How to Build a Resume (that doesn’t suck)

Resumes are like opinions, which are like something else: everybody’s got one. And if you don’t have one, then certain key functions are very hard to perform.  In this case, not having a resume makes the job-getting difficult.

We’ve talked about resumes, and even reviewed a few, on the show (here and here) and on blogs (here). Today I’m here to give you a few simple guidelines to make a decent, effective resume that wouldn’t piss me off. And that’s the real goal here.

Update: For a little live discussion on this very topic, see the 12/9/2011 episode of DBAs@Midnight, named “STOP!!!” (starting at minute 38). 

What to include

Contact: Name, phone, email. Address optional; some companies and recruiters will want this.

Job history: name of company, your title there, dates worked.  Bulleted list of duties while there, and 1 to 3 bullet points showing what a star you were (increased sales, solved problems, major projects).

Education and training: Degree and major (e.g.,  BA, Computer Programming), university, graduation year. Also applicable certifications.

What NOT to include

Contact: Forty zillion different ways to contact you. Keep It Simple.

Jobs: Salary, manager name, reason you left. Never convey salary information. And references and reasons should be covered in interviews.


The word “expert”.  No you’re not. Let me say that again: NO, you are not an expert. If you are an expert, this sentence won’t phase you (and you probably know better than to put “expert” on your resume anyway).

Things you don’t know anything about.  There’s a difference between playing up lesser  skills and outright lying. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t list it. (Side note: SQL SERVER 2003 DOESN’T EXIST. STOP THAT.)

Anything to do with your kids or plans to have/not to have them. It’s none of their business, and those prejudices are out there.

Anything cutesy. Judge the need for cutesy in the interview, not on your resume.

Anything negative. You’re putting your best foot forward here, with a smile and a handshake. Badmouthing yourself, jobs, coworkers, projects, or anything else on your resume is off-putting, and VERY bad practice. Don’t. Do. It.

References available on request. Seriously, no duh. They’ll ask if they want resumes.

Formatting and style

Keep it simple. Consistent headers, bullet points. It’s a good idea to download a basic resume template from Word (or online) and just use that. It takes a lot of the guesswork and fiddling out.

Bullet lists should all start with the same kind of word, and use the same tensethroughout. If you’re going with things you’ve done, then the list should look like this (emphasis added just for this article):

  • Documented XYZ project
  • Improved ABC metric by N%
  • Implemented MNO software, saving the company $X gazillionty annually

…not this:

  • In charge of documenting XYZ project
  • Improved ABC metric by N%
  • I also implemented MNO software, saving the company $X gazillionty annually

SPELLCHECK. Then proofread. Then have someone else proofread. Seriously, we  make fun of you if you misspell stuff on your own resume.

There are other things we could go over, of course. There are debates on the skills list, personal notes, various ways to approach presenting job duties, and keeping different versions of resumes. But that’s the intermediate class. 

To sum up today’s lesson:

  • Include:
    • Contact: Basic info.
    • Job history: company, title, dates, duties, a couple of WINs.
    • Education and training: Degrees and certs.
  • Leave out:
    • Extraneous contact info.
    • Too much information in regards to jobs and personal life.
    • The word “expert”.
    • Stuff you don’t know.
    • Cutsey-ness. Negativity.
  • Format:
    • Use a basic template
    • Use consistent wording and tense
    • SPELLCHECK and proofread.

Happy days,
Jen McCown

19 thoughts on “How to Build a Resume (that doesn’t suck)”

  1. Did you get the certification survey from MS? They were asking about using the designation Microsoft Certified Expert (MCE) or Microsoft Certified Expert (MCX) as the Tier 2 certification title instead of MCSE/MCSD/MCITP.

    Also, I would disagree on the Expert if you’re a CCIE. It’s a two day lab exam that costs thousands to take. Most fail the first time they take it. Even if you know your stuff cold, if the commands and configurations aren’t almost instinctive to you, you will still fail because you won’t get enough done to pass. And yet networking and IP telephony types are still lining up to take it because it means that much in their respective fields… Yeah, anyone who passes a CCIE lab exam deserves the Expert title.

    1. Most of the people who are guilty of the sin of claiming unwarranted expertism are not CCIEs, for one thing…and I did say that the people who really are experts know to disregard that piece of advice.

