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How to Build an Impressive Portfolio When You’re New to Tech

Get the Beginner's Guide to What to Put in Your Tech Portfolio

Get the Beginner's Guide to What to Put in Your Tech Portfolio

Get dozens of resources, plus expert tips on how to build a KILLER portfolio even if you're an absolute beginner.

As I scrolled through tech portfolio after tech portfolio, looking for inspiration for my very first single-page personal site, I felt something drop to the pit of my stomach.

Sure, I could mock up my site, create a moodboard, site map, and user persona, and I could even get smooth scroll and learn to build a jQuery image slider. But I couldn’t make my single project multiply into 10.

As a brand new web designer eager to get work, I needed projects to put in my tech portfolio. That was a little tricky considering the only web design project I had ever worked on was…my portfolio.

Luckily, I ended up getting freelance clients right away, through word of mouth, but I didn’t have to settle for leaving my portfolio site looking so slim. I just needed to broaden my definition of “portfolio.”

I was hanging onto an idea of the portfolio from those bygone days when you actually printed out work samples and tied them up in a leather case to carry around to potential employers.

These days, a portfolio isn’t just a collection of work samples. Instead, it’s an opportunity for you to showcase:

  • Who you are
  • What kind of work you do
  • How you do that work
  • Where you want to go next
  • And who YOU really want to work with.

A tech portfolio is really an opportunity to create a personal brand for yourself. When a future client lands on your portfolio, they don’t just see a slideshow of former projects—they form an opinion of YOU.

Sure, a beautiful, eye-catching, client-snagging portfolio will include work samples, but if you’re short on projects, there’s still a LOT you can do to create a dynamic portfolio that showcases your best qualities.

1. Customize a site theme or template.

Even if you know how to build websites from scratch, sometimes it makes more sense to use a robust platform or content management system (CMS) with complex tools built right in.

And in addition to an accelerated timeline for launching a site, you can include your customized site theme or template in your portfolio! Being able to say “I used my coding skills on this site” is a great selling tool when you’ve got a beautiful site to show for it.

Plus, customizing the code on a theme or template has some other great benefits for newbie coders or freelancers:

  • You can fill up your portfolio fast.

Building sites from scratch is a SUPER valuable skill, but if you just started learning to code, a brand new site could take a few weeks to finish. If you want to put more projects in your portfolio (and stat), customizing an existing site could be just the ticket.

  • You can get freelance work customizing websites

There are plenty of clients out there who aren’t interested in paying for a completely custom site. Either because they love the functionality of content management systems or because they don’t have a large budget, some people will want to hire you to take a standard theme and personalize it. And since it won’t take you weeks and weeks, you can turn these projects over quickly and fatten your portfolio in a hurry.

Skillcrush Web Design Blueprint alum Rashida Balogun did just that. Rashida launched a site using Squarespace, a website publishing platform with pre-designed templates for portfolios, blogs, and more, for her new branding business geared towards beauty entrepreneurs and businesses. When she paid a developer $30 to write a few lines of code to tweak her site, she decided she had to learn how to do this herself! After learning to code, she customized her site (take a look at it now! it’s beautiful!) and uses her portfolio to snag clients for her freelance branding business. Now she builds and customizes Squarespace sites for other entrepreneurs as part of her business, and her own site is some of the best advertisement out there.

2. Google Yourself.

Don’t look at me like that – I know you’ve typed your name into Google before, just to see.

If you haven’t done it yet, now’s the time.

When you’re just starting out in the tech scene, you might not have a ton of social proof – like blog features and testimonials – to show how awesome you are at coding. But you can broaden the scope of what you include in your portfolio.

Google yourself and see what comes up. Chances are, you’ve been and featured more than you realize. And you don’t just have to stick to what’s relevant to your new coding career. If you appeared online in a positive light, you can feature it in your portfolio, whether it’s related to tech or not.


3. Get testimonials.

And while we’re on testimonials – do you ever wonder how people get such glowing reviews to feature on their portfolios?

I know, I know, they do awesome work! But I’m going to let you in on a secret: most freelancers request those glowing reviews.

So when you finish a product you’re proud of, ask the client (and anyone you collaborated with) to shoot you a testimonial. Just make sure you get permission to feature it on your site.

And you can get testimonials about other work you’ve done. If you’re changing careers, ask your former coworker to write a few sentences on what working with you was like. And don’t forget to return the favor!

Pro tip: For some people (especially people who don’t consider themselves writers) the thought of composing a testimonial might be daunting. If your former client, supervisor, or coworker balks at the idea of coming up with a testimonial, offer to draft one up for them for approval. It happens more often than you realize!

