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Creating a Work Portfolio

Interview tips for engineers and computer scientists

By Jebra Turner

When up against scores of other qualified candidates for plum positions, students need to find a way to stand out in a crowded field. The best way is to present a work portfolio to prospective employers, contends Jake Newton, a senior recruiter at Seattle-based Aerotek, a technical staffing firm.

“Maybe one out of every 10 people I see uses a portfolio,” he says, “but the ones who do are miles ahead of the rest.” Newton describes one success story: A civil engineering student created a Web site showcasing his projects. The student was able to avoid sending employers a ho-hum resume, and instead emailed them a link to his online portfolio. “All the employers were blown away,” says Newton. He quickly scored a coveted placement, even though a more qualified candidate may have been hidden in the pile of text-only resumes in the employer’s in-box.

Martin Kimeldorf, author of the book Portfolio Power, urges students to consider using a portfolio. He calls resumes “a valentine to yourself” because they’re often too inner-focused and self-serving. “Employers don’t believe what they read in resumes anymore. Most of the time they don’t read them in advance, and even if they do, they don’t study them closely,” he says. “Employers ask for a resume, so interviewees feel like they have to go into an interview with one.” But a good work portfolio can provide visual evidence to back up your verbal and written claims of competency.

“A person with a portfolio has a major advantage,” says Kate Duttro, a career services coordinator at the University of Washington. She explains that we may be hardwired to remember pictures and narratives. “Anthropologists know that humans sat around the campfire telling stories long before they developed a system of written communication,” she asserts.

It’s a stereotype that technically oriented students are all introverts, but most people do feel a bit of social anxiety during the job hunt. A portfolio  “makes it easier—especially for shy people—to express their personality,” says Kimeldorf. Because it’s a visual medium, a portfolio can “say” eloquently, what you may have a hard time putting into words, he adds.

What Is a Career Portfolio?

A portfolio is a powerful tool for engineers and computer professionals. It can be housed online in a digital format, on a CD, in a slide show, or even in a funky VideoMaster format. A work portfolio is whatever helps you get an interview, job offer, wage raise or promotion.

What type of portfolio is best for you? Cynthia L. Baron, associate director of the digital media programs and multimedia studies at Northeastern University in Boston says, “A computer engineer shouldn’t show something like an artist’s portfolio. Unless you are a remarkably talented artist as well as a technical whiz, you’ll place yourself into the wrong competitive category. Generally, an on-line portfolio—or a browser-based portfolio presented locally—is your best choice.”

Other portfolio specialists say there is no best way; it depends on the context. “I differentiate between an online portfolio and an interview portfolio [which may be the online version presented as a print-out]. An interview portfolio is easiest on paper,” says Duttro, “otherwise you have to take a computer or find one.” He explains that recruiters don’t often search online for entry-level candidates, and that they don’t have time to visit an online portfolio before the interview. Duttro further cautions that if you decide to stick to a digital format, be sure you avoid these common recruiter turn-offs:

  • Hard-to-navigate Web sites

  • Slow-loading pages or graphics

  • Anemic or untargeted content

  • School-sponsored portfolio sites (too education-centric)

Portfolio Guide

When creating a portfolio, you should start to compile a collection of samples that you can pick and choose from for each interview, Duttro advises. “Also, think about when you’ve used your problem-solving abilities or creativity to make things work better. If you apply for a job that requires you to put together a database, you can open your portfolio and pull out an example. You can say, ‘This was done as a project in class. My part of the project was ABC. We had one tricky problem, and this is how we solved it. Here’s what I did...’”

Make sure you’re confident about your collected items. They should be examples that you have deep knowledge of and that you enjoyed, otherwise, it’s not an honest portrayal of your personality and skills.

What if you don’t have many examples that illustrate skills or competencies that meet those standards? If you’re sure that you would be a good candidate for a job, go ahead and create an item that showcases your talent. “Show a spec job [project done ‘on speculation,’ without an assignment from a teacher or employer] that solves a problem you believe the company may want to solve,” advises Kimeldorf.

Monica Nucciarone, a career specialist at Pierce College in Lakewood and Puyallup, Wash., advises students to pack a portfolio with “a thank-you note or two, awards, certificates, recommendation letters, emails, evaluations, and any other example of work created that shows competency.” These pieces can be packaged with a title page, table of contents, and six to 10 pages of content. Each page should include a title, graphic and narrative summary.

Many job applicants are hesitant to toot their own horns, by including awards and accolades. But some recruiters now insist on such evidence, since they can’t always get references from employers. Many companies, fearful of lawsuits, will only provide scanty verification—”Yes, she worked here from x date to y date, her job title was z, and she’s eligible for re-hire.” So, if an applicant for a technical sales position claims to have been rated #1 in sales for a summer job, the recruiter may require proof. Some examples: a photo of the sales plaques hanging in the lobby, or an employee newsletter article about you, or the check stub that shows a big bonus for blowing your sales target out of the water. Don’t think of yourself as immodest for including such flattering material; you’re just being factual. “Always include evidence of your ability to do the job in question,” says Duttro. “If the testimonial letters and award certificates are relevant evidence of your ability to do the job in question, include them.”

