Confidence or arrogance? How to tell when your resume has crossed the line

Confidence or arrogance? How to tell when your resume has crossed the line

Adjectives are the downfall of many a UX resume. To paraphrase the guys from Spinal Tap—when it comes to adjectives, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.

I have plenty of sympathy for the resume writer who’s struggling to find the best word. Typical resume prose is so boring and vague, consulting the thesaurus for more lively, descriptive words can really make a difference. And of course, bragging is to be expected—the resume is a selling tool, after all, and you need to present your accomplishments in the best possible light.

But how much is too much? When have we crossed the line from selling to overselling? From confidence to arrogance?
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Why work with a recruiter? Interview with Joanne Weaver

Recruiters have a pretty bad reputation among UX designers. LinkedIn has made it too easy for lazy recruiters to spam you with job leads that bear no relation to your actual skills and experience (which they could have learned if they’d bothered to read your profile). But after speaking with Joanne Weaver, who runs a UX/UI recruiting agency in New York, I have a new perspective on the advantages of working with a good recruiter.

A good recruiter should be your partner and coach during the hiring process—someone who can give you the inside scoop on the company and what they’re looking for, someone who can steer you to jobs that are interesting and relevant, someone who is invested in your success. In short, someone who can help you through the angst and uncertainty of the hiring process.

I also learned why you shouldn’t send the same resume to a recruiter and a hiring manager: the hiring manager is hiring for a specific job at one company, whereas the recruiter is trying to imagine you in all kinds of jobs at different companies. The hiring manager wants to know if you can do the job. The recruiter wants to know if you’re the kind of person she wants to represent for perhaps the rest of your career.

All in all, it was an enlightening conversation that has tempered some of my thinking on what makes an effective resume.

Joanne WeaverThe Joanne Weaver Group, a two-woman shop run by Joanne and her partner, Rebecca Levi, has been in business since 2007—making it one of the more established UX-specific recruiting firms in the region. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, lightly edited to make us sound more coherent.

UX RESUME: So, what are employers looking for in the New York market?

JOANNE WEAVER: I’m seeing a trend towards hybrid designers—people that do both UX/UI—but that basically means interaction design and visual design. I’m also seeing a trend towards lean UX and agile. People that can quickly prototype, that are really interested in using different prototyping tools, and that are constantly learning and broadening their skill set on their own time.

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Are you blind to your own accomplishments?

Are you blind to your own accomplishments?

Raise your hand if you feel like you’ve accomplished little to nothing in the past year—certainly nothing noteworthy enough to include in your resume.

If you raised your hand, this post is for you.

I can’t rule out the possibility some of you are lazy good-for-nothings who are content doing the bare minimum. But I can guarantee that at least a few of you suffer from the opposite problem—you’re high achievers who don’t recognize the value of your contribution.

When I was interviewing writer Karen Gray (see, “A resume 10 years in the writing: Interview with Karen Gray”) recently, she said something that really struck me:

For the past 10 years I have been pitifully, woefully overqualified for the three jobs that I’ve had… I gotta be honest, with the type of jobs that I’ve had—I make myself laugh when I say this—my major accomplishment was being able to get up in the morning and go do it.

I’ve noticed a related behavior with my high-performing UX designers. If I point out something they’ve done that’s really effective, professional, or creative—they’ll often give me a weird look and shrug it off, saying, “I was just doing my job.”

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A resume 10 years in the writing: Interview with Karen Gray

Karen Gray is a multilingual technical writer and teacher with decades of experience, but when it came to writing her own resume she confesses, “it was a work in progress for at least 10 years.”

I met Karen at the DC UserFocus conference last September, where I’d given a presentation on UX resumes—the presentation that formed the basis for this blog. She asked if I would give her some feedback on her resume.

I don’t want to steal Karen’s thunder so I’ll just show you a sample from her original resume:

  • Led the Writing for the Web workshop for the 30-member Humanitarian and Adoptions Branch that went on to receive the USCIS Excellence in Plain Language Award for Best Revised Web Content; the engaging monthly Plain Language Overview; and customer-focused, individually tailored Writer’s Review Workshops. Introduced new employees, at the biweekly agency-wide orientation, to tried-and-true tips and techniques for communicating successfully. Consistently earned the highest customer approval rating, “10 = Fantastic.”
  • Co-wrote go-to reference tools such as the USCIS Plain Language Guide, the quarterly USCIS Plain Language Newsletter, and scripts for Think About Plain Language instructional videos.
  • Wrote, marketed, and kept current the OSI Style Guide, the OSI Glossary, the OSI Document Checklist, and the OSI Best Practices for Document Clearance.

