Should You Have a Portfolio: Regrets of a Single Tweet

Welp. Apparently I tweeted something yesterday that caused a small brushfire on Twitter. Since Twitter has a limit of character you can write, I wanted to take what i’ve learned and expand on it here. First, here’s the tweet:

Seems like a pretty harmless statement. Turns out it was pretty, um. hurtful. This has gotten the worst reaction I could have imagined. It’s funny that having over 1,000 likes on a tweet is usually a cause for celebration, but in this case there are so many people who are so upset about the idea of a portfolio, and they way I worded it, that I kind of wish I didn’t tweet it at all.
So there you go… for those of you wondering “but do I really have to do twitter, to?” No, you don’t. You certainly don’t.
Anyway, I’m not here to lick my wounds. I want to turn this into a learning/teaching moment. First, I’ll deconstruct that tweet, and offer less offensive alternative wording. Then I want to talk about portfolios for any role, not just for front end devs.

Deconstructing and Rewriting the “PLEASE have a portfolio” tweet

I think a different way of writing this that would have been less incendiary would have been:

If you are a front end developer or designer, and you can, consider creating an online portfolio. As a hiring manager I am looking at a lot of criteria as I evaluate candidates. Being able see some of your work, or thoughts, is very helpful.

Whew. If only I had Hermione’s time turner, and I could go back and edit that tweet. Alas, I can’t. And I don’t think I should delete it.
A lot of the backlash I got was that front end developers do not have any control of, or say in, what the front end actually looks like. They are given specs by interface designers who are usually artistic, as well as UX designers, who may not be as artistic but focus on what they want a user to do. A front end developer is not a front end designer, and since they might have no control over what the page or app should look like, they shouldn’t be responsible for the visuals.
This might shock people who were really upset about my tweet, but I agree. And reading through the comments made me realize that the message I want to share about portfolios for job seekers is applicable to people who don’t have anything visual to show. More on that below.
Even though a front end developer might not have control over what a design looks like, they can (and I think should, if they have time) have a portfolio. I think a big part of the problem with that tweet is how people interpret “portfolio.” More on that below.
The next part… my original tweet said, “When I evaluate front end devs it’s one of the first things I look for.” Just like when a recruiter, hiring manager, VC, HR pro, or whoever looks for a resume/CV and/or a LinkedIn profile. I softened that statement to say:

As a hiring manager I am looking at a lot of criteria as I evaluate candidates. Being able see some of your work, or thoughts, is very helpful.

I am a hiring manager. I am also a CEO, and have a lot of responsibilities. I am not a full time hiring manager, and I’ve never been trained in it. I haven’t taken classes, I haven’t worked as a recruiter, and I haven’t read books on how to build your workforce. All the same, I am involved in the decision making process.
I remember reading somewhere that most hiring happens from small and medium sized businesses. I can’t imagine that I am very different than most of the people involved in the hiring process: untrained, doing the best we can, and very time constrained.
There’s a lesson here.
It starts with: the job search (or, the hiring process) is broken. I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that. If you have been in the job search you have an intimate awareness of how broken it is. Just about every bit of the process is broken. If you have been invited to interview a candidate at your work, last minute, with no preparation or instructions, you should have a sense of just one of the broken parts of the job search.
I’m not going to represent all of the hiring managers. But I will say to job seekers that you should do whatever you can (ethical, moral, etc.) to get your next job. And if that means making it easier for a hiring manager to evaluate you, then make it easier!
What if I’m narrowed down my open position to five or ten candidates, and three of them have portfolios? I do as much research as I can about my short-listed candidates. For many, that’s a pretty weak LinkedIn portfolio and a decent-but-looks-like-the-rest resume. If you have a good portfolio, I’ll spend a few more minutes on that than I did on the other candidates… don’t you think that could be do your advantage? If you have a blog, where you talk about the breadth and depth of your skills, don’t you think I’d spend time on that, and learn more about you and what you think?

What is a Portfolio?

