Successful Resume Paradox

In my experience, I had seen many resumes of various professionals from recent college grads to Senior Enterprise Architects and Business Consultants.  I also conducted many interviews – technical, situational, personal etc. I also attended many interviews – both client interviews (I work for an IT Services Company) as well as other job interviews.  And in almost every resume I ever saw in my life, including mine – there are NO failures.  This, to me, sounds like a paradox. Here is my explanation.

We know that in any endeavor – project goal or individual goal – a realistic or a stretch objective will be defined. Though there will be some ambiguous projects like when customer doesn’t know what he wants, but still will adapt some Agile methodology to iterate over some vision until it gets concrete. Just for theory sake, let us assume, there is clarity in what needs to be achieved.  What is the probability that every such endeavor, an individual is part of is an astounding success?

Sometimes in interviews, to keep the conversation honest,  I often ask about some lessons learned from different professionals. Many people share interesting lessons learned ranging from team politics to technology failures, but almost never, I encountered anybody who told that they goofed up something and they did learn something valuable.  I think, I rather hire a person, who had ample set of failures, who is self aware, who learned a great deal during the crisis, than someone who thinks never made any mistake.  I am perfectly aware that a resume is not a memoir and need not publish everything. But it should give some pointers that the candidate is a balanced person and a great individual.

Imagine how much, we all appreciated Amazon and Facebook when they explained the root cause of failures and remedial steps that are undertaking to prevent them.

Now my confession – sometime back I was in control of production. It was late in the evening and I was “Wired-In”. I was debugging one production issue using an SSH window. I also opened another SSH window to release a feature into Staging where I had to shutdown App Server . After few minutes, suddenly, phones started ringing like crazy. oops – I realized the mistake – I shutdown production during a peak usage time from west coast. The story ended well, we had some data loss – in flight transactions, but nothing major. So damage control was done.  Next time onwards – I never open  production window and multi task. I also changed the background color of production connection in SSH client to be Red.

Here are some questions, I would like to hear from the community

1) What is the best and subtle way to reflect some lessons learned in resumes (or is it an insane idea)?

2) When we interview, what is the best way to understand a person’s overall profile – accomplishments as well as some mistakes?

3) In your experience, have you encountered anything that you would like to share with the community regarding these resumes, goof ups,  interviews etc that can be safely shared with all of us?


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 3, 2011, 9:38 pm:

    Thought provoking post Vamsi. Maybe as a community, we don’t tolerate failures, although everyone loves to say that one has to fail to become successful. There is a barcamp style FAIL Camp in which participants talk about their failures. We need more of these. I usually ask my interviewees about the risks they have taken and failures that they have had.

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    IMHO, its not a paradox. It depends on the societal structures.
    For eg. in India, people do not appreciate when on learns from failures. I quit my high paying job in an MNC to join a startup in which I learnt a tonne by watching politics destroy a team and product. I learnt loads – ‘how not to do develop a team/product’;
    but no one was ready to hear this.
    Whereas, in EU or US, things change. I always got an audience for my ‘story.

  3. Quote
    raja (subscribed) said July 3, 2011, 10:07 pm:

    Another point to note is, failures of a particular person should be read only by a competent person. say for example if some lay man who does not know about SSH reads your confession and of all the lines only this line “I shutdown production during a peak usage time from west coast” makes sense to him, he will immediately come to a conclusion that you are a good for nothing fellow. On the other hand an expert in SSH usage when he reads your post he will chuckle to himself since he knows how easy it is to post a command in one window rather than the other. So highlighting failures in a resume which will be viewed by EVERYONE both the layman ( HR person) as well as the competent person is in my opinion foolhardy.

    Instead when a candidate clears the initial level of the interviews and when he comes for the meeting with the technical/competent person then he can open up his heart and let him know all his failures. Here in this room the candidate will surely be appreciated.

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    Ganesh said July 3, 2011, 11:49 pm:

    Nice post and topic Vamsi.