You should also keep your portfolio authentic and consistent. Susan Emmons, professional practices instructor for University of Oregon recounts a time when she sat on a scholarship committee. They were extremely impressed with a particular portfolio sample, but passed over that applicant for the scholarship. The rest of the portfolio didn’t support the stellar sample, which was mediocre, and they suspected that the work wasn’t his own.

Besides keeping the quality of samples consistent so that no one piece jumps out, another way to establish authenticity is to show your train of thought or progression during various phases of the project. If you show the initial rough sketches, then a CAD drawing, and finally a photo of the finished piece, for instance, it’s easier to believe that you didn’t crib someone else’s design.

The Interview: Your Time to Shine

The best way to incorporate your portfolio into the interview is during the typical give-and-take of conversation. Some students, before actually pulling out their portfolio, are afraid that the interviewer won’t want to see their samples or will be bored by then. Not likely. “However,” Duttro warns, “don’t present the portfolio until a relevant question comes up. When it does, open it saying, ‘I have an example of that [skill being questioned].’ When finished, close the portfolio and wait for the next question.”

If you decide to show an online portfolio during the interview, practice until your presentation until it is smooth as silk. Bring your own laptop, and call ahead to make logistical arrangements. (They may not have wi-fi or an easily accessible high-speed connection in the interview room, for instance.) Carry printed pieces as a back-up in case you run into a technical glitch.

Provide interviewers with a sneak peek, if they have the time and interest to preview your online portfolio. “If you’re applying for a position in game design and you have a fully-functioning game or demo to show, send it ahead of the interview,” Baron advises. (Always download...never send attachments unless the interviewer requests it that way.)” This will give people the chance to see how you think,” says Baron.

There’s no guarantee that even a full-blown printed or digital portfolio will make a powerful case for you. After all, the pages are still representational not actual touch-and-feel samples. Duttro recalls an out-of-work electrical engineer with special expertise in electric motors. “His outplacement consultant suggested that he take one of the really small motors along with him to interviews,” she says. “When he took the motor out of his briefcase and set it on the desk, the hiring manager immediately put his hands on it. They started talking colleague to colleague—it changed the tone of the interview.”

Make it Short and Sweet

“I once had a student who never seemed to be on anyone’s short list,” remembers Baron, “even though he was technically savvy and hard-working. He presented his portfolio to me, and I understood why. He tried to show everything he’d ever done. I suggested that he eliminate all but two or three projects and get his presentation down to ten minutes. He grumbled but eventually agreed to try it. He starting getting callbacks, and soon landed a position. The moral: You have to respect an interviewer’s time.”

“Less is more,” Kimeldorf concurs. “Better that you show two startlingly good samples than 10 samples that bore me.” As evidence, he points to an engineer laid off from one paper mill and applying at the only other mill in town. He brought just two pieces of paper to his interview—before and after samples to show the manufacturing improvements he’d spearheaded. He got the job.

What to Include

One of the advantages of having a physical work portfolio is that you can drop it off before the interview. Be sure to show up in person at a time when the recruiter is likely to be there—early or late in the day is generally best. Ask to speak to the recruiter briefly before leaving your portfolio. (You’ll likely get five minutes or so to introduce yourself and explain your interest in the position.) Do the same thing a few weeks later when you stop by to pick up your portfolio. You’ll have a leg up over anonymous applicants who only mailed an application. Recruiters see so many applicants they have a hard time keeping them all straight. So seeing you and your portfolio twice (in addition to any interview) will make you unforgettable.

One caveat: While it’s nice to leave a portfolio behind, cautions Duttro, “never leave any of your originals. If you plan to leave it behind, get good color copies of any originals, but still make arrangements to return to pick up the copy.”

It’s Not Over Until it’s Over...

“Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up,” says Baron. “Always send a thank-you email as soon after your interview as possible, with any URLs or additional info that the interviewer may have requested. Write it in advance and make sure that it is spell-checked so you can maintain a professional appearance.” A link to an online sample or portfolio is also good leave-behind piece, and easy to share with others involved in the hiring decision, she adds.

Plan to keep in touch—even if you feel like a pest doing it—until you hear one way or the other. Showing that you’re persistent (and consistent) could make all the difference.

But don’t pin all your hopes on any one opening, either. Keep busy with interviews, even if they are just informational interviews. “Take your portfolio around to people in the industry and have them evaluate it,” says Kimeldorf. “A portfolio is even better than a resume as a networking tool because it gives professional contacts (as well as friends, family, alumni, etc.) more to look at.”

Jebra Turner is a free-lance writer living in Portland, Ore.


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