A portfolio historically is a visual collection of your work. Artists have portfolios… even if they don’t share them. Photographers have portfolios. Some web designers have portfolios, while others don’t because their clientele won’t allow them to.
Take this away: A portfolio is a communication tool.
I want to go up 30,000 feet. This might sound weird but, here goes: YOU are your portfolio. Everything I see from and about you is part of your portfolio.
Case in point: a lot of designers or front ends went to my Twitter bio, found JibberJobber, and then came back to the comments to comment on how it looked really old (implying probably, that my tweet had no validity because the front end looked outdated). Well, touché, I guess.
But really, my design on JibberJobber is outdated. And people are using that as a part of the whole of Jason Alba to make judgements. This is exactly what a hiring manager does.
For example, regardless of any role you are hoping to interview for, let’s say a recruiter finds your social media account and it is… let’s say, controversial. Here’s an easy one: let’s say you have some very strong political opinions and you share them on your social media account. They will take that into consideration, I guarantee you. You will become the far-left or far-right candidate. They likely won’t document that anywhere, but that will become a part of your brand. If the organizational culture is not aligned with your views, you might find you don’t get a call back.
Discrimination? Perhaps. Infringing on your right to free speech? Maybe. That’s for another blogger to write about. I’m just here to tell you that it is human nature to take all of these things, together, and make decisions. I’ve seen it many times. I have seen it on that fiery tweet I wrote… the one I didn’t mean to be fiery at all.
Anyway, you are the portfolio. Everything you present to me. From the tone of your communications (phone and email) I’ll learn about your communication skills, and perhaps a bit about your attitude. From your LinkedIn profile I’ll learn about your work history (hopefully) and companies that decided to hire you. Someone on that tweet thread said they didn’t need to have one, and have never looked at portfolios of others. In their Twitter bio they listed two major tech companies they worked for… that becomes a part of who you are. I might not see a portfolio from this person but just seeing the two companies, that are very difficult to get hired by, on his work history, speaks loud and clear.
The interview is another way for me to dig into your capabilities. I want to learn about your hard skills and competencies and your soft skills and cultural fit.  If you have  communicated the hard skills through other mediums (resume, LinkedIn profile, blog posts, articles, project examples, etc.) then I’ll likely spend less time digging into that, and can ask more questions that help me understand your soft skills and cultural fit.
Remember, I’m just one of millions of people, and I’m sure there are millions and millions of ways to approach this. This is not the gospel of hiring.
Back to that idea about soft and hard skills. Imagine I have two people I want to interview. One person has somehow quantified their hard skills. I can dig deeper into what they think, their professional breadth and depth, and get a really good idea (or at least make some strong assumptions) about their skills and experiences. I might ask some clarifying questions, just to make sure they were really involved in particular and complex problems, rather than just being on a team but sitting on the sidelines while someone else was the root of the solutions. But once I feel comfortable with their skills I’ll spend more time on other things (soft skills, cultural fit, would I like to work with this person).
Guess what? When there is no way for me to learn about your hard skills before an interview, two things might happen: First, I might not bring you into the interview. Ouch, right?
The reality is I might have a hundred resumes in front of me, and I’m looking for the ones that clearly meet my needs. You might be the best candidate out there but if you are not communicating that, you’ll look like the 70 or 80 other candidates that just don’t have what I need.
I’m sorry if that sounds too “gatekeepery” (another comment on the tweet), but that is how it works. I’m busy. Everyone I work with is busy. I’m not going to play detective on 100 resumes when I find 20 that probably meet my needs. I’ll dig deeper on those 20 than I would on the other 80 that end up in the trash bin.
One of my messages here is: Make it easy for the hiring manager, HR, and other influencers to do their job. 
If that means you have a website like this or this or this or this or this, then do it.
Building on the 30,000 view of “what is a portfolio,” especially for someone who’s work is not visual, what can it look like? I have a few ideas below (under “what if I don’t have time”), but let me ask the question another way:
How can I communicate my professional breadth and depth?
That question gets to the same thing a photographer gets to with their portfolio: showing their work, their capabilities, etc.
As a professional with non-visual proficiencies, expertises, experiences, etc. I strongly encourage you to blog. Groans, moans, wailing and gnashing of teeth, I know. Blogging is a whole other topic. This post is already too long to talk about the what and how to blog. But think about a blog as a tool to communicate your breadth and depth. You don’t have to blog about confidential things (yes, I hear you, person who works for the federal government or big bank). You don’t even have to commit to years of regular blogging. Perhaps you use the blog as a tool to write, say, 20 or 30 posts, to communicate what becomes your technical, non-visual profile.
This, by the way, is perfect for people who are front end developers but NOT designers. You know, the people who are saying, “But I have no control over visual appeal!” They are saying, as developers, they want to talk about code, and logic, etc., and not be judged on the visual appeal of a pretty portfolio.
Why not write about things front end devs should know about? This could be so different from one developer to another… at a small company a front end might be way more involved with UI and UX, whereas at a large organization the front end is given all of the UI and UX specs and implements them. You do you. Figure out your breadth and depth and write about it.
Same for a CFO. Same for a data scientist, a database administrator, a CEO… whatever your role, or the role you aspire to, write about the depth and breadth you can.
Oh wait… you hate to write? Then figure out how you might quantify your breadth and depth. Maybe that is in audio or video format (you could start your own YouTube channel and do short (or long, whatever) videos that help quantify your breadth and depth.
Imagine this: you are looking to hire someone for a role. You find out they have a YouTube channel, and click over to see they have dozens of videos talking about the experiences and expertise. I know this can come in all shapes and sizes, but what if the videos were titled like this:
How to solve the XYZ problem
Why this solution doesn’t always work
Three things I would have done differently
Get the idea?
Again, respect confidentiality, but you now have four ideas of ways to quantify your breadth and depth: visual, written, audio, video.
If those don’t work for you, I’m sure you could figure something out.

