16 Aug 2016

How we created a puzzle for a resume

Because why not try to stump a potential employer?


Recently, I (lexi) had to update my resume. For various reasons, pyko and I agreed it would be a good idea to put a puzzle in there. I've pasted the relevant section below (please don't stalk me) - can you work out the answer?

Below the puzzle, I go through how we created it, the steps we went through and the dead-ends we hit. It was incredibly fun to invent a puzzle, and although we can always improve, we wanted to give you a little insight into the process.


Hobbies and Activiteas
  • Escape rooms (and puzzles of all sorts, especially in video games!). I co-run a review site at www.escaperoomreviews.org :)
  • Finished writing four novels, a few agents requested full manuscripts last eyar. Currently working on another novel.
  • Realning two languages other than English:
    • Mandarin: Intermediate oral and written skills
    • Cantonese: Elementary oral skills
  • Geadinr: mainly three genres—sci-fi, fantasy and non-fiction on occasion
  • Trevalling one planet: I’ve experienced escape rooms in Finland, Hong Kong and Spain (with more to come, I hope!)
  • Hiding an eight-letter keyword in the Hobbies and Activities section of my resume

So, did you work out the answer? I'll provide it at the very bottom of this post if you couldn't (or just couldn't be bothered).

pyko and I knew that we wanted to add in a puzzle from the beginning, but the question was, how would we include one in a resume without making it too unprofessional? We threw around ideas such as:

  • Giving a link to our site where the puzzle would begin. This was discarded because it would require both additional build and the person would need to access the internet - the puzzle should be self-contained within the resume.
  • Using the tried-and-true method of taking the first letter in each section. This was discarded because it's too simple and limits the message length, not to mention messes with the structure of what should be a mostly standard, professional document.
  • Using a cipher (like a Caesar shift) with certain bolded letters in the resume, or for a specific paragraph. This was discarded because it was way too obvious and required a lot of manual work - you really don't want the person reading your resume to do too much menial/repetitive work. The puzzle needs to be solved by making connections instead of trudging through the motions.

We went back and forth for quite a while. Finding a suitable message was also hard, because it can't be too long or too pandering. "Congratulations, you solved the puzzle!" is far too long, while "Thank you" or "You rock!" seems like you're trying to suck up to your potential employer - and let's be honest, all those messages are so boring.

In the end, we decided on the message after deciding on the puzzle. The moment of epiphany did not come with rays of glorious light. It simply came while I was sitting at pyko's dining room table, staring at the numbers on a box of toilet paper just inside her laundry door. Not Hollywood-worthy at all. I remember simply saying (spoiler alert, highlight to see the trick to the puzzle), "How about swapping two letters around and using those as the message?"

That was how we decided on an eight-letter keyword. It had to be an even number of letters because of the method. We also didn't want it to be too long, or too many words, because it should be something the person could keep in their head (or scribble on a small scrap of paper). And then I remembered something we'd briefly discussed with the potential employer, and that became the key word. I liked it because it showed that we'd personalised the resume just for them, while being a relatively neutral word.

The next problem was how to implement it. We originally considered the whole resume, but it required too much searching to be really effective. And you don't want someone poring over two whole pages of text, especially when the altered word could look like you didn't edit your resume properly before submission. So we decided to limit it to the "Hobbies and activities" section, which is pretty appropriate when you come right down to it.

The next step split the keyword into four pairs. The first two letters were one pair, the second two letters the next pair, and so on. We didn't want a jumble of letters - we hate trial and error puzzles. The solution should be obvious once you make the connection. It also meant we only had to indicate a single position for each pair of swapped letters.

Then we had to find the words that had the relevant letters. Surprisingly, we didn't have to change too much in the wording - all the words we needed were already there, one in each bullet point. That was a lucky break! We also had to number each pair, and originally had Roman numerals (1, 2, 3) instead of words (one, two, three) until pyko pointed out that it was way too obvious with the numerals.

We did have to reword a bit to fit in the numbers to indicate the ordering of the pairs. Initially, we replaced the word "two" (in the languages bullet point) with "three" to fit the third pair, even though there were only two languages. Our excuse was that the person reading the resume would know something was wrong and look at the numbers more closely. Then we discovered that we could swap the second pair of letters in the languages bullet point, and that was perfect. Number four was a lucky coincidence, and we had to do some rewording for numbers one and three (I do read more than three genres, and not very much non-fiction!).

The other aspect was the order of the swapped letters. We realised after we'd started implementing the puzzle that the swapped letters always had to be in the same order. Either the swapped order was the answer order for the pair, or the original, correctly-spelled order was the answer order for the pair. Mainly because we had trouble finding words to fit the correctly-spelled order, we opted for the swapped order. But I do think it works better that way, as you don't need to do an additional swap in your head.

Finally, we had to make it obvious there was a puzzle in there. Signposting for a puzzle is super important when you're not trying to do something like a hidden ARG or easter egg, and even more important when you're misspelling words in a professional document! So we put the final bullet point in to clearly tell the reader that there was, in fact, a puzzle here and what they needed to find. Also, because the keyword could be anything, we initially put some nearly invisible text that said "Find the teaword!" and overlaid the word "tea" over the "key" half of "keyword" in the final bullet point.

You won't see either of those here, because pyko came up with an even better idea the next morning - "Hobbies and activiteas". It was brilliant, perfect, and I wish I'd sent that version of the resume out. But time was of the essence, and you live and learn!

So there you go. This is how pyko and I approached puzzle design. We're still amateurs, I don't think that needs to be said, but it's a fascinating process nonetheless. And a lot of fun!

Did you get the eight-letter keyword?

Answer: EARLGREY

posted in misc by lexi