… and her most recent resume:

  • As a key point of contact, founded and supported the USCIS Plain Language Program that has trained more than 5,645 employees, 30% of the USCIS workforce.
  • Consistently earned the highest customer approval rating for training, “10 = Fantastic.”
  • Recommended including Plain Language in orientation for new employees nationwide. Introduced tips and techniques for communicating successfully from the first day on the job.
  • Received the Outstanding Service & Initiative Award for producing Chapter 1 of the Office of Security and Integrity (OSI) Handbook within 2 months of OSI’s startup, a Top-10 Strategic Goal.
  • Edited OSI Connection, OSI’s primary outreach platform and must-read quarterly e-zine.

When she sent me that last resume—a lean, purposeful, single-page document that shouts confidence and professionalism—I about fell out of my Aeron. When I’d recovered from my shock, I emailed her to see if she’d be willing to tell her story for the blog.

Because if she can do it, so can you.

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Don’t wait. Write down accomplishments as they happen

Don’t wait. Write down accomplishments as they happen

Right now, before you read this post, take a second and think back to last year. Off the top of your head, what are five things you accomplished that brought value to the company and made you feel proud?

Seriously, take a minute.

For myself, I honestly can’t think of a single thing. In retrospect, last year seems like a mess of setbacks, false starts, and stuff that’s been dragging on way too long. All I can remember are the mistakes I made, the things I should have done differently, and the awesome stuff I designed that never got built.

At least, that’s how I was thinking until I rediscovered an Evernote file I’d been keeping. Until about August, I’d been writing down my accomplishments as they happened. Wouldn’t you know it, there was a bunch of great stuff there that I’d completely forgotten about! Like the plan commit workshops I ran for the whole endpoint team and a usability testing brown bag session.

Accomplishments are intermittent and wonderful things. But our successes are too easily swallowed up by the daily grind of crises and compromises. As a high achiever, you’re already prone to dwelling on your failures and minimizing your successes. Add to that the fact that success dims with time and you’re likely to reach the end of the year with a sense that you’ve got nothing to show for it.

This is why you need to write down your accomplishments as they happen.

It’s hard enough to remember last year, never mind the last three years—or, god forbid, ten years. But isn’t that what we always do? The only time we think about accomplishments is when we’re dusting off our resume in anticipation of a new job search. Suddenly you’re racking your brain trying to think of what you’ve been doing for the last few years and coming up with maybe three or four things. Yet, if you’d been writing them down all that time, you’d have thirty or forty to choose from.

The solution is simple. Start a file today and write down everything you’ve accomplished since the beginning of the year. Then set a calendar reminder every two months to update it.

Your future self will thank you.


Writing accomplishments: How well you did it

Writing accomplishments: How well you did it

When you’re writing accomplishments, they should follow the pattern “what you did and how well you did it”—where “how well” ideally means how your actions benefited the company. I covered “what you did” in an earlier post (“Writing accomplishments: What you did”) and in this post I’m going to cover “how well you did it.”

Benefits to the company are simple, because only two things matter: increasing revenues and decreasing costs. This is true even if you work at an agency. Success on behalf of your clients should be framed in terms of referrals, repeat business, and the agency’s ability to win accounts—in other words, how the project’s success benefited your employer.

Nonprofits are a slightly different story because the organization exists to benefit others. In that case, you can use the same guidance below, and apply it to both the results for the organization and the outcomes for your membership or constituent group.

Decreasing costs is a benefit no matter what kind of organization you work for.

» Show me the money

The most powerful way to describe your impact on an organization’s revenue or costs is to put a dollar value on it. Here are a few examples:

  • Designed a mobile booking app that brought in $1.2 million in new sales.
  • Created a clickable prototype that helped us win a $60,000 project.
  • Spent $380 to create an on-site test facility, saving the company $17,000 a year.

