All About Technical Portfolios
This week we're talking all things portfolios. What can a portfolio do for you? How can you build one? Do you even need a portfolio to be successful? This week we'll delve into the world of portfolios.
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All About Technical Portfolios
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What is a technical portfolio? - 1:16
Do we have portfolios? - 8:13
Why would you want a portfolio? - 8:21
How do you build a portfolio as a backend developer? - 17:06
What can you put in your portfolio? - 18:11
What if I’m bad at design? - 20:26
What should developers focus on when building a portfolio? - 23:15
Fun portfolio examples - 25:24
Wins - 29:18
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Welcome to the Ladybug podcast. I’m Kelly.
Emma 0:23 And I’m Emma. And we’re debugging the tech industry.
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So let’s kick things off by just talking about what is a technical portfolio.
I think that the line between that and a personal site are pretty blurred. So the idea of having a landing page on the internet, where you have, who you are, what you’re about and the type of things that you’ve built in the past. And so I really like these because they allow you to be really creative, show off your work, show off who you are. It’s like a resume in some ways, but you can think way outside the box for them. So I think they’re really fun.
Yeah, I would say it’s the way I describe it is basically like a website that tells the world who you are and what you like to build. Now, what constitutes, you know, your website is really up to you. It could just be a single page. It could be something that you just build off of GitHub Pages, there’s no, like, set in stone paradigm for what a portfolio is. It’s just a representation of you and your work and it’s perhaps a little bit more creative and personalized than a resume or CV.
They tend to be a lot more fun, on the employer side. They tend to be a lot more fun to review than just looking at a bunch of resumes over and over again, because I really like the personality shines through, through reviewing technical portfolios.
Totally agree. If somebody has a portfolio listed on the job application, I will a hundred percent look at that over a resume or anything else.
Absolutely. But I think, you know, something important to note here is that you don’t need a portfolio to be successful. In my personal opinion. I got my current job without having a portfolio whatsoever. And so I worked at two different companies, large companies without having a portfolio. Because I think we forget at the end of the day that not everyone has the ability to create a portfolio, whether that’s due to time or maybe they don’t feel like they have the experience to build one. You don’t need one to be successful.
I totally agree. My one caveat to that is that if you are looking for your first junior developer job, I think that they’re especially important because you don’t have a job history necessarily to fall back on. It may look a little bit different if you have a computer science degree or anything like that. That being said, if you’re a bootcamp grad, it probably will have been built in your curriculum to have a portfolio site. And if you’re self taught, I think showing off the things that you’ve built is incredibly important in order to give yourself the credentials in order to land that first job. So I would highly, highly recommend making one if you’re looking for your first junior developer job. That being said, I don’t think any of us actually had a portfolio site when we were looking for our first junior developer job. So that advice may be misplaced but the people that I work with, being junior developers, it’s something that I always try to recommend that they have.
Not only for Your first junior developer job, but if you’re freelancing. If you’re trying to find work on your own outside of a company, people need to be able to find you somehow. And need to see the kind of work that you can do. So I think having a portfolio in that case is also very important.
Maybe this is a misconception, maybe not. But you don’t need to spend money on this. This is something that can be completely free. You don’t need to buy a custom domain, if you don’t want. You don’t need to buy hosting, if you build it as a static site, which we’ll talk about a little bit later, that can be completely free. You can also use tools to build it. You don’t even have to code it if you don’t want. So we’ll get into that later. But yeah, there’s that misconception of like, well, I don’t have the money to spend on one. Well, you don’t need to and we’ll tell you a little bit more about that later. I think maybe one of the reasons people get a little antsy when we talk about building a portfolio is they don’t feel like they have the qualifications or the experience to fill it out. They’re like, Well, what do I put here? You know, like, maybe I didn’t go to college at all. Maybe I haven’t had an internship. What do I put on there and you know, I would just encourage people to… Don’t worry so much about comparing yourself with others, like there are… people have different paths in life. We’ve kind of talked about this. Your experience is going to be completely different from everyone else. So if you haven’t had an internship, if you haven’t had, you know, your first job, if all you’ve done is gone to boot camp has just got a few projects that you built in there. That’s enough. You don’t need to have a four page website with like scrolling animations. You do what you are capable of, and what you’re comfortable with.
