Reverse Engineering a Resume

Writing an effective resume is hard and no matter how much you write, chances are you are not writing resumes, so it stands to reason that you’re probably not very good at writing a resume. You need to practice to get good at it, just like anything. Earlier I went over a general set of tips for writing a resume. Today we’re going to go into more depth on reverse engineering your resume.

Hiring managers spend a lot of time crafting a job description. Usually several people are involved, and the draft description goes around a couple times until they feel it highlights the skills and experience they want. So especially since you’re not a professional resume writer, you should look at job descriptions. They tend to have a lot of information in them, clues as to what the job entails and what the company is like. They might have also done are really good job of masking one negative element in favor of making the position seem more desirable. Reviews on Glassdoor can be helpful to some degree, but for large companies, especially ones that have multiple locations, it can be really difficult to get a sense of company or team culture, the politics, job expectations and so on. That’s why you date for a bit, er, interview.

When you read a job description, what are they saying? What words are they using? Is it filled with jargon, MBA terms, does it speak in high level ideas and visions or does it outline specific details of the job duties. These are all clues as to what the job and company are like, but not always accurate. The hiring manager and even the department could be much more laid back than the team that put together and published to description. The chances are, if it’s full of technical terms or jargon, those came from the hiring manager; lots lose visionary terms could indicate a more open position or a leadership role and so on.

The more job descriptions from a variety of companies that you read for roughly the same position will start to unveil those nuances and if you can be picky, you can start to focus on the ones you like, but again, this is a general rule and may not always be accurate.

To reverse engineer your resume, start by collecting job descriptions. It doesn’t matter where you get them (Glassdoor, LinkedIn, InDeed, a recruiter) but collect several. It also doesn’t matter at this point if you actually want to work at the company or not, or if you will apply or not. Copy and paste 3- 7 descriptions in one big document. Any more and the list is really difficult to work with, any less and you’re not getting a enough range and variety.

Now, start a second document. The first I usually save as “Rocket Scientist Descriptions” and the second I call “Rocket Scientist Skills“. This way I can draw back to the first if I want to apply to any of those or further study the choice of words used at various companies. That means, the first is the full description, company name and even a URL if you want to do yourself a favor, and the second is the nuts and bolts. Save any section headers as well, such as “Responsibilities” (duties) or “Qualifications” (skills). This list of nuts and bolts is going to be long with repeated ideas which will be worded and combined differently.

It’s time to sort. Start grouping like ideas. You can copy/paste or cut/paste. You can preserve headings if you want, but after while these will break down as some skills you have, some you don’t, some are more descriptions of duties and some are abilities. I recommend making a yourself a key: yellow highlight is skills you have, pink are duties you perform and blue are key skills you lack. This is a good point to bring in help. If you have a friend or co-worker you can share the list with do. Give them a separate color key too because they will see you differently than you see yourself and will likely understand what you do, and what you can do differently based on how well they know you, the industry and the work.

Sorting the list in a word document can be difficult and time consuming. What you want to do here is create an affinity map of the skills you have and duties you can perform. Save those blue ones, the skills you can obtain, in another list or at the bottom of the page. These might be certifications, knowledge or what have you. You can work on those later. Right now, we’re building your resume.

Pro tip:
Take your pared down list into MindMeister. MindMeister is a free, online affinity mapping tool. You can easily move ideas around, connect to different topics and so on. It also let’s you import a list to get started. This makes sorting this list much easier than scrolling around long word document.

Example skills map with two categories expanded. Please note, I am not a Rocket Scientist.

Now the fun begins. Start big. Do not bother rewriting anything, just start grouping ideas together. Make group themes that describe what kind of skill or duty it is; admin, leadership, managerial, technical and so on. You may break these up these groups more or combine some together as you go. Once the list has been sorted once, read through your lists again to make any refinements. Move each item to a more appropriate group and break up descriptions as needed. “Build relationships across departments to collect requirements and write reports or specifications…” can be broken out into interpersonal and technical, for [a bad] example. Pare your list by eliminating the more poorly written of the duplicates.

If before you brought your list into MindMeister, you pared it down to only the things you do/have, you now have a list of your skills written by hiring managers, sorted by theme. This is usually the point I stop in MindMeister and begin [re]writing my resume but you can continue to sort if you like, separating duties from skills which will go into different sections of your resume.

I recently updated my resume for the job I am doing now, adding my new skills and updating the work I am doing. Sitting and staring at either a blank page, or even the last version of my resume left me frozen. I know what I do. I get to the office and immediately jump into my work, but what is it? And more importantly, what things that I do are what hiring managers are looking for? By collecting descriptions and them up I was able to write a much better description of what I do now and highlight the skills and duties that are most important. It also helped me to identify how much of what I do is above and beyond my job description and energized me to aim higher. Now I must reverse engineer new resumes for new roles. I’ll be making lists of skills I need to add, and affinity mapping in MindMeister before rewriting. And you better believe I’ll be seeking input from friends, trusted colleagues or peers along the way.

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