Rethink the Resume: One Tech Firm’s Big Idea

A prominent programming community's aggressive attempt to remake the resume for the modern day is an idea associations should borrow from—liberally.

Last week, the technology knowledge base Stack Overflow introduced a provocative idea. It’s one that I think a lot of associations should look very closely at.

Stack Overflow, for those who aren’t aware, is best known by programmers as the site you end up at when you have a question about why a piece of code isn’t working, or what regular expression you need to use. But the concept the company put out last week is less about questions and more about answers—particularly, the answer to the question, “Should I hire this developer?”

The company thinks that resumes don’t tell this story well enough in the programming sector, so its new “Developer Story” layouts are clearly built to tell outside viewers what a person has created, rather than simply where they’ve worked.

It appears to be an attempt to fix a notable weak spot with traditional resumes: The average one-sheeter generally puts a lot of emphasis on where you went to school, your most recent employers, and your references—all at the cost of explaining your performance at each of these places. (And don’t let it go beyond a single page!)

That narrow definition of what a resume can be has enabled an entire cottage industry of resume reviewers meant to fix little problems with the words and organization of these sheets of paper.


Stack Overflow is getting in on this cottage industry as well—all in an effort to blow it up. Basically, the company feels that telling the story of the work that its users create is in many cases more revealing than who signed their checks or printed their diploma.

“The emphasis [of the traditional resume format] is all on the seniority of your titles and how impressive your companies or schools have been,” argued Jay Hanlon, the company’s vice president of community growth, in a blog post. “Which is a great way for some developers to put their best foot forward. Have a Masters in CS from Yalemouth? Cool! That’s one good signal. But it ain’t the only one.”

As I said above, this idea is provocative—when the company first introduced the idea to its users back in January, many were skeptical—but it started a conversation. Already, in some sectors, LinkedIn is playing a role similar to that of a resume. While in the journalism field, Muck Rack has long offered a somewhat comparable service.

Why Associations Should Borrow This Idea

My question: Why can’t associations do this? In sectors where productivity is driven by the output of the work just as much as the positions on the resume, associations are in a place to drive the way forward. When you can point to something tangible—I produced this code, I built this design, I wrote this article, I took this course, I planned this event—it reflects much more on your body of work than a single resume line. There’s much more nuance involved.

The problem, however, is that resumes can get annoying for potential employers to read if they stray too far from the norm. It’s not just about spelling or grammar—an immensely gray layout can leave employers cold, as can an out-of-order curriculum vitae. And in recent years, troubling studies have found that unrelated factors, like a person’s name, can also have a negative impact on whether a resume leads to an interview.

I think that Stack Overflow’s approach, which is comparable to the initial 2011 version of Facebook Timeline, provides an antidote to some of these issues. The Facebook design ultimately was a bit cluttered for daily updates, but it works well for scanning through someone’s work history. On the other side, it sort of forces the writer to focus on accomplishments and skills as a key hiring tactic.

Additionally, though, I think that associations have a natural advantage that Stack Overflow doesn’t: A strong history of credentialing, one that flows well into the recent interest in digital badges.

We’re already seeing ways that technology can help to boost this existing technology. Last month, the American Dental Association (ADA) launched a method for its members to streamline the way they apply to payer-application services. Rather than sending applications to dozens of different services, members can now throw all that info into a single place.

While focused on different outcomes, there’s not a ton of distance between ADA’s offering and what Stack Overflow is doing. Nothing is stopping ADA from using the code it already has to build a similar product.

Fighting An Ingrained Format

So what could hold this back? There are a few things, the biggest being employer uptake, along with the need for online alternatives to market themselves against one of the most common document types ever created. But I feel that this could be worked through if some other elements, such as certifiable digital badging, help to reinforce that a digital portfolio submitted in a consistent format is ultimately more useful than a traditional resume.

Stack Overflow, by putting this idea forward, ultimately makes a winning point: These days, it’s much easier to track a person’s body of work online and tie their history to concrete results. Why shouldn’t that experience make it into the final product?

And why does this idea have to be limited to programmers?


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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