Is a Portfolio Required?

Nope. Big fat nope.
If I am looking for a photographer I’ll want to see a portfolio. However, if I have friends who strongly recommend a photographer, I’ll likely go with their recommendation, especially if my friends are critical thinkers and picky about their photographers.
As a hiring manager I have many data points I’m evaluating against. Here’s a list off the top of my head:

  • Timeliness. How responsive are you to my calls or emails? If I message you and don’t hear for two weeks I’m guessing you don’t care about the job anymore.
  • Your background. I hope to get a lot of this from your resume and LinkedIn.
  • How you think. I hope to get this from an interview, if you get to that stage. Hopefully I have smart interview questions that really get into this, instead of a list of “ten best interview questions for [role].”
  • Recommendations from others. The hidden job market is “hey, we have a new opening, do y’all know anyone who should be on our team?” This goes back to the photographer example.
  • How you act. I get this from the interview and perhaps asking around about you. If you are a jerk to anyone, come across as presumptuous, or I hear from asking around that you are not fun to work with, that will influence my decision.

If I were a recruiter I’d probably have a list of 100+ criteria I’m looking at. A portfolio might influence some of those, but it’s not required. And, there are other ways I can get the information I need, if you don’t have a portfolio.
This doesn’t apply to all job seekers. You need to weigh whether it applies to (a) your career field, and (b) to you, based on your time, etc.
Here’s the funny thing… we are preparing an offer letter to someone who didn’t have a portfolio.

What about confidentiality, privacy, NDAs, etc.?  (added 6:30pm)

I forgot this part when I was writing this novel/post earlier today. Lots of people talk about working in a highly confidential area. Actually, I brushed over it with this line, above:

“You don’t have to blog about confidential things (yes, I hear you, person who works for the federal government or big bank). “

