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Resumes are arbitrary personal ads

Joel falls into a familiar trap: he thinks that that his "ideal" resume is the way that he (and the industry generally) hires.  Joel also probably hasn't been unemployed for a long time so he's forgotten how to actually get a job from strangers.

When I was unemployed, I did a bunch of experiments and, though customization was important, it was not as important as speed.  Generally, hiring managers scan the first 20 resumes that they receive, glance at the next 80 and then throw away everything else.  Why?  Reading resumes is boring.  When you first get resumes for a job that you post, you are "rested" but, after the first 20 or so, you start to get tired.  After the first 100, you get frustrated.  Customization certainly helps but, if you have a choice between speed and customization, choose speed.  (I'd scale it usually.  5 minutes of customization for a boring job; 1 hour for a decent job; 2 hours for a great job that I really, really wanted.  But, always, always, always, submit the same day that you saw the posting.)  Waiting a day or two to research and really find out about the company dooms you to the 100+ part and, through my experiments, this reduced your chances to 0.

Two, like reading resumes, sending resumes is always a mass production effort.  Job seekers like to imagine that hiring managers lean back in their chairs with the resume, reading it throughly and casually, like a good book.  Hiring managers like to imagine that job seekers lovingly craft and customize their resumes, focusing a huge amount of time on getting that one ideal job.  But, here's the truth: job seekers are direct mail companies and resumes are spam.  Job seekers hate it; hiring managers hate it; but, that's the way it is.  Hiring managers may not like resumes that work like spam but that's simply what works.

Three, everybody likes something different.  I may think that the "Got Milk" commercials are funny but Joel may think that they are stupid.  Spending a lot of time trying to guess what a particular hiring manager will like, such as his preference for cover letters or lack thereof, is fruitless.  Pretending that arbitrary preferences are universal preferences in Joel's article is just wrongheaded.

Four, pretending that you can actually tell something about a person by a one-page resume is something that most hiring managers never address.  When I was a hiring manager, I realized that I probably didn't find the single best person in the pile.  A resume is like a personal ad.  You are trying to pick somebody to marry within a month by reading a bunch of personal ads, selecting a few people to have lunch with (once) and then making your choice.  If this was your method, wouldn't you agree that your chance of finding "Mr. Right" was pretty poor?  Companies use resumes to filter candidates, not because it is a great system, but because there really isn't any other way.  And, writing articles about how to write a great resume or a great personal ad makes it very easy to fall into the trap of describing how you think it should work and your personal likes and dislikes, not how it actually does work.

Finally, expecting a new computer science grad to be a good resume writer is unrealistic.

Daniel Howard
Monday, January 26, 2004

"Finally, expecting a new computer science grad to be a good resume writer is unrealistic."

Can you elaborate?  I fail to see how someone who just graduated from college cannot write well, especially considering all the career services resources available to them on campus.

So basically I'm saying, you make no sense.

Monday, January 26, 2004


Bravo!  Well thought and well written.

name withheld out of cowardice
Monday, January 26, 2004

Do you send timely responses to all 300 applicants as they are rejected?

Do you send substantive responses?

I think, given the lack of feedback in the market, it's unrealistic to expect people to only apply to 4 jobs, even if there are only 4 that they want.

Bill Seitz
Monday, January 26, 2004

Computer science grads are good at computers.  Many (nearly all) believe that the job market is a meritocracy that rewards good programmers, not quality or prolific resume writers.

I don't know if you've forgotten what college was like.  At my college, the Job Placement office was way on the other side of campus, not near any of my classes.  Taking a class in "How to write resumes" was not required; no credit was given.  In fact, job-related seminars and classes weren't even listed in the Course Catalog.  People weren't aware that getting a job wasn't automatic; a lot of us just expected some company to swoop down and select us.  As seniors, we all had this vague idea that we were going to have to get jobs after we graduated but nobody and no process really forced us to address the issue head on.  Not to mention that most of the career placement advisers were university-lifers who probably hadn't applied for a job in the last 20 years and, even if they had, were mainly qualified to advise people on who to get jobs at a university.

Ultimately, when I was unemployed right after college and realized, "Dammit, I've got to get a job; it isn't just going to come to me!", I was living at home, 3 hours from my former university and unable to take advantage of the services.  (And, you know, I even recall that the university had some sort of policy that "career placement services are only available to current enrollees.")

Daniel Howard
Monday, January 26, 2004

Still, most of Joel's article addressed things like proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  No matter what your major was in college, you should have learned how to communicate properly in English, or you wasted your money.

But I appreciate especially your point about speed; this is something I'll take to heart when I look for jobs again.

Monday, January 26, 2004

> Do you send timely responses to all 300 applicants as they
> are rejected?

Most hiring managers do not, I think.  When they've hired somebody, hiring managers usually get amnesia about all the people that they talked to who didn't get the job.  (I've had this myself.)  They vaguely figure that the people probably got jobs somewhere else or lost interest so there is no reason to follow up.

