The Resume Black Hole: Part 2

In Part 1, we talked about what the resume black hole is, and why people end up there. If you haven’t already read that, go check it out now.

In this post, I’m going to let you in on a huge secret that will (hopefully) change the way you think about applying for jobs, and will definitely improve your success rate if you incorporate it into the way you submit applications.

As I said in part 1, we need to let go of the buckshot, and build ourselves a laser. But, how do we build a laser? It turns out, almost every employer out there has handed you the schematics to assemble the perfect weapon to land an interview. We just have to learn to recognize it and take advantage.

The secret weapon that every company has given us, but that so few people use to their advantage is…

The job description.

Wait! Don’t angrily close your browser tab and go back to furiously applying to jobs just yet. Let me explain, and see if I can convince you.

The job description is literally the company telling you what they’re looking for in a candidate to fill a specific position. It is a list of skills, experiences, and objectives that will be given serious weight when considering who to interview and ultimately who to hire. Essentially, the job description is a company telling you precisely where to aim if you want to land a direct hit. It is a near-complete schematic for building our job application laser.

“But wait,” you might be thinking. “I updated my resume a few weeks ago and I applied to 100 jobs. Am I supposed to have 100 resumes? I don’t have time for that!”


Well, yes. Okay, maybe.

The real answer is, yes, maybe, you might need 100 versions of your resume. However, if you’re brutally honest with yourself, and you objectively keep track of your results applying for jobs, I’m sure you’ll find that for every rapid application spree you go on, you’re seeing far less than 50% or even 25% advancement to the next round of hiring. Many people, myself included, have applied to 100+ jobs and not seen a single interview using the rapid fire approach.

The point isn’t to take just as many shots as you’re taking now. It is to take the right shots, carefully aimed, and end up with a job that you’ll love.

Practically speaking, most people don’t need 100 or even 10 resumes. What they need is a handful of resumes targeted to specific categories of jobs they’re interested in applying to, with possibly some minor tweaks based on the individual job to which they are applying. Let me give you an example.

My current job title is Engineering Manager. I’ve previously worked as an Operations Manager and a Technology Consultant. I’ve got a lot of experience working in technology in various disciplines. But I’d say the two areas in which I am most qualified are engineering management and program/project management (not to be confused with product management, which is an entirely separate specialization.)

So, if I were looking for a new job, I’d probably be considering roles in one of two areas:

  • engineering leadership roles (i.e. Engineering Manager or Senior Manager)
  • project/program manager roles (i.e. Technical Program Manager, Project Manager, etc.)

These are my two categories. To start, I’d want to craft two separate resumes that emphasize the aspects of my skills and background that are most relevant to the respective roles.

For my engineering manager resume, I would emphasize that I formed a new team to meet the needs of my organization, and grew that team over a period of several years to meet the needs of our engineering group. I ran a platform and helped speed up development and testing. I conducted weekly 1:1s and coached engineers in career growth.

For my technical program manager resume, I would shift my focus to emphasize my experience defining the scope of projects, tracking progress, and delivering results on schedule. I might highlight my PMP or CSM certifications. I’d make sure to include that many of the projects my team has executed required coordination with multiple other teams, had firm dependencies that required collaboration to achieve a successful result, etc.

Each of these two resumes are telling the same story, but directing the focus on different facets of my background to show how I’m a clear fit for a specific role. You can think of my experience as a block of wood, and in the examples above, we’re carving two similar but still unique figures out of the raw materials given. We’re sculpting the story to align with the needs of the organization.

This is a great start. I’d say this takes us from a wide, scattered shot to something like a rifle. But, we can do better. We want laser precision. We need to tailor the resume to the specific role we’re applying to.

Now that I know what my two areas of interest are, I need to find a job opening I actually want to apply to. For illustration’s sake, I’ll use a current Google job posting: Technical Program Manager in Site Reliability Engineering (SRE). Now we need to follow a process that looks something like:

  • Determine if the role fits one of our existing prepared categories (in this case, yes, it does) or if we need to create a new category similar to the two described above
  • Review the job description, paying special attention to experience and skill requirements. Particularly look for areas where we have unique qualifications or our story closely aligns with the company’s needs
  • Make a new copy of our TPM resume, and tailor the details to specifically address the requirements outlined in the job description

In the specific case of a TPM in SRE, I’d make sure to emphasize my experience building and running scalable systems. I’d talk about the work I’ve done to build developer infrastructure, and how we measured the success of our solutions, determined if our tools were performing well, and how I defined and implemented processes for monitoring and alerting — running services reliably is what SRE is all about. Most importantly, I’d focus in on any specific technologies or responsibilities mentioned in the job description, and address them as directly as possible. More to come on this subject.

This may seem simplistic, but it will dramatically increase your rate of success in many cases. It’s important to understand how many layers of filtering happen before a candidate is even invited to phone screen for a position. Often, the initial review is conducted by someone (a sourcer or recruiter) with limited technical background or knowledge of the role. Instead, they have a vague sense of what the hiring manager is looking for, and they’re looking for resumes that clearly align with those goals.

As I alluded to above, a true expert technique is to specifically repeat the company’s own language back in your tailored resume. Many businesses use their own jargon. For example, while Google talks about SRE, many companies prefer the terminology devops. If you’re familiar with these areas, you may be aware that there are subtle differences between the two, and that the line between them can be fuzzy. However, a recruiter/sourcer may not be as aware of these distinctions. So if he/she is looking for devops, but you say SRE, you may get skipped over. You can find these subtle cues to take advantage of in the job description.

I want to take a quick moment to emphasize one very important thing: Do not lie on your resume. I am not telling you, “Hey, just look at what kind of background they’re looking for, and say you have that background!” That is both unethical and a recipe for a disastrous interview. Instead, I’m encouraging you to look closely and what kind of skills and experience a company wants for a particular position, and to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward.

Don’t make the recruiter or hiring manager play a guessing game: Would this be a good person to interview? Instead, take the time and put in the extra effort to precisely craft a laser focused application. Use their own words to describe your background when possible. Emphasize your accomplishments in a light that aligns them with the needs of the role. If you do this little bit of extra work, you’ll be interviewing for a job you’re excited about in no time.

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