So, don’t do a portfolio. Or… listen. I know techies are usually wicked-smart. Seriously, crazy smart. YOU are smart enough to figure this out. What if you change your thinking from “a portfolio is only to show stuff I’ve worked on, like a finished product or something that looks pretty” to “my portfolio is a communication tool to show my professional breadth and depth, even my interests, abilities, and if not breaching confidentiality, some of my work.”
I’m thinking of my friend-who-I’ll-not-name because I don’t want to drag anyone into this mess. My friend has done some very complex and awesome search technology for some massive (you would recognize the names) companies. Do you think he could add screenshots and code to a portfolio? Um… no. Definitely not. If he did, not only could he be in violation of an NDA (and be in legal hot water) but he would be showing anyone who saw it that if you hired him, the intimacies of your projects might be out on the intertubes for everyone to see. He needs to maintain trust from past employers as well as show he is trustworthy to future employers.
So, how could he communicate that he did some wicked-awesome stuff without showing you what he did?
Go ahead… you are smart. Think about it…. think about it… got it? Here’s an idea (I’m sure you could come up with others):
Talk about the problems faced, and the journey to the solutions, without in any way disclosing anything that violates confidentiality. (Watch out… the trick here might be not writing something you shouldn’t without a name while having the employer name on your LinkedIn profile). Be smart about this.
I talk about experiences from my past but I do it in a way that you can’t pin it on an employer.
Think about how you would walk someone through the problems/solutions in an interview. You don’t need the actual product you developed. You could make some generic mockups (imagine a generic mockup of a search function… pretty easy without violating NDA, right?), and then walk through the whole story. You could include some wicked-cool logic in your code, or architecture, or use of SQL, or whatever, right?
When you think about the portfolio as a communication tool and not a photo album, this stuff starts to make more sense.
BONUS: walking through the exercise of doing these things will help prepare you for better interviews.

Why did I tweet the Portfolio tweet?

The why is actually pretty important… it provides context to my message.
I have been looking for a front end developer and recently have been in interviews. One of the people we interviewed showed, on the interview, a couple of projects he had worked on. I immediately thought, “this should already be on a website or CV so I can look at these before the interview.”
If you have something you want to show, something you would show in an interview, maybe you put it in a portfolio? This could be the difference between even making it to the interview stage, or getting cut eliminated before interviews.

What if you just don’t have time to create a portfolio?

Then don’t. Nowhere did I say it was a requirement, or the main thing that influenced my hiring decision, or the only thing. If you don’t have time, then don’t create one.
However, if you can find a few hours, here’s what I’d recommend:

  1. Beef up your LinkedIn Profile. This has become the de facto portfolio for many people. It’s accepted as a sort of a portfolio, and it’s the place where many people will look to learn more about you. It should complement your resume, as well as go further into whatever you want a hiring manager, influencer, or decision maker to know about you.
  2. Search for portfolios of people with your job title. If you find any, study them. Look at their wording, their messaging, and their design.
  3. Consider an page. This is an easy way to create a one-pager that can have a very nice visual appeal. If you are a CFO, for example, you could create something that helps me understand your breadth and depth (in a different way, with a different tone, than a resume). Here’s an example… not on, but could easily be transferred to about me, of what a CFO would include. Is this a traditional portfolio? No. She’s not an artist. But it does the job.
  4. Brainstorm your breadth and depth. This could take a few hours, over many weeks, to get good enough. And, it’s harder than you might think. But you should be able to draw some boundaries around what your breadth and depth is, which also means you know what NOT to include. When you have this defined it will be easier to know what you should include (and exclude) from your portfolio.
  5. Create your mini-stories. This is one of the most powerful ideas I’ve come across in the last many years. Basically, you take a character attribute or skill or whatever you want to highlight, and you write a very short story around it. I like the PAR (problem-action-results) formula, which gives you maybe 3 sentences. The story puts some teeth into a claim. Contrast “I am a critical thinker” to “I am known as a critical thinker. One time I was brought into a project that was about to fail and I…”  The mini-story is very short, but much more powerful than just making a claim.

I know you are busy. I feel for all the people who said “I work all day and do family all night.” It’s not like I’m saying any of this stuff thinking you have a ton of time, and not sure what to do about it. But if you can carve out 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there, over time you should be able to create the content for your portfolio… whether that is on LinkedIn or or you actually buy your own site and make a page on your own. Not many people will do that, but.. ahem, remember the original tweet was for front end developers, many of whom should be able to do that pretty easily.

Should You Have a Portfolio Conclusion

So there you go. Portfolios. I hope you walk away from this thinking “I can do this.” And if you don’t want to, or can’t, or don’t need to, then no big deal. Like I said, it’s not THE thing that influences a hiring decision… it is one of many factors. If absent, that could be okay.