100%. In fact, I’d argue that simple is usually better than complex, for anything. And so having a minimalist site that just links to things that you’ve built, who you are, what you believe in. I think that that’s awesome.
Agreed. So do we all have technical portfolios? The three of us?
Yes, I… Gosh, I feel like such a hypocrite because I gave a conference talk a couple of weeks ago at React Live - Amsterdam, about building a technical portfolio with Gatsby. And I’m up there, I’m like, portfolios are cool, you know, if you can, if you have the ability to create one, like, do it. And my portfolio is so outdated. It’s unbelievable. I’m like such a hypocrite. So yes, I’m in the process of redoing it. But we all know that design is hard. And that’s where I’m struggling.
Yeah, so I have had a portfolio ever since midway through my first developer job. So I didn’t have one I when I was… I didn’t ever look for my first developer job. That’s a totally different story. Kind of accidentally became one. But when I was looking for my second job, and starting to get more involved with the tech community, I built one then and then… now my portfolio instead of being job related, is more focused on speaking gigs and writing and all of that and it’s a landing page for all of the other things that I do on the internet. And so it can totally evolve over time. Your portfolio doesn’t have to just be for looking for a job. It can also be for establishing yourself in the industry in a different way as well.
Or just was a fun side project. I used mine to to learn Gatsby. Like, you can just use it as, like, a, you know, sandbox project.
Hundred percent. And you can be super artistic with it too. That’s the… my favorite part of mine is that I was able to really think outside the box and do something really creative with it.
It’s funny because that’s why I have mine is because I didn’t want to be artistic and creative. I just wanted to learn how to… I again like I also wanted to learn Gatsby so that’s why I have my my personal site and I don’t even consider to be like a technical portfolio. It’s literally just a fun a fun playground for me. It doesn’t serve any purpose.
Well I just creeped on both of your portfolios and like super cool. I’m liking the gradient on yours, Kelly. I had this idea I was like, okay, Look guys, just bear with me here for a second, ladies. I wanted to rebuild my portfolio with the style of an old AOL Instant Messenger, where, like, you had the buddy list.
Please do it.
Like the buddy list and, like, every friend is a different page and, like, you can open the chat window and, like, converse with it.
Kelly 8:03 I think you should totally do that.
Ali 8:04 That would be adorable.
I can’t wait to see what your away message is.
Oh, I didn’t even think about this. All right, you guys are gonna have to user test it.
Ali 8:12 yes, please.
So do we have them? Yes, to some capacity, but they present themselves in very different ways, I would say.
Uhuh, for sure.
So I’m going to direct this next question to Emma, because she’s really big on the why of everything. So why might you want a portfolio?
I have no idea. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. So, I mean, we touched on a few of them, right? Perhaps you want to tell the world who you are, perhaps you like to produce content. When I started blogging, I started blogging on Medium, I transferred over to the Dev community on Dev.to. And then I started to understand what a canonical URL is and basically how it can redirect to the original post on your personal website so that you know, we don’t start confusing like SEO with the original source of a post. I think. I don’t think I butchered that too badly. But I was encouraged that I should be posting blogs under my own namespace. And then I can use that canonical URL and cross post on other sites. So I’m still getting traffic on them. But it always directs back to my portfolio. So if you’re writing blogs, that’s a great place to put them is underneath your domain. You know, if you like to build cool GitHub projects, you can link to them on your site. Maybe you want to use this as an opportunity for a side project, you know, and or maybe you just need a job and your resume is not enough space to tell employers who you are. So there’s a ton of different reasons. I think it’s important to establish your why before you just start building on because I think your why drastically changes a lot. It changes the information architecture of how your site is laid out, right? If I’m blogging, maybe the primary page is not my about page. It’s my blog, versus if I just want to tell people who I am on a personal level, maybe then I want to prioritize my about page. So figure out your wife first, then construct your information architecture and figure out what kind of design style you want.