The best thing about including the dollar amount is that even a clueless recruiter can understand the value of your accomplishment.

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Can you do the job?

Can you do the job?

One reason I wanted to write this blog is that there seems to be a tremendous gulf between what designers think is happening during the hiring process and what hiring managers or recruiters think is happening.

» The communications gap

For example, designers are offended when they send in their resumes and never hear a thing from the company. But from the hiring manager’s point of view, half the resumes she gets are from people who are not at all qualified for the job or clearly didn’t read the job description—why should she feel obliged to respond to people who aren’t serious candidates?

In an ideal world, job descriptions would be written in a way that attracts only qualified candidates and companies would respectfully communicate with every candidate about the status of their application. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. Yet.

As a candidate, most of the time all you have to go on is a job description that tells you more about the hiring manager’s idealized wish list than their real expectations for the job. You know your resume needs to answer their questions. But what are those questions?

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Changing careers to UX

Changing careers to UX

Probably the question I get most often when I give presentations about UX resumes is, “How can I transition into UX from my current career?”

There’s no doubt about it—UX is a hot industry right now. There are more jobs than qualified candidates, starting salaries are high ($60-80,000 in major tech hubs), and the work is fun and challenging. It’s no wonder so many of you are trying to get a piece of the action.

So, if you’re serious about getting into UX, here are a few tips:

» You have to be able to do the job

No matter how much experience you have managing projects, designing logos, or writing proposals—no matter how many years of experience you have—if you can’t demonstrate some ability to do UX, I’m not going to hire you for a UX position. If I hired an unqualified candidate, I wouldn’t be doing my job, would I?

I’m expecting to have to train you in our processes, our corporate culture, and our industry or subject matter. But I am not expecting to have to train you in basic UX concepts, techniques, and tools. Very few employers these days can afford the luxury of long ramp-up time or weeks of training. We need you to be productive from day one.

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Why are resumes so hard to write? A conversation with Leslie O’Flahavan

If you’ve been following this blog, then you know one of my common complaints is that UX resumes are poorly written. They not only suffer from typos and grammatical errors, they’re rife with banalities, awkward prose, and poorly expressed ideas. To understand why this is so, I talked to my good friend and former client, Leslie O’Flahavan from E-Write.
The fabulous Leslie O'Flahavan
Leslie has more than 30 years’ experience teaching students and professionals how to write effectively. In person, she’s down-to-earth and full of droll observations—even on short acquaintance she makes you feel like you’ve been friends since high school.

In our conversation, she quickly got to the heart of why writing resumes is so difficult. Her insights challenged me to think harder about the purpose of the resume and about how to make the hiring experience more transparent and satisfying for job-seekers.

» Resumes really are the worst kind of writing

If you find writing a resume to be hateful drudgery, or you feel like it’s impossible to represent yourself properly in the confines of such a formal document, or you hate the way you sound in your resume—you’re not alone. And the good news is, it’s not your fault!

According to Leslie,

A resume is the worst interaction of all the worst conditions to produce good writing.

She went on to identify six reasons why the resume (and the hiring process in general) conspires to undermine our confidence and ability to write effectively. Continue Reading

The executive summary: Energy misdirected

The executive summary: Energy misdirected

For years, resume writers were told that we must include an objective statement. But the objective statement has recently fallen out fashion, and with good reason (see “The Objective Statement, aka ‘I Want a Job’”).

Now, we are told, our resumes must include an executive summary, because recruiters only look at resumes for 6 seconds and you must GRAB THEIR ATTENTION. The executive summary is where you “brand” yourself and tell the prospective employer about your unique talents and key accomplishments.

Wait, isn’t that what your resume is supposed to do?

» A summary of a summary

How did we end up needing a summary for something that’s already supposed to be a summary? It’s like we’ve given up on the actual resume and have decided to stick another resume on top of it. I’ve seen UX resumes where the executive summary takes up the whole first page. Perhaps we’re hoping that the sexy new summary will devour the traditional resume and all its dry, boring bullet points.

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My goal is to help motivated UX job-seekers present themselves more effectively so they get the best jobs they are qualified for.

Writing from the point of view of the risk-averse hiring manager, I provide insights into the hiring process, what managers are looking for, and why so many resumes get rejected.

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