• TRS80

    The skills matrix

    Fri 30 April 2010

    Morpheus: What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this (holds up a Duracell battery).
    Neo: No, I don't believe it. It's not possible.
    Morpheus: I didn't say it would be easy, Neo. I just said it would be the truth.

    - Quote from “The Matrix”

    Something unusual caught my attention while scanning through the résumé of a software engineer recently. Their technology skills matrix listed “TRS-DOS”, an ancient technology I hadn’t heard of for many years. Huh? I stopped and thought about it for a second. Is this person telling me their technology skills include TRS-DOS? On their professional résumé? What the? The only TRS-DOS I know is the operating system (if it can be called that) for the old 1977 era Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80, an 8-bit Z80 based machine which was discontinued in 1981. TRS-DOS is a technology that has been dead for nearly 30 years.

    I wondered if maybe there might be a different TRS-DOS out, something super new and modern that I’ve never heard of before, unrelated to the original TRS-DOS. Perhaps it’s an exciting new cloud computing operating system designed specifically for Amazon EC2! Finding out about new operating systems is always fun. So I searched Google to see if I could find reference to any new TRS-DOS operating system. No exciting new TRS-DOS operating system could be found. The only thing I could find were vintage computer enthusiasts and a wikipedia article about the original 1977 era TRS-DOS. So this software engineer’s skills matrix was actually listing TRS-DOS as one of their skills.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there are no jobs on this earth that require TRS-DOS experience. If TRS-DOS is long dead and buried, then why would someone include it in their skills matrix? Weird. Are they hoping to get a job doing some TRS-DOS coding?

    Actually it’s less weird than it sounds. Many (most?) software engineers have a résumé with a skills matrix full of dead and irrelevant technologies.

    The skills matrix is a section of a software engineer’s résumé, typically a table somewhere near the top of the document, intended to list the technologies that they have experience with. The skills matrix is meant to give a quick summary of what this software engineer is good at. Often it doesn’t.

    Instead, many resumes treat the skills matrix as a historical career record, an inventory of every technology ever touched. Any language that they wrote ten lines of code with is in the matrix; any arcane and obscure operating system they ran batch jobs on in the 1980s is included. Every user application they loaded up is listed in the skills matrix including WordPerfect, Lotus 123 and Harvard Graphics. Some skills matrices run over multiple pages, listing vast numbers of technologies. So if a software engineer has been around long enough, and if they’re sufficiently thorough in documenting their past then naturally long forgotten technologies such as TRS-DOS will be listed. Heck, someone somewhere probably has ENIAC in their skills matrix.

    TRS-DOS is the one of the more extreme examples but every day software engineers send résumés with skills matrices listing things like MS-DOS, AmigaDOS, OS/2, BeOS, Ada, Forth, Turbo Pascal, QuickBasic, Vax, Windows 95, Windows 3.1, Wordperfect, Fortran-66, Pyramid P/OS, Cobol or any number of other long dead and irrelevant technologies.

    The real problem with listing irrelevant and long dead technologies is that the person reading the résumé can’t see what technologies the job seeker is best at, what technologies they have recent & fresh experience with, and what technologies the job seeker wants to be working with. That information is diluted amongst the vast array of jargon and keywords. If a skills matrix lists C++, Java, C#, Visual Basic, Fortan-77, Logo and Algol, then how can the reader of the resume know that you really want a job coding with C#, and you really don’t want a job with Java?

    A résumé may serve a number of purposes, but in most cases it’s a sales and marketing document, attempting to convince the reader that they should purchase the services of a job seeker for employment. The task of a sales and marketing document is to sell, and to do so it must convey a concise, focused, clear, relevant, simple, unambiguous message to the target audience i.e. recruiters and employers. Blurting a list of technologies onto the reader conveys only the message that “hey I’ve done tons of stuff, here it all is”. The recruiter or employer wants to understand not everything that this person has ever done, but what this person is actually good at now, what their core strengths are, which technologies they know best, and what technologies they want to be working with. For most software engineers this is (or should be) a pretty short list.

    So which technologies should be listed in the skills matrix? It’s pretty simple – list those technologies that the software engineer knows best, has recent experience with, and wants to be working with. That list is likely to be maybe six to twelve technologies in total. A sentence of context will help the reader understand depth of expertise with a technology. For example “C# is my favorite programming language and I’ve been coding with it every working day for five years.” Or “I have hundreds of hours of experience coding Javascript and I’ve taken the time to study it and practice it to an advanced level”.

    Your resume is not a historical inventory of everything you’ve ever done, it’s a sales document intended to focus attention, to bring across a clear and concise message that conveys a short list of technologies that want to work with, that you know well and have recent experience with. So if you’re a software engineer looking for a job, take a look at your skills matrix and clear out all that old technology that you’ve been hording in the attic. If you haven’t used it for years, if you don’t want to be using it in your next job, if you’re rusty on it, if it’s only found in a museum or if you just don’t like it, then it’s time to let it go.

    Anything else is irrelevant.

    andrew.stuart@supercoders.com.au

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    “The Matrix” credit Warner Bros. Pictures

    Image credit: MaximumPC.com