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On my resume, I list myself as having "7 years of hands-on experience programming in C++".

To clarify, I am a self-taught C++ programmer with some college courses thrown in the mix. I've worked on some small personal projects, and I consider myself to be more competent than a CS grad with no actual real-world experience, though by no means am I anywhere near being an expert.

The issue is this... I keep getting calls and emails from recruiters that see my resume on job sites, inquiring about my interest in senior developer positions, contracts, etc., of which I feel that I am completely under-qualified for. My resume only has 3 years of work experience listed (which is all IT stuff), so when they ask about my prior experience in C++, I have to clarify that it was personal work, not professional work.

I'd really like a job as a developer, but I don't want to get hired for something that I can't handle, nor do I want to misrepresent myself while trying to show off my strengths. I deliberately chose the phrasing "hands-on" to imply that it wasn't professional. How should I phrase my C++ experience on my resume to clarify it better?

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I guess I should start by saying IMHO, "hands-on" (in my mind) means that you have spent 7 years programming full-time (40+ hrs a week), as opposed to working as a QA person who sometimes help iron out coding bugs (there are some companies who call on their QA and BSA people to do "lite coding"). It does sound misleading to me. Also, has it been seven years since you started learning C++? If you haven't been actively flexing that skill, I think the 7 years is also misleading. –  Mika Dec 19 '13 at 23:04
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migrated from stackoverflow.com Jan 14 '11 at 16:42

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5 Answers

"I consider myself to be more competent than a CS grad with no actual real-world experience"

Hmm, you do realise that studying Computer Science is not the same thing as studying programming?

There's also more to a programming job than churning out code. I'd be suspicious of someone who claims to have 7 years experience and then applies for low-level roles. How you'd proceed would really depend on your age. You're young, so any sane employer wouldn't expect you to step into the role of a Technical Architect, they'll give you a chance to get up to speed by making you work on fixing bugs before throwing you into bigger and better stuff.

It's a competitive market, you have to sell yourself. You'll be fine as long as you can back up any claims you make. List C++ as a language you know, and give examples of the projects you've worked on. 'Years of experience' only counts if it's been in a professional capacity.

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The coding I did during them time I taught myself with some help from teachers and professors from age 14 on up was complete junk compared to the professional work I did with the help of peer review by co-workers. Definitely an important point. –  justkt Jan 14 '11 at 18:10
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When I hire programmers, I look for a few hints in their resumé:

  • Obsession with learning. This is my number one measure: do you pursue your craft, learning, experimenting, extending your skills?
  • Examples of your work. Most of the job postings I list include a simple requirement: show me your work (portfolio, code examples, open source projects). I generally don't care where you get your experience, but I do want to see the work you're proud of.

Education is a factor, but it does not have to come from a College or University. I've seen people who purchase and read a CompSci textbook a month, or who audit the freely available iTunesU courses. If you have been in the habit of learning, and have good taste in your sources, then you are an excellent candidate.

As for phrasing your experience, talk about the types of problems you've solved. Examples I've seen on resumés that have resulted in me hiring the person:

  • Writing drivers for the MAME project (he listed which drivers and provided source)
  • Developing an online game (he set up an account for me and provided code samples)
  • Volunteer web development (listed in a designer's portfolio)
  • OSS stack machine engine (sent as part of a portfolio, clearly showed competency)

Be proud of your work, explain what you did, send examples of it.

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If you feel like you are getting hits for jobs that you are not qualified for, I would suggest changing the wording a bit so that you'll get the right level of job for you.

I'm guessing you're going more for a intermediate position so why not try something like: Over 5 years of C++ experience from personal projects.

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I really would't worry about this. I listed myself as having 5 years unprofessional experience when I first started applying for jobs.

I made it quite clear in any interviews that this was self taught and not industry experience.

You should also note that when it comes to programming, self taught experience often says a lot more than industry experience. It shows dedication and eagerness to learn.

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I wouldn't use the word "unprofessional" - that has unfortunate connotations. Perhaps "non-professional" is better. –  Dan Dyer Jan 14 '11 at 16:58
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Or open-source experience (assuming you have some). –  Loki Astari Jan 14 '11 at 17:40
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Your resume should include your actual work experience with your programming possibly included in the 'interests' section. Then make a big thing about your personnel projects in your covering letter. When you get interviews take a laptop to show off what you've done (make sure it all builds and runs correctly). If you haven't got a laptop take a USB stick and paper printouts of your best bits of code (in case they won't put your USB into a company machine). Be prepared to guide your interviewer through your code and talk about the most interesting parts.

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