There is a saying, “The theater begins at the cloakroom”. When you come to the theater, there are a lot of details and nuances that will define your experience well before the performance starts. If the hall is dirty and smelly, the staff are rude, and you have to spend 30 minutes trying to find parking, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the acting and direction are, you’ll be left with a bad impression.
The same goes for your CV: it is the first point of contact between you and your dream company. I have always been surprised when talented product managers have a resume that doesn’t reflect even a 1/10th of their accomplishments. You can easily understand their value and professionalism when you start talking to them but their CV is a “dirty cloakroom” that stops recruiters from going ahead and actually inviting then to an interview.
As a PM, I tend to apply my product development knowledge to solve all sorts of problems. So when I started thinking how I could improve my own resume, I realised that it’s actually a product too.
By using the standard PM questions that you normally ask yourself while working on a new product, you’ll not only make your resume better but also demonstrate your PM skills in action. You’ll show your ability to communicate in a clear and concise way, to design tastefully and to be detail-focused and data-oriented.
Who is your audience?
If you were trying to sell a gym membership to an 18-year old student and to a 50-year old lady, you wouldn’t use the same pitch for both. So why would you try to sell the same resume to different companies? Consider each potential employer as a different audience with its own requests and problems.
For experienced recruiters and hiring managers, you only have a few seconds to capture their interest or be put aside. Think of them as Google’s crawler looking for the relevant details in your resume. It is important that you find out what keywords they’re looking to find and optimize your resume accordingly.
Read each job description to understand what’s important for the particular position. Once you’ve pulled out the important criteria, ask yourself: how many of these points are covered in my resume? Which ones are more important than others? Imagine that a recruiter is going through a virtual checklist, and the bigger score you have, the better chance you’ll have of getting an interview.
Don’t worry if your experience does not completely correspond to the company’s criteria. It’s very rare that a candidate’s skills will be a perfect fit for a job description. That’s where the cover letter comes in. It allows you to elaborate on skills and experience that are not mentioned in the job description but that will be useful to the company.
What are your success metrics?
Our work culture is extremely results-oriented. It is good that you have been working on something, it is bad if it hasn’t helped to achieve any goal. Check how you describe your previous work experience: is it clear what you have achieved and how it can be measured?
Here are three main rules:
- Use metrics that are clear to everyone. If you talk about something very specific to your company or industry, a recruiter may have a reasonable question: why should I care? If your actions helped to improve retention by 10%, it is impactful. If you decreased the abandonment rate by 0.1%, it doesn’t say anything simply because a recruiter doesn’t know what is the golden standard there. 0.1% — is it a lot or not? Very few people will know the answer.
- For PMs it is always hard to separate your own and your team’s work. Moreover, I would say that success of your product and features you launched will be a determining factor for a recruiter. However, it is always good if you can mention your personal contribution to product development. It won’t be as measurable as in the previous point but, to be fair, you don’t need metrics just for the sake of metrics; they just help you better and shorter answer the question “Why have you done this, what value did it bring?”. So if you still can answer it, and the reason is clear, you are good to go.
- Don’t lie. Sometimes it may be tempting to add 5 or 10% more to make the number look more impressive but why would you need it? If you aren’t sure that you’ve done something meaningful, just replace it with something better. If you don’t have anything better in your portfolio, work on it. Meanwhile, you can always use this case for your cover letter to talk about what you’ve learned.
What are your priorities?
If you are transferring to a new profession (a very, very common case for PMs), don’t turn your resume into an exhaustive list of all your achievements. Focus only on the things that are relevant to the particular job. Any product manager will know the dangers of “feature creep”, where your product is turned into a bloated mess of tabs, toolbars, settings, and preferences. Don’t let your resume fall into this trap. Start with a clear focus and cut it down to 3–5 main points per job that you are the most proud of.
Is the “UI” clear?
When you apply to large companies, you will likely get around 30 seconds to attract their attention. In smaller startups you can count on a bit more time but regardless, if it is hard to parse your resume, you will get fewer chances to be noticed as recruiters, in big companies and small, usually look for specific keywords to decide whether to proceed.
It’s almost a truism at this stage, but you should limit your CV — not specifically to one page but the shorter, the better. The best product managers are clear, succinct communicators so one-two pages should be enough to show you have those qualities.
- Start with the most important highlights. For example, if you don’t have relevant education, start with your work experience. If you don’t have enough experience, share links to your portfolio or courses that may be important for this position.
- Visually separate different logic elements (like headlines / dates / descriptions) but don’t use too many fonts. Usually one font in 2 sizes plus bold is more than enough, especially if you don’t forget about indents and bullet points.
- Don’t waste the space. You don’t need fancy or large fonts, you shouldn’t have half-empty columns or too much whitespace.
What is your killer feature?
Everything above is good but if everybody applies these rules to their resume, and all of them now look neat and cool — what will a recruiter remember after reading yours? And now we are talking not about layout, language or length but about what makes you different from other candidates. It may be your experience, education or after-work activity, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing about it is that you can’t improve it with formatting or editing — you actually have to go outside and do something. Sure, the theatre begins at the cloakroom but it doesn’t stop there: you came to see the show, not coats and capes. So be worth watching 😉
This article was written in February 2018