Cool, it’sbeen huge for me career wise as well. I’ve been given job offers just based off of my portfolio alone. And that’s been aided by having an online platform and all that. But that being said, I think that career wise, it’s been something that I would highly recommend other people to have. Even if it’s not necessary, it’s not something that you have to have, you can have a great career without one. It’s been great for my career personally. And so I would recommend it based off of that.
Kind of going back to my interest, purely for my own learning sake. That’s another reason why you can build your own portfolio, purely just to learn something new.
Ali 10:36 Totally.
Absolutely. Speaking of learning something new, what are some of the ways in which you can build a portfolio? I’m going to shoot this one over to Ali to start.
One thing I find great with Gatsby, because we all know I’m a fangirl, that’s not a secret. But one thing I find very helpful with them is they’ve got all these different starter files. So you can actually go and just run like Gatsby new portfolio and then like add in the GitHub repository link, and you have a fully fledged - with routing and GraphQL queries and all that - blog already constructed for you with one line in the terminal. So I think that Gatsby is really wonderful at providing low overhead to building these kinds of things. Again, the community, the ecosystem is wonderful. I haven’t worked with Next and since I primarily, you know, work with React, I haven’t obviously used Nuxt, Jekyll or Hugo, but I would recommend Gatsby if that’s something you’re interested in.
Totally. I think, especially if you’re building a more complex portfolio with something like a blog attached to it, then the static site generators become more handy there. But if you’re just building a single page landing page, then they are a little bit less…
Well really quickly because this is going to be confusing, What the heck is a static site generator? I was curious about this for a long time. Basically what they do is they provide static assets and static means not changing, right. And so what that means is it produces HTML and CSS files. You can write it in React, for example, if we’re using Gatsby. Write your React application. It produces static HTML and CSS, which means you can deploy it on GitHub for free, wonderful, and it rehydrates back into a React application in the browser. And so this allows you to do many wonderful things. It has many other benefits. But you’ll notice too if you have a lot of images, for example, Gatsby is wonderful I handling image as assets and blurring up and lazy loading and all of that fun stuff.
Totally. And it’s what we use for our Ladybug site. So definitely endorsed from us.
If you don’t want to use a static site generator, you also have some other options. My original portfolio was built on WordPress, so you can use like a content management system. You can use a site builder such as like Wix, or Squarespace as well. I mean, it’s really important to, you know, drive this point home that you do not need to build something from the ground up to, you know, have your own portfolio, you can use resources that are out there to generate the entire thing for you. You can use a template for it. It really doesn’t matter.
Yeah, I used Wix and Squarespace a lot. Even when I wasn’t deploying the sites, I would use them for design inspiration, because as someone who was really awful with design, like a few years ago, and as someone who’s a little bit better at design now, like, you know, they they have professional designers constructing the architecture, the ratios of things, the color palettes, all these things for you. Go pull inspiration from them. I mean, really designing things is just about pulling pieces of different things that you’ve seen in the real world, in the digital world, and compositing them into something new.
I think Webflow would be really cool for building a portfolio site too.
I don’t know enough about that.
So Webflow is like a design tool, but it actually generates the code for you as well. And so I have seen a couple portfolios built in Webflow. And it’s another great thing to add to your resume that you know, as well. So I would check that out as well. I’m not sure about costs or anything like that. The nice thing with static sites or HTML and CSS is that you can just deploy them for free on GitHub Pages, or Netlify, and something with a back end, like WordPress, that’s going to be more expensive to deploy. Same with, I think that there are probably costs associated with something like Wix or Squarespace.
There is and there isn’t. It depends. So I think they have a free tier where they generate the URL for you. So you’re not gonna be able to add in your own URL. But if you want to add a custom domain and do analytics, and all of that fun stuff, at that point you’ll have to pay.
And that goes the same for WordPress as well. It’s the difference between wordpress.com and wordpress.org. .org is the self hosted version.
Okay, cool. Cool. That’s a good clarification there for sure.
