Promise and Pitfall of Resume Pruning

Being a substitute teacher required thinking on your feet.

Being a substitute teacher required thinking on your feet.

There comes a time in every professional career when you must prune your resume to tell a more coherent story to potential employers, but that could cause a potential employer to miss the fact that you have  certain skills and experiences which they are seeking. One of my strengths professionally is I have a variety of professional experiences to draw upon but that very strength can be a liability if an employer is looking for a standard career progression and isn’t used to seeing someone who has done a lot of different things professionally.

So in the interest of brevity and focus I’ve culled quite a few of my “more interesting” positions from my resume – positions which provided valuable experience and taught me quite a few lessons that I still use today but nonetheless just don’t make fit into my current resume and career goals. 

One of the early casualties of resume pruning was my experience as a substitute teacher in the Newport News, VA public school system. For one year prior to joining the Navy I taught in elementary schools (4th and 5th grade), middle schools and even high schools – usually Math but also Science and occasionally English. Going back into schools where I had been a student was a disconcerting experience especially the first few times I sat down in the teacher’s lounge with teachers who had taught me when I was a student.

Although I was nervous I quickly established a reputation as a substitute whose classes were actually productive and before long I was working by request 4 or 5 days a week, usually on longer-term assignments. It was a lot of fun, but also pretty intimidating standing in front of a classroom with 30 sets of eyes staring right at you. Even more so when you didn’t know their names and you might only be there for one or two days. I quickly found my rhythm and managed to keep the classes under control even if there was no lesson plan left for me.

One of my favorite ways to occupy time and teach at the same time was playing a game of baseball. But instead of bat and balls, I would make them spell words, or solve math problems or name a noble gas (they are Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Radon and Xenon). The kids really liked the game because it allowed them to move around, make a little noise and I liked it because I could tailor the questions to the level of the students so the really good students got tougher questions – “what’s the atomic number of Neon” (it’s 10 by the way) and the less advanced students got easier questions like “what’s H2O” (water for you science impaired readers). I often used it as an incentive and reward for completing their worksheets or other homework.
Neon is one of the six noble gases.

Neon is one of the six noble gases and a pretty one at that.

Of course I can’t claim credit for the game – I learned it when I was doing a long-term photo essay on a student teacher in the Columbia, MO public schools. That game was only one of the many things I learned working as a photojournalist that I can still use today. While I don’t get to play math baseball anymore, the lessons it taught about engaging and involving your audience are more relevant than ever.

Those lessons I learned in the classroom still pay dividends for me professionally whenever I have to give a presentation or communicate a new concept to a potential customer or client. Once you’ve managed to gain and keep the attention of 30 6th-graders while under observation of a principal – presenting to C-level executives or large audiences is a piece of cake. 

Another professional experience that was the casualty of pruning  was my time as the manager of a graphics agency.  When a technology is brand-new, familiarity with that technology can be confused with expertise. Luckily for me I was not only familiar, I was actually proficient at using early graphic design, publishing  and presentation tools such as Illustrator, Photoshop, Pagemaker and Powerpoint while a photojournalism student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, aka Mizzou.

In 1993 the Apple's MacQuadra was a smoking machine.

In 1993 the Apple Mac Quadra 950 was a smoking machine.

Missouri was a great place to learn to be a photojournalist because all students were required to be comfortable using the tools of desktop publishing including: film scanners and film-recorders, flat-bed scanners, using and managing networked laser printers and networking Apple Mac workstations together. All of those skills were essential and useful someone managing a small graphics agency producing work for clients like NASA, The Mariner’s Museum, Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock company, as well as local doctors and hospitals.

No one will ever accuse me of being a great designer but I was hired as a manager for the agency because I could handle both the mechanics of the position (producing graphic design for clients on deadline and managing a small staff) and because I had good customer service skills. Although we had actual artists and designers on staff, I had to help produce slides and graphics for customers as well because we had more work than our staff of four could handle. One common principle united all of my designs and went a long way with clients.  Keep it simple. This principle was applicable to most parts of the design process – layout, illustrations and graphics, font choice and even creating slides – actual physical slides on film for use in mechanical slide projectors.

In no particular order here is the simple rule I used in all of my design projects:

  • Keep it simple – simple and plain can be confused with elegant by many people. I chose to encourage this confusion and consequently my “designs” were usually spare with lots of white space.
  • Keep it simple – this means use just a few fonts, at most, and avoid prolific use of the bold and italic keys. 
  • Keep it simple – avoid useless animation and sound effects. If your presentation needs sound effects to be interesting spend time working on your presentation – not on your slides.
  • Keep it simple – one good picture presented well is worth 8 pictures crammed onto a page or slide.

That one lesson is still useful today. Fewer slides in a presentation is usually better than more slides and simple slides usually communicate more than complex crowded slides. I haven’t had to use my design skills too much recently beyond customizing PowerPoint presentations, but I can still navigate my way around a Mac and I’ve become quite proficient using my wife’s iPod Touch – the new 32gb model is really fast and fun.

Once our little agency was sold to a competitor, I went to work for NASA as a contractor working for actual rocket scientists again because of my skills using Macs and the other tools of desktop publishing. I was never the most talented designer but I shamelessly followed the principles of designers far better than I was.  It was a lot of fun working for NASA and a great place to work before going into the Navy. But like my substitute teaching and graphic design manager experiences, my time at NASA just doesn’t make the cut anymore.

So what interesting professional experiences have you pruned from your professional narrative and resume?

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