    Fresh out of my undergrad completion, in my very first job as an intern for ICIM, we were developing a ticketing system for Maharashtra State Transportation. I was brand new to coding, OS and computer concepts. For whatever reason, access control was really not nailed yet and since I was deemed to be part of the “core” development team, I was treated and given authority like any other senior engineer in the project.

    One month into the project, I was trying to understand how the shut down script worked and instead of editing it, I simply executed it!! Lo and behold I saw a bunch of ticket issuers rush into the IT room and understandably create a huge ruckus. The IT director was seething through his ears. But, what I learned from this situation still sticks with me – the way the project lead stuck his neck out for me (understanding anyone else could have made the same mistake), gave me a second chance and urged me to learn from the mistake. And from that point on, my attitude towards the project and the team changes tremendously. I was driven to work hard, learn fast and gave more than my share (at least in terms of hours worked) for the project.

    Now, when I think about this, I realize how intrinsic motivation can still be extrinsically driven and try and apply it whenever possible.

  5. Quote
    Kumaran said July 4, 2011, 9:01 am:


    A very intersting thought and good questions. I personally found it comes with a lot of things.

    But I will stick what we can do as individuals rather than looking at controlling or looking for a conducive environment.
    These are from my own personal experience.
    1. I dont have any problem in taking publicly about my failure though have not put in my resume. I would put it under a heading “Major Learnings” just like we put “Major Accomplishments”. 🙂
    2. It is also about understanding yourself more deeply. This helps increase your self-confidence.
    3. The above gives you the power of going with the truth and talking about it to the world. Truth is awesomely powerful but it takes a huge amount of courage to use it.

    The biggest mess I did was a project 60 members where I screwed up bcoz of a few things. I was Architect+PM.
    1. It has to perfect
    2. Nothing can go wrong on my watch ( Ego is playing here or I try to play “God” ) 🙂
    3. My way or the high way for the team.

    Now I love to talk abt this failure and in fact it helps lot of people because they relate. But you just have to let of the above 3 fallacies.

  6. Quote

    Great Post Vamsi. IT field, we always try to go “under the carpet” approach to hide our mistakes. I think mainly because IT is young industry and top people don’t know real impact of of our mistakes. For them, “image not loading” because of cache issue is same as unexpected production shut down.

    I famously one time executed rm -R * on instead of /./tmp to clear cache in production, it took 3 hours to restore it from wire, since it is cluster environment, i saved my job.:)

  7. Quote

    Thanks for your comment. I think you are right – as a society, we dont like failures. I also like the idea of asking someone of the risks they took and failures they had. It is upfront and straightforward.

  8. Quote

    Interesting perspective. Sorry to hear that you encountered politics at workplace. I am sure things are changing/ will change.

  9. Quote

    You added an important point. Resume is a personal branding/ marketing tool and has to get through so many layers before it reaches the ones who can really evaluate that objectively. Merely adding some learning may lead to missing an opportunity. I guess there could be section – like crisis management – how someone effectively managed a crisis or a challenge. But in the life of a software developer – it might be simply – a bug or goof up

  10. Quote


    Thanks for your comments. Sometimes, it is the way the leaders demonstrate their leadership quality that inspires us. The fact that your project lead stood up for you and given you the second chance, must have motivated you to develop further in such an early days of your IT career.

  11. Quote

    Thank you for the comments. Also you put across elegantly why it makes sense for us to think and talk about any mistakes. I think the biggest loser is the one who is not even aware of his contribution to failure and how he can fix. The three fallacies you listed are such seemingly obvious things, most of us do in our career at some point of time.

  12. Quote

    Thanks for your kind words. I think more than industry – it is the corporate culture at high level and maturity of middle level leadership that determines how people manage the mistakes. If it is unforgiving environment, nobody will risk the security, just to share the learning. Your thoughts?

    🙂 rm -R * I think we all must have done at least once.