If somebody sent e-mail asking for a response, some respond and some don't (and some don't see it because it gets filtered into some weird resume folder).  Most likely, the response is that the candidate was not a "good fit" for the position.  Hiring managers worry a little bit about being sued for something that they might say in a follow-up e-mail so, unless you really struck a cord, he's probably not going to think really hard and honestly about why you weren't chosen.

> Do you send substantive responses?

Most hiring managers probably don't.  When I was a manager, I encouraged people to contact me no matter what they said but nearly all were too shy (or whatever) to followup.  New grads feel that they are bugging the hiring manager when they followup and it's embarrassing (I think) so they never did.  Usually, the only information that you'll get back from a hiring manager is: "We hired somebody else already." or "We're still interviewing and considering."  Maybe it shows a little more interest or puts him back in the mind of the hiring manager for a few seconds, though, if the resume or interview didn't go well, that isn't going to make a difference.

Daniel Howard
Monday, January 26, 2004

> Still, most of Joel's article addressed things like proper
> spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  No matter what your
> major was in college, you should have learned how to
> communicate properly in English, or you wasted your money.

I agree but, usually, we find out too late that universities are not the same as trade schools.  Universities don't really prepare you for a job; they provide a general educational background that accidentally has some practical elements related to it.

Most universities don't require a comp sci major to take very many humanities courses and, usually, these courses are taken closer to freshman year than senior year.  So, it is quite possible that a comp sci graduate has not written an English essay in 2 or more years when he is asked to write a resume.

But, your point is valid.  Even poorly educated people know that the first word of a sentence is capitalized and the last word has a period after it.  Maybe people are lazy or maybe they have poor English skills.

Daniel Howard
Monday, January 26, 2004

I wonder if there is any possiblity that Joel would actually hire someone for one of his two positions via an over-the-transome resume?

Surely within the set of his employese/friends/clients/business associates there exist two qualified interns.  Do no one at Fog Creek know some CS instructors at the local colleges and universities?

The only reason I can think of two advertise for such positions is just because it's good practice for legal reasons to pretend to open positions to the general public.

Staffing up for a big new project then you'd want to advertise.  But two interns?

Jim Howard
Monday, January 26, 2004

Daniel Howard, hear hear! Your title says it all.

Counterpoint... I think it's quite valuable to hear an authentic and politically unfiltered opinion from a hiring manager on the subject (especially liked the "attention, the entire population of India" commen on commas).

However, Joel suffers from an expectation that only a rennaissance man or woman will "do".  In this he is imposing a corporate egocentric just like every HR department that flatulates the "best and brightest" hubris. The fact is, the best person for the position may never even be visible given Joel's vetting process.

The fact is also that many productive and talented software engineers absolutely suck at anything whatsoever having to do with personal presentation, image, and spoken and written composition. That's why they are techies and are not in sales or marketing. To many techies, the entire subject of "sales" is like a piece of kryptonite to Superman. They almost go out of their way to do it poorly.

I have worked alongside *many* quite productive and effective developers who struggle to write simplistic sentences and who are pathologically bad spellers.

And *never mind* the talent to distill down complex experience in sound bites.  The better (not world class, simply the "better") developers will tend to ramble some or a lot. HR triage mentality "demands" that you ignore these people because they're not "to the point".

My opinion: when you select based on a slick resume that offers exactly what you're looking for at that point in time and says it in a way that you demand to see it, and you select out those instances that fall short of this mark, then you are buying pieces of marketing, *not* skills nor talent.

Actually, I would be much more impressed if Joel admitted that he got past his perfectionism and gave the "poor personal marketers" a shot. My guess is that he would pick up *tremendous* talent fairly cheaply.

Bored Bystander
Monday, January 26, 2004

I find it hard to believe that most reputable… heck ANY four-year degree-granting institution could churn out majors that would send cover letters that used AOL-speak language.

My edu (Miami University (OH)) required not only two English courses (admittedly taken as a freshman) but also a technical writing course (taken junior or senior year).  One of the technical writing projects was, actually, drafting your resume/cover letter, having peers review it, etc. and then ‘submitting’ it to your ‘first’ job.  Of course, the last part was optional, but the whole point of the exercise was to learn how to write a resume and cover letter and adapt them both to a company and position you’ve researched.

It also had fun things like writing technical specifications and all the other sorts of documents programmers hate (which I actually like) writing.

I’m surprised most institutions don’t require such a course or at least strongly recommend one.  If they do, then it’s the graduate’s fault for not taking it.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Bored, I get your point, but your implication is that the techie guy who can't spell simply can't spell, and that's that. Spelling and writing are learned skills, just like programming is. Short of dyslexia, there is no reason a programmer can't learn how to write and spell properly, and there is no reason an employer shouldn't filter these people out.

As pointed out in another thread, the winner of last year's nobel prize in literature was a former programmer at IBM. If a programmer can win the nobel prize in literature, there is no excuse for poor grammar and spelling errors in a resume or cover letter.

