What Doc Managers Look for in a Résumé

March 4, 2009

Lately, a lot of technical communicators have found themselves updating their résumé for the first time in a long time. This prompted someone on the Techwr-l mailing list to ask hiring managers in the group what they look for in a résumé.

There are plenty of sources for information about how to write a résumé, but less on what doc managers are looking for. My book, Managing Writers: A Real World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation, contains a chapter that discusses hiring in detail. I have included an excerpt below that discusses how I evaluate a résumé.  I hope you find it useful.

Evaluating a résumé

Most hiring managers, and I am no exception, take a couple of passes when reviewing résumés. The first pass eliminates people who are clearly not what I am looking for. I try to answer two questions: first, are this person’s qualifications even in the ballpark for the job, and second, can he or she write at least well enough to create a competent résumé?

Answering the first of these questions is not hard, but it does require that you understand the job requirements thoroughly and read the résumé closely. The former should be easy, but I have seen cases where a manager hired someone because he or she was a whiz at task A, when skill at task B was what was really required. I suggest that you document the job requirements in writing.

Read the résumé closely. A few years ago I needed to hire a tools person. A contract house I had worked with before said they had just the person I needed. I did not have much time, so I just glanced at the résumé before the interview. About five minutes in, the candidate stopped me and said, “Why are you interviewing me for this job, I’m not a tools expert”?

The contract house had obviously skimmed her résumé, seen the names of a few tools, and assumed, either honestly or possibly shaving the facts, that I might hire her as a tools person. Fortunately for her, I was also looking for writers, and I was so impressed with her honesty and outspoken manner that I kept interviewing her and ultimately hired her as a writer.

While that situation turned out well for everyone, I have found over the years that it is not at all uncommon to get a résumé with a job objective of “Technical Writer” when it is clear the person has no writing experience. In the worst cases, it can look like the objective was just slapped onto an otherwise unrelated résumé. Sometimes it is wishful thinking and sometimes it is a misunderstanding of what skills and experience are needed to be a technical writer, but either way it raises a red flag.

Whenever I see a résumé like that, it goes into the discard pile unless there is some indication that the person can write, and just as important, wants to write. While I have hired engineers with no prior technical writing experience, it was only after I became convinced that they were good writers who had solid reasons for a career change, and just as important, that they were not looking for an “easy” job after failing as an engineer.

The second thing I look at in that first pass is the way the résumé reads; after all, it is the first writing sample you will see from this person. If a candidate cannot communicate clearly and concisely in a résumé, there is no point in going further. Some managers will reject a résumé that contains even a single typo. I do not go quite that far, but I will reject a résumé that is badly written or contains blatant mistakes that a good copy-edit should catch.

I do not worry too much about the visual look of a résumé unless I am hiring for a job that requires design skills. At the same time, an unattractive visual design is at least a warning flag. There are plenty of attractive styles available in the standard word processors, so any résumé should be legible and look professional. I also do not care too much about whether the résumé is in chronological order or some other order, as long as all the information is there.

If the résumé is not eliminated by this point, I go back and look for the following things:

  • Writing experience:  It is surprisingly common to get résumés for technical writers who have no experience writing documentation. This is sometimes obvious, as for people who are moving from some other career into technical writing, but sometimes it can be covered up. Unless you are looking for an entry level writer, make sure you see real technical writing experience.

  • Subject matter familiarity:  The type of experience a writer has is at least as important as the amount of experience. Generally, I am looking for experience that shows an ability to understand similar concepts with a similar level of technical complexity. I do not expect a perfect match; I will consider someone who only has experience with Windows software for a project based on Linux software. However, I would be reluctant to hire someone whose sole experience has been with software to write the hardware maintenance manual for an aircraft, unless there are other indications – maybe a pilot’s licence – that point to subject matter expertise.

  • Deliverable type experience:  The types of deliverables – books, web pages, online help, and so forth – a writer has worked with can also be a useful indicator, especially if you are working with one of the newer technologies, like XML. But most experienced writers have worked with several different kinds of deliverables, so I consider this less important than subject matter familiarity.

  • Tools experience:  Tools familiarity is another thing I look for, though I place less importance on it than some. In particular, unless I need someone with specific tools knowledge – for example, a FrameMaker guru – I am less concerned with the specific tools and more concerned with the type of content the tools work with. For example, if I am hiring someone for a team that is writing XML, I will give extra points to someone who has XML experience over someone who only has WYSIWYG experience, even if the person with XML experience has not used the same tools that my team uses.

    One thing to be cautious about, and to explore when you get to an interview, is the level of skill people have with particular tools. Candidates know that recruiters will mechanically search résumés for the names of the tools their clients use, and if a résumé does not contain a reference to a desired tool it may be rejected. So, candidates will list tools they barely know, or that they hope they can learn in the weekend before a job interview. My rule of thumb is that if someone has not done a real project with the tools you are using or a tool in the same category, there will be a learning curve.

  • Education:  I do not worry too much about what degree a writer has, but I like to see a college degree of some kind. If not, there needs to be some strong experience in lieu of a degree. I am less concerned about where the degree was obtained or the GPA, though a degree from a diploma mill or a poor GPA will raise a red flag.

  • Leadership:  I like to see examples of leadership. This does not need to be formal or work related, it might be leading a small project, managing a budget, leading a Girl Scout troop, or organizing a fund drive. Even if you are not looking for a manager, I prefer people who can take the initiative and lead when necessary.

  • Other things to look for:  If the résumé has a section like “Other Qualifications,” “Community Activities,” or something similar, look at it closely. Skills and activities are included on a résumé because the candidate thinks they are important. Therefore, I always ask about them during the interview.

    I also look for overlaps or gaps in experience, unusually short periods of employment, or unusual claims – for example, a technical writer who claims to have brought in $10 million in new business. That does not mean that any of these things are automatically disqualifying, but you need to explore them in the interview and the reference check.



  1. A very useful article, thanks. We’re hiring right now, so I’ve been reading lots of resumes recently.

    It never ceases to amaze me the number of resumes (“CVs” to us Brits) that are full of careless mistakes. I got one recently where the writer claimed to have “an obsessive eye for detail” and then made a spelling mistake in the very next sentence.

    I can forgive some grammatical errors and bad judgement in layout/organisation, but I find it very hard to see past simple spelling mistakes in the CV of someone who is trying to get a job as a technical writer.

  2. I’m curious about how closely you look at resumes in terms of formatting. Specifically I’m thinking about the use or not of Styles, extra paragraph breaks, use of spaces when tabs would be cleaner… Do you expect technical writers to use Styles and clean formatting? Do you turn on hidden characters to check, or do you think this stuff is unimportant (ie. I’m being overly fussy)?

  3. I do expect technical writers to use styles and clean formatting, but to tell the truth, I haven’t applied that expectation to resumes. That’s partly neglect, but also a result of having seen many more resumes in hard-copy or pdf form, rather than Word or some similar form.

    Also, almost all of my recent hires (last 5 years or so) have been to write XML, so I’m more interested in good use of XML.

    That said, if I were hiring someone who claimed to be an expert in the same word processor that his or her resume was written it, I would want to look and would not consider that overly fussy.

  4. Thanks for your response. That’s really interesting! Having worked in XML myself, I think that the use of Styles and clean formatting is a good indication of whether a writer could work well in a structured environment. Great post, thanks!

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