What to Include in Your Open Source Resume

Here's how to explain your FOSS experience during your next job hunt.

In my last blog post, I explained why the skills you gained from open source participation make you more attractive to a hiring manager. This time, I'll share with you specific advice about what to include on your résumé and how to get yourself noticed (even you're applying for a job that doesn't use the open source technology).

[ See also: Convincing the Boss to Accept FOSS ]

Which is not to say that you can't get a job that uses your expertise in an open source project or technology. By anyone's measure, skills in open source software are very much in demand. As pointed out by Adam Ely (now a consultant in information security, previously manager of Information Security Operations at Walt Disney), "Open source tools are dominant in the information security world and most information security departments could not operate without them, either due to no commercial solution available or cost of purchasing all commercial solutions." In another role at the same company, he hired developers with open source experience because they were implementing an open source content management system along with a variety of other applications.

Any job seeker wants to stand out, and if you're selling skills that you gained in an open source project you have additional opportunities to do so. At its most obvious, the experience makes you more attractive to open-source-friendly companies. "The best way to get noticed is to participate in an open source project, and leave a trail of good stuff for recruiters to find," says John Locke, manager at Freelock Computing.

"As open source skills become more in demand, savvy recruiters and hiring managers must demonstrate their ability to pull open source nuggets from a candidate's résumé," says L.J. Brock, Senior Director, Global Talent Acquisition for Red Hat. "These are often experiences and accomplishments candidates take great pride in, and not appropriately valuing them can make it hard to hire the right person, as someone else surely will."

So how do you make those nuggets shine?

Zack Grossbart, author of The One Minute Commute, who also is a software engineer consultant for Novell, offers a great overview for how to position yourself. "Someone stands out because of how they talk about the project," Grossbart says. He advises:

  • Describe the project. Don't assume the hiring manager has heard of your open source project."You must be able to explain what the project is, why people use it, and why I should care," Grossbart says. "I don't mind if the project has a small audience as long as it met the needs of that audience."
  • Discuss your contributions. "When I ask what you did on an open source project I want more than a vague answer," Grossbart says. "If you were a committer, what did you do to earn that status? What features did you work on? Did you design new areas, or just implement predefined functions? Did you lead meetings? Define new architecture? Set the project direction?
  • Talk about the team. This may fit better in a cover letter, but hiring managers are always interested in team dynamics. Did you know any of the other contributors personally or was it all virtual? How did you handle conflicts within the team? Why did you join in the first place? "Much of this information will come out in an interview, but before I interview someone I want to read something about their open source contribution," says Grossbart.

In some ways, your open source résumé will look like any other. Andy Lester, author of Land The Tech Job You Love who blogs at The Working Geek, says, "As with anything you put on your résumé, explain what you did and why it was good that you did it. The only difference between project work and a "real" company is that instead of explaining the value to the company, you're explaining the value to the project or to the users."

A résumé has two basic parts: "Here's what I can do for you" and "Here's how I can prove it," says Grossbart. The first section highlights your skills, whether those skills are technical ("I can write low level Linux drivers") or leadership ("I can manage small groups of people"). "Either way, they are your skills and you should highlight them no matter where you learned them, Grossbart adds. "If you're a great Python programmer you should say so even if you've never been paid to write a line of Python."

Open source or otherwise, you need to give potential employers enough background and details to they can be confident in the information you're giving them, says Grossbart. "If you're a C++ programmer from a big company that might look like, 'I was a C++ programmer for IBM for five years and worked on the following projects.' Your open source skills work the same way, 'I've been a committer to OpenOffice for five years and worked on the following features.'" The big difference: you probably need to tell someone what OpenOffice is and define "worked on."

But don't feel as though you should mention every project you ever touched. Consider your contribution's significance and how active you are in the community, suggests Tim Bierbaum, senior software engineer at Source Allies. "If I see it on a résumé, I'm going to ask about it. I'll want to know how they are involved, why they are involved, what opinion on the direction of the project is. If I don't know about the project, I ask what it does, why it is important, and what other comparable solutions are out there." There's also social issues. "If they are questioning whether or not to include it, they should consider what image it projects of them," he says. "They might want to reconsider if they are the project troublemaker."

Where, exactly, do you list the involvement? For most open source participants, it's not clear that you can easily follow the usual pattern for company / job title / tenure. There's a few ways you can go about it; see which works best for you.

Ely, for example, might expect to see your experiences in a few places in the document. If you used specific FOSS applications in your work, list it in the job details section. Your "software developer" listing at "Big Honkin' Big Company" might include "developed Drupal modules and custom applications," listing among your key achievements, "Deployed the Drupal open source content management system" (with appropriate detail; see my recent JavaWorld posts, How to Make HR Dump A Programmer's Résumé and What HR Professionals Look For in a Programmer's Résumé, both of which are applicable). You can also include the technical skills in your buzzwords section.

If you feel very strongly about the open source contribution — that's the skill or background you're selling — then by all means put it up front in the résumé, says Bierbaum. "At least offer a summary of it before going into details of the work experience." You might include a link to the main site and the ID or handle you use, in addition to the project description.

If the FOSS experience is part of your background but not a shining beacon or job equivalent, it's common to list it under "other experience" in some manner. Lester says, "Think of each project as a freelance job that you've worked on. Just as different freelance gigs have varying sizes and scope, so too does each project to which you contribute. The key is to not lump all your projects under one 'open source work' heading."

"Many developers have chosen to replace or augment the 'Outside Interests' sections of their resume with sections titled 'OSS Contributions,' 'Open Source Community Involvement,' or 'Home Projects,'" says Red Hat's Brock. "Whereas in the past 'Outside Interests' served to demonstrate how well rounded a candidate might be and was minimally valued in the recruiting process, this new approach allows candidates to demonstrate the depth of their technology experience beyond traditional jobs in a manner that is increasing relevant to potential employers."

More prominently, says Brock, candidates are frequently highlighting their open source contributions in a 'Selected Accomplishments' section of their résumé, which is typically at the very top. "Unlike in the past, where this section was almost exclusively reserved for specific professional accomplishments, the trend now is to include relevant open source contributions outside the workplace," Brock says.

All this advice applies to the non-resume resume. As Guy Nirpaz, executive VP Research & Development at GigaSpaces Technologies reminds us, "It has become more and more common to work with electronic résumés. I have people sending me their Linked In profile page. In that regard, a link to an open source project page is something I will follow to better understand the candidate's position within the open source project."

That's what the experts and practitioners told me. What's been your experience?

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