So real quick, I think we should just also mention that you don’t need to build a site from scratch at all. Let’s say you’ve got a really, like, fleshed out GitHub, that can be your portfolio, right? It’s basically showcasing all of your hard work. Or LinkedIn, for example, that’s another place you can put all of your achievements. So we shouldn’t box in this idea that a portfolio has to be like a website external to all these other things. You can also use other, you know, social, professional networking sites, or, you know, development sites for these purposes.
I use Myspace.
Oh yeah. Myspace would be amazing. Dev.to as well. Another GitHub fun fact that I don’t think everybody knows that you can pin repositories to your profile on GitHub. And so if you’re looking for a job that you can pin, like your six repos that you think are most impressive on there, and that works as a really great portfolio as well. Yeah, another conversation to have like, what if you’re a coder, but you don’t write frontend code, like what should you use in that case? We talked a little about about Wix and Squarespace and Webflow and these, like, no code tools, but are there other strategies that you could use as a backend developer to build a portfolio?
I think it goes right back to your GitHub example. I think there are, you know, again, you don’t have to have like a separate portfolio on there. And GitHub is a really great way of showcasing what exactly you can do with your code, because you’re literally looking at the code.
Absolutely. Yeah, I think it kind of depends on your domain, right? Like, if I was hiring a backend developer, I wouldn’t necessarily care how their visual design of their portfolio looks. Or even if they had, like a separate self-hosted website, like that wouldn’t make as much of a difference to me, versus if I’m hiring, like a visual designer or a frontend developer, and they don’t have a way to showcase their work on the frontend side in the browser, for example, like that might be a little bit harder to gauge where they’re at skill set wise.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think I would stand on the soapbox that if you’re looking for a first frontend role or something along those lines, you should probably write the code from scratch yourself and show off your skills. Use that as a place to highlight what you’ve created both off the site, but on the site as well. But then that becomes less important if you’re not looking for a frontend development role.
Emma 18:10 Absolutely.
So let’s talk about what you can put on your portfolio. What kind of projects do you guys have on yours?
So when I was looking for developer jobs, I had my side projects on there, I had blog posts that I had written, stuff like that. But as that’s evolved, and I’ve become less interested in looking for work - I have a job that I’m happy at - I have instead used it to showcase my speaking events and my writing and just a bio about myself as well. So it’s definitely evolved a ton over time for me.
Yeah, I feel like they should change over time. You know, you aren’t a static person, you are ever evolving and as a result, you know, your portfolio should be accurate. So in terms of, like, the amount of things that you can list on there, you could, you could choose to list them all. Like, I have… On my current portfolio, I have like almost case studies type of thing. Like the different enterprise projects I’ve worked on, describing that technology and the benefit that I brought to this teams. But if you have a lot of side projects, like I make stupid side projects. Like I made, randomcatgenerator.com that literally just, like, pulls a random cat photo from the random cat generator API or whatever. You know, maybe that’s not something I want to highlight, because it doesn’t showcase any skills. It was just me being me. So I would argue that, you know, a few projects that showcase various skill sets and showcase them well, are much more effective than a multitude of projects that are maybe mediocre or all use the same technology or something like that.
Totally agree, especially on incomplete projects. So I think that having a couple completed projects, is a lot more impressive than 85 tutorials that you followed and half finished that you put on your site. So I have like 130 repos on GitHub, which is ridiculous. But I only have two of those projects listed on my portfolio, because they’re the ones that are most complete and most show off my skills. And so those are the ones that I have highlighted on there, despite having a bunch of other ones that I have created at various points.
Okay. And let’s talk about this hypothetical situation in the case that I might be bad at designing. Totally hypothetical. Okay, I am not a designer, and I’m the first to admit that I’m not a designer. This is why I hire designers for my company, because they don’t… people should not want me to be designing things. Anyway, if I’m bad at design, what are my options as far as creating my portfolio?
