My Quantum-Mechanical Resume

This article is based on a presentation I gave at the STC Toronto Career Day on September 26, 2010.

Confessions of a Hypo-Professional
There’s a special breed of professional that you’ll sometimes encounter: the hypo-professional, hypo being short form for hypocritical.

Examples of hypo-professionals include:

  • doctors who smoke or are fat (or both)
  • lawyers who break the law
  • accountants who don’t file their taxes
  • plumbers who don’t “plumb” in their own homes

These are professionals who don’t apply the tenets of their profession to themselves. As technical communicators, we’d like to think we’re not included in this sorry group, but let’s be honest. Are all of your personal user guides and other documentation organized into nice, neat little piles that you can easily access? Are all your computer files organized into logical folders? Do you back up your files on a regular basis? Have you documented all your important personal information and kept it in a safe place?

Of course, most of our personal docs don’t matter very much when job hunting. No one will decide not to hire you because you can’t quickly locate your Blu-ray player user manual. However, there is one personal document that is very important, and that is your resume. It is the most important document you will ever work on. You are a technical communicator; your document is a form of technical communication; therefore the resume, being a document, represents you. If it is not the absolute best it can be, you are limiting yourself and your career.

Resume Length – The Debate Rages
There’s a long-standing debate about how long and detailed a resume should be. Many experts say that a resume should be as short and simple as possible, because most readers have little time to read it. Others argue a resume should be as detailed as possible to ensure that the reader will not have to guess or assume anything about you or your qualifications.

The Novice
This dilemma stems from the fact that there are different user types for your resume, as there are for all documentation. At one extreme, there is the novice user, typically an HR representative. This person often knows very little about our profession, and will look at your resume and ask:

“What is HTML?….And how do you spell HTML?”

For these simple folk, your resume should be as simple and brief as possible. This means a length of one or two pages, and using simple, plain language that anyone can understand.

The Über Writer
The other extreme type of resume reader is the very experienced technical communicator, whom I call The Über Writer. This is someone who will look at your resume and say:

“I see from your resume that you used FrameMaker. I am currently an ultra-secret beta tester for FrameMaker version gamma-Z-theta. It is able to export multi-dimensional PDFs into hyperbolic space. Your opinion of this please…in 27 words or less.”

This type of user demands far more detail than The Simple User. They may require a resume of three or more pages, filled with the technical details they crave.

Doubling Up
These very different users mean that you need to have two versions of your resume: a simple, brief one and a longer, more detailed one.

You send the simple one to the novice user, and the complex one to the experienced user.

Makes sense, right?

Well, not necessarily.

It could be that the person you thought was a simple user actually knows more about technical communication than you realized. Or perhaps they don’t know, but they may know someone who does, and they may have forwarded your simple resume to this experienced user.

Conversely, perhaps the experienced user doesn’t have time to read your detailed resume. Or maybe they want to forward your resume to someone who is less experienced. Again, there is a mismatch between the user and the document type.

Broken Attachments
One solution would simply be to attach both versions of your resume in an email. However, this method also has problems. Some users may get confused and not realize which document to open or save. They may end up only forwarding one of the documents. Many things can and will go wrong when sending multiple attachments.

What’s needed is a different kind of document: one that gives the user a choice of version to read.

Note that what we are doing here is what our profession entails: defining a documentation problem and then solving it.

The Wonderful World of Quantum Mechanics
The solution involves a paradigm shift in how a document is viewed. The science that inspired the solution is quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is a very strange area of physics. It’s so obscure that even the scientists working in it have trouble understanding it.

Essentially, it says that we can never really know the exact location of a subatomic particle. The location is all based on probability or random chance.

It’s interesting to note that Einstein did not like quantum mechanics; for him, it was just too “random”. His famous quote “God does not play dice with the universe” neatly summarized his feelings.

Got random?
The fact is, though, that randomness is everywhere. Think of a light fixture or lamp anywhere in your home; one that you currently are not observing. The light may be on or off: you don’t know; all you can do is assign a probability to either state.

