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Plot twist! Your portfolio isn’t about you…

Plot twist! Your portfolio isn’t about you…

For developers, portfolios have become more commonplace. Which in itself is a wonderful thing. It’s a great tool to showcase your work and your passion. I even believe it’s one of the best investments you can make as a developer. Especially if you’re starting out. But, I made a mistake when I created mine years ago. I wish I could go back and do things again. Because there is something that I’d change.
When I started work on my portfolio I had nothing to my name. No projects I’d worked on and no experience. So I started creating some. I created things like plugins that were of no real use to anyone except me. I wrote some blogs but never spent any real time trying to make them useful as such. On reflection I realised I missed a huge opportunity.
One of the main difficulties for developers is getting too caught up in the technology. It happens even to the best of us. Books like The Lean Startup exist because it’s too easy to forget that we’re building for other people. We soon become obsessed with how stuff looks from the inside and not how it gets received by the user. For recruiters a portfolio of code that “works” but isn’t useful risks sending the wrong signal.
As software developers we have the opportunity to do some cool things for the world. To contribute and to give back. This is not only an altruistic idea, but it’s the way the economy grows and it’s the way we progress as communities. It gives us more satisfaction and greater insight into the mechanics of business.
When looking for jobs the best tactic is always to “show” not “tell”. Show me your passion, show me your code skills, show me you understand users and requirements. Show me, don’t tell me.
We should be endeavouring to create work that makes an impact on lives beyond our own. This doesn’t mean we have to build the next Facebook. But we should strive to build things that are useful. It doesn’t matter if we fail to achieve this. It matters that we’re thinking and empathising with others to solve real problems.
When it comes to a portfolio the best things you can include are those centred around giving back. Instead of creating demo apps that no-one will use let’s make something awesome. Something that Seth Godin would call a Purple Cow. Not one of those boring brown cows, but something that will make your head turn.
After all, the companies that we’re trying to impress hinge off this one idea. They rely on us, software developers to make something their users love. In return the users pay with loyalty or with currency. That’s what makes the world spin. It’s the reason we’re lucky enough to even have a job (or the prospect of one).
Instead of making portfolio’s full of example and unused code. Why not showcase all the answers you’ve given on StackOverflow? Or write a blog … not an online diary, but a blog aimed at creating information and giving value? What about creating documentation for a library? Or an online course? Create a plugin that you believe is useful. But don’t stop there. Push to get users, push to get feedback and improve the service. It’s painful, but rewarding. This whole blog exists because I wanted to flip my own perspective and I wanted to deliver better value.
It doesn’t matter if what you create is only received by one person. But it’s your intent: to create something useful and to contribute. By doing this you showcase not only technical skills. But the ability to emphasise, market an idea, find users, define user needs, gather feedback.
Building for others is no guarantee of success. But it might get you more exposure. It’ll definitely get you more exposure than an about page and some demo apps. That’s guaranteed.
The idea is simple: Go out and use your skills to make something centred around helping others. The results will be far better if you do. For you and for those you build, write or draw for. I’m not saying it will be easy. But your intent to make an impact will be obvious. And that’s endearing. That’s valuable.
Lou Bichard

Cofounder of Hacktopia and software developer based in London.

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