Andy Lester

Technology, careers, life and being happy

Your github account is not your portfolio, but it’s a start

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Gina Trapani started a Google+ thread about using Github as a portfolio of your work to show potential employers. This in turn was prompted by a blog post by PyDanny titled “Github is my resume.” It’s a great idea, but it’s only a start. Your portfolio should be more curated than that to be effective.

I shouldn’t complain too much. Far too few job seekers consider the power of showing existing work products to hiring managers. That’s probably because so few employers ask to see any. In my book Land the Tech Job You Love, I cite Ilya Talman, one of the top tech recruiters in Chicago, estimating that only 15% of hiring managers ask to see samples of work.

Consider the manager looking to hire a computer programmer. She has hundred résumés from respondents, all claiming to know Ruby and Rails. She knows that anyone can put Ruby, Rails, or any other technologies into a résumé without knowing them. Even well-meaning candidates might think “I read a book on Ruby once, and Rails can’t be too tough, so I’ll put them on my résumé.” Looking at sample code is a great way to separate the good programmers from the fakers.

Since creating a repository of someone else’s good code is only slightly more involved than putting “Ruby on Rails” in a résumé document, a good hiring manager will ask in the interview about the code. When I interview candidates, I ask for printed code samples of their best work for us to discuss. Pointing at a given section on the paper, I’ll say “Tell me about your choice to write your own Perl function here instead of using a module from CPAN“, or “I see your variables seem to be named using a certain convention; why did you use that method?” In a few minutes, I can easily find out more about the candidate’s thought process and coding style than a mile-long résumé. This method also exposes potentially faked code.

So as much as I applaud candidates having a body of work to which they can point employers, simply saying “Here’s my Github repo” is not enough. The hiring manager doesn’t want to see everything you’ve written. Although everyone is different, she probably wants to see three things:

  • quality of work
  • breadth of work
  • applicability to her specific needs

Most important, she doesn’t want to go digging through all your code to find the answers to these questions.

Consider my github repository as an example. There are 28 repositories in it. Of these, nine are forks of other repos for me to modify, so clearly do not count as code I’ve written. Three repos are version control for websites I manage. Some are incubators of ideas for future projects that have yet to blossom. My scraps repository is a junk drawer where I put code I’ve written and might have use for later. How will an interested employer know what to look at? It’s arrogant and foolish to tell someone looking to hire you “here’s all my public code, you figure it out.” It’s the RTFM method of portfolio presentation, and it doesn’t put you in the best light possible.

For an effective portfolio, choose three to five projects that show your best work, and then provide a paragraph or two about each, describing the project in English and your involvement with it. There is literally no project or repository, on Github or elsewhere, about which I can say “This work is 100% mine.” Everything I’ve ever worked on has had work contributed from others, and the nature of those contributions needs to be disclosed upfront and honestly.

None of this is special to Github. There are plenty of online code repositories out there, such as Perl’s CPAN, which can act as a showcase for your work. Of course, you can also create your own online portfolio on your website as well. The keys are to highlight your best work and accurately describe your involvement.

A common complaint I hear when I discuss code portfolios goes like this: “Most of my work is private or under NDA, so I can’t have a portfolio.” Hogwash. You can go write your own code specifically to show your skills. If your area of expertise is with web apps, then go write a web app that does something fairly useful and publish that as your portfolio. Assign it an open source license so that others can take advantage of it, too. You’ll be helping your community while you help your job prospects.

Do you have an online code portfolio? Let me know in the comments, and include the URL for others to see.

6 Comments

  1. > nine are forks of other repos for me to modify, so clearly do not count as code I’ve written.

    One note on this: Github makes it easy to tell them apart. The activity graph has your own commits in blue and others in grey, so if there’s a project with only one or two slivers of blue, then it’s pretty obvious what it is.

    > For an effective portfolio, choose three to five projects that show your best work, and then provide a paragraph or two about each

    This is extremely effective i’ve noticed in the past. It’s a bit of a hassle, especially for me as i need to keep the data straight in english AND german, but having employers actually ask about stuff you did in the interview gives you a huge advantage.

  2. Across 20 years of programming jobs and interviews, I had a hiring manager ask for code samples once. And then he didn’t look at them. Apparently my bringing them along was the “check off” items.

    On the other hand, in each of the technical writer jobs I have interviewed for, writing samples were expected, and looked at.

    I would love to have an interviewer actually walk through code with me and ask me questions. That would be awesome.

  3. @Vicki: Just because they don’t look at them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring them in. Bring them in anyway, planning to leave them. Even if they’re not discussed in the interview, maybe someone will see them later.

    @Christian: You say “Github makes it easy to tell them apart”, but that’s for you. You know what to look for. The hiring manager may not know that. She may never have heard of Github, much less be familiar with the sparklines that show activity.

    Yes, it’s a hassle to prepare these things, but that’s OK. Better to have a hassle for you than for the hiring manager. You want to make it as easy as possible for her to say “This is the person we want for the job.”

  4. The main problem with this is that I am both under NDA and have restrictions on anything I create (or open-source) while I work there. The only way I can contribute to open-source legally (even in my free time) is to use the official channel of my employer. Although for this job I did have to supply code samples and the interviews were solely writing code.

  5. Well, you cannot write NDA thing off as hogwash.
    In my opinion, if someone whose core skills/efforts are spent in the company’s infrastructure/time, then its really difficult to reproduce the same thing merely as a ‘pastime’.

  6. GitHub, IMO, should be an addendum to your portfolio. It’s cool (as someone who participates in the hiring process) to be able to pull up someone’s GitHub page and check out actual code as well as see what their activity is like.

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