Resumes Are Worthless

Ok, so a question came up recently about hiring people for software development roles. In answering that, the group discussing this started talking about resumes. Resumes, which I’m told mine looks good and reads well, hold a certain value to someone entering the field of software development. There are also major problems with having a resume as your primary form of communication to prospective employers.

Resumes provide a horrible medium for communicating your real value to a company.

Sometimes a resume can tell someone that you can build a resume well or not. Sometimes a resume can tell someone that you think you know the technologies you have listed on your resume. Sometimes they can tell a prospective employer that you’ve been working in the field for X number of years. But what the resume really tells people is a list of nonsense:

  • A resume tells a prospective employer that you’ve worked for X years but doesn’t mean you’ve gained X years of experience.
  • A resume tells a prospective employer that you’ve written words on a page, following a loosely selective group of ideas and practices around resume writing.
  • A resume tells a prospective employer that you have or can find a list of keywords associated with a particular job position.
  • A resume does not tell a prospective employer that you actually know these technologies the keywords are associated with.
  • A resume does not tell a prospective employer that you know how to structure sentences, clear thoughts, or actually communicate effectively in a group.
  • A resume does not tell a prospective employer anything about your learning technique, how you develop or work in a group, or other pivotal soft and hard skills required for the position.
Summary:  Resumes are often a lie or misleading.

Some other issues with resumes. These are just simple things that I’ve found, and many others in similar positions as I, are practically truisms.

Looking only at resumes takes the top 5% of developers off market for you. Many, if not most of the best communicators, coders, and well rounded individuals that you want on your team will not submit a resume first. They’ll have to know you, gotten positive word of mouth, or otherwise been informed of your hiring and company. If your company uses resumes as a first step, you immediately are removing the top tier 5% of people. This isn’t just me seeing this, take for instance observations from people who have hired many more people than me such as Joel Spolsky (who does actually use resumes, but realizes they’re practically useless) or Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

By stating this, I’m not saying to totally disregard resumes. Albeit that would be nice, but simply saying that resumes should be regarded with absolutely minimal validity. For the most part, resumes are not very valuable and if you can remove them from your hiring process your group or company will be much better off for it.

Good luck hiring out there! :)

23 thoughts on “Resumes Are Worthless

  1. You should also look at the process from the obverse — hiring requirements that are so inflated, nobody who paid attention to them would even bother applying.

    What would you expect from a professional services consultant who really was a DBA, MCSE, had a Comp Sci degree from MIT and could code in 3 or 4 languages? That he might be coming on board at a bit below his expected paygrade? Sheesh.

    And yet, this kind of “requirements inflation” is just as common.

    mp

    • The standard template job posting is all about recruiting mediocrity. Specific skills and years of experience are completely FUBAR. I love it when a post asks for more years of experience on platform than it has been in the market.

      Also highly regimented job responsibilities are a huge turnoff for the best developers.

  2. I would like to see a change in how developers apply for positions. When a position is advertised there should be a development exercise that one has to go through. It should take about an hour and it should have stories that build upon stories. It should be something like, implement story x, when they submit story x, it should ask them to implement story y, etc.

    • Hellz yeah! That would be a win for the industry from all sides; the companies and the employees. A lot of the great companies that have strong teams here in Seattle (and I know down in Portland too) are setup so that they have a period were they pair program, work through some problems, and maybe even discuss a possible real life problem they’re actively working to resolve on a white board. I’ll admit, with some of our current people we’ve interviewed we’ve even had their code committed to production. :) I think the idea of adding some stories to the whole process would be a great idea – I’m going to take that up with the team and maybe even write up a blog entry on the idea. Thx for commenting.

  3. As much as I wish I was ‘tuned in’ to the local community so as to be able to get jobs without my resume, I’m just not.. yet. In the mean time, I guess I have to hope my resume can at least generate interest in my skills.

    • You’re doing good with your community involvement. We’ll have to chat and pair dev sometime. I’ve got some suggestions on some good techniques for relegating the resume to a piece of paper with your name on it. ;)

  4. If the moral of the story is that actively recruiting passive job seeking developers through networking or headhunting (looking at Open Source contributors on projects you are using or in the same space as your product) is the most effective way of getting great developers, point well taken.

    That much said, even a poorly written resume from a great developer will give you some indication of what they have done and provide clues for more investigation. The key is to know how to use resumes, not throw them away. Those who just discard them are just as likely to pass on great candidates as those who rely to heavily on them.

