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Using Linux in Your Resume

By Paul Murphy
May 6, 2004 6:00 AM PT

In going through a stack of resumes last week, I came across one from a person, certified as expert by both Microsoft and Cisco, who claimed to have "architected secure network solutions" at a previous employer. When I recovered from the consequent daydream about flying lead balloons, I decided to sort the candidates according to claimed Linux experience -- and promptly found a problem worth warning you about.

Using Linux in Your Resume

People are mentioning Linux on their resumes, but they aren't doing it correctly. Using your Linux skills to help land a better job isn't any different from using Linux anywhere else: Job one is to match what you do to the behaviors and assumptions of the people to whom you're giving that resume.

A lot of people will tell you that a resume's primary job is to describe your skills and experience, but this isn't quite true. A resume's primary job is to get you in the door for a personal pitch on selling your services. A resume's content, the facts about your skills and achievements, can be critical to that, but more often in a negative sense than a positive one.

Usually, listing some skill or experience the decision-maker considers critical won't get you the job, but failing to list it will mean that you don't get considered at all.

Triggering a Hire

Thus your resume's first job is to get you on the list of candidates for as many job opportunities as possible. Once you're on such a list, however, its second and much more difficult job is to trigger a decision to contact you. In both cases, your success depends crucially on communicating the right things, and only the right things, to the decision-maker responsible for that stage of the process.

For most jobs, the first decision-maker to screen your resume will be an HR recruitment worker whose skills and agendas are quite different from those you are used to meeting in the workplace. Thus targeting your resume to appeal to people you've known as IT managers in your current or previous jobs, is to target the wrong people because you'll never get to them if your resume doesn't get you past the recruiters first.

To get a recruiter, whether in an agency or an HR department, committed to selling you to the employer, what you need to do is to make the recruiter's job easier and more rewarding. That means tailoring your resume directly to meet the recruiters needs, beliefs, and perceptions and only indirectly to those of the actual employer.

Basic, Mechanical Tactics

There are basic, mechanical, things that can help ensure first that the recruiter's search system spits up your name and phone number as often as possible, and secondly that its content lets the recruiter see you as highly saleable.

These are things like using every keyword at least twice (to help search engines overweigh you relative to other hits), limiting both paper and electronic resumes to one font in a larger size (to accommodate older readers), and storing electronic copies of your resume using an older Microsoft Word format (to accommodate reviewers who either don't use Microsoft Word or don't update their software every time Microsoft wants them to).

The more difficult stuff, however, comes from focusing on the recruiter's needs so you can tailor your resume appropriately. The most important thing here is to remember that recruiters, whether working in an internal HR group or for some outside agency, don't get evaluated on how well their recruits do their jobs, but on how long those recruits stay in their jobs.

As a result, their primary focus won't be on how well you know your job but on how well you can keep it. So stress long-term relationships, memberships or group allegiances; list short term assignments under headings that link them; avoid anything that makes you seem different or unusual; and use white space and vocabulary to give your resume a clean, open appearance.

Certifications are an integral part of this, but they're far more important as signals of your willingness to meet behavioral expectations than they are of technical competence. That's what an MCSE or Red Hat certification really means to a recruiter -- not "I am competent" but "I join trends, I am influenced by others."

Technology-Illiterate Recruiters

Recognize that most recruiters are illiterate with respect to technology. Stories about people with years of Solaris experience being rejected for jobs requiring "knowledge of Unix" aren't funny; they're true. Be clear about this: Your average recruiter knows how to close a sale but has very little real interest in technology.

Typically, they'll note the keywords the actual employer uses in describing the role, and repeat them in their resume search and interviews, but won't understand them in any kind of technology context. To most recruiters, terms like "Debian," "Linux," "Red Hat," "Solaris," "SuSE," and "Unix" are unrelated keywords.

That's what happened with respect to the stack of resumes I was looking at. The project is expected to be Unix-based and that's what the recruiter had looked for -- with the word "Unix" underlined wherever it occurred in each resume and occasional mentions of "Linux," "Red Hat," or "OpenBSD" ignored as irrelevant.

Landing Better Jobs

Dealing with a technology-illiterate recruiter who is screening you for a technology job isn't much different from dealing with a manager who knows everything there is to know about mainframe- or Windows-based computing and expects that expertise to apply to Linux. It doesn't, but telling them so isn't helpful to your prospects.

Instead, consciously write your resume to explicitly include as many synonyms as apply. Don't write about your expertise with Linux; spell out as many product names as you can legitimately claim experience with.

Don't, for example, just mention Unix. Say something about work done with "Solaris, HP-UX, and Linux variants including Red Hat, SuSE, and Debian" -- and then say it again somewhere else with a reference to "Intel x86-based Unix products like those from Red Hat, SuSE and Debian" so that both classification and keyword-based search engines will find your resume.

Do enough of that, and your resume will pop up much more often on recruiter screens. Do the rest of it well and you'll get more interviews, and probably better jobs.

Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.

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