Tips for creating a cybersecurity resume

Resumes help candidates leave an impression on potential employers. But did you know one resume often isn't enough? Learn this and other tips for creating a cybersecurity resume.

The cybersecurity industry has been experiencing a skills gap and talent shortage for years. With more than 2.7 million cybersecurity job openings globally in 2021, the "(ISC)² Cybersecurity Workforce Study, 2021" concluded the security workforce needs to grow 65% to meet demand.

Despite the talent shortage, however, cybersecurity remains a difficult industry to break into. Plus, too many companies focus on quickly filling roles to solve immediate problems rather than creating sustainable talent pipelines for the future.

"Few [hiring managers] invest in talent that doesn't fit the typical image of a person in cybersecurity," said Alyssa Miller, author of Cyber Security Career Guide. "You don't necessarily have to have a tech background or technical security skills to succeed in the industry."

In her book, Miller offered advice on applying for cybersecurity positions, including the importance of highlighting transferable skills on your resume if you're lacking in technical knowledge. Job hunting is an arduous task, and applicants' resumes play a significant role in the process, she noted.

"Resumes are designed to get you an interview," Miller said. Hiring managers are more likely to invest in candidates with technical skills, she added, and organizations are increasingly relying on applicant tracking systems (ATSes) to narrow down application pools. Now more than ever, candidates must place special attention on their resume's format, content and word choice.

The following excerpt from Chapter 6 of Cyber Security Career Guide includes a summary on creating a cybersecurity resume, as well as information on ATSes, formatting requirements and the importance of customizing your resume for each application.

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6.1 Mastering the resume

What is a resume? Many people would answer that question by talking about a document that lists details of skills, work experience, and education. All of that is true. However, I would like to think about your resume in a different way. Think about it as your portfolio. It is that thing that makes your first impression with any prospective employer, before they have ever had a chance to speak to you. It is the summation of all the work you have done, and it potentially includes more than just that document you're going to send along with your application. When you think about your resume as a portfolio rather than simply a document, it leads you down a creative path. Being creative in your resume allows you to express yourself which conveys your authenticity. That is what ultimately will make you stand out as an applicant.

6.1.1 One document is not enough

I have talked to many aspiring security professionals who tell me how they have sent their resume to large numbers of potential employers. It is the same story every time. They spent a bunch of time creating the perfect resume, following all the advice they could dig up. They worded, re-worded, revised, edited, and tweaked it until they had the perfectly formatted and articulated document. Then they sent it out to lots of employers who had jobs they were interested in and wondered why they get so few calls back.

Their mistakes begin with that one document. For as long as I can remember, I have read advice on how to write a resume. Almost without fail, each article, blog, column, whatever has made the assumption that job seekers create a singular one-size fits all resume. I guess it makes sense, right? You are talking about yourself, so of course you want to do that in the perfect way. But that could not be more wrong. You should have multiple versions of your resume. Let's look at why and how do need to do this.

Your resume does indeed introduce you. But it is not an autobiography. As I mentioned previously, your resume is the first impression that an employer will get of you when you apply to a job. However, they are not looking to hear interesting stories about a person and all the wonderful things that person has done. When prospective employers are looking at resumes, they are trying to understand how the person they are reading about is going to bring value to their company. So, your resume is your first chance to tell the story of how you are going to bring value to them in the role that you are applying for.

On an episode of my podcast, my co-hosts and I had the honor of talking with Jake Williams, a well-respected member of the security community. One of the things that Jake shared with us is a strategy he uses when coaching folks on how to build their resume. It goes something like this. He starts off by having them share their elevator pitch. They get one to two minutes to convince him why they are the right fit and how they are going to bring value to his team in the role that they are applying for. At the end of the two minutes, he asks them to point out where in their resume he can find the topics that they just shared. Anything that is not there is something that needs to be added. Anything that is in the resume that they did not include in their pitch is something they might think about removing.

I really like this exercise because it stresses the idea of your resume being that first elevator pitch. It is your opportunity, in a very brief window, to win over the person who might consider you to fill their open position. However, there is one aspect that's missing that is critical here: that the best elevator pitch is always tailored to the audience you are speaking to. Your resume needs to do the same.

Each job you are applying to is unique. Even if they have the same title, call for the same skills, and require the same level of experience, they are still different. Each company and even each team has their own challenges they are looking to solve by hiring a new person. Your focus as a job applicant needs to be on understanding what those challenges are and crafting your resume to show how you are the right person to help address them.

It may sound crazy, but you should have a separate version of your resume for every single job you apply for. On the surface that seems like a lot of work. But often, you may find that you have a couple versions of your resume based on the kind of role you might apply to and then only minor tweaks are needed to tailor it for the job at hand. You can keep each version and as you find similar openings elsewhere, just work from what you did previously. With that in mind, let's analyze key facets you need to consider.

In this Q&A, author Alyssa Miller offered tips on managing imposter syndrome in the cybersecurity industry, along with other career advice.

Download a PDF of Chapter 6 to learn more about cybersecurity resumes, applications and interviews.

6.1.2 Format

Job applicants do, to some extent, understand that their resume is their first chance to shine, their first chance to stand out. Certain "experts" offer advice that you want to have a resume format that is fresh and different, something that is pleasing to the eyes. This can be good advice for the humans that are going to read your resume. Adding in a light dose of graphics, some color, multiple columns, maybe even a good headshot of yourself can personalize your resume. That is all great, except it misses one key aspect of the modern job hunt: Applicant Tracking Systems or ATS.

Many organizations today use these automated ATS to post and receive applications for their open jobs. You can easily recognize them because many times they are the job sites that ask you to upload a resume and then attempt to parse it and fill in all your details (with varying success). But this step is crucial because those systems are filling in all the data that will initially be used to understand who you are and how you are qualified. The better job the ATS does in processing your resume, the better results you can expect.

For this reason, when you think about format, you need to think about simplicity. How can you make your resume easy for the ATS to read it and properly process it? There are a few factors to think about here:

  • Overall format: stick to a single column, do not try to get fancy with multiple columns.
  • Skip the graphics: they will add nothing for the ATS and only make the document harder for the automated parser to understand.
  • Fonts: use a font that is easy to read and common such as Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri.
  • Simple Header: include a simple header with your basic personal contact information.
  • Section Headings: use clearly worded and obviously formatted section headings.
  • Include the standard sections: Education, Skills, Work Experience, and Certifications.

This is great, but do you still want to have a creative resume to provide to humans? That is fine. Keep two copies, one with all the fun, individualized formatting that you can send in advance of each interview, and one that you will use whenever the application is being entered into an ATS.

One last word about format. It is very common for people to ask how long their resume should be. This is a matter of opinion and I have seen a wide range of answers to this. As a hiring manager, I will share my view. Anything longer than a two-page resume, for me, becomes onerous and boring to read. Chances are, if you are including so much employment history or other background information that you need more than two pages, there is probably a lot of irrelevant information in there. Think again about that!

About the author
Alyssa Miller is a hacker, security researcher, advocate, author and public speaker with over 15 years of experience in cybersecurity. She currently directs security strategy for S&P Global Ratings as its business information security officer. She frequently participates in public speaking events about security and privacy at various conferences and events. In February 2021, she gave a TEDx Talk on the tech skills and talent shortage. Miller began her IT career as a programmer for a financial software and services provider before moving into IT and security consulting.

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