How to stand out when Interviewing – Part 5: Build Your Portfolio


This post talks about building a portfolio for when you are interviewing, which is the perfect compliment to the previous post, where we learned how to write our base resume. A great portfolio can really highlight exactly what value you bring to the table by showcasing your talents. An interviewer can more easily see how you fit into their organization when they have an example of your work.

Types of Portfolios

Building a portfolio is a great way to give them a visual example when interviewing of your thought process and the quality of your work. If you work in software development, for example, you could show your interviewers software projects on GitHub that you are working on, so that they can get a feel for the quality of your code. This also shows them that you aren’t afraid of having someone else look through your code. This is something that I’m working on myself, and you can see the projects I’m working on by going to my GitHub profile.

Another part of your portfolio could be a blog. A blog is a great way to show how you think about and what you think about the industry you are in, and you can garner a bit of a following by posting regularly and staying informed on topics you are interested in. You can show off tutorials of how to utilize a technology (such as memcache or Ruby on Rails). A great example of this is Ryan Bates’ RailsCasts, which covers how to utilize a wide range of Ruby on Rails capabilities and associated gems in a video blog format. Ryan can get a Rails job just about anywhere he wants to because of his videos.

Photographers do it right (generally)

My favorite entrepreneur-ish type that needs a portfolio is a photographer. People hire photographers for one reason: to take amazing photos that capture a certain moment just right. Photographers absolutely need a portfolio, because their careers live and die by the quality and evidence of their work. Seeing a great portfolio with well designed and well framed photographs really captures the abilities of the photographer and entices people to inquire about their services. A lot of photographers have profiles on websites like Flickr and DeviantArt. Another popular option is for a photographer to have their own personal website where you can see some of their work.

The reason I wanted to point out photographers especially is because you look at their work and can get a solid feel for how they frame shots and what they like to highlight or expose. If a shot looks flat and there’s not a clear subject, that can tell you that this photographer may not be someone you want to choose, whereas if something vividly stands out and catches your eye in a certain way, this photographer may be just what you are looking for.

I’ve got some things to include in my portfolio, now how do I use this when interviewing?

So, you’ve got a blog, some software projects, maybe some video tutorials, and now you are thinking, “What do I do with this? How can I accent my skills with this when interviewing?” As I’ve said in previous posts, you’ll want to include things that are relevant to the job. Make sure that what you choose to include is publicly accessible and that security settings aren’t an issue (Ryan Bates wouldn’t want to include Pro material if the interviewer didn’t have a pro account). Also, make sure that you have the rights to be able to showcase it. You may get bogged down in legal issues if you break a contract by showing client-only material or violate an NDA by talking about company secrets or intellectual property.

Let’s say for instance you have the following items to include in your portfolio and you are going for a job at Remember The Milk or RescueTime:

  • A couple of github projects:
    • A small utility to transform a folder of MP3s into an ISO to be burned.
    • A utility to darken the screen outside of the focused app to help you concentrate.
    • A project that schedules reminders and prompts you when certain things have occurred.
  • Some blog posts that talk about productivity and focusing on tasks, building sustainable habits, a recent trip you took to China, and a short series on how to take better photographs.
  • Some youtube videos demonstrating your github projects in action, other productivity tools you use, and a video of a monkey on your trip to China.

You could wrap the productivity related items of your portfolio up when applying to a company like Remember The Milk or RescueTime to show them that you aren’t just applying to the company because it’s a job that you qualify for, but that being more productive and getting things done have been actual interests of yours for a long time, so you have a genuine interest in making their product better. You have a long-standing interest in products and technologies similar to what they work on, and it comes across. You also have experience with other tools and can bring a well-informed opinion to the table when new features are considered. This is a decent portfolio.

For a better portfolio, let’s say you are applying for a company that has a culture of spending the time to do something the right way, as in they want to write high-quality software, such as a medical device company. You could wrap up blog posts about Test Driven Development, Dependency Injection, how you practice principles you learned from your Software Craftsmanship group, etc. And, because you were really on top of your game, you published all the code for those blog posts on GitHub. You could also show them how you got a beginner’s course about implementing DRY principles published on PluralSight. Rather than just being a candidate that said they are driven by writing quality code, you have examples and social proof to back it up.

One last thing to note is that you should start this as soon as you can, before you start looking for a new position ideally. You don’t want them to see that a huge flurry of content was created in the past month that you’ve been looking for a job, but rather that this has been a long process of genuine self-interest and you’ve been sharing what you’ve learned willingly, not just because you need to get a new job.

If you found value in this content, I encourage you to read the rest of the posts in this series about how to stand out when interviewing:

  1. Picking a new PositionOne of the biggest problems people encounter when they are looking for a new job is, “What do I look for now? Should I get the same job somewhere else? Should I try to move up? What if I’m not qualified?!” In this post, we discuss a couple of methods you can use to help you get clarity in which direction you should head with your career.
  2. Gather Data about Yourself – This post discusses some ways you can use to get concrete insight on information you can use to prove your skills and experience throughout your job search.
  3. Craft your Theme – Once you’ve gathered the data, you should either see or develop some sort of trend in your work. You should also try to craft this theme to fit into your overall career goals. Your theme should provide a narrative behind where your career has been and where you are proactively directing it.
  4. Writing your Base Resume – I recommend you write a base resume to help you get a solid grasp of the direction you want to head with your career. This post discusses an approach I take to doing this.
  5. (You are here) Build your Portfolio – By providing a portfolio of your work, you not only tell the person or company you are interviewing with that you are awesome, but you give them examples of your work so that they can investigate it for themselves.
  6. Practicing Interviewing – With this post, we talk about some methods you can use to practice interviewing.
  7. Picking the Companies to interview – In this post, we’ll talk about picking the right companies to interview with so that you know how to tailor your resume.
  8. How to prepare for an interview – While you are waiting for companies to respond back asking for interviews, you should be breaking apart the job descriptions even further and writing down examples of work you’ve done previously to satisfy each requirement that they are listing. You should be also boning up on the basics of your potential job and the theory behind it.
  9. Common Interview Questions and Answers – You’ve made it this far and you’re starting to interview with companies. During each interview, you want to ask 3 specific questions which I’ll cover later in this article.
  10. Accepting a Job Offer – At the end of the interview process with each company, one of two (obvious) things will happen: rejection or acceptance. I’ll discuss how to deal with each one of them and where to go from there.
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