Well, the first thing is you can learn. Sorry that came out really passive aggressive. No. Hmm. Okay, so if you… let’s say you decide you want to learn some basic visual design or UX design principles. Let’s talk about visual design for a second. Here, there’s a few key areas that you’re going to want to check out. We could do a whole episode on design, and I’m sure we will, at some point. You’re going to want to understand how colors work together in terms of color theory, because when we think about colors on the color wheel, there’s a few methods you can go about when choosing a color palette. You’ve got analogous colors, you’ve got monochromatic colors, and they all deal with relative positioning of colors in the color wheel. So monochromatic are colors that are all in the same part of the color wheel. So different shades of blue. Understanding color theory is important. Typography scale, it’s important to have different scales. So there’s like the minor third, the perfect fourth, the… I don’t know. They have a bunch of different scales. You can Google type scale generator. And then just understanding spacing. Refactoring UI is an amazing book we’ll link down in the show notes, talks about how you can look at a UI and say, Well, this looks terrible, but not understand why it looks terrible and it talks about different spacing methodologies and all of that. So those are the three key areas I would say hone in on if you decide you want to learn design, but if you don’t, if you really don’t care, there are a few places you can go for some inspiration. We already talked about Wix or Squarespace. Dribble.com is another one we’ll link down below. Pinterest as well. Yeah, I would recommend those sites in terms of looking for design inspiration.
I love Designspiration, as well, which is a convoluted name, but it has a bunch of inspiration for design outside of websites. So I like looking at like art and print design and all of that as inspiration for sites as well. And that has a really great resource for all of that
Is Behance still a thing?
Ali 22:45 I think so.
Yes, it is. And then also, I forgot, like Ali, you tweeted the other day about portfolios and like showcase your portfolio, so we’ll link that tweet down below. But also I turned that into a GitHub repository that I’ve let dry up a little bit. I will go back and merge PRs. But basically, if you want to go see some portfolios from other people in the community, I will link that in the show notes as well. It’s a GitHub repo with developer portfolio inspiration. You’re welcome to open a PR with yours, I will get to them, I promise.
Nice. Nice. So what are some of the things that developers should focus on while they’re writing portfolio sites?
I think it goes without saying that your site, your portfolio site, probably should not have any errors on it, which I’m saying this because mine does right now. And I’ve been far too busy to actually do anything about it. And somebody actually called me out on it recently, which I have feelings about. But yeah, try to not have your site have errors, especially if you’re presenting it in a job application kind of situation.
Yeah, that’s a big one. Another big one is making sure that you’re going to be using semantic HTML to accurately denote like landmark regions of your site. So instead of using divs all over the place, make sure that you’re using, you know, a main content area. If you’re using a sidebar, maybe you want this aside with a navigation inside. This is going to have great implications on accessibility. And that leads us into Lighthouse. You can run a Lighthouse test, which I think is a Google tool, and can analyze a bunch of different parameters of your site and make sure that it’s accessible.
And test your site as well, on both the user experience - ake sure your links are not broken - and make sure it’s responsive so it, you know, it works well on mobile devices as well.
Yeah, I would also use a critical eye. So I personally think that going to portfolio sites where there’s just 85 different colors and a background image with images on top of it and texts that you can barely read and pictures of everything that you can imagine on there. Like, it’s very overwhelming and it doesn’t highlight what you want to highlight. What you want to highlight is your experience and who you are, and have it be a reflection of your personality. But also who you are professionally, and so use a critical eye, make sure that you’re actually highlighting what you want to highlight, make sure that people’s eyes are going to where you want them to go on the site. And don’t make it too distracting or overwhelming.
You would absolutely die if you saw Ben Halpern’s website, which we will also link in the show notes.
Oh, it’s my favorite but it goes against everything I just said.
It is so cool. I just pulled it up. Okay, so this is actually yeah, this is a good topic of conversation here. What are some examples of fun portfolios that you’ve seen? I know, Emma, you have the GitHub repo. But are there any specific portfolios you’d like to call out outside of Ben’s, which is amazing.
Which by the way, I just got scared pantsless because I started scrolling and his song started playing. As you scroll it plays the rolling, rolling, rolling song, which I’m not going to sing but you can go check out. Yeah, I love it. I love portfolios that are just unapologetically that person.
Yeah, so that one, you should definitely check it out to the listeners. It is against pretty much everything that we have advised throughout this whole episode. But that’s kind of what makes it amazing is it just takes everything that you could imagine from throwback web and puts it on one site. It’s super, super fun…
Emma 26:17 It’s an anti pattern.
