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 Computer Science 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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    If you had more industry experience you would realize that term "Senior" in software development titles is heavily abused, and that the vast majority of so-called "Senior Developers" are truly awful. If you are even remotely smart you will find that in the vast majority of jobs, even ones you are underqualified for by the flawed judgment of HR types, that you will be smarter than 80% of your peers.
    – maple_shaft
    Jan 9, 2012 at 11:55
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    @maple_shaft I am afraid, you are overoptimistic with your evaluation of peers. But the problem is that when you are obviously smarter than them, they will refuse you as "overqualified".
    – Gangnus
    Jan 9, 2012 at 13:48
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    The only solution to your dilemma, stop counting your college experience, because in the end it really doesn't count.
    – Ramhound
    Jan 9, 2012 at 13:48
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    Forget about "official" requirements, think only about actual requirements. Try to ask more exactly what the companies need, and if you think you can handle the job, do it and get paid for what you're worth! As other said, you may be surprised how easily you can catch up with what some companies call "senior developper". Jan 9, 2012 at 14:09
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    Lol, so if I've been using C since I was 13 for personal projects can I put 11 years of C? I'm sorry, but I don;t think you can put your experience down in "years" at all.
    – user606723
    Jan 9, 2012 at 16:12

7 Answers 7


There are three differences between commercial experience and non-commercial, in terms of language skills (there are many more in terms of general development experience).

  1. Commercial is generally full-time, and thus more valuable than a part-time non-commercial. That said, not all non-commercial is part-time.
  2. Commercial tends to involve working in a team, which means you're learning from others and you're learning about clean code (code that other people can understand).
  3. Non-commercial shows that you are self-driven. So do make sure you include it.

In your situation, I would probably say "7 years, 3 commercial, in C." I would be very surprised if that misled anyone.

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    He said his 3 commercial years were not in C.
    – cyborg
    Jan 9, 2012 at 13:51
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    In very many teams the attempts to hold to clean code and good style are looked upon as a showing off and wasting time. Of course, only few peers will say it openly.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 9, 2012 at 13:51
  • @cyborg: You're right. I misread that. In which case "7 years, committed but non-commercial, in C."
    – pdr
    Jan 9, 2012 at 14:07
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    I've never heard the term "commercial" in this context. Is it the same as saying "professional"? Jan 9, 2012 at 14:16
  • @root45: Close to. Commercial is working on a product with customers, one which is at least intended to be commercially viable.
    – pdr
    Jan 9, 2012 at 14:22

I would leave your experience as you phrase it now. 3 years work experience and any personal projects you think are most relevant to the job you are applying for!

To be honest, it is not in the interest of any company to hire you for something you "can't handle", also "personal work" is just as important as "professional work". I think the fact you are doing "personal work" shows that programming isn't just a job to you, which many employers see as a good thing!!

My advice would be to go along to any interviews recuiters send you for, because when you think about it what have you got to lose? If nothing else you gain the experience of interviews and what companies are looking for, so you can develop your skillset further to reach your goal!

Good Luck


Your problem is not lack of knowldge but lack of industry experience. Ask the recruiter if they have a position open for a S/w Engineer or Junior/Apprentice Software Engineer. It is perfectly fine.

Explain that you dont have industry experinece but are passionate about programming in C and are confident that your programming skills are comparable to any Comp Sci graduate. Explain some of your important persona projects. Even better if you can show the number of downloads froma dev site or something. Dont say that you consider yourself more competent than a Comp Sci grad, even if that is true. The recruiter may be pleased but your would-be Team Leader will probably consider you arrogant :-), especially if they are CS grads.

The worst that can happen is that they will say "Sorry, but we have just one vacancy for a Senior SE". Sooner or later some recruiter will come around who is looking to fill multiple vacancies, maybe build a new team for a new project. And they will need junior level guys too. You will probably need to work on a lower salary than an established professional with equal experience. Use this job as an opportunity to learn and move up the ladder.

Dont worry about not being able to handle work. Even experienced developers sometimes break into a cold sweat in a difficult situation.

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    Would say that if you don't break into a cold sweat every now and then, you don't always fully appreciate the situation.
    – nwahmaet
    Jan 9, 2012 at 15:16

In my experience, about 15 years as programmer/developer - the resume is overstated in its importance. A clear summary of your experience and what you like to do is important, but the resumes sole purpose is to get you an interview where you can communicate what you have done, can do, etc. I have experienced developers who have overstated their experience on a resume and it was clear during the interview process.

I would highlight the personal programming experience from the professional because it does show initiative and passion.


The "number" of years actually means very little because it is totally dependent on the intensity of the experience. There are some shops where the experience gained by one 1 year work cannot be matched by any number years of work in lesser environments. I think the best thing to do is to recognize number of years as a "soft" number.

For hiring managers this means getting past the number and assessing the qualities of the candidate for the work rather than fretting about silly arbitrary thresholds of for example 3 vs 5 years of experience, etc.

For candidates, this means recognizing that the "years of experience" is almost never a hard cut-off (regardless of what the "requirements" say). Instead, if you believe you can do the job, then it is a matter of convincing the hiring manager about what you can do.


worked on some small personal projects, and I consider myself to be more competent than a Computer Science grad with no actual real-world experience, though by no means am I anywhere near being an expert.

Just say that. It's best to be completely honest and open with your CV - even if most other people aren't! Just my personal opinion. If you say this then when your CV hits a desk of an employer they'll be able to make an informed decision and you won't be wasting their time or yours.

I'm afraid that recruitment agents however, rarely if ever read what you write, most just do a keywords searches and then email or call based solely on keyword hits. They then waste your time asking you about your CV rather than reading themselves. They are glorified telemarketers and just like telemarketers, waste 99% of peoples time. You are better off approaching companies directly.


"Experience" is a very vague and ill-defined concept and HR departments attempt to oversimplify it. They want a simple heuristic that they can use to judge and categorize people in an attempt to make their jobs easier. Consider that there is a huge variance in a person's ability to process and learn information. So, for people with different learning abilities, the number of years of experience is a particularly worthless heuristic. Just keep this in mind when writing your resume and during interviews.

A more precise measure would be to administer some sort of exhaustive skill test to applicants, but this is rarely done. I suppose the interview is meant to accomplish some of this, but even it has it's negatives. For one, some talented people simply don't test well and they get nervous or simply can't handle on the spot type situations very well. That doesn't mean they won't make good developers. Even tight timelines occur on a timescale of hours, not minutes (the length of a typical interview).

Just remember the point of all this is to convey information. That means you need to account for how other people are going to interpret what you say. Particularly with such vague concepts, I think the essence of what is communicated is the most important thing. If you keep getting offers for jobs you are uncomfortable with, just drop the number of years of experience.

Consider too, you may just suffer from a lack of confidence.

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