How Writing Down Portfolio Summaries Can Help You

May 17, 2016

How Writing Down Portfolio Summaries Can Help You Ace the Initial Interview

Picture of pen writing

“Tell me about your experience.” Usually some variation of this question is how every initial phone screen starts, especially if it’s a non-technical gatekeeper.

The first time I got this question, I’m pretty sure I stumbled a bit as I went through my prepared answer(s). Certainly, I didn’t have everything memorized word for word.

And though I can’t say for certain, this stumbling around may possibly have been why I didn’t get further along in the interview process for those companies.

But I pressed on with my programming job search

Eventually, in addition to links to my code and functioning websites, I prepared written, high-level summaries of what I had done on my portfolio site (you can see it here at

Since most every phone call I took was before or after work hours and I was able to bring up my portfolio site, now when I got asked that question I was able to easily talk about what I had done very confidently and fluidly since I was reading straight from the site.

By not relying on my memory, I inadvertently memorized what I needed to say

As I went on more interviews, I found I didn’t need to rely on my written summaries as much. In fact, I could talk about what I had done off the cuff and have fun improvising a bit.

I’m sure some of you may be thinking “it’s only the code that matters”

And I would say you are right. In terms of impressing a technical hiring manager, great code and well-executed projects that show you can get things done are far more important than whether or not you stutter a bit with your answers.

But in today’s marketplace, the reality is that you’ll end up working with non-programmer types and it’s extremely helpful to convince a non-techical gatekeeper that you can communicate well. After all, if it’s your first job, and you’re applying to a run-of-the-mill business (as opposed to someplace like Google), that company may place much more emphasis on what the non-technical gatekeeper says, at least at first. So if they say something like, “eh, they were too nervous / they just couldn’t communicate their results well