Ali 26:18 … and hiarious and shows, yeah, it shows off Ben’s personality really well. And he is most… he’s in charge of website and a company and so he is not looking for a job. And so it’s not like he’s trying to highlight his professional experience or anything like that. It’s more just a fun place on the internet to show his personality, and so that is totally valid and something that you can do with your portfolio if your goals are the same.
Can we quickly talk about Timo Becker’s portfolio for a second because I just opened this thing and I’m, like, floored at how awesome it is.
Right? So to briefly explain this, there’s a bunch of dots on this website and then you can connect the dots and create different patterns and then it scribbles on top of them and makes them into more things for you. And so just thinking about the math behind this site, how many combinations there have to be of these different scribbles? It’s mind blowing to me. I would also totally check this one out. He’s an illustrator. And so that means that this site is, like, really showing off his illustration abilities instead of his programming abilities. And I think that’s really cool.
Yeah, anything that’s like, above and beyond… I know, we just harped on like the simplicity thing, and like, my portfolio is nothing to, like, talk about because it’s kind of lame. But in any case, we just talked about simplicity. We’re over here like put random floating things and songs on your portfolio and, you know, turn dots into drawings. And I wish I had something like that. Like Sarah Drasner has a lot of WebGL animations on hers, which are really cool. And I’m like, I don’t have any of those skills. Like I wish I did. Maybe someday, but…
Yeah, but I think that there’s totally a balance here. So my portfolio site for the most part is just white with black text. That being said, there’s the rainbow letters. And then if you click anywhere, it draws random shapes for you, and with different colors. And so there’s this fun little easter egg, even though it doesn’t dominate the whole entire site. And adding that piece of fun personality to it, I think does add something even though the site itself is like, predominantly black text on a white background.
And I think that’s key. That there is exactly key. And it’s supposed to… your portfolio, you want to differentiate it from the others out there. So showcasing your personality in that way, and just adding some kind of level of fun to… not only this was fun for you to build but it’s fun for other people to interact with. It goes a long way with viewing these portfolios.
Totally. We’ll link some other ones that we like as well that are maybe a little bit more minimalistic and a little bit less fun to describe over audio. So we’ll definitely have those all in the show notes.
Awesome. So with that, I want to do a little bit of segue and talk about a couple of wins that we’ve experienced recently. So, Kelly, why don’t you kick things off?
Yeah. So earlier this month, I launched my first PWA for a client. And this was my first kind of foray into using Vue in a client situation and not just for fun. And it went really well. And the client is super happy, and I’m super happy. And I cannot wait to continue to find more opportunities to build out these PWAs. And I say this one was with Vue. I think I said this one was Vue. I’m just going to keep on talking about it because I’m really excited about it. Emma, what is yours?
So speaking of portfolios, I went to React Live in Amsterdam a little while ago and I gave a live coding talk about building a portfolio with Gatsby and it was like like horrifyingly amazing because there were 800 people there. And like the screen was massive. And the recording’s up on YouTube, if you want to see I can also link it. But yeah, it was a ton of fun. How about you Ali?
Awesome. So my blogging has been a two year long journey at this point. And it’s evolved a lot over that time, where I started off trying to write about the things that I was learning. And then I transitioned into talking about the lifestyle of being a programmer, which evolved into talking mostly about beginner stuff. And so I decided that with that evolution, I wanted to build a new website for my blogging. And so I launched that recently, welearncode.com, and so it could be a good portfolio inspiration potentially as well.
Awesome. Well, cool. As you can see, it is possible to create an entire episode on technical portfolios and I hope that in listening to this, you feel inspired to create your own, if you want to create your own. If you don’t want to create your own, that’s fine. We also we also covered as well. But if you liked this episode, tweet about it. We’ll select one tweeter to win Ladybug stickers each week. If you want to hear someone join us on the Ladybug podcast, you can fill out the nomination form on our website at Ladybug.dev. We post new episodes every Monday, so make sure you’re subscribed to be notified when a new one comes out. And if you really like it, leave us a review because we love reading those. And one last thank you to Netlify for sponsoring this episode.