I heard companies don't look at portfolios

18 Feb 2020

I recently came across a comment online from a developer questioning the value of creating a professional portfolio because “recruiters don’t look at them”. I want to offer a different perspective in case you’ve come across that opinion.

While not all companies value portfolios, many do.

I believe it’s true that some (typically large) companies do not look at portfolios. Some companies have a very structured recruiting process which forces them to use a “lowest common denominator” approach to gathering candidate information. Since not all candidates will have a portfolio, they simply ignore that information from those who do.

I can tell you from direct personal experience, however, that many companies do look at professional portfolios. I know this because I am contacted several times per year by recruiters or company representatives who tell me that they have been looking at the professional portfolios associated with our students. Another source of evidence is the book Cracking the Coding Interview, which recommends the development of a professional portfolio as an integral part of the interview preparation process.

I suspect that the smaller and more personal the company, the more likely it is they will try to gather as much information as they can about you. And in these situations, having a professional portfolio will place you apart from the candidates who don’t have one. And smaller companies are often the ones which work on more interesting problems and/or can provide you with more autonomy and the ability to work on more modern technology.

Portfolios help you prepare for the behavioral component of an interview.

High tech interviews normally have a “behavioral” component. This is when the interviewer asks you questions like:

The standard advice is to practice “canned” answers to those questions. But what about a situation in which a interviewer asks you one of these questions with respect to a specific project?

In that case, your carefully rehearsed answer goes out the window unless you’re lucky and you prepared it for the specific project they’re questioning you about.

So, regardless of whether a company looks at your portfolio, another reason to create one is to give you a chance to work through these behavioral questions for each of your projects in advance and while they are still fresh in your mind. A good project description will explain what was accomplished in the project, what your own personal contribution to that project was, what challenges you faced, how you grew as a result professionally and/or personally, and how you might want to enhance that project in the future. By writing out a project description in your professional portfolio, you effectively practice the behavioral questions and thus are more prepared for the interview.

Your professional portfolio gets you a better recommendation letter from professors.

You’re going to need some recommendation letters. And in most cases, at least one of them will come from a professor. In many cases, the professor has only worked with you in the context of one class, and that might have happened a few semesters back.

If the professor only has your resume and LinkedIn profile to look at, it will be hard for them to write a very compelling recommendation letter. They probably don’t remember the project that you worked on, or any specifics of your personal involvement with the project for the class. They only have a dim recollection of your presence and the grade that you received, which is not a lot to work with in order to write a good recommendation letter.

This is where a professional portfolio can be a lifesaver for the professor, and in turn get you a much better recommendation letter. All you have to do is create a project description for the final project in that class where you detail what the project was, what you contributed to it (if it was a group project), what you learned, what challenges you faced, etc. Then when you ask the professor for a recommendation, you can send them the link to your professional portfolio to “remind them” about your involvement in their class.

But I don’t have anything interesting to put in my professional portfolio!

Some of you might be reading this and thinking: That’s all fine and good but I don’t really have anything interesting to put in my portfolio! So none of this applies to me.

No, all of this applies to you in spades. The final way that a professional portfolio is useful is that it enables you to assess the quality of your degree experience and what you’re getting out of it, and take control.

You should be striving to add one project to your professional portfolio each semester and one during each summer. Every semester, there should be at least one class in which you produce a final project of sufficient complexity and quality for inclusion in your professional portfolio. Every summer you should engage in a task which produces something of note for inclusion in your professional portfolio.

I understand that this can sound scary and difficult. I suspect that one reason for this fear is that it requires you to actively engage with your degree program and educational process. You can’t just passively consume the coursework, which is the default mode of our educational system. And perhaps that’s the most important reason of all.