      But generally speaking, a good solid 90+% of the SQL Server resume-writers shouldn’t approach the E-word.

  2. I have proofread several friends’ resumes, and have “consistencied” many, many bulleted lists. Great basic tips. Thanks! Oh BTW, I wouldn’t use the word “consistencied” on my resume :)

  3. Thanks for the article. One question that experienced people run into is how to best summarize an accomplishments bullet list. It can take a lot to build the complete picture, but “ain’t nobody gonna read all that” kicks in. And it’s the breadth of those accomplishments that create the value in the senior people.

  4. K. Brian Kelley, You miss the point Jen is making. “It isnt about you” when building a resume. It is about how the reader will see it. Those reading resumes look for things to cause them to throw one out. “Expert” is one. There are a lot more. As Jen said, if you are an expert, you know it. If a person feels the need to tell everyone, maybe they really aren’t. I know my best interviews have always been when I had an opportunity to say “I don’t know”. I follow that with what I would do to figure out what to do. Humble always does better than braggart.

    1. I’m not at all sure that I’d say a resume is more about their perception of you than it is about you. And “expert” won’t cause us to throw out your resume, but it WILL make me hold you to a much higher standard. I’ll let a lot more things slide with a regular interviewee than I will with a guy who claims he’s a SQL Server 2003 Expert. (Yes, it happens.)

  5. Interesting mail stream about resumes. It has always been my technique to use two resumes. The first one is a summary resume highlighting everything that has been pointed out in this discussion. This is one page. This is my most successful resume and it follows the lazy approach by recruiters that do key word searches. All the key words are there that convey what I am looking for and what my experiences have been about over the years.

    After speaking to recruiters, it is determined if this is a position of interest or not. Usually, the recruiters are stumbling over themselves so the real job is never known. The mistake recruiters make is the “cut-n-paste” approach to job-searching. A company may enlist a half dozen firms to find a candidate and they all cut-n-paste the same job description (JD). With time, the candidate can figure out the client in this day of modern data technology. Once all of the BS is passed, the recruiter as for a detailed resume.

    My detail resume is 6 pages and covers the current 10 years. The first five years are detailed bullets and the last five are short summaries with no more than 3 – 4 bullet points. This lends itself to a nice, concise, detailed resume that is considerate of everyone that will read it.

    So I am not necessarily worried if you are an expert or not. The interview will tell me that and isn’t that the whole purpose of the resume: “Get the Interview.” If you are capable and articulate, I believe you should be offered the job.

  6. David Jackson,

    I get the point, however the advice is bad when the certification title has Expert in it. CCIE = Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert. It’s one of the hardest technical certs to obtain in the IT industry and for good reason. To put it in perspective, the MCA, which is above the MCM, is probably comparable to it. CCIEs are also required to recertify, just as is true with all Cisco certs.

  7. K. Brian Kelley:

    Not sure you do get the point. This is a set of general guidelines, if you can’t separate a certification title that includes the word “expert” from the advice to not use the word “expert” in a resume… as in “I am an expert SQL Server DBA”… then I believe you have missed the point.

    Lisa Bohm:

    I am not convinced that “consistencied” is a recognised word, whether you have used it on your resume or not. And should I see that word used on a resume I would be likely to elliminate the candidate based on them being too clever for their own good – but then I am like that (and unfortunately I do filter candidates for positions…) 😮

  8. Harry, I do. And my point is that if you have that title, you are an expert in that field, and the certification title is reflective of your true expertise. This is just one specific example that I used to highlight why I disagreed with that advice. Just like if I see on a resume that you were on AFCERT (Air Force Computer Emergency Response Team) for a respectable amount of time and you put “Expert in incident handling and response” I don’t know many in the security field that would begrudge that statement or have an issue with it. I realize this is my opinion, but it is based on my own experience.

  9. My pet peeve is the Microsoft certification logo that is larger than anything else on the resume. Just put it down in the bullets under Education and Certification in regular text. Having a cert should not be the biggest thing in your professional life.

  10. One thing I didn’t see here is resume length. I have gotten 12 page resumes. I don’t care what you did in high school or what teams you played on. If it doesn’t pertain to the job posting, don’t put it on your resume. Also, what is a ‘rsum’. Is this the new text for resume?

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