Or think of a friend who may be in one of several emotional states: happy, sad, surprised, anxious, and so on. Unless you are observing your friend, you cannot know which state they are in; all you can do is estimate probabilities for each state.

The concept of applying probabilities to various states is ultimately the basis of the resume documentation solution.

The Solution – The Long and Short of It
Instead of having your short and long resume documents stored on your computer, imagine placing them both online and then cross-linking them to each other.

The short resume would include links (at the very bottom and top) to the longer resume. The longer resume, in turn, would have links to the short one. This way, the user has a clear choice of resume to read.

Maintaining your resumes this way means that if someone tells you they are reading your resume, you won’t know which version, unless they’ve told you – all you can do estimate a probability. Even then, it doesn’t really matter, for you know there is a 100% probability that they will select the version that they want.

This solution therefore allows your resume to exist in a quantum state: it’s length randomly fluctuates depending on which version the user is reading.

This solution also borrows directly from one of the main tools in documentation: the hyperlink. An online help topic can include hyperlinks to other topics, allowing the user to explore the information in ever-greater detail. Using the same principle, your simple resume is linked to a more detailed version, allowing the reader to explore your experience in greater detail.

It goes without saying that your brief resume should be just that: brief. One way to ensure this is to count the number of words in your brief resume, and see if it exceeds a certain standard. However, this doesn’t take into account the numbers of years you’ve worked in the field. A longer work experience could necessitate a longer resume, so we need a more meaningful measure for length.

The solution is to divide the number of words by the number of years you’ve worked in the field. For example, my brief resume has about 313 words, and I’ve worked in tech comm for 12 years. 313 words divided by 12 years = 26 words/year, which is quite brief. I call this number the Words Per Year factor, or WPY. You can remember it using the mnemonic: WimPY; may your brief resume be as “Wimpy” as possible.

Keeping It Simple
Another thing to remember regarding your brief resume is that it should be simple. In fact, all of your documentation should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

What happens when the principle of simplicity is not followed? To give a graphical example, view the PowerPoint slide developed by General Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO force commander.

This nightmare of a slide is completely incomprehensible – it is a spaghetti diagram of the worst kind.

Viewing this slide, we can safely say its developer is highly intelligent, incredibly methodical and totally insane. As the good General said: “‘When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” in other words, never, for no-one can comprehend it.

If I’d been asked to develop a PowerPoint slide that would describe how to win the war in Afghanistan, it would have the following text:

Winning the War in Afghanistan
We can win the war in Afghanistan.

To win the war in Afghanistan

  1. Find the enemy.
  2. Kill ‘em alot.

It may not be militarily accurate, but at least it’s clear and comprehensible.

Making the Connections
There’s another aspect of quantum mechanics that relates to resumes. It is this strange but true fact: if a particle is rotated, another corresponding particle will also rotate. Scientists have no idea why this happens; it’s as though the two particles are somehow consciously linked in a wondrous two-way process.

You and your resume are similarly connected. It’s obvious that as you change and gain experience, knowledge and skills, your resume will change to reflect this. But is the opposite true? That is, if your resume changes, will you change?

I believe you will. I’ve seen many people change after their resume has been properly reviewed and updated. People light up when many of their missing skills and accomplishments inadvertently omitted from their resume are finally included. These changes can give the person the confidence to apply for positions that they may previously not have. And if they land that new job, then they really have changed – all as a result of changing their resume.

Therefore, you and your resume are indeed inextricably linked, in the same way as the two particles; if one of these things changes, so does the other.

Here a link, there a link, everywhere a link, link
As demonstrated, linking is a common theme in this discussion. You are linked to your resume, and your resume itself is linked to another resume. As an online document, your resume is written in HTML, however the term HTML is actually a good example of meaningless information.

HTML is an acronym for Hyper Text Markup Language, a phrase that is utterly meaningless to most Internet users. From their perspective, HTML really stands for Helping To Make Links, which is exactly what an effective resume does. It not only links to another resume, it contains links to relevant websites (for example, to the companies you worked for, the schools you attended, and, of course, to the STC).

