Advice on Resumes and Cover Letters

moro and mike,

This article is a companion piece for a YouTube Live stream hosted by myself and Moro Arakaki on May 8, 2020 @7 PM MDT. https://youtu.be/yfUy0xxd2k4

Recently, I found myself struggling to find a new job. For months, my experience was difficult. Despite decades of experience, two degrees, multiple professional credentials, and extensive training… I was not getting noticed. Not only did I not find a job after many months of trying, I did not have a single interview, and did not have anyone looking at my LinkedIn profile. I felt like I was screaming my resume into the void.

I felt like I was screaming my resume into the void. With help and advice from my friends and after taking some courses on job hunting, I was able to turn that experience around. In the space of just a few weeks I had 5 interviews, two offers on contract work, and interest from major companies.

In the space of just a few weeks I had 5 interviews and two offers Step-by-Step here is what I did:

  1. Posted a clear message that I was unemployed and looking for work
  2. Re-learned how to Job Hunt and Write Resumes/Cover Letters
  3. Drafted a new Resume Template
  4. Drafted a new Cover Letter
  5. Asked friends for help, advice, recommendations, and endorsements
  6. Started following managers in my field on LinkedIn
  7. Started engaging actively with others on LinkedIn

This article is my effort to share what I learned about Resumes and Cover Letters. I will post other articles about other things I did and learned in coming weeks.

Summary of what I learned

TLDR; This is what I learned in short:

  1. My resume was too short. The only people who ask for a one page resume are people who don’t read resumes. My resume is now 3 pages long.
  2. My resume needed to be simpler and easily skimmed. I took out multi-column layout. The only fancy formatting is the header. It is easy to skim.
  3. My cover letters changed DRAMATICALLY. They are now much shorter and immediately and directly address “Why do I want to work here?” or “Who told me to apply?” or “Why should you hire me?”
  4. My cover letter has attractive visual design (not my resume… it used to be the opposite).
  5. Almost every resume I send out is similar and only slightly customized for the job I am applying for. But every cover letter is different and customized to the job.

Re-Learn to Job Hunt and Write Resumes and Cover Letter

In my 25 year career I have hired people more times than I have been hired. Most jobs I have had, I did not have to interview. I have been spoiled in that regard. When my arrogant hopes that employers would seek me out failed, I embraced humility and realized I had to (re)learn how to job hunt and I started with learning how to write a resume and cover letter.

I started with taking some courses on Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning. If you have Calgary Public Library card, you have FREE access to Lynda.com (the old name for LinkedIn Learning). See below for notes on how to get access.

There are five courses I suggest you start with. There are more but these were the most important to my learning.

Finding a Job by Jolie Miller

Start here. It is a good overall course on job hunting, applications, resumes, cover letters, and interviews.

This is the only course in this article that is NOT by Jenny Foss (jobjenny.com).

Resume Makeover by Jenny Foss

I took this course, and immediately hated it. I turned it off half way through. I thought, “this is not how job hunting should be!” But Jenny was right, and weeks later I came back and took the course again. Jenny Foss has straight advice and says things you might not be ready to hear.

Your resume is all about the recruiter. You have to make the recruiter’s job easy. Your resume is NOT about you. It’s a tool you are using to get what you want.

The main purpose of a resume is to get an interview Your resume is there to get you an interview. Nothing more. It does not have to be complete or perfect. You don’t have to use the official title your employer gave you. You just have to be truthful while showing exactly what the recruiters needs to see.

Here is a screenshot of one page of my resume after the make over. This is NOT the resume I send out. This is the template from which I delete information to customize the resume I send out for each job.

You will notice for that for every job in my work history, I have written descriptions of my accomplishments, AND bullet points. I usually deleted some of the sentences and some of the bullet points. I only include what a recruiter needs to get me an interview.

I keep the bullet points to things I did, and the written text to describe my accomplishments (what value I provided, why my work was important).

