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The great portfolio debate

The battle rages on.

There are more grains of sand in the Sahara than there are opinions on whether you need a portfolio, but just barely. When it comes to the great portfolio debate, here’s what to consider before diving in.

Abbey Charles
Abbey Charles
· 5 min read

We’ve all been there: you’re really stoked to find a job where you perfectly fit the description of their ideal candidate. You tailored your resume to the role, wrote a cover letter (Do these even get read? Who knows, better safe than sorry!), uploaded everything, and click through to the next screen…PLEASE SHARE A LINK TO YOUR PORTFOLIO. 

Panic sets in.

“I don’t even have a personal site.”
“My portfolio was last updated in 2017, and that tech is all old.”
“Almost every git commit I made for the last two years is in a private repository.”
“What the hell does a back-end dev have to show in a portfolio?”

Why are they asking?

Now one obvious explanation, for at least a couple scenarios, is that the person who wrote the job description may not understand that a portfolio is unnecessary for the job they’re advertising. We find things like this often happen with recruiters and HR departments who don’t have much technical knowledge. To them, if you work on the web, your work should be available to view on the web, right? 

In other scenarios, it might be perfectly acceptable to request one, like if you’re applying for a UI/UX position that relies heavily on front-end interactions and visuals. The varying degrees of complexity in what one can accomplish means it makes sense that they want to see if your button clicks through correctly, or if it clicks through correctly AND an explosion of congratulatory confetti rains down from the proverbial sky. 

A portfolio is a way to share the work you do for others to see, plain and simple. But just because the “why” is an easy explanation doesn’t mean the requester really understands what to look for.

When does a portfolio make sense?

There are a couple reasons why having a portfolio is a good idea. The obvious one is that you get to showcase your best work, and present that as a complete package to a prospective client or company. You can easily gloss over the work you’re not proud of, or omit work from a client you had to fire. Yes, we all want to be proud of all of the work we’re doing, but that’s just not reality.

Another really great reason to have a portfolio at the ready is if you’re the type of person who is better at showing than you are at telling. It’s so easy to send over your work and say “hey, take a look at this and let me know what you have questions about,” than it is to walk through every step of the process, where key details may slip through the cracks because you need to paint a broad picture. With a portfolio of your work, they can look through things at their own pace and give you the opportunity to give an in-depth explanation on the aspects they find most interesting.

The last one we already alluded to: when your position is heavy on the design side. While someone who architects APIs would be hard-pressed to present the solution they created for a financial app, the React dev who built the calculator on the front page can easily share the results of their work without revealing any trade secrets. The portfolio makes more sense for one of these people.

When should you skip it?

Is your work experience on the thin side? Is your work something that’s easily presentable? Does your personal site tell a potential client or employer anything you can’t describe in words?

It’s entirely possible to get to the later stages of your career with a single company, meaning the work you’re showing will feel repetitive or underwhelming, despite the ways you know you’ve grown over time. If you’re heavy on the back end, your work might not even make sense without also having to incorporate the work of front end devs. Maybe your site is just a rehash of everything that’s on your resume, and there’s not a ton of value in having something separate.

It’s common for junior developers to create a portfolio site, dump a ton of work into it, and have it come out just meh. Mid- to senior-level devs know their time is better spent in other ways, and tend to move away from these types of projects as they grow in their career.

Okay, so what do I do?

The fact of the matter is that when hiring, managers DO look at provided portfolios. What they don’t do, however, is use them as a benchmark for hiring. While 95% of them will look, only 15% say it has any load bearing on whether a candidate is brought on.

At the very base level, a personal portfolio shows that you know how to build a static website, that you can communicate pretty clearly, and what parts of your personality shine through. They don’t show how you write code, or how you interact with coworkers, or how you problem-solve, all of which will be more useful metrics.

If you have work you want to showcase, and can speak to it on the site, then go ahead and spin something up. If your work can’t really be seen, but you have a blog that speaks to the more technical aspects of your work, a personal site makes a lot of sense. 

Wrap up

A portfolio site will not make or break you in the job hunt. If you do build one, make sure it’s a complete and accurate representation of your work and the kind of coworker you are. The easiest alternative is to keep your GitHub portfolio up to date, even if those precious green squares are going to disappear with your banishment from the current company’s repository. Just don’t spend more time stressing out because you don’t have one. Click “Submit” and get that job.

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