“Can you help me build out my developer portfolio?”

It’s the first question early-career developers ask when they book a mentoring call with me.

They’ve been struggling to find their first developer job. They read an article or a friend tells them they should be focusing on building their tech portfolio. Or they just decided to follow generic advice on the internet.

I’ve been mentoring people for many years, and the portfolio question is the first thing they ask me.

I tell them “no, this doesn’t work very well anymore”.

Here’s the main problem: this is the wrong question to be asking when you’re looking for your first developer job.

“Just Build a Developer Portfolio” - the best way to get stuck!

Think about it for a second. The most generic advice you can find online is:

“Just Build a Developer Portfolio!”

Great! Something to build! You can code, so this is going to be easy. But then… it isn’t.

You have no idea what to build. Should you build something with React or Rails? Why not both? Oh, AWS is also an important skill. What about DevOps, how do you practice DevOps skills? Oh, right, you should add tests to everything!

Holy hell, that’s a lot of stuff! 😫

When you “build a portfolio” like that, there’s a 99.999% chance you’ll get stuck in this loop for many years months (source: my experience with mentoring people).

The hidden dangers of focusing only on building a developer portfolio

If you’re working on a project and your goal is to learn something Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and within a limited Time frame (SMART goal), that’s okay. The knowledge is yours to keep. And because of the T in a SMART goal, you’ll also have an end date for your project. This is key.

But the problem with developer portfolios is that there is no scope. No end in sight.

How many apps do you need to build for your portfolio? Where and when does it end? What’s the scope of this endeavor? Who and what defines what makes it complete?

Worst: there’s no one to give you any type of feedback at all.

The (potential) people you’ll meet in the future, the ones who make the hiring decisions, most likely won’t even look or care about your portfolio.

This is the hidden danger: you’re sitting there waiting for someone else’s approval.

Let’s get real: when was the last time waiting for someone else’s approval worked out well for you?

A portfolio is a series of projects with no real requirements and no tangible end in sight. This is not a sustainable strategy. It’s barely a strategy at all.

And we’re not even talking about how an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) will screen your CV before any human interaction.

Do you see how this can lead to complete misery?

Communicate a sense of trust

If you build a project, it shows that you are a person capable of writing quality code. However, building trust and reputation with the very people who might hire you is a much better strategy.

It’s comfortable to sit down at your computer and investing all your time writting code. But it’s not enough to help you build connections and reputation.

Building trust is all about human interaction. People want to work with developers who not only write good code, but also those they can trust. Preferably someone they already know and respect, or through a referral.

A direct approach to building trust is to make connections and help your local developer community, or the local business community. Those are the people who will hire you.

How to build a good reputation as an early-career developer

Here are a couple of strategies for building reputation:

  • Don’t just go to meetups: present talks at meetups! Propose a 5 minutes talk to share something it took you a lot of time to learn, for example.
  • Volunteer. Help organize a meetup or volunteer your time to help an organization that needs help with its software.

Build relationships with people. That’s how business works. The software business isn’t any different.

You’re in the business of helping people solve their problems using software. Help them make more money through the use of software. Serve them as well as you can.

A better question to be asking is this:

“How can I help my local dev/biz community?”

Show people in your local developer community that you are capable and reliable. A person who loves to help. Who is engaged in the community. Is actively trying to grow and contribute.

They will start paying attention to you. They will know who you are. They will give you tips. They will want to work with you. They might even refer you to job positions.

The faster you start building up these connections, the faster you get on the path to becoming a reputable, professional developer.

I certainly don’t have all the answers and there’s no silver bullet for solving the “can’t get a job with no experience/can’t get experience without a job” problem. It’s tough.

Working on your Github projects to learn and practice your skills is necessary. There’s simply no way around it. But it’s not an end in itself. Don’t place all your bets on it.

Make sure you come up with a well-defined project and set up some SMART goals. Then, share what you’ve learned with the community at least once a month. Present a tech talk about it. Make it a habit. Share your knowledge and help someone. Make the code available for people to use and benefit from.

Remember: connecting with people and serving their needs is the fastest way to build a good reputation.

Submit a talk proposal to a local/online meetup and start making these connections today. They are waiting to learn from you!

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