At a higher level, the resume is a link to you, and a link in the employer’s mind from you to the job they’re seeking to fill. It is, quite literally, The Missing Link.

Another advantage of an online resume is its portability; it’s ability to be accessed anywhere and anytime.

Ideally, you should have your own website with a URL that is easy to remember, with a prominent link to your resume. No matter where you are, if you encounter someone who could potentially employ you (or who knows someone who could), you can simply give them your website address, and let them do the rest. In fact, if they have smart phone or PDA, they can view your resume immediately.

So if anyone asks me for my resume, I simply say, visit

And view my resume here; it links to my bigger profile here.


Résumés – Part III

Related imageIn this issue, I’ll explore the remaining two main sections of your résumé, and will wrap up the general discussion of résumés.

The first section that should appear after your Experience section is your Education. Most people simply list all of their relevant post-secondary certificates or degrees and where they obtained them. To add a bit more value to this otherwise dry section, consider including the following information:

  • the website of the college or university, and perhaps also the website of your specific programme: you can include these as hyperlinks in Word documents
  • a description of the programme: this can include a brief list of your major courses
  • your grade point average (if it is high!)
  • any major accomplishments that you made while in the programme, especially if your work experience is limited

There is some debate about whether you should include your year of graduation. Some say that if your graduating year was many years ago, it may make you or your educational experience appear “stale”. However, if you omit the year, you may be raising concerns with potential employees as to why you have left it out. Therefore, I recommend including the year if possible. If nothing else, it shows that you are open and honest.

The other section that you can include is your Professional Associations and Activities. Here you list any work-related groups that you belong to, such as the STC, any STC SIG (Special Interest Group), editing or writing associations, computer groups and so on. If possible, include the range of time that you have been a member, for example, “2002 – Present”. You can also include groups other than technical communication, such as charitable organizations, provided that that you can include descriptions of relevant experience with these groups.

In addition to listing your associations, give details of the major accomplishments or activities that you have done as a member. This includes volunteer work, writing contributions such as flyers and newsletters, websites, board duties and so on. You can split up your Professional Associations and Activities into two separate sections or you can simply include your activities in the Professional Associations section.

Unless relevant, do not list hobbies or interests – these should all be implied in your Associations section. Finally, you do not have to state at the end of you résumé: “References Available Upon Request”. Employers know that if they do decide to interview you, you will supply them references if asked.

The key points to remember about a résumé is that it:

  • is a marketing tool (with you as the product) which must grab the attention of the reader
  • highlights the relevant information about you, your skills, experience and achievements
  • gets you through the initial screening stages by “ruling you in” instead of “ruling you out”
  • documents your qualifications by listing clear, meaningful and quantifiable accomplishments
  • must be easy to read, comprehend and remember
  • is better if it is too short rather than too long
  • is a combination calling card, door opener and statement of your competencies

Finally, note that there is no one “right” way to do a résumé. Study as many résumés as you can and use the techniques in them that impress you. By doing this, and by constantly reviewing, updating and fine-tuning your résumé, it will be as unique as you are.

Résumés – Part II

Image result for Resume Cartoon

In the last issue, I discussed some of the main elements of the résumé including the identifier, objective and profile. In this issue, I’ll cover the Skills and Experience sections.

The Skills section is an optional segment that you can include after your profile or objective. This section lists your various skills, specifically your computer and software skills. Potential employees will appreciate a clear and concise listing of these skills as they try to match potential candidates to the job. You should therefore emphasize the skills that you have to the job for which you are applying.

For example, if the position specifically requires knowledge of FrameMaker and WebWorks Publisher, and you have used those products, list them at the beginning of your Skills section. You may wish to divide up your software skills into different sections such as documentation tools, graphical tools, operating systems, programming languages, and other programs such as spreadsheet and database applications.

There are, of course, other kinds of skills that you can list other than software, such as management and organizational skills, but generally speaking, it is often the software skills that employees are keenly seeking for most technical writing positions.

