Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Resumes in Context

On a forum related to James Bach's Rapid Software Testing On-line (Beta) class (which I highly recommend! A few more technical issues to work out and it should be ready for prime-time) another student (Anne Marie Martin, from Atlanta) posted the following (lightly edited):
Here's something I struggle with though, and would love to hear thoughts on. I have about 11 years experience in testing, and try to invest time in learning more about testing, and learning more in general that can help me with testing - such as the things we've all been discussing about philosophy and learning and Weinberg and a hundred other things that have tickled my brain during our discussions and threads that made my 'to do' list of things to read or explore or learn from.

Where I struggle is in practically applying those things to a potential employer. In some cases, I still find myself at a disadvantage because I am not a college graduate. {...snip...} because of the face of the industry at the time, experience was valued more than the degree.

Increasingly today, as I'm researching available options in my area, I see many employers who *require* a college degree, or who desire certification + a given experience level. I do not think there is any value at all in the professional certifications available today for testers, personally, and it's not that I would never finish my degree, it's just that I think I do things to educate myself, and that I am not sure how to 'sell' that.

When dealing with a prospective employer, how does one best 'sell' the things that they do to self-educate? It's not exactly standard to put things of that nature on a resume, that I've seen. Listing classes or professional organizations, assuredly, but listing out things you're teaching yourself about, or have researched and learned from that you think bring value to your testing? I'm not sure how to do that. In an interview, it's far easier, because these are things you can bring up - it's 'getting in the door', so to speak, that I think requires something up front, even, and I'm not sure how that's best achieved.
This is sadly common, employers looking for more and more checkboxes that "demonstrate" that a person will be a good fit for the job and do good testing. When are employers going to learn that none of the best testers I can think of (my apologies if I'm not thinking of someone, or spaced on your educational background) have Computer Science degrees? Heck several don't have college degrees and at least one expert tester (as demonstrated by the number of times he has been an Expert Witness related to software testing in court) doesn't even have a H.S. diploma! (Yes folks, that would be James Bach - one of the smartest and most educated people I have ever had the honor to meet). Anyway, below is my response (also lightly edited):
Yes, sometimes employers really do *require* things that make no sense to us mere mortals. (U.S. Government contractors seem to be among the worst). In those cases you have little choice but to check the box, or forget them as potential employers.

As for the Resume, the way I look at it (and I am probably an exception rather than a rule, but I am speaking from experience as a job hunter, manager who hires and an adviser to a successful technical recruiting firm) standard Resumes are for standard people.

It's been about 10 years since I gave up on a "standard" resume format and only on rare occasions when my resume was being submitted as part of a proposal with other people have I been asked to reformat it.

Remember resumes (CV's whatever) serve exactly 2 purposes. 1) Get you past the intern someone hired to screen resumes. 2) Make you appear interesting enough to call in for a chat.

I recommend to people that they customize their resume for each position, do their research first, substitute your preferred terminology with the job posting's buzzwords to the degree your ethics allow, and otherwise use it as a 2 page attention getter.
For instance:

  • I don't quantify everything. I leave some bullets open ended in a way that makes a manager want to call me *just* to see how the story ends. 
  • I had someone else craft my intro paragraph (I'm actually considering replacing it with one of the endorsements from my website, with attribution). I've had lots of positive comments on that. 
  • I list my skills up front, independent from experience and training. Let's face it, who cares if you learned how to program in VB from a book, from a H.S. teacher, from a college course, on the job or from your kid? As long as you can do it, it's a skill you have. 
  • For a long time I separated my experience from my employment history (I still do to some degree - once you start consulting, the "standard" format breaks down anyway). For experiences to be relevant, they don't need to have be tied to money. OpenSource projects, building a website for your church, testing prototype exercises on the side for James Bach... these are real and relevant experiences. In fact, they are probably more educational than many of the paid jobs people do. 
  • Under a section like "Education/Training" don't be afraid to list things like peer workshops, impromptu classes with trainers at conferences (though you should check in with them first... wouldn't it be embarrassing if the potential employer asked the person and they said "Huh? Maybe, but I don't remember doing that.") 
  • When you get stuck and don't feel like your resume is telling the story you want it to tell, ask someone you respect to write either a short endorsement to put on your resume or a letter of endorsement to include. Jon Bach (James' brother) actually has "James Bach approved Rapid Tester, Cem Kaner recommended something or another, etc." on his resume... like 5 of them if I remember correctly.

Sure things like blogging and article writing can help, but they can also hurt. Some companies are psycho about Intellectual Property and actively avoid writers. No intern is going to check your blog to see which stack of resumes you belong in and most managers won't either. Blogs and articles helps with unsolicited jobs and contracts. I've rarely seen them help folks who are responding to job posts.
The other thing to do is to use your personal network. Ask folks you know, even casually, if they know someone looking for someone like you and then ask them to forward your resume. I get that all the time. The truth is that even when I forward a resume with a note that says "I don't know this person very well, but their resume looks decent and they were polite when I talked to them", about 90% of the time they at least get a call from the manager. It bypasses the whole intern process and the fact that it is coming through a friend (i.e. me) that interests them enough to make a call.
At the end of the day, that is what you really want. A call. A chance to demonstrate your skills. That is what earns you a job, not the resume.
The other thing to remember is that way to often, employers list requirements for what they wish they could get and a price that's half of what anyone who actually has those requirements would take. Don't worry about that. Apply for the jobs doing the things at the companies that sound interesting to you, craft a resume that would be interesting to the manager you'd like to work for and you really ought to be fine.
*Note* none of that is code for "lie", "stretch the truth" or anything of the kind. The truth is the truth. But unless your entire life story fits on 2 pages, you've got to summarize and highlight. It is not unethical or untruthful to highlight those true things that are most likely to get you an interview.
Now don't read this and immediately send me your resume and expect me to spam it around for you. But if this rings true with you, print it out and when no one is looking, pin it up on the "for managers only" bulletin board in your office. Maybe it'll help some of these fabulous testers land the jobs they deserve, but don't have the right checkboxes to be considered for.

--
Scott Barber
Chief Technologist, PerfTestPlus, Inc.
About.me

Co-Author, Performance Testing Guidance for Web Applications
Author, Web Load Testing for Dummies
Contributing Author, Beautiful Testing, and How To Reduce the Cost of Testing

"If you can see it in your mind...
     you will find it in your life."
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