CV milling

03 January 2013
For various reasons, CV writing has been a topic among several of my friends. They want a job, hate their job, hate the economy, or just want out. I am personally very conservative when it comes to CVs, with my own CVs typically being a one-page document that has an overview of qualifications and employment. I subscribe to the idea that the CV is meant to get you past the sanity filter, usually a check on university qualifications, with more waffly stuff of why I think the role/company is suitable being left to the covering letter. That aside, The CV is still much of an art, especially when crossing borders is involved.

Commercial vs. non-commercial

The fact that the AI course you took involved finding out a lot about the idiosyncrasies of SICStus is not generally regarded as noteworthy experience of Prolog. In fact 3-4 months of C#.NET in a year-out job has garnered more persistent interest from recuiters than all the C & Java I did in 4 years of undergrad study. Once you have had that all-important first post-study job, all that Verilog and Haskell goes into the dustbin. No-one cares. Harsh but true.

It is a very different issue with things done on company time. You hacked together the company's software installer written in NSIS script? It goes in. Tried making head or tail of Metrowerks Codewarrior? Call it commercial evaluation. You will have to highlight which technologies are the ones you use most of the time, but otherwise it is fair game.

What is acceptable

You can spin. You can even let in more than a few a few weasel worlds. But the CV must be based in reality. Qualifications are non-negotiable so a claimed 2.1 from University of Sandford has to be that. UWE is not Bristol, and Brookes is not Oxford. Same goes for previous employment, especially your most recent. If you left a job on June 5th it is acceptable to list just June as the end date, but made-up employmemt is a no-no.

As a general rule-of-thumb, you have to be able to justify everything you claim in your CV, so don't list anything you would not want to be asked any questions on. A tricky borderline case is internships that are part of larger funding package, rather than having specific dated documentation.

Experienced vs. Experience of

Many years ago my at-the-time boss stated that the purpose of an interview was verification: sample the candidate's knowledge, so that how a candidate's CV described their abilities can be gauged. For instance, did HTML experience mean ability to write HTML in Notepad, or making HTML files in Dreamweaver. And whether experience means used at least once or twice, or used every other day. In hindsight, this is one of the few mentalities that particular boss got right, and the insight is one of the few things from the company I have used much since.

Nevertheless, there are boundaries in the language used in CVs. Information Technology is unusual in that many specific & well-defined technologies can be quoted as skills, so CVs for the sector tend to be much more discrete than jobs such as art or management. With this in mind, there are milestone definitions:

You know the language inside-out, to the extent of knowing esoteric details. Almost invariably the thing that took up most of your time at your most recent job, and you should be able to have an online test for breakfast. Unusual for this to be applied to more than a single technology/language, as this is your showcase.
At the very least something that has been a major component of your work, ideally at your most recent company. A technology you reasonably expect to re-use, quite likley as the main part of a job. General implication is that you have used it recently, and have for a long time.
Anything you could start to use immediately, without any need for significant time spent getting familiar again. Good candidates would be things you semi-regularly used in your last job, such as prototyping programming languages. In contrast to experience, the emphasis is on extent of experience rather than time chalked up.
A technology that is familiar but not known inside out. Typically ones that were either used irregularly, or were last used before most recent employment. A very broad category, but one that allows a lot of wriggle room.
Used a few times to solve a specific problem, but have since forgotten much of it. Most commonly seen on shark pitsjob sites that push you towards listing absolutely everything.
Past use (or non-current)
If there is a niche skill you were once good at but would now be a push to list as intermediate, then past use may be a suitable euphemism. Use these sparingly, as over-use of euphemisms can be counter-productive.
Experience of
Anything you used before and hope to never use again. Common on CVs from new graduates.
My personal view is that you should have a single expert skill, and perhaps 2-3 experienced/advanced ones. Intermediates & past use are a personal call, as it is a balance between presenting a broad skill-set and looking like a jack-of-all-trades. My tendency is to only give a skill level for programming languages, with tools & APIs being listed without time qualifications. Skill level with programming languages matters a lot to performance, whereas next to no-one commits APIs to memory.

Abusing keywords

In the past I have often received unsolicited contact from head-hunters who clearly just did a keyword search which flagged up my CV, but these days it is also being used as a filtering technique for targeted CVs. I think this is a little dubious due to how blunt an instrument keyword searches are, but the way recruitment works in general is far from kosher anyway. As a result I am completely shameless in milking such searches for all their worth, but it needs to be done in a way that to a clued-up human reader there is no dishonest impression of true skill set.

CV copy-editing

There are plenty of services out there who will spruce up your CV, or indeed any sort of application document, and in itself it is acceptable to use such services. However, it is also something that requires caution, and all claims that make it into a copy-edited CV need to be checked for realism. In my case I used one such service because I required a CV intended for a non-UK job-market. I was actually surprised at how different in both style and layout the result was, but it still needed tuning because some of the claims needed toning down, and 1 or 2 I was outright uncomfortable with. This was due to the copy-editor being unfamiliar with a lot of the technicalities of my profession, but on the whole it was worth the cash.

The agency dimension

This is the real can of worms, and I have heard plenty of horror stories regarding alterations they have done to CVs that went far beyond mere removal of contact details. A friend of mine nearly got fired during a probation review due to knowledge of getting changed to experienced, and from what I gather only survived because the company also had a copy of the unedited CV that was given to them at the interview. A worse case I heard of was someone who had extra things added to their CV, and as a result wasted a day of annual leave travelling to London just to find out that they lacked prerequisite skills.