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Quit Exaggerating On Your Skill Set

Filed Under 3 Days To Building A Perfect Resume

Perfect Resume

This is Part #2 of the 3 Days To Building A Perfect Resume series.

Probably the funniest part of most developers’ resume is the “Skills” area. I almost chuckle out loud when I see a resume that appears as such:

I use the following languages and tools:

  • C#
  • Java
  • PHP
  • Lisp
  • Fortran
  • MySQL
  • XML
  • XSL
  • XSLT
  • UML
  • VB.NET
  • VB 6
  • ASP 3.0
  • JavaScript
  • SVN
  • CVS
  • Scrum
  • Waterfall / RUP
  • EmcaScript
  • Objective C
  • C++
  • VBA

This is bad news as it implies is that you are highly competent in everything you listed, which [I am sorry] is not the case. People can be good at many languages, people can be great at a few languages, but nobody can be great at a ton of tools and languages at the same time.

Tools and languages are like foreign languages – if you don’t use it, you lose it. As a result, it is much more honest to separate out your experience into buckets that are defined by current familiarity. For example, the following is much more honest and accurate:

Highly competent in the following:

  • C#
  • XML / XSL
  • UML
  • Agile / Scrum / TDD
  • NAnt
  • Visual Studio .NET
  • SVN

Familiarity or past competence in the following:

  • VB.NET
  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • PHP
  • ASP 3.0
  • XSLT
  • CVS
  • VBA
  • RUP

Familiarity from formal and self education:

  • Lisp
  • Fortran
  • CGI
  • C++
  • Lambda MOO

This is much better as it represents a better picture of exactly what you are good at right now. In short, don’t mislead people into thinking you know more than you actually do. The last thing you want is to have your interviewer get the impression that the wool is being pulled over their eyes.

BONUS TIP: Another big reason for doing this is for technical interviews. It allows you many exits to escape the questions you don’t know and opportunities to flex the knowledge you do.

Let’s hypothetically say that you are applying for a Java job, but it falls under the bucket of “past competence” for you (you couldn’t code your way out of a Java paper bag anymore). If an interviewer asks, “How would you do X?” they are obviously looking for the answer in Java; however, you now have an ace up your sleeve and can respond as such:

As you can see, I haven’t coded in Java for awhile but I am certain I could pick it up really quick. However, I know how to solve this using .NET in about 10 simple lines of code – could I show you that?

Not being able to answer a question in a category you declared competence will surely be a big negative mark on your scorecard. On the other hand, taking this approach you will appear more humble, honest, and not stupid (and God knows I need not look more stupid).

-Good Luck

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20 Responses to “Quit Exaggerating On Your Skill Set”

  1. Stu Smith on November 5th, 2008 3:57 am

    I’ve found a useful technique (as an interviewer) is to ask candidates to rate their knowledge of a particular technology before launching into the questions.

    This gives a few benefits:

    1. If they rate their knowledge highly, you can skip the easier questions in your list;
    2. If they rate low, you can give appropriate guidance;
    3. You can get a good idea of ego and temperament!

    (I once had a candidate assure me he was a 10/10 on C#. Turns out he couldn’t even answer the easiest questions. Needless to say he didn’t get any quarter).

  2. Dew Drop - November 5, 2008 | Alvin Ashcraft's Morning Dew on November 5th, 2008 7:22 am

    […] Quit Exaggerating Your Skill Set (Max Pool) […]

  3. Dave Aronson on November 5th, 2008 7:23 am

    One way to “date” your technology usage, is to list the technologies used on a given job. This may seem to contradict the advice of “tell them the benefits, not the geeky details”, but you can do both. For instance, you could say you lowered benefit administration costs by 30% by implementing a new health care claim submission system… and then say you did it in GWBASIC under BeOS. This doesn’t work quite so well if you’ve been at the same job for twenty years, but that’s becoming less and less of a “problem” these days. 😉

  4. Mark on November 5th, 2008 8:50 am

    My favorite technology to see on a resume is Motorolla 68000 assembly. It seems that all applicants like to put that on their resume.

  5. J.P. Hamilton on November 5th, 2008 11:34 am

    If I see C++ on a resume one more time, I think I will scream. Has anyone done any statistics on people that know C++ vs. people that say they do? I think C++ is the most falsified skill out there.

  6. Tom Wozniak on November 5th, 2008 3:48 pm
  7. Max Pool on November 5th, 2008 4:15 pm

    @Tom –

    Tough crowd….LOL…

  8. Sean Eby on November 5th, 2008 6:53 pm

    I agree but unfortunately, the latter takes up more space and frankly, when you’re on the edge of trying to keep things on 1 page, sometimes separating these things out into buckets is just too much. Otherwise, good suggestion for one someone does have the space.

  9. Max Pool on November 5th, 2008 6:57 pm

    @Sean –

    I will mention this on Friday, but the 1 page rule can be broken as it just doesn’t work once you have a lot of experience. However, I would say no more than 2 pages.

