Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Resume advice or why mention “Disassembled Particle Accelerator”

Posted by shannonclark on September 17, 2008

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN

This afternoon I was, as happens on a regular basis, asked to look at a friend’s resume and to give her some feedback and advice. She is a relatively recent college graduate now looking for her first “real” job though she is already an active member of the tech circles in the bay area and has worked as an intern for a number of startups.

After giving her the fairly typical advice – stuff such as correcting some awkward phrases, some minor spelling/typo type errors, a few rough bits of grammer as well as focusing her on being specific – on what she wants to do as well as what she has already done – I then sent her the following bit of advice.

Always have something on your resume which will stand out and demand to be explained.

Not in a bad way, something you have to explain away, but rather something which is memorable and which someone reading a stack of resumes will want to learn more about, to get the story behind why you mention that particular skill or past job etc.

In my case I have, for most of my career, included the phrase “disassembled particle accelerator” on my resume and in almost every job interview I have ever had the interviewer has asked me the story behind why I mention that particular fact about myself.

First and foremost this should be a true fact – not something you make up. In my case the summer after my senior year of high school, before I entered college at the University of Chicago, I spent the summer on a National Science Scholars program working at Argonne National Labs, in my case working for a number of physicists that summer. While most of my time was spent writing FORTRAN programs and working inside of Mathematica, I did also watch one medium sized particle accelerator run. And I did, in fact, disassemble a room sized lab table top particle accelerator to free up that laboratory for a new set of experiments.

So I am among the likely very few people in the world to have disassembled a particle accelerator and so I mention this fact on my resume.

And, as I noted, almost without fail, especially early in my career it stood out and people asked me about it – it communicated a lot of things about me in a small amount of words. I was fairly technical, I had even at a young age already done a fairly wide range of things, that I was likely fairly smart (at least smart enough to win a national award and work at Argonne with physicists) etc.

So my advice to my friend, beyond fixing the mostly minor details of her resume, was to think about one thing she has done in her life already which will stand out and which will make someone want to talk with her to hear the story behind it.

As I noted to her the job of an resume which you submit to a company for a specific position (i.e. not a resume submited to a machine for entry into a resume database etc) is to get you in the door, to get you the interview (hopefully the in person interview but a phone interview is at least a good start). From there you will be hired mostly based on the conversations you have and the rest of that company’s interview process – your resume just gets you in the door, you have to then get the job.

I have hired many people in the past decade, made my share of mistakes along the way. And in the course of that hiring I have read a lot of resumes. The successful ones, the ones which lead me to the next step of some form of an interview with the candidate were the ones which addressed the following questions – and which left me wanting to meet that person and ask her (or him) more questions.

  1. Is this person passionate about the type of work she (or he) will be required to do? I will never (again) hire a programmer who is not the type of programmer who has to write code who does more than just write code for the job but would and does write code just for fun.
  2. Is the person a good fit for the type of company and stage of company? i.e. people leaving very large company corporations are rarely great fits for extremely early stage startups – large corporations allow people to be highly focused but also build up an expectation of a level of external support that is not present at nearly all startups.
  3. Will the person be a good fit for the company’s culture and especially that of her (or his) new team? Remembering that often a great fit for a company is someone who compliments the company’s existing teams and adds a new perspective and new skills – having no one who agrees or everyone who agrees are both bad, especially at a startup. But companies each have (or evolve to having) different cultures – one person’s approach and style will be perfect for some firms and horrible for others (Here I wouldn’t exclude myself – my way of working and interacting is not a fit for every company or client I have worked for or with)
  4. Can the person grow with and into the company and new roles alongside the company? Especially for a startup, but even for a project team at a large company, people who will be able to take on new roles and grow with the company (and/or team) are almost always better candidates than people who for whatever reason are unlikely to take on new roles in the future.

So what have you disassembled lately?


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