On her digital communications consultancy, Logic & Grace, Courtney features a beautiful slider of testimonials from current and former clients:


4. Earn badges

If you think about it, what is the point of showcasing awesome projects in your portfolio? I think it’s two-fold. You want to prove to potential clients that you are competent and skilled, and you want to showcase your style.

But you don’t have to rely on former projects to prove that you can get the job done. Try earning skill badges through programs like Open Badges. You can rate your levels of mastery in different skillsets and feature badges on your own site.


5. Showcase your education

For that matter, don’t be afraid to feature your education in your portfolio. Explaining what you learned in a training program like Skillcrush can go a long way. It shows what you learned and how dedicated you are to your new career.

And don’t shy away from featuring other courses you’ve taken online (even free ones!) or in-person workshops through meetups like Girl Develop It.

Maren Vernon lists all the Skillcrush courses she has taken, and the digital chops she learned in each one:


6. Include ALL your online projects

Since you’ve already mentioned your education, why not include the work you did learning your skills? And don’t limit yourself to just final projects for major courses. Include any exercises, “mini-projects”, or even steps of larger projects as separate pieces in your portfolio.

If you built an app using JavaScript and jQuery, go beyond just including an screenshot and link to the app itself. Put in screenshots of the mock-up you did when you were planning the app, how the app looked before you made it interactive, and even different shots showing off certain features of the app, like maybe the slick drop-down menus you created or the fun onboarding instructions screen.

Web designers can also put in color palettes, assets, or wireframes. And developers can particularly clever bits of coding. Anything that serves as proof of your skills and knowledge is more than worthy of a place in your portfolio.

Just take a look at Amanda Conrad’s gorgeous portfolio (she was one of our very early Skillcrush students!). She features process, not just final product. In a design for a gelato company, she created a user experience flow and featured it on her site:


7. Describe “what” and tell “how.”

Although a picture can be worth a thousand words, now’s not the time to stop at a screenshot! Telling more about the work you include in your portfolio can be what makes the difference between you landing your dream job or not.

First, tell what each item in your portfolio is. This is especially important for potential employers who get links to dozens, if not hundreds, of portfolios every day. If they can immediately see what a screenshot or graphic is they might be intrigued enough to click through to read more about it.

Just be sure to have more for them to read! Tell how you created your work. Describe the specs or goals for the projects, how you came up with the solution, the tools or methods you used, the obstacles you overcame, the lessons you learned, the skills you gained, the benefits of the end result, etc. This helps companies and clients both understand what you can offer them and what they can expect working with you – which is invaluable when you don’t have much experience under your belt but are dying to be chosen as their next designer or developer.

Skillcrush Web Design Blueprint alum Stacey Baldini does a great job of describing the stages she moves through while working on a project:


8. Expand your definition of “portfolio.”

There’s no need to limit yourself to just featuring your web design or web development work in your online portfolio. Anything that you can use to prove you have valuable skills is fair game — and finding a way to show it off can be yet more proof of your passions, experience, and skills.

So, if you’re an amazing painter or a fantastic writer, you should have some photos of your paintings or samples of your writing in your portfolio. Any work you do speaks to the aesthetics, work ethic, and enthusiasm that you’ll bring to your work in tech.

And you who knows if a client might also want to buy one of your watercolors or a company might also be looking for a content contributor for their blog. One portfolio, two sources of income – Double the funds!

Web designer (and alum of the Skillcrush Freelance WordPress Developer Blueprint) Emily Wiegand doesn’t just feature her tech projects on her portfolio – she also shares her architectural projects, like the bookshelf desk she designed (and built!) and a bridge she designed for a competition in Amsterdam.


9. Feature community involvement.

Another non-digital aspect to point out in your portfolio is your participation in any groups or organizations. If you attend tech meet-ups or are part of professional organizations, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to list them. But don’t leave out your other activities just because they’re not “techy”.

There might be a techy aspect of the group or your role in it – like you create HTML newsletters for your local entrepreneurs’ club or you maintain the WordPress site for an annual music festival in the area. Those are both terrific examples of you using your skills “in real life” as well as working in a team and on projects – which can add up to real experience in the eyes of people looking to hire you.

Check out the way Skillcrush alum Paola Maldonado (who just landed a job as a Mobile Developer at Buzzfeed! Go Paola!) features her role in co-founding NYC Tech Latinas, front and center:


10. Be a pirate.

And not just so you can say “Yarr”! (Although that’s really fun, isn’t it? Go ahead. Say it one more time. Yarr!) Being a pirate here means looking around at the work other people are doing and using it as inspiration for your own portfolio.

