Writing CVs

27 November 2020
While my general views on CVs are largely unchanged since I wrote CV milling back in 2013 shortly before going to New Zealand, that article was written from the perspective of making the transition from graduate to professional resumes rather than having several roles under their belt. The whole topic has recently come back onto my agenda due to an old friend asking for CV advice although most of the advice that came to my mind were things that they would not have the time or inclination to apply.

One thing from back them has no changed and that is purpose. Any CV has to tread a fine line because although at the end of the day it is a marketing document it also has to be a fair representation so that a prospective employer can judge whether you would be able to do the job. In fact one past boss of mine said that the purpose of an interview was to sample the strength of claims made by a candidate, and by any measure I am pretty convservative regarding what should go in.

Graduate vs. professional

For graduates the typical CV is more a summary of the course they studied than what they are actually good at, with the cliché “experience of” which is a context to list just about everything the candidate ever came across. Some people try to give the list more credibility by giving different technologies different rankings, but this is all part of trying to make a mountain out of a mole-hill. Employment sections are typically presented as more general sections on positions of responsibility but these things are usually scraping the bottom of the barrel. Internships are gold-dust but everything else is pretty much just filler that is all cleared out once there is a graduate job under the belt. While various technologies have to be mentioned somewhere along the line with professional CVs the real focus is on projects, and in practice drafting such a CV is not much different from drafting an appraisal document — in both cases the goal is to point towards chunks of work one had ownership over.

In fact the trend in more recent iterations of my own CV has been to remove mentions of certain technologies, because including them attracts suggestions that are either unsuitable or I am simply not interested in. Whereas in the past people have told me that CVs should be tailored for the job being applied for, these days my modus operandi is to tailor my CV for the type of job I would want. If I was unemployed I would likely think differently but my last two jobs were ones I applied for before leaving the one I had prior. In a sense my CV is targeting a career rather than a job.


The longest CV I have ever seen was from someone who insisted on going into painful levels of detail of just about everything he had ever done, and I did not bother even glancing beyond about page six — I cannot remember off-hand how may pages it had in total but it was at least sixteen. I doubt any actual hiring manager would actually read all of it and a lot would simply toss such a tome straight into the trash. Some countries have a culture of longer CVs but the work experience summary of this one with nine past roles was itself a page long, and there was even a two-page nomenclature. From what I remember this was someone who had a habit of being difficult and would eventually get himself fired.

Although I have often managed to get my own CV down to a single page I think most people should settle for two pages — in other words either a single double-sided A4 sheet or a single side of 2-up printing. Whenever I have come across anything longer than this it is because it either contains verbose content that ought to instead be in a cover letter, or as in the pathological case above because the person is unwilling and/or unable to pick out any highlights.

Legitimate content

The rule-of-thumb of mine from 2012 is that you should not put anything on your CV you would not be able to justify when quizzed on it within an interview. If it was done on company time in furtherance of a company goal it it fair game to include it, and because of this some implementation decisions I made had an eye on what I could claim as commercial experience — this was particularly true at my first post-doc job where I claimed commercial Python experience.

Fibs on CVs

Weasel words and rampant economy with the truth are both expected with CVs but there are lines that must not be crossed. Claiming employment dates of April–July when the actual dates are 30th April to 1st July is within the bounds of acceptability; just giving the year would be as well although keeping things that vague is often regarded as a red flag. However claiming you left in November when you really left in August is a bare-faced lie, and when blatant lying is found on your CV things are simple — you are immediately fired because obtaining the job in the first place involved deception. A previous company of mine retains Pinkerton private investigators to vet future employees, which consisted of cross-checking companies from the previous five years and verifying qualifications. This is limited to checking dates of attendance and official titles but it is black-and-white in deciding whether credentials are accurate or not.

Quantifying experience

These days my attitude is that experience is either in or out, and I make no attempt to indicate the extent of the experience beyond which companies I used a given technology. Some people ask about years of experience with a specific technology but any figure is going to be a guesstimate at best, and making things quantitative rather than qualitative is likely as not just asking for trouble. Qualitative descriptions leave plenty of wriggle-room but anything quantitative invites someone to put you on the spot and justify the figure. Once a technology makes it into an actual job title, such as “Python Developer”, it is pretty much as free pass.

Ambiguous experience

One grey area is technical experience that was really done as personal rather than professional projects, but company time was legitimately spent working on them. For me a good example is the radio-frequency transceivers I made as building the wireless circuits started as a personal project but I would go on to use them as the basis of a professional innovation project — I even had written a proposal for it that my line manager had approved. This would then be a context for listing experience with the ARM Cortex-M0 as something I did commercially, and in interview I would then use it as an excuse to discuss what I knew about it. I cannot remember if I actually did this on a CV I used for a job application but these days I could instead use experience of the Cortex-A series as a hook to start discussions.

Dubious experience

One thing that I would fall on the wrong side of the acceptability line is assigning the experience of making my RS232-driven LCD display to a previous professional role. This display was a black-box recreation of some custom hardware I did actually use back in 2010–2012, but what I developed was software that communicated with the hardware rather than running on it as firmware. It would get PIC16F88 onto my CV but it would imply experience with the microcontroller five years earlier than reality. Incidentally I had requested to do such firmware development at the time but this was turned down.

Maintaining a CV

For a long time I have regarded any updating of a CV as being the first sign of unhappiness with a job and on the whole this is still a good rule-of-thumb — unless it is done as part of appraisal preparation there is simply no reason to even think about this type of material. The last two revisions of my CV correspond to when I thought I was about to have my annual appraisal, which happened to be when Covid-19 was really kicking off, and when it did finally occur which was after things had settled down a few months later. In fact a satisfying job is one that drafting a role description should actually be very easy on an as-needed basis, whereas having to incrementally update a CV suggests job tasks that are hard to point at as solid pieces of work ownership.