    • To the first part of the comment: yup, exactly. :)

      The second point you make, I’ll absolutely concede on that point. You’re right, a poorly written resume from a great developer will give an indication, but often it will just be thrown out too. That’s why I’m extremely hesitant to put much relative weight to a resume. I want to talk to a person, to know and hear of their efforts in the community. The resume just doesn’t provide enough information when I’m looking to hire. I go straight to the community, to the individuals, and talk about who is looking. :) It is tough these days being the market is so tight for devs but I still try to start this way.

      …and in the end, I will dig through resumes if I absolutely have to. I’d just rather not. It’s kind of like gambling, one usually just ends up with less money and a feint memory of what happened. :P

  5. Yeah good luck getting any HR dept to hire someone who won’t submit a resume. That’ll work if you are working in a 3-5 person shop. But honestly, what’s the problem with asking someone to summarize what they’ve been doing for the past x years in written form?

    You’re also being a bit prejudice against people who have families and obligations outside of work — how will they get tuned in to the developer community to the point that they don’t need to submit a resume? Are those people automatically second tier devs? Feh.

    • HR can have its resumes. HR is also – and I mean no ill will as they serve their purpose – but HR is functionally useless in finding talented developers. I would strongly suggest to any team that has HR hiring their developers to immediately stop and take back the reigns of choosing who they want on their team. Letting HR do this is pure suicide. The only thing assured is a vast increase in project failure and discordant communication and a cacophony of project efforts. :(

      Also, I’m not being prejudiced at all against people who have families. I know more than a few people with large families that kick ass at software development. Some of the BEST devs I know have families. Not just one or two kids, but three or four in some cases. They’re also involved in the developer community, in their children’s schools, and in their neighborhood communities. These fathers and mothers with families are not second tier devs.

      …however it is often used as an excuse by fathers and mothers sometimes. Oh woe is me I can’t keep up because I have a family. That’s a bullshit excuse. There are too many people succeeding and kicking ass in the community and contributing in HUGE ways with a great, loving, and well taken care of families. I do NOT hold this as an excuse and I refuse to give preference, a hand out, or any sort of discrimination to someone who has a family.

      Anyway, I’d hire a mother or father in a heart beat, work with a few already, and they’re A-grade players. So I got a little ruffled by this proposition.

      But I digress, I’m not 100% sure how or why saying resumes are worthless somehow translates into me discriminating against families. o_O

      • Well I suppose “Resumes are of little value in finding talented candidates” makes for a boring headline. I’d certainly agree that the resume is only part of the picture — I’d put about 25% of my decision-making into the resume process.

        I’d also argue the flipside of this: if someone is a super dev but can’t communicate well then they are worthless as part of a team. Resume = communication. If someone is God’s Own Developer and he can’t communicate why he’s good at his job in two pages then what good would he be on a team where tons of communication happens in written form?

        Being able to write a good resume is part of being a professional.

        Also, resumes speed up the filtering process. If we brought in every developer who wanted a job for a code challenge we’d blow a lot of time on poor candidates.

        They certainly aren’t great, but the alternatives are worse if you ask me. Nobody’s excited about spark plugs but they’re better than the alternative.

  6. Resumes are good for two things: sorting candidates into giant buckets (IT/dev/PM/etc), and narrowing down from 1000s to 100s or 10s. After that, they’re a source for information to plug into google to find the real information.

    If I take a candidate’s name off their resume and get no google hits, or just posts to the ASP.Net forums, that’s an enormous red flag. Name not googlable (too common or whatever)? Give me a URL on the resume as a place to start – blog, about.me, github, whatever. Something.

  7. They’re a necessary evil. When you have an HR staff reducing 100 applicants to 10 people to interview, they need some form of selection criteria. They’re also the primary index on sites where hiring managers go to find new candidates.

    You can’t interview 100 people for 2 jobs, there has to be some first-tier filter, and right now the resume is that filter for nearly every major organization.

    You *never* hire based on a resume, you just choose who to interview based on them.

  8. I think resumes have some usefulness, but that has diminished over the last decade. One thing they do is allow you to narrow the fields of candidates. Resume writers are the original SEOs. They have their tricks to make your resume appear more attractive, but it gets to the point where everyone applies the tactics. The result is just a collection of keywords, acronyms, and clever text. I’m more than just a smart guy who designs and develops php-driven websites, although that’s my focus. There needs to be a better way to communicate ability and personality. If you’re calling yourself a web professional, it should be mandatory to design and publish on your own website. However, not every industry can employ such a self-validating tactic. I’m thinking a self published video might help demonstrate ones ability to communicate. it’d be nice feature for LinkedIn and similar sites.

