Engineering Resume and Interview Tips (from the Experts)
For many experienced engineers and soon-to-be engineering graduates, January is the month to start reworking resumes and begin looking for a new job in earnest.
So of the hundreds (or thousands!) of applications your potential employer will see, how do you make sure your resume is noticed?
And if you’re offered an interview, how do you make yourself the sure-thing candidate among a handful of equally qualified engineers?
We interviewed several HR and hiring managers from different kinds of companies hiring engineers to get their expert opinion and advice.
- Mary Lou Regan – the HR manager for Hydroid, a Pocasset, MA-based company that develops autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). She hires primarily software, electrical, and mechanical engineers. (Comments appear as MLR, Hydroid)
- Erin Bushnell, SPHR is the HR manager for Pennoni Associates Inc., a Philadelphia-based multi-disciplinary civil engineering firm, who hires primarily civil engineers that focus on all different disciplines – transportation, working with municipalities, MEP engineers and surveyors, inspectors and environmental scientists. (Comments appear as EB, Pennoni)
- Kevin Owens is the senior manager of talent acquisition and retention at Draper Laboratory. Draper is a not-for-profit, engineering research and development organization dedicated to solving critical national problems in national security, space systems, biomedical systems, and energy based in Cambridge, MA. They hire electrical, computer science, mechanical, biomedical, aerospace, and systems engineers. (Comments appear as KO, Draper)
- John C. Robak, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Greeley and Hansen, a Chicago-based civil and environmental engineering consulting firm with 300 professional employees in 17 offices across the US. They hire civil, environmental, mechanical and electrical engineers. (Comments appear as JCR, Greeley)
Resume Tips for Engineers
What are Hiring Managers looking for?
Attention to Detail
Foremost, “that look – the seventeen second look at a resume. It’s true, it is really just seventeen seconds” to capture a hiring manager’s attention. MLR, Hydroid
For software engineers, attention to detail can include any code submitted with the application. “When we look at code samples, we pay close attention to whether they follow these principles [of efficiency and attention to detail]. Sometimes, a quick scan at the code or a little whiteboard exercise can reveal whether this candidate has a tendency to write complicated code or redundant code or is very lean and clear in his/her thinking and delivery.” ML, Viralheat
Longevity and Consistency
“We’re looking for longevity with employers… we value candidates who spent some time developing a career and aren’t job-hopping every year or two. (This is for someone with experience, obviously – fresh out of school that’s a different story).” EB, Pennoni
Relevant Experience and Current Skills
- “We’re looking to see if they have any certifications or licenses. That always puts someone above – someone who has gotten their related licenses or certifications.” EB, Pennoni
- “It is important to us that engineers with many years of experience also have a P.E. license. That communicates a commitment to the profession that we find very important.” JCR, Greeley
- “Closely matched technical skills are huge, especially if they are tailored to what we are doing here. It is really nice if the [job candidate] has done some robotics work in the past, or if they’ve been in the DoD world.” MLR, Hydroid
- “For an experienced engineer, we look for relevant experience in our industry, such as previous work for a competitor, as well as demonstrated leadership abilities. For interns or newly graduated engineers, we look for degrees and class work in specific areas – hydrology, hydraulics, water resources and environmental - that apply to what we do. We also look at extracurricular activities that a new engineer participated in, such as student engineering groups, service projects and the like. Students who have shown a long-term commitment in these areas are of particular interest to us. Did the student participate in leadership roles in the engineering groups? What leadership role was played?” JCR, Greeley
- For software engineers “real production ‘experience’ matters more than ‘years of experience’. Many candidates submit very “impressive” resumes where they list many technical skills. Then when we look at the actual work history it turns out that there is simply no solid production experience where these skills have been acquired or utilized.” ML, Viralheat
- “Relatively junior candidates, with a limited production experience, but highly capable to learn and adapt [catch our attention]. For such candidates, we are after their demonstrated ability to work effectively in our Agile environment, learn quickly and be very self-motivated.” ML, Viralheat
Stand Out Criteria
- “Security clearances, or the ability to obtain one, will separate you from the pack here.” MLR, Hydroid
- “Candidates need to differentiate themselves from other applicants with significant engineering accomplishments. In the case of students, they can demonstrate this through internships or capstone projects.” KO, Draper
- Use empirical data whenever possible on your resume. Quantify your business results with numbers or dollar figures.
What are Red Flags on Engineering Resumes?
- “When it’s not readily apparent what job they are applying for. You (the candidate) has to tell me what you are looking to do.” MLR, Hydroid
- “Typos and misspellings,” by far. “The little things are a good indicator– if [the candidate] is not paying attention to detail on their resume then it concerns me that they won’t be paying attention to detail on their projects, either.” EB, Pennoni
- For software engineers, “test, designer, developer – you need to clearly tell me what you want to do. I don’t want to talk you into something, so make it clear in your resume and cover letter.” MLR, Hydroid
- “Gaps in employment or job-hopping are two things that immediately raise a red flag.” JCR, Greeley
- “Another trigger is what I consider overreaching. For example, a person applying for a Project Manager’s position who doesn’t have any direct experience as a PM included on their resume.”JCR, Greeley
Interview Tips for Engineers
What are Engineering Interviews Looking For?
