Quality Over Quantity

When looking at a resume, one of the first things I look for is the place where the candidate enumerates their programming language proficiencies and other skills. I’m looking for two things:

  1. What kind of candidate is this? Are they a front-end or back-end dev? Do they have experience with our technology stack?
  2. Is this candidate really good at anything?

Given that I’m trying to answer these two questions, this is about the worst-case scenario (and you wouldn’t believe how common it is):

Skills: C, C++, Java, Python, HTML, CSS, Javascript, Node.js, Matlab, Bash

Other Skills: Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, MySQL, Microsoft Access

Great. Now I have absolutely no way to answer question 1 and I’m going to go ahead and assume the answer to question 2 is “no”.

The skills section is not meant to be an inventory of every piece of technology you’ve ever touched. Everything in that section should be both:

  • Relevant to the job for which you’re applying
  • Something about which/in which you’d be comfortable answering an interview question

Anything else is just noise that distracts the person reviewing your resume. So, get rid of all the languages of which you don’t have a working knowledge. For most people, I expect this will do the job and get the list down to 1-3 languages. If you truly are a programming language polyglot, then there are a few strategies that I can suggest:

Group Similar Technologies Together

For example, we could rework some of the languages in the example above as follows:

Skills: C/C++, HTML/CSS, Javascript/Node.js, Python

This is much more believable to me, despite still being pretty extensive. Here, the skills are grouped into 4 distinct skills, despite being 6/7 distinct technologies (depending on whether or not you actually distinguish Javascript and Node). Further, as a developer, I don’t really question any of the groupings because I know that they are actually related.

Divide by Expertise

Alternatively, you can list a wide swath of languages if you make it clear which ones are your strongest. Something like this is common:

Skills: (Experienced) C/C++, (Familiar) Ruby, HTML/CSS/Javascript

Now I can easily see that “Oh this is a C++ dev who’s done some WebDev”. That said, don’t use this as an excuse to just dump everything in your “Familiar” section. As I said earlier, you should still focus on relevant technologies that you actually have experience with.

Tailor Based on Company

Probably the best method, though, is to tailor your skills based on the company and position for which you are applying. Most companies list the tech stack they use on the positions page. Be sure that you actually know those languages and then be sure they are highlighted in your skills section. Obviously, this requires more work on your end, but it will almost definitely pay off. When I see a candidate that lists our entire tech stack on their resume (which is listed in plain sight on the job description) they’re almost a shoo-in for an interview. (Seriously, read the job description, it’s like cheat codes for getting an interview.)

Closing Thoughts

The idea of “quality over quantity” extends far beyond the “Skills” section of your resume. It applies equally to your projects and your past work experience. It’s generally more useful to market yourself as a highly-skilled individual in the domains that are relevant to the company than as a jack-of-all-trades.

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