Monday, January 26, 2004

"nameless", I covered this issue.

I think that world class professionals should be verbally adept in the written and oral modes.

BUT, most candidates are not world-class. Most people are not superb at all things. If someone *were* world class would they even bother applying for most jobs working for someone else?

I find the things that Joel listed just as grating and irritating as he does. And maybe, through experience he has found that he can afford to be that picky and get what he wants. Perhaps bad writing skills are well correlated with poir on-the-job performance, poor intellect, some lacking dimension of thought that reflects in the person's growth.

I just think that Joel's criteria are beside the point of hiring the best technical person.

Bored Bystander
Monday, January 26, 2004

I wouldn't hire a developer with poor oral or written communications skills, so I completely agree with almost all of Joel's "arbitrary" rules. 

There's a lot more to software development than just slinging code.  If you can't be bothered to take the time to make sure your resume is in proper and understandable English, how can I expect you to make sure the code you write is readable and maintainable?  These things are not entirely unrelated. 

Mister Fancypants
Monday, January 26, 2004

> proper and understandable English
The general population of Toronto is nearly 50% immigrant. For a new developer, understandable is good enough for me.

Christopher Wells
Monday, January 26, 2004

I am disappointed with the whole defense that geeks cannot write.

This is not creative writing, where you have to impress readers.  This is an effort to put your thoughts in a readable structure.

All programmers will HAVE to write a Technical Specification.  Trust me.  ALL.  If you do not, you are not a trusted programmer.

Eventually, the GOOD programmers will also have to assist on the Functional Specification, Unit Test Plan, Program Guide, and others.  To do so, they need to be able to communicate to others (if they are not the authors) the requirements (and technical limitations) of their tools.  That requires a grasp of precise English usage.

Yes, there are gurus who have a terrible grasp of English.  However, they are gurus for a reason -- they go out and find the best resources to help them do their job.  Microsoft Word comes with a spell and grammar checker that at LEAST point you some of the common errors.  I use it all the time, and could not see why anyone else is incapable of doing the same.

This is not your general forum/e-mail/IM/chit chat thing.  As a programmer, you have to be capable of bi-directional development -- coding the stuff, and telling others what you did and will do.

If you cannot do that, I do not care how good you are... you will not work for me.

Monday, January 26, 2004

I second Daniel's comments on efficiency of jobsearching. During my current bout of job-searching (unemployed from 1/02 - 6/02 and now looking again for last couple of months due to horrible job) I've also never been called back for a position which I didn't respond to the same day, no matter how good my fit.

And when I've been interviewing others for this company, we operated the same way - we would look at the first 100 resumes, and if we got 10-20 decent ones, we were done. Albert Einstein could have been resume #150, and we would have never talked to him.

Joel falls into the trap of assuming that he and the candidate have the same exact incentives. Imagine that.

Monday, January 26, 2004


You only have to write Tech Specs if your company/dept demands them.  Unfortunately what passes for a Tech Spec around here is a "read the damn code" mentality.

Sorry, for the non-sequitur... another day in paradise (no, really).

I'll put my name on a happier post
Monday, January 26, 2004

"I think that world class professionals should be verbally adept in the written and oral modes."

You know, my wife is an ethnic Hungarian from Romania, and speaks both of those languages in addition to English.  Her English, while very good, is not perfect.

So you know what she does when submitting a cover letter and resume?  Gives them to me to proofread.  When I've had my fill, she asks friends and family.

Joel isn't saying you have to know English perfectly.  But he is saying that, one way or another, you have to put some care into how you present yourself.  If you're not a native English speaker, you need to find someone who is and have him/her proofread your resume and cover letter.

I'm not in HR, but I can tell you what the HR person is thinking when he/she sees sloppy English:  If you can't be bothered even to get your resume and cover letter edited, then how many work tasks will come up that you can't be bothered to do properly either?

(By the way, I didn't follow this advice a few years ago when I applied for a computer job in Romania, and instead of saying in Romanian that I knew how to repair printers, I ended up saying I knew how to repair T-shirt logo pressing machines.  I'll bet that got a few odd looks...but I'll never know, since they never called me!)

Monday, January 26, 2004

What many readers seem to be missing is that Joel isn't claiming this is a good system for identifying high-quality software engineers.  Rather, he's saying that if you have to filter hundreds of resumes, this is one of the better ways of filtering; better than, say, picking at random.  While (as has been pointed out ad nauseum) this system can easily produce a fair number of false negatives, at least a correct and well-written resume and cover letter indicates some modicum of communications skills and attention to detail.

My wife used to manage a publications department at HP, and got some really amazingly bad resumes.  People applying for desktop publishing jobs, but whose resumes included whiteout and handwritten corrections!  I mean, even moreso than for software jobs, if you're applying for a DTP job, your resume had better look AWESOME.

Joe Ganley
Monday, January 26, 2004

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