In today’s competitive software market, finding the right job can be tough. And even though the job market continues to grow, standing out from the host of other candidates is as challenging as ever. Technology workers tend to have relatively short tenures, which increases competition, since even programmers with good jobs end up having to move. Additionally, workers tend to get a raise when they get a new job, further incentivising the search for a role elsewhere. While an online presence isn’t absolutely mandatory, having a great digital footprint can make your profile stand out from the crowd. Not only that, a well-curated digital profile can attract interesting unsolicited offers and networking opportunities that you might not have otherwise discovered.
Create an online presence using LinkedIn or a landing page
If you’ve been a professional programmer for 3+ years and you have a LinkedIn account, the chances are you’re already being approached by recruiters, with many of these unsolicited offers being of low quality. In fact, some programmers have deactivated their LinkedIn accounts purely to avoid the daily deluge.
However, because the market for programmers is so competitive, elite firms such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook are also actively recruiting on platforms like LinkedIn. Firms like these are able to be a bit more selective regarding who they contact, but they are generally looking in the same places as everyone else. Therefore, to attract offers of good jobs at top organizations you’ll still need a profile that really stands out, even if it means attracting more low-quality offers than high-quality ones. C’est la vie.
So, if you’re hoping to attract any recruiters at all, you need something that will serve as your main profile. For most people this is LinkedIn, but it could also be a personal website. Whatever you choose to go with, it will need to be easily discoverable. This profile is where recruiters will go to learn about you and find the rest of your portfolio. It’s where they will form their first impression of you, so take it seriously.
Commit to quality
Your profile should include a flattering, high-resolution picture of your face. Humans are strongly wired to associate with faces, much more than a name on a piece of paper or in an email. A good picture will make you memorable and endear you to recruiters and hiring managers. Your profile should also include clear and concise descriptions of your previous work. Recruiters and hiring managers love applicants who can clearly outline what they’ve done because it signals that they’ll be able to communicate well as an employee. Finally, consider including recommendations from coworkers or clients/employers. People crave social proof, and an impassioned pitch from a former boss or a satisfied customer will help you stand out.
Truly great portfolios can come in a variety of forms—inclusions could be open-source contributions and an active blog or answers to Stack Overflow questions—but no matter what format you choose, the underlying principles that make a profile outstanding are generally the same. And a great profile demonstrates that you are passionate and committed to creating high-quality materials. Whatever you decide to include in your online profile, make sure you’re proud of that work. It’s fine to mention a dozen half-finished projects in your résumé, or on your LinkedIn or personal website, but only provide links to the ones that are polished and looking professional.
Highlight the skills you love using
For some, it’s quite obvious that your online presence should be related to the work you’re wanting to do; this is especially true for those looking to switch careers or industries. If you’re applying for a position in web infrastructure but have been working as a front end developer, a blog post about the benefits of HTTP2 or interesting kinds of DDoS attacks can demonstrate that you’re a great candidate, even though your work history doesn’t necessarily showcase your infrastructural talents and interests. If you’re interested in data science positions, your portfolio might include the results of an exploratory data analysis you’ve done in Jupyter Notebook. If you want to work on iOS apps, you could very reasonably include an iOS app in your portfolio.
Regardless of what you create—blog, software, analysis, or otherwise—you’re going to be asked about it in interviews. Practice talking about the items in your portfolio. You should be able to describe your work in detail, including the tools you used, any programming frameworks or libraries that were central to the work, why you built them, how you contributed if in a team environment, and so on. Your potential future employers want to hire someone who communicates well and can describe what they’ve been working on in detail. Finally, don’t link to work that you don’t want to pursue in the future. If you’re trying to get out of web development but your portfolio is full of websites you’ve built, you’ll be attracting the wrong kind of offers.
Stand out by doing something different
It’s also worth noting that your online presence doesn’t necessarily have to only relate to your work. The software candidate-selection process is so full of algorithmic trivia that it’s easy to forget we’re also being screened for our ability to get along and be a member of a team. An online profile that signals some of your personal (rather than professional) interests can attract teams full of like-minded people. If you’re a passionate musician, cook, photographer, dancer, chess player (or anything else), there’s a good chance you can make yourself stand out by highlighting your hobby. This strategy is especially effective if your résumé and work history already indicate professional proficiency for the jobs you want.
