A common question I get is “What if I don’t have any internships?“. What exactly goes on the resume if there’s no previous relevant job history? If you are in this position, there’s a few things you can highlight.
The goal of the technical portfolio is to show you are capable of using some different technologies and you have an interest in tinkering. While of course, having something extremely impressive like the top game in the app store or a website that gets 1M users would be preferable, it’s also not realistic. A good portfolio does not need to be filled with amazing apps and projects. It needs to be filled with completed projects.
A completed project can be entirely understood without explanation from you. Someone looking at your project should understand your motivation, your goal, your outcomes, and any future plans. Projects do not necessarily need to be a website, an app, or a game. You get bonus points from industry professionals if they aren’t school projects. It can be a few graphs from a dataset you found interesting and a writeup on what these visualizations imply. It could be your personal website with just a few things about yourself. It can be documentation for a specific feature on an open source project.
Let’s think about that last example of writing documentation. Perhaps the technical knowledge was actually relatively simple. Why highlight it? Because software engineering is often trying to address scale. In order to build something at scale, you have to scale people. However, as you increase the number of people, the marginal effective labor of each person goes down. Think about the last time you wrote a piece of code yourself versus when you needed to coordinate with someone else to write it. With one other person, maybe you just had an email chain you sent back and forth. With 10, you’ll probably require in person meetings and regular syncing. At 100? 1,000? It doesn’t even become reasonable to coordinate a meeting at that point. That is why writing is important. Having good examples of writing in your portfolio is a big plus because interviews typically don’t cover this skill.
Extracurriculars are clubs, groups, and events that you participate in outside of academics or jobs. The reason you highlight extracurriculars is to show you have soft skills like planning, people relations, and driving an idea from conception to execution.
I read a resume once from a student who was on an executive board for an Asian American student group. His bullet point underneath said “Balanced an $8,000 budget; Headed an Asian-themed fashion show event”. What he actually did was:
- Nurtured an intense passion and love for fashion
- Conceived of an idea to combine his unique skills and community together
- Organized the location, the staff, the budget, and the schedule
- Made actual clothes for the models to wear
- Marketed and drove turnout for over a hundred people
It took months of planning and effort. That’s a lot of impressive work that isn’t being highlighted properly with just “Headed an Asian-themed fashion show event”. Give the metrics and the details that showcase your skills. If you are doing so on a website, include pictures!
Hiring, from the company perspective, is about reducing the risk that the new hire is a lemon. Perfectly good candidates will get passed on because there is uncertainty. By telling your narrative, you give the company a look into your riskiness— and potential.
Your narrative should come in a few different forms. A tagline on a resume, an elevator pitch on a LinkedIn profile, and maybe a long form story on a website. The goal of your narrative is largely up to you. Some people strive to demonstrate they’re hardworking and quick learners. Others want to highlight their motivation. Regardless of how you want to tell your story, your narrative should showcase something your resume cannot.
I remember one student who had no extracurriculars or portfolio work because she was working a full time job at Chipotle while pursuing her college degree. Her preferred career path was finance and she wasn’t sure how to get her first job. If you are in this boat, think about why you’re working a full time job. Most likely if you’re a college student, you’re doing it for the money. What do you need the money for? What is motivating you? Why do you want to pursue something that isn’t that current job? Even if the current job isn’t relevant to your career, how have you made an impact?
The goal of the first job is to get your foot in the door. If you can tell your story, it only takes one person to give you a chance.