Developing a Professional Portfolio

© 2005 Johanna Rothman.

You don't have to be an artist to put together a presentation that wows them.

Normally, I speak to hiring managers, but this column is for candidates. If you've been working for more than a few years, or have moved, it's easy to lose track of previous managers or peers. And even if you could find some of those people, their companies may prohibit them from providing a substantive reference for you.

Luckily there is something that may work in lieu of a reference — you can develop a portfolio.

What is a portfolio?

Don't confuse a portfolio with a resumé. A resumé lists your accomplishments at each organization (in reverse chronological order, please). But a portfolio shows the work you've done.

A professional portfolio is a collection of your work accomplishments, using specific examples to show those accomplishments in much greater detail than a resumé. When my children were in preschool, the teachers collected their artwork to show us their growth and achievement over time. Now that they're in school, their grades are somehow supposed to replace the examples. But I found much more value in seeing their work evolve over the course of a year than just seeing grades on a report card. In the same way that parents can see children's accomplishments change, prospective employers can see your accomplishments grow and change.

How do I fill a portfolio?

Creating a professional portfolio is a quite a bit more complicated than your teacher's efforts in preschool. These steps should help you put one together that will impress prospective employers:

  1. List all your accomplishments and the significant skills sets you've learned in your current job.Now look through your work artifacts. Can you make a copy of any of those artifacts, removing specific names or dates, so that you can show an example of those accomplishments or earned skill sets? Decide if prospective employers need people's names, product names, or product dates. If you need to be specific, such as with dates for showing a prospective employer how your project management techniques helped a particular project, remove people, project, and product names.If you're a developer, do not take any code from work. You can make notes about how you implemented something or developer an algorithm, but do not take company-owned artifacts from work.

    Make a copy of the artifact and black out anything that could violate your non-disclosure.

  2. If you can, take pictures of products. Years ago, I developed an early box inspection machine vision system. I found that one picture of the lab prototype helped me explain what I had done to prospective managers who didn't understand machine vision. If you don't have pictures of products, consider using marketing material–but be clear with prospective employers about your role in creating the marketing material.
  3. Don't forget your non-work work. List all your volunteer and professional society work. You likely have different accomplishments through your volunteer work than you do in your paying job. Review any of those work artifacts, including emails and notes you've written. One of my colleagues facilitated his church's strategic planning. He was able to use minutes of the meetings in his portfolio. Another colleague organized his temple's membership database, winning him glowing emails from the people who used the database. He included the emails in his portfolio. Another colleague was particularly proud of her accomplishments as a program chair for a local professional society. She included the list of speakers and the changes she'd made in how the society approached speakers and recognized them.

Continue this for each of your jobs, stopping when you think you have enough material in your portfolio to represent your value.

For those of you who are still in or have recently graduated from college, see if you can find those college recommendations. You can start populating your portfolio with those.

How do I organize it all?

When you create a paper portfolio, select a clean folder or three-ring binder. (You don't need an artist's portfolio unless you are an artist or have large-scale drawings to show others.) Organize the portfolio either in chronological order (my preference) or by accomplishment. I find it easier to review portfolios along with the resumé so I can see how recent the accomplishment was. On the other hand, if you're a professional such as an architect or a lawyer, you may want to group certain kinds of architecture or cases together.

Some people, especially developers, prefer to use a personal website rather than a paper portfolio. It doesn't matter what you use, as long as it's easy for other people to find your website and your electronic portfolio. A website is particularly good for people who've written articles and papers. Your articles and papers will attract potential employers, not just be your portfolio.

If you blog professionally, remember that your blogging is part of your professional portfolio. Even if you blog just for the joy of writing, remember that a blog with your real name is part of your portfolio–whether you want it to be or not.

Using your portfolio

Writers, models, and actors are accustomed to providing portfolios when they meet to discuss new jobs. It works the same way for you. Once you've created your portfolio, have the portfolio handy when you talk to prospective employers during a phone screen. Bring it with you for an in-person interview.

Your portfolio can help you stand out from the crowd. It can provide a prospective employer more examples of your work, and starting points for detailed discussions during an interview.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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