Additionally, there is more evidence than ever that people with many interests are well positioned to succeed in the modern economy. Hiring managers who know this will be interested in people who excel in more than one domain, especially those based at smaller companies, where employees are expected to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Just be sure to outline your interests with the same commitment as you would your work—something unusual can catch a recruiter or hiring manager’s attention as they wade through hundreds of similar profiles and résumés.
The best advice for people looking to add something to their portfolio is to pick a topic they care about. The worst portfolio projects end up half-completed because the person building it lost interest and didn’t finish it. The topic matters less than the quality, so pursue something you’ll be excited to work on in the evenings after work or on a Sunday afternoon. Your passion will shine through and what you achieve will be of a higher quality as a result of your engagement. And remember, a portfolio is not static. As you learn new skills and grow into new areas, you should update your résumé to showcase those new skills. An out-of-date portfolio will attract offers for the you of yesteryear.
Social media counts
Like it or not, your potential employers are Googling you. Your Twitter, Quora, Stack Overflow, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other accounts are all likely to come up during such a search, especially if you have a relatively unusual name. If you have a past life as a Twitter troll, you might want to delete your old tweets, and otherwise curate out of existence anything you regret. But this is good news, too, because it means you can treat answering questions on Quora or Stack Overflow, or engaging positively with strangers on Twitter, as both networking and portfolio-building!
To have a handful of insightful answers posted by you on Stack Overflow is an incredibly positive signal that you’ll be a a team player who will help your coworkers succeed. An engaging Twitter feed full of interesting articles and conversations indicates you’ll keep learning, exploring, and sharing what you discover with your team. An in-depth answer on Quora shows that you’re able to do research, communicate clearly, and share your insights.
As mentioned, an additional benefit of using any of these social applications as part of your digital footprint is you’re networking at the same time. If you have a genuine and engaging social-media profile, then, by the very nature of these platforms, you are attracting the attention of a wider audience that serves as social proof to would-be employers. If you want to work in a specific domain, one easy way to improve your profile is to answer questions about that area on Quora, Stack Overflow, or other online forums. You’ll be demonstrating your expertise within that domain and simultaneously networking with other people interested in the same topics.
Finally, although it’s a cliché, in the business world it really is all about who you know. Connecting with the right people on the social networks you use can have a big impact on who sees your work and who finds your portfolio. Forming relationships with people you meet at conferences, trade shows, and other professional events can also help your portfolio find its way into the right hands. If you’re looking for a job at a specific company, make a conscious effort to connect with people at that company: an internal reference can sometimes make all the difference.
Where to start
There are so many different options for starting or expanding your digital footprint, so here’s a non-exhaustive list of ideas to get you started. Whatever you decide to pursue, remember to pick a side project you care enough about to finish and only publish work you’re proud of. As we’ve said, it’s fine to lose interest and not finish something, but if your published portfolio is just a collection of unfinished work, you might not be sending the right signal to potential employers.
- Build something and put it on GitHub.
- It’s especially important to post something related to the field you want to break into.
- Start small—finishing a small project is better than half-finishing a huge one.
- Contribute to an existing open-source library you use and love.
- There are lots of open issues on all kinds of open-source libraries.
- It could be something as simple as improving the documentation.
- Write a blog post.
- Write about a current event or emerging technology that interests you.
- Write about a project you’ve recently finished.
- Write a tutorial about a library or software tool you love.
- Buy a URL and build a personal website. If you’re not a web developer, use something like Squarespace to build something quickly and that will look beautiful on phones, laptops, and other screen sizes.
- Give a talk at a conference or local event, get the film, and publish it on YouTube.
- Submit talks, even if you think you’ll get rejected.
- There are lots of smaller events whose organizers don’t expect you to be well known already.
- Whatever you do, pick something you care about and that you’ll want to see through to the end.
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Illustration by Brice Marchal