Thursday, October 19, 2023

This one weird trick^H^H^H^H^H deep technique for writing an actually good resume

Resume-writing is a game.

There are two players.

There's you, trying to condense your whole life into one page in a way that presents you as the most impressive candidate possible.

And then there's the reviewer, trying to decode that page into a real person they can assess.

There’s been a lot written about writing resumes. And also on getting awards and grants, another variation of this game. My favorite piece is Steve Yegge’s Ten Tips for a (Slightly) Less Awful Resume. 15 years later, it’s still relevant. Turns out the ways people communicate about competence don’t change very fast.

But you don’t want a slightly less awful resume.

You want an actually good resume.

A few months ago, I finally shared my #1 piece of interviewing advice. I think it’s time I did likewise for this earlier part of job searching.

But there’s something you need to know about first.


Back at school at Carnegie Mellon, people were who they said they were. Classes were hard, and the number of CS majors was kept small. If someone told you they were a good coder, it meant they had stayed alive through labs that slaughtered their peers. Boast falsely, and there’s a fair chance someone in the room saw you spend 90 minutes on a programming final that took them 15.

But something that shocked me when I first moved to Silicon Valley was how often the “good programmers” aren’t. For the first time in my life, I met posers.

There’s the guy volunteering at a Stanford lab while claiming their project was actually his company. The person who was employee #9 at a $100M startup but told his housemates he’s the founder. The intern from the East coast who drew an audience with his tales of being a machine-learning researcher while brushing aside questions about his actual role in the research. The woman who introduced herself for years as the CEO of some startup that never seemed to do anything. And then there’s the countless Google and Facebook employees who thought getting a job at a billion-dollar company somehow made them the world’s best.

I think Silicon Valley tends to attract the extreme in this regard, and they tend to show up at parties frequented by ambitious young people. The rest of the world lies somewhere in-between that and my famously unpretentious alma mater.

But still, they’re out there. And some of them send in resumes.

Like there’s the guy applying for an enterprise sales job coming whose resume proudly listed “Business Sales — Apple, Cupertino, CA.” His resume spoke about all the companies he worked with, but soon we realized that he wasn’t putting together complex deals from Apple HQ, but just handing out Macbooks at a local Apple Store. (And not in Cupertino — around that time I learned the hard way that you can get Macbook t-shirts but not repairs at Apple’s only store in Cupertino.)

Then there’s the guy finishing up a master’s degree who talked his way into a first round software-engineering interview. He regaled me with the story of his past internship where he acted as both a software engineer and a project manager. Then we got to the coding part, where he happily churned out code full of unmatched braces and variables that don’t exist. We later learned from his former employer that they put him on project-management only after giving up on him producing useful code. And I learned not to take “graduate courses in machine learning and data science from _____ State University” as a meaningful signal, no matter how cool the project sounded in one sentence.

I saw it too when reviewing applications for the Thiel Fellowship. I distinctly remember an applicant who boasted about being “one of the only people able to program futuristic technology like Google Glass” and speaking in front of huge crowds at tech conferences despite not seeming to have accomplished anything of note. But he also claimed to have over 100,000 Twitter followers, and…that was true! That’s when I learned that Twitter followers can be bought. Now I see boasts about follower counts as a red flag without a clear reason for the follows. (I Googled this guy recently. He’s now claiming that Steve Jobs came to him for advice when he was 15.)

Real Evidence of Competence

All of this motivates my #1 piece of resume-writing advice.

So, here it is:

You have an incompetent evil twin who is trying to pass themselves off as you. You must say things they can’t.

That is, you must say things where “this person is competent” is a very likely explanation for you saying that, and “this person is overinflating themselves” is a very unlikely explanation.

There’s a certain law where, if you hear an ad for a game boast “Explore over 10 levels and fight with dozens of weapons,” then there are exactly 11 levels and 24 weapons. Likewise, jaded reviewers will interpret your resume as the weakest thing consistent with the text. So if you write “Helped launch new features with millions of users,” then the default assumption is that you took notes in the meetings and maybe built a few unit tests. But if you write “Sole developer of the Foobar feature, which is used by 500,000 people weekly,” then your note-taking non-coding doppelganger can’t compete, and all that’s left is to evaluate how impressive the Foobar feature actually is.

There’s a mathematical way to state this advice that I find illuminating.

  • Let P(t|c) represent “the probability this text was written given the person is competent.”
  • Let P(t|~c) represent “the probability this text was written given the person is not competent.”
  • You want to maximize P(t|c)/P(t|~c).

There’s a technical term for this: “Bayesian evidence of competence.”

So many of the mistakes people make in resume writing come from focusing on writing something that sounds like what an impressive and competent person would say — optimizing P(t|c) — without a corresponding focus on writing something that a poser couldn’t say without blatantly lying.

There are parts of the tech and business worlds where expertise is hard to acquire, where the choices are endless and subtle, and their consequences are years off. Software architecture can be like that.

But whether to pass a resume to the next stage is a binary decision, and even a beginning interviewer can quickly review hundreds of resumes and get rapid feedback on how well they predict interview performance, if not actual job performance.

That means that the potential interviewer reading your resume will almost certainly be very good at playing their side of the game.

But they want you to win. So just a few tips can make you much better at playing yours.

Just remember: the real game is not to write an impressive resume.

It’s to be an impressive person.

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