Resume Length

I took some bad advice from a recruiter and my resume was originally only one page. This got me no where. Many external recruiters want a 1 page resume: they are not going to read it. They just want a few bullet points to decide if they should talk to you on the phone.

The person who will hire you will want to see more detail. Not a lot, but enough to realize what you have accomplished and done in the past.

My resume is now 3 pages. The last page contains my education, certifications, awards, and long long paragraph with nothing but keywords of technologies and three letter acronyms, and programming languages I have completed projects with.

The first two pages show my last 4 jobs with their accomplishments list either as bullet points or prose. If the job is technical, I just put in bullet points. If the job is management, I put in a description of my accomplishments.

Writing a Tech Resume by Jenny Foss

This course will give you advice on how to deal with the challenges of communicating your technical and professional experience. In IT people care about your soft and tech skills. It is much harder to communicate than if you were in one of the traditional professions.

Our careers involve constant “upskilling” and changes in duties and direction. This course will give you lots of good ideas for how to tailor your resume.

Writing a Cover Letter by Jenny Foss

My resume changed a little because of my re-learning, but my cover letter change a LOT.

The purpose of the resume is to get you an interview. But the cover letter will get you short listed if there are other good candidates. The purpose of the cover letter is to make you memorable.

The purpose of the cover letter is to make you memorable. My cover letters before were not bad. They followed the standard pattern that Jenny outlines at the beginning of the course:

State why you are writing or applying Highlight 1 or 2 key accomplishments that make you a good fit Close with a call to action (ask for a meeting and state why they should be as excited as you are for that) However, she had other advice that changed what I thought dramatically. My cover letters now follow a new format (see below).

Cover Letter Tips by Jenny Foss

This course will give you many tips about how to spruce up your cover letters. I changed mine in these ways:

  1. Name drop immediately. Nothing will get you an interview faster that mentioning someone the interviewers know.
  2. State why I want this job. This was hard at first, my inner daemons stopped me from thinking of what to say. But once I got the hang of it and saw examples in these courses, I got the hang of it. “I saw your CIO give a talk at CCTX last fall. Your team is doing inspiring work and I would like to be part of it” or “What I like about this role is the ICS/SCADA component: this is the hard challenge requiring vision, patience, and technical skills. It’s what I want to do.”
  3. I use a little space as possible describing why I am “a good fit”. Only 40% of cover letters get read. If you write one make it outstanding and don’t worry about taking a risk in your writing. Just say outright why you think you can do the job. “I have been doing a VERY similar job for 5 years. I am confident I can execute this role well and hope to bring some of my own ideas to make the job grow.”
  4. If I don’t want what to say, and I don’t know enough about the job to say why I would love it or would be good, I state my approach: “I believe in intelligence-driven cyber security: this means that we cannot simply enumerate and fix vulnerabilities, we have to gather data and establish measures that help get ahead of the threats. I specialize in this approach.”
  5. I close with a thank you and never spend more than a sentence closing. “I can bring something exciting to this role and I look forward to a great conversation learning more about what your team is doing.” Here is what my cover letters look like now:

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Appendix: How to get access to Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning

For Calgarians, to get a FREE membership to Calgary Public Library, go here: https://calgarylibrary.ca/your-library/join/

If you are already a member of Calgary Public Library, go here to login to Lynda.com and use your library card and PIN to logon: https://www.lynda.com/portal/sip?org=calgarylibrary.ca

If your public library does not offer Lynda.com, you can still access LinkedIn Learning. The cheapest way is to subscribe to LinkedIn Premium, which is useful in many ways for your job search. You will have full access to LinkedIn Learning via your LinkedIn Premium subscription.

Michael McDonnell
Written by Michael McDonnell Follow
Michael McDonnell is The Cybersecurity Librarian. A cybersecurity professional (CISM, CTIA, GCIA, GCWN) and a professional librarian (MLIS).
Morohito Arakaki
Written by Morohito Arakaki
Moro is a modern day rennaissance man, an experienced network analyst, and cybersecurity professional. He is co-host of the Moro & Mike livestream.