  9. What I draw from this is… eliminating resumes removes 95% of the pool of prospective talent from consideration (using your own logic).

    You are correct. Talented software developers (who have been around for a while) will find work.

    Unfortunately, talented software developers who haven’t been around for a while aren’t as well connected and random Company B may not be in connection with that top 5% that you mentioned. Random Programmer C may not be in touch with those companies, either. That’s also not taking into account structural distortions like bubble bursts, periods of economic crisis, etc that will distort all this.

    Solution? Resume. There has to be a way for a company and programmer, who may not know each other, to communicate skills.

    I think the real “solution” to all this is having hiring people in place that really know what they’re doing – that can see behind a resume to the person’s actual skills.

    If my experience is to serve any guide in the software development industry, I’d say that people (even very experienced developers) rely exclusively or too heavily on buzzwords or emerging technology fads.

    For example, if I was hiring for Random Company for a web development position and we used Java, MySQL, and also needed a JavaScript person. Maybe we did a little data warehousing too. The technologies are random picks but you get the point.

    I’m NOT going to look at a resume in terms of how many years of Java they have, MySQL, or if they are have awesome experience in Buzzword Database. I’m going to interview them and find out how much OOP experience they have, how much database experience/theory do they have/know (are they aware of Star schemas or have experience using them? If not, what DO they know? How can I leverage what they know to the benefit of the company?). If we are a small shop, do they have software testing experience? Have they built testing harnesses? If not, do they have enough development experience to do so? etc. etc. etc. If someone doesn’t have experience with Java, well… OOP languages are a dime-a-dozen. Know one and your ramp-up time to learn a new one is tiny. If I have a tie or equivalently skilled candidates, THEN I will start looking at the buzzwords and fads and measure how much experience they have with them.

    Those are the kind of things I wish hiring people and tech people could see through. Figuring out how many years Johnny Programmer has with the X Programming Language or the Buzzword Database is almost completely useless (unless you are talking about crossing paradigms, such as going from OOP to logic programming.. that’s not an insignificant ramp-up time, depending).

    • Good points. My original point in stating the “5%” is that often companies get this notion they want to hire the top tier people, but then do many things that make that impossible. So it isn’t really my logic, I’m trying to poke a hole in the myth of getting top tier developers with traditional hiring methods.

      Great comment though, you’ve made me think about some things that I’ll have to work on writing up. You’ve brought some interesting perspectives. Thanks!

      • I see your point about the top 5%.

        I’m not sure how a company goes about attracting the leaders in the field successfully without being hooked into the top 5% already.

        I do know that there is a lot of talent out there (even more now considering the toll the economy has taken on the labor force). I think the more constructive approach is learning how to identify that talent.

  10. Resumes are important I think for certain things, not necessarily the final hiring decision though.
    When you go hunting for a house, you pull up all the listings, and you filter them down to a select few you want to visit. The information in the listing should be up to date, to showcase the right things to attract the right buyers.
    When you buy a used car, you tell the salesman: “show me the carfax”, ’cause i won’t just take your word for it. Carfax that show proper care for the vehicle are a good sign.
    A resume identifies to employers the companies you can check references with, allows you to validate truthfulness of the candidate in subsequent interviews (do they know what they say they know, did they work where they said they work when they said they worked there). But the final hiring decision isn’t really going to be based on the resume, it’s going to be based on how the candidate interviews and if the individual is a fit for the company and it’s culture, and vice-versa.
    If everything checks out on a well-crafted resume, it speaks well of the candidate. If the resume is sloppy, put together in haste, and full of unsubstantiated buzz-words, well, there you go.

    If hiring was like baking, the resume would be the glossy picture of the end-product you are expecting to see.
    If the picture (resume) sucks, you probably won’t bake it
    If the picture’s good, but the recipe is a disaster (resume contents), you probably won’t bake it.
    If the picture’s good, recipe is simple to follow and interesting, but the final taste is no good (in person interview), you probably won’t hire.

    What’s the alternative to the resume? word of mouth? alternatives would be good as well. I know for past hiring decisions, managers I know have resorted to using Craig’s list, calling up people they know, talking to students on campuses. Hiring is tough.

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