How do I become a web developer when my portfolio is secret?
December 3, 2011 8:27 PM   Subscribe

I've been working as an IT Guy and part-time web development guru on and off for close to 8 years. I'm looking to take the plunge, and become a full-time web developer, but have virtually nothing in my "portfolio" from those 8 years to show for it. Help!

For the past several years, my job has, in one way or another, involved some form of web development work. This past year, I've begun to realize that I enjoy these portions of my job the greatest, and am growing increasingly miserable from my other duties. Being the "does-everything IT guy" requires far too many hours, has done nothing to advance my career, and is shoehorning me into a niche that I don't want to be in. I want to take the plunge, and become a full-time web developer, preferably in an agency setting.

I feel fairly confident in my abilities as a web developer. Although I rarely like to blow my own horn, my work is frequently complimented by our full-time in-house developers and contractors. One of my projects was outsourced to an external consultant who uncomfortably joked that I had already done most of their work for them, and indeed, the final product that they delivered consisted almost entirely of code that I had written.

Unfortunately, I've had "ownership" of very few projects, and almost none of them have been public-facing. Although I've created or maintained several dozen intranet sites, the nature of my employment hasn't really enabled me to release any work into the wild. As I apply for positions, I'm finding it difficult to explain that I don't actually have a portfolio, and that, although I have several years of web development experience, I've never been employed as a full-time web developer. Worse still, many of the projects I previously worked on are either no longer live, or are now inaccessible to me. Simply put, I don't think I can compile a remotely-compelling portfolio.

Although I know that the "best" answer to this conundrum is to create a portfolio of interesting personal/open-source projects that I can display to prospective employers, I want to get out of my job now, and am willing to take a pay cut, or endure a probationary period to do so. Also, my long hours are preventing me from doing very much "personal" work on the side. Current unemployment figures are scary, so quitting my job with no prospects in sight is not an option.

Have you ever been in this situation? How did you make the jump, and more importantly, what did you say or do to convince your future employers that you were actually qualified for the job?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Can you invest enough time to create a small-scale showpiece? Say, a 1-3 pager that's smaller than a full portfolio, but more involved than a web version of your résumé? If you can produce something with a good fit and finish (down to pretty markup, for when they inevitably hit ctrl-u) that lays out the technologies you're familiar with (and even better, uses them), that may well be enough to get you in the door. At which point you can tell them your best version of what you told us.
posted by brennen at 8:54 PM on December 3, 2011

I'm in about the same spot, looking for full-time work as a Web developer after 10 years building Web apps for corporate clients that I can't show anyone, and one public site that badly needs a design overhaul. The good news is, experienced Web devs are in demand, at least here in NYC – I put a resume up on and had recruiters calling me the next day.

The main problem is that because I've been doing work-for-hire for clients that aren't interested in releasing code publically, I haven't been participating in the open-source ecosystem. Recruiters are telling me that employers now look first at LinkedIn and GitHub, so I'm busily "grey-boxing" libraries from old client projects – by which I mean I'm sanitizing them of any identifiable client branding – and pushing them to public GitHub repositories under my own name. If nothing else, this proves you can use Git!

In 8 years of IT work I bet you've written a lot of little utilities, push them up to GitHub as well. It'll be obvious that you put them all up at once, but there's no shame in explaining your situation once you've got their attention.

Also, does the language you work in have a public module repository like PEAR or CPAN or RubyForge? Get your modules in there too – this demonstrates that you have practical mastery of your language's testing and packaging tools.

Good luck! (Unless you're competing with me for jobs in the NYC area, in which case I suggest you get hit by a bus!)
posted by Now I'm Prune Tracy! at 9:06 PM on December 3, 2011

Not all successful web developers have a public portfolio. For example, much of the work I have done is only visible on intranets in the federal government and behind authorized access points. I can't readily point to a public place for people to see my handiwork, but I do have screen shots, a good narrative of my role in the development and trusted people to back this up.

You probably have much of the same. Cultivate your references and your story about how you contributed to these projects. The portfolio doesn't have to be public to be legitimate and credible.
posted by dgran at 9:16 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm looking to take the plunge, and become a full-time web developer, but have virtually nothing in my "portfolio" from those 8 years to show for it.

So make one. Open source projects, simple web apps for people to use, whatever.
posted by delmoi at 11:36 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't really need one. It usually goes like this:

1) Have a decent resume, post on DICE, get bombarded by recruiters.
2) Go on interviews, get bombarded with trivia questions and moronic "brain teasers" by the resident Aspies who read online that this is how some tech giant that they mindlessly idolize does interviews. Nod along as they throw out useless buzzwords like "Agile," "scrum" and "pizza team." Memorize the name of a few blogs like "Stack Overflow" to regurgitate when asked.
3) Eventually your knowledge will happen to line up with a given set of trivia questions, and this makes you worthy to be hired.

It's a very very stupid process, but this is how it works almost everywhere now.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:57 PM on December 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

Seriously, most places will barely even discuss your resume anymore, let alone talk to you as a human being. If you can answer trivia and write on a whiteboard on command, you can get a job.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:02 AM on December 4, 2011

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