Next is the most important section of the résumé: the Experience section. Here you list your previous positions, starting with the most recent. Include your job title, the name of the company, the years that you worked (you do not have to state the months), an overview of your duties and responsibilities, and your accomplishments.

In addition to the name of the company, you can include a brief one-sentence description of that company, and the company’s website, for example:

XYZ Limited – A major developer of transportation management, supply chain and e-business solutions.

Decide whether to list the job title or the company name first. Because I have had the same title at my last few positions, I list the company first to easily distinguish each position. Whichever you choose, be consistent for all your listed positions.

When summarizing each position, have one or two sentences that describe your overall responsibilities, then list your specific duties and overall accomplishments. Include the tools that you used, even if they already are in your Skills section. Here is an example:

XYZ Ltd.- Technical Writer – 1994-1996 Wrote and managed user manuals and online help for a time management application using FrameMaker, WebWorks Publisher, and Microsoft Word. Interviewed Developers, Quality Assurance Engineers and Product Managers to develop documentation that was accurate and relevant to end users. Reorganized documentation to lower maintenance and translation costs.

After your summary, you must list what is probably the most critical part of the résumé: your accomplishments. You need to think very hard about how you improved things by lowering costs, increasing quality and improving efficiencies. You then must carefully word your accomplishments so that they clearly showcase your actions by using strong, positive action-oriented verbs. When possible, quantify your accomplishments with specific numbers.

Here are some good examples of accomplishments:

  • Merged online help and user manual into a single source document, cutting translation costs in half.
  • Combined three related user manuals into one, using conditional text to distinguish each version, reducing maintenance costs by 50%.
  • Added missing documentation to the user manual, increasing the content by 35%.
  • Corrected over 50 technical errors in the documentation that the developers had missed.

Remember – companies are looking at what you have done in the past to see what you can do for them in the future. If you can clearly show in your résumé that you have gone the extra mile to improve your projects, you will greatly enhance your professional image.

The next issue will cover the remaining sections of the résumé.

Resumes – Part I

See the source imageResumes are such a critical part of the job hunting process that I will be devoting at least two issues to them. Although a resume itself does not get you a job, it can get you an interview which can get you the job.

Effective resumes “sell” you. They are, in effect, a detailed business card and summary of your accomplishments. Employees are looking for workers who can add value, cut costs, work independently and are flexible and adaptable. Your resume, therefore, must show that you have these qualities.

There are two basic types of resume: chronological and functional. Chronological resumes list your careers in reverse chronological order. They are the more popular type, and for good reason: employers want to easily see how your career has progressed. Functional resumes list your skills by type or function, and are often used if you are trying to cover gaps in your employment history. Because of this, they may be viewed suspiciously, so try to use the chronological format if possible.

Resume Basics

In general, a resume should:

  • Be printed on white or creme-colored 8 ½ x 11 paper.
  • Use basic, legible fonts, such as Time Roman or Arial.
  • Avoid wasting space by using graphics, rules, or fonts that are too large.
  • Make good use of white space.
  • Be written in clear, business-like English.
  • Include bulleted points.
  • Be a maximum of two pages.

Resume Elements

The top section of the resume is your identifier: it includes your name, address, phone numbers and email address. Include your title next to your name, for example, Joe Smith – Technical Writer.

I am against including any kind of objective on a resume. The objective should be obvious based on the rest of your resume.

The profile section is perhaps one of the most important areas of your resume, and one of the most difficult to write. It must describe you as a worker, and summarize your skills, strengths and experience. Avoid clichés like “team player” and “cost-cutter”. Be specific about what makes you unique. Remember that the profile is often the first thing potential employees will read about you, and first impressions are critical.

Here’s an example of an effective profile:

  • Five years experience creating and enhancing a wide variety of documentation including User Manuals, Online Help, Release Notes and technical reference manuals.
  • Able to work effectively with developers, quality assurance engineers and others to create clear, concise and meaningful documents from the end-user’s perspective.
  • Expert knowledge of a wide variety of applications including Word, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Visio, and WebWorks Publisher.

The next issues will discuss the remaining sections of the resume.