Artists have one. Web designers have one. Writers have one. Should you?
A portfolio, I mean. Concrete examples of your past work that you can show to prospective employers.
This can be a tough question for a lot of people. There’s a number of concerns that get raised when you might want to capture examples of your work.
- What I produce is confidential to my current employer. Despite this, you may have examples which are not confidential. This would be a great reason why you ALWAYS want to capture anything you have published in a public context – on a website, in a magazine, even a contribution to an industry discussion group. Of course, you realize that employers will probably find this just by Googling your name and look at your LinkedIn/Facebook pages – so why not be proactive and have this available as an example of how you can contribute?
- I don’t produce flashy stuff. Employers probably aren’t looking for flashy. If you’re an accountant, they wouldn’t expect (or want) you to present yourself like an artist. So look for things which are representative of the contributions you could make to future employers, even if they wouldn’t look stunningly artistic.
- Nobody else would understand the jargon and detail. I’ve actually had a few occasions where I took the trouble to “clean up” what I thought was a good example. You have to tell people that’s what you’ve done, of course, otherwise they might think that you’re not sensitive to protecting confidential information, or don’t know the insider jargon. So if you have an example you think might be good, maybe just a page long, go through and change all the terms to a generic equivalent, and change data to Xs, underscores, or fuzz it out if you’re capturing a screen shot. Then add a little note that “the details have been obscured” so people are aware of what you’ve done.
- The value of my work isn’t captured in written form. A very powerful substitute can be testimonials which talk about the value that you’ve provided to your company. This is a bit different from a letter of recommendation, which many people don’t even bother to read anymore. Instead, a testimonial should talk about a SPECIFIC contribution, how you delivered REAL and TANGIBLE value in a way that BENEFITED your employer. This is the same kind of letter that you’d like to have captured for your personnel record, to help you advance inside your current company. The best testimonials will also be dated and signed, so that the author has some accountability to stand behind his or her words. When you use this externally, you might have to replace the name with the person’s role relative to you (“Carl’s manager during the XYZ project”) and hope that other employers sympathize with your need to protect confidential information.
- This doesn’t represent a balanced view of what I do. That’s understandable, and even artists and writers can have this problem sometimes. But even if you have just a few examples, you’ll probably be far ahead of other job-seekers. And, most important, these help to steer the discussion toward your strengths and contributions, rather than the interviewer’s questions which might highlight weaknesses. A portfolio demonstrates your initiative, professionalism, and openness.
Are you interested in developing your own portfolio? Here’s how to get started:
- Identify tangible examples of your work that can be captured. Ideally these are short, clear, compelling examples which show you at your best. Sure, they might not represent ALL of what you do, even perhaps your MOST IMPORTANT work.
- Capture testimonials from others who have received value or evaluated your work. Ideally you’ll already have some of these in your e-mail archives or performance evaluations. But anytime you make a significant contribution, you should ask how you’ll be able to explain to future bosses why this was so important.
- Clean these up. Remove sensitive information, replace (or supplement) jargon with more generic terms, and obscure detail that’s probably not relevant anyway.
- Assemble into a package. Make sure you can give these to people on a moment’s notice in either paper or electronic form, so you won’t have to put in hours of work when you need something quickly. Have the package be flexible, though – you may want to pull out specific examples for certain situations, or to re-order what the person sees to give them the most positive impression.
I would not propose that you send your portfolio along with your normal job application, unless the employer is open to adding attachments, or you can just add a URL to a website that contains your information. If a job screener is expecting a two page job application, they’ll probably be turned off by a twenty page package. You’ll look desperate.
People like to see examples – it makes for an interesting discussion. And they can shift the employer’s mindset from “this guy SAYS he can do this” toward “now I KNOW he can do this.”
It really helps your credibility.
by Carl Dierschow