  10. Bob on November 6th, 2008 12:47 am

    OK but who do we really have to blame for this?! Programmers or idiot HR people (or idiot managers that allow this) that write job descriptions. How many times have you seen a job announcement that looked something like this?

    Applicant is required to know the following:
    C, C++,, Java, COM, Java Script, C#,, Fusebox, PERL, CGI, Pascal (Pascal?! Seriously?!), etc. etc. bascially a list of stuff that sometimes has nothing to do with each other. I think the guy just list off everything!

  11. Jeremy N on November 6th, 2008 6:33 am

    @Bob & Tom:

    I agree with Bob that for the most part a good job description can be taken from a team lead, for example, and turned into something totally different by HR.

    One of the best places I have found for listing out great job descriptions has been Atlassian ( I have tried to model my job descriptions after them for the most part, but that doesn’t mean that is what got to the paper/job board/etc.

  12. Cujo on November 6th, 2008 8:45 am

    I just love when people say they’re C++ experts, so that I can take them apart. The guideline here, at least if you’re interviewing with me, is that if you say you’re proficient at something, you damned well better be.

    One of my favorite interview questions is (for their one or two most-expert languages): On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your expertise? What do you know that an N-1 doesn’t, and what does an N+1 know that you don’t?

  13. F Jones on November 6th, 2008 9:48 am

    There are people who are language neutral. The best of us get 10 times as much accomplished as the mere competent in 1/10th the time. The skillset requirements of HR departments do not seem to take this into account. Cujo, what makes you love to take people apart? I am proficient at C++ when I have Bjarne’s book and google beside me. I have coded several hundred thousand lines in it, but when I am in an interview, I doubt I could answer your simplest question if I haven’t been working with the language in the last month. If for some strange reason I needed to code in C++, I would be able to in a heartbeat. You HR people and companies with pinheaded job specifications drive me away! You are not looking for the best. What it really takes is a good solid foundation and the willingness to put in the effort to immerse oneself in what they need to know… some are willing to, most are not.

  14. Cujo on November 6th, 2008 4:17 pm

    @FJones, we weren’t talking about language neutrality or the unreasonableness of language-specific job ads, we were talking about people exaggerating their skills. If you need Stroustrop and Google, then you are definitely not an ‘expert’ C++ programmer, and even ‘proficient’ is questionable. An expert should know the language inside-out, backward and forward, from memory. And while I agree with you to some extent that smart programmers can learn any language, it takes YEARS to really master one as complex as C++. If your app is in C++ and you need expertise now, a Python programmer with little C++ experience isn’t going to deliver for you no matter how smart they are.

  15. Cujo on November 6th, 2008 4:17 pm


  16. Bob on November 6th, 2008 5:15 pm

    And my point was we would not NEED to exaggerate if we weren’t asked to “know” 15 different unrelated languages. I know I personally get sick and tired of being a jack of all trades but that is the way my career has run. Every job I get I have to bring a veritable library of progamming books with me because I’m the master of nothing!
    God I would LOVE to just know 1 language. That would be SWEET!

  17. SteveJ on November 7th, 2008 2:17 pm

    @Bob – I hear you. I remember reading an ad 5-6 years ago for a developer with a required qualification of 5 years of .Net experience. So that’s what…using .Net since 1998? Maybe it was a position for Anders…

  18. Jim on November 11th, 2008 7:52 am

    Maybe…. EMPLOYERS need to cease asking for people who are “highly skilled” in SQL Server, “dot net”, HTTP Streaming, C++, Cisco Routers, writing business proposals, negotiating with the CEO over budgeting, HTML, Linux, Scripting, Excel Pivot Tables and other absurd and impossible combinations.

    Ever take a look at your local newspaper help wanted on a Sunday? That’s how they read. Impossible requests from employers who really do NOT want to hire, it seems. And that is their way out of it I suppose.

    Those out there who are desperate seem to fall into the category of whom this current article is written about – they begin to exaggerate about their skills. They think “oh, I set up networks at home so I have networking experience now” and they add it because some dumb schmoe in the HR department of some company advertised a help-wanted for a highly proficient SQL Server DBA who is experienced with working in router internals such as the Cisco IOS.

    Yea. The problem is much larger than those people who end up exaggerating. It goes way beyond that.

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  20. Osama on November 13th, 2008 4:11 am

    interviewer should know the person he is interviewing – esp. in technical interviews.

    it differs when the interviewee is a fresh graduate, junior, senior, etc ….

    Typically, I suppose a senior developer who writes he is an expert in Java for example, then he should be since he/she don’t know the one “geek” going to interview him/her! he/she might trapped him/herself.

    @Cujo and @FJones, developer don’t need to know everything from memory, but there are concepts and some fundamentals that every developers (with some expertise) should know. I use google on daily basis, I don’t ask people I interview about details of details. when you need someone to hire, you need him/her to accomplish the task asked for; not to make academic exams with 5/5 .

    after all, this topic is arguable, depends on the person you are interviewing and the position you need (except you are hiring for a startup company) and can be written in a 100 papers article.

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