Of course that NEVER means copying. But it does mean taking an idea that you love and turning it into your own. You could take a cool logo re-do that you saw on Dribbble and re-do it yet again in your own style. Or you could use a beautiful font combination as a jumping off point to find a similarly stunning pair for your own site.

A little pirating is also involved when it comes to the “classics” of portfolios. But just because EVERY developer makes a fizzbuzz game or every designer does a wireframe of their personal site doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it too. There’s a reason they’re classics – they are timeless ways to highlight what you can do. So, do it!

Jen Best includes Skillcrush Web Developer Blueprint challenges and exercises, like her First Rails App and a Weather App to demonstrate that she understands the ins and outs of web development:


11. Redesign an existing site or app

Taking the pirate fun in step 10 to the next level could be a total makeover of a well-known site or app. You know that there’s more than a few famous ones out there that you’d just love to get your hands on. Well, now’s your chance. Give it a fresh look or new code from top to bottom – and remember to describe, describe, describe like in step 7.

You can tackle one of the big players like Facebook or Twitter – or what if you reimagined the landing page of Google? Their iconic homepage is simple enough to take on as a starter project yet full of lots of juicy challenges (which is why we include it as one of the student projects in Skillcrush 101). Or, choose one of your favorites – or how about least favorites. (Craigslist – Love the info. The design? Not so much…)

And you never know where this could take you. It’s not unheard of for a company to see a redesign done for a portfolio and decide to give the creator a job working for the company itself. In fact, that’s just what happened to UX Designer Ximena Vengoechea. Check out some of her redesigns for Quibb and Sharitive, plus a combination weather and alarm app for iOS.


12. Tell your story.

If you can’t show someone your latest work (yet!), you can help them get to know you by explaining who you are and where you’re coming from.

Try building an infographic that maps out how you got here. This tip might seem like it’s just for graphic designers, but it’s perfect for developers too. (Hint: how about making an infographic app? Now you’re making some portfolio magic!)

Or find a quirky way to describe your personality and work history, like Skillcrush’s very own Aisha Souto-Maior.


13. Demonstrate what you do – don’t just say it.

Sometimes this idea gets lost in the excitement and occasional stress of portfolio building. It’s not 1987 and you’re not using a TRS-80 and a dot matrix to print your resume. The sky’s the pretty much the limit now that your “resume” (i.e. portfolio) is online.

You’ll still want to have some text and descriptions (see step 7) but the whole point of your portfolio is to show you can do the work. And your portfolio is where you’ll be showing it.

A perfect example of this is copywriter Laura Belgray’s site, Talking Shrimp. Laura says that she writes text “that sounds like you talk and makes people want what you sell,” so she better darn well have text on her own site that sounds like she talks and makes people want what she sells – and she definitely does!


So, as a web designer or a web developer, you’ll want to use the cleanest and most organized code to create your portfolio and the most refined design and UI you can whip up. Don’t stress yourself out about it, but do your very best. Your portfolio might be the only thing an employer looks at when making a decision about you so make sure it’s a clear and genuine demonstration of all the amazing things you can do.

Check out how Jamie Raymond demonstrates her killer front-end web development skills on her own site:


14. Create resources for others.

If you’re new to the game and short on projects, build up your name by sharing with others. Try creating a resource list (like Ximena’s product designer toolkit!), going public with your coding journey like Laurence Bradford does on her site Learn to Code with Me.


Still overwhelmed? Don’t be. The most important thing you can do is share what you’re proud of and do your best to showcase (and explain) everything that makes you you, AND makes you hireable.

Ready to build an amazing portfolio, but short on tech skills? Get started in a Web Designer or Web Developer Career Blueprint, or level up your current digital skills in the Freelance WordPress Developer. Sign up now and be the first to know when classes open.

Get the Beginner's Guide to What to Put in Your Tech Portfolio

Get the Beginner's Guide to What to Put in Your Tech Portfolio

Get dozens of resources, plus expert tips on how to build a KILLER portfolio even if you're an absolute beginner.

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    I actually have a question. I already have a website but as a photographer so when I google myself, my SEO will all point to this other business. I am making the switch over to front end/web dev. In your opinion, should I keep the businesses separated or should I join them? I need to jump on this portfolio thing but I am struggling. 

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      When people Google you, which would you like to show up? That’s your answer :)

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