  13. Quote

    Vamsi, So I read a joke yesterday, which said, what is the difference between a Ghazal and a lecture – when someone else’s wife talks it seems like a Ghazal and when your wife talks it is lecture – that is the case with failure, people like to talk about it, read about but wouldn’t want anyone on their team who have had a failure. Don’t for a minute believe the +ve spin their PR agencies put out…..:-) That said, I don’t hire any PM’s who haven’t had failures and taken a few beatings….most of my interviewing questions are borrowed from Susan Scott’s Fierce Leadership – irrespective of how smooth talker a candidate might be, those are real tough questions to answer.


  14. Quote

    I think resumes are like matrimony profiles. Everyone wants to put their best face forward 😛

    Knowing a person’s failures is definitely a good step to knowing how they will handle a crisis. Good post Vamsi! Probably it also starts with the mindset bred in school children that the first rank is given to students who write only the “correct” answers.

  15. Quote


    A resume is the one that contains what are the person is able to do or achieve, and their past successes.. Its just to highlight our skillsets, and NOT successes and failures.. Everyone knows that no one is 100% successful, and everyone knows there are failures in life.. these are meant to be discussed in interviews and NOT to be publicised in resumes..

    So there is no paradox in resumes.. however, there may be paradoxes in the interview panel, when some one attempts to project himself as all capable..

    Your SSH example should be most common for many.. even i too faced this scenario, but luckily i had backup and quickly restored..

  16. Quote

    Thanks for your comments Raj. Ghazal-lecture example is funny.

    I should check Susan Scott’s Fierce Leadership book. Sounds interesting.

  17. Quote

    Saraswathi – Resumes ~ Matrimony profiles – 🙂 LOL

    Very good point regarding mindset – I guess, imparting the lateral thinking skills from the beginning will help solve some of these issues.

  18. Quote

    Senthil – I agree that is one version of the resume. Clearly there are so many resumes models which highlight the core competencies and business impact. I am talking about this.

    The paradox is not there if you think the current way of highlighting only successes. That is a status quo. But on the contrary – you are recruiting a person who comes with overall experiences as a package.

    Interview panel is a another story and off the topic.,

    Thank you for your comments,

  19. Quote
    pk.karthik said July 26, 2011, 8:41 pm:

    Intresting point Vamsi,I concur with Sukumar that we as a society do accept failures.

    If I can quote my case I screwed up my first assignment in my previous organisation and that assignment just finds a brief mention in my CV.I probably dont have the courage to mention it in my CV.Even if my mention it how many managers or executives will be willing to hire a person who has commited mistake and is open to admit it .As a manager most people prefer successful rather than a resourceful candidates so any mention of failures will not attract job openings/promotions.

    References to failures can only be made by successful people in making motivational speeches.I may be harsh in my choice of words but talking about failures is not an acceptable trait with Appraisers and recruitment managers.

  20. Quote

    Excellent post Vamsi.

    On resume writing:

    1) I have seen that resumes are very effective when they include action-verbs in the accomplishments as opposed to vague statements. Ex of vague statements is “successfully + verb” (successfully completed, successfully developed etc..). Ex of action-verbs are “achieved 50% efficiency” or “achieved 10% cost savings over 3 years”. Resumes include client profile, project profile etc…but often skip the contribution/ roles and resp of the person writing the resume.
    2) Short resumes – A 5-page resume is 2 pages too long (Read this somewhere)
    3) My pet-peeve – Using “+” – I second-guess any person that has 8+ years of experience or managed 27+ projects. Why wont they just say 10 years or 30 projects?

    On showcasing failures:
    I think the idea of including failures in resumes seems righteous but not practical. I think the discussion/ interview should be an open discussion where the candidate should be prepared to give clear and complete answers to the following questions:

    1) what is your most successful project? what was your contribution to the success?
    2) give me an example of a project that failed, your role in the project, how you mitigated it and what you learnt from it

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