“Knowing about our firm, knowing about the projects we’ve worked on, being able to ask intelligent questions about what we do as opposed to just what it’s like to work here… someone who can express WHY they want to work here.” That person will look prepared and demonstrate interest that will give you a massive advantage over “someone who’s only given a cursory look at our website.” EB, Pennoni
“Candidates first interview with five to eight of the types of engineers who they will likely work with at Draper if hired, and then make a presentation regarding an engineering problem that they solved to the hiring manager and as many as 10 of the engineers who could be future colleagues.” KO, Draper
Skills and Core Competency
- “We conduct a test (developed internally) for the software engineers to gauge their general skills and abilities.” MLR, Hydroid
- “There is no testing at the interview – but we do ask questions that demonstrate their knowledge. And the hiring manager is often the project manager as well, so after they’ve met with the person – the second round of interviews are often people they’ll be working with directly.” They will know when a candidate does not have the requisite skillset. EB, Pennoni
- “They need to be able to talk about examples where they solved tough engineering problems – which is what we do here – and what steps they took to do so.” KO, Draper
- “While we greatly value following development best practices and technical know-how, we are a start-up and we need to make things happen. This means that there are cases, when we take shortcuts, we postpone important decisions and acquire technical debt. It’s a nature of software development. Sometimes, we see candidates that have a very good understanding of best practices and have superb skills. However, we often question how they would respond to real-life scenarios. Are they able to accept some technical debt in order to satisfy immediate business priorities? Will they be ready to write some temporary “unorthodox” solution to allow the team move forward at a critical stage? Do they have real-life experience where such decisions had to be balanced?” ML, Viralheat
Culture and Personality Fit
“Personality fit – we are a smaller company so it is especially important that everyone fits from the first day.” MLR, Hydroid
“We get a solid look at the candidate, but during this process, they also get a solid look at us. That’s important because both parties want this to be a good fit.” KO, Draper
How to Stand Out in the Interview
- “Be forthcoming. From an interview standpoint, the interviewers don’t like to peel information out of you.” Tell them about “what you did on xyz project, what the most difficult software language you had to program in was, or discuss a project in your resume.” MLR, Hydroid
- “Part of an engineer’s job here is business development, so we look for candidates who are able to sell themselves well in the interview. If they can confidently present their own abilities, we believe that they will also be able to confidently present Greeley and Hansen’s capabilities to our clients.” JCR, Greeley
- “In our view, great candidates would be very capable not only to follow best practices and their skills, but also adapt them to the needs of the team. Everyone brings important skills and it’s responsibility of everyone who joins our company to learn and adapt, while also teaching others. This makes not only individual developers better, but allows us to build collective experience, grow product and align with business needs.” ML, Viralheat
What are Red Flags in Engineering Interviews?
- Lack of flexibility. “Since we’re a small company, to not be flexible would be a big red flag – we don’t have a software group of 45, we have 7- and we have a lot of work that needs to be done.” MLR, Hydroid
- When the candidate “isn’t able to demonstrate how they are going to be a key player and how they’re going to contribute to the firm.” EB, Pennoni
- Lack autonomy. “We’re also a small company that is growing fast. A lot of our knowledge is legacy knowledge… so if someone needs step 1-10 spelled out, that probably isn’t going to work out for us. The engineers here develop a technology, watch it being built, and then go out on the boat to test the vehicle. We aren’t your standard engineering job, you won’t be doing the same thing in and out for the next ten years.” So they require engineers that can think independently and be somewhat autonomous. “Take, for example, SolidWorks – if the person doesn’t have a decent competency in SolidWorks, especially in a small company, we don’t have the time to sit and mentor. So we instruct our college interns that between now and [when they are ready to apply for full time work] you should get yourself a student package of SolidWorks and make sure you’re ready.” MLR, Hydroid
- Embellishing your resume. “During the presentation, as well as when submitting a resume and cover letter, it’s important that candidates don’t stretch the truth about their accomplishments, or take credit for other’s work, as that will become evident during the question and answer portion of the presentation, where our engineers will want to know in detail how they solved the problem.” KO, Draper
- No examples, being too vague. “During the interview, if the candidate’s answers to questions about their specific experience are too vague, if they can’t give solid examples of their project experience, that’s a red flag for us. It’s important that the examples and responses provided in the interview match the experience listed on their resume.” JCR, Greeley
TL; DR: Actionable Takeaway Advice from the Experts
- “I’d strongly discourage putting anything substantive in your resume that is older than 10 years… just put in the name of the company you worked for. That’s enough. You should list in bullet-point format the details of the work you have done on employment in the last ten years, however,” says Mary Lou Regan from Hydroid.
- “Networking still matters. A lot. It is really important that a candidate identifies in their introduction email or cover letter if they know someone that works at the firm. And that they ask that person to advocate on their behalf from within matters as well. That really helps someone stand out,” offered Erin Bushnell of Pennoni Associates.
- Your resume is your marketing material- you are the product. It should speak to a target audience and be tailored to any employer you are applying to.
- There is no room for embellishment on your resume. All the hiring managers we talked to said they either a test or careful interviews by the project managers are a normal part of the screening process for all candidates.
- Certifications – if you have them, list them prominently. It is the first thing the person reviewing your resume will look for.
- Languages – they are not only a tool to identify skills you have, but they are also a measuring stick to determine how current you are against other candidates. If you need to stand out from the crowd, consider learning or improving another language.
- Security clearances – identify if you have a current clearance or have held one in the past. This is a frequent need if your employer works with the defense or space industries.
- Software engineers – Github has become a tremendous tool for employers to find new talent (especially if you want to work for a startup). If you haven’t already made yourself familiar with Github it benefits you greatly to do so.
- Do not break the “no more than two pages” or “list experience in reverse chronological order” rules. Even in the internet era, these criteria remain the same for resumes.
- Go over your resume and cover letter carefully before submitting them. Grammar or spelling mistakes may preclude you from further consideration.
Other Engineering Resume and Interview Tips?
If you have any other engineering resume or interview tips from your experience, either as a candidate or a hiring manager, we’d love to hear from you. Please drop a comment below.