the company want you more than they want other people, and 2) those claims are supported by the evidence shown later on.

For example, you could say “I’m really excited by data visualization,” and then list a couple libraries you’ve worked on in that space. Even if that’s totally unrelated to what the company does, it shows that you’re serious about programming even when it’s not related to your job, and that you’re mature enough to have deep knowledge of some problem domain.

That way, even if you aren’t a perfect skills match for the job, it would convince me you’re smart enough to get good at the problem domains we need help with, or even help us understand ways to improve the company that we didn’t even realize before.

Wrapping up

I know that was a lot. Maybe not the answer you were hoping for, because you just want to quit messing around and start working right now.

It’s a very tough job market, especially with the pandemic, which means remote jobs are tighter than ever. I’d be happy to meet up one of these weekends and talk shop or hack on a project together, but part of me thinks your best bet would be to bite the bullet and find a DS job at a local (TW) company, just to put some money in the bank and close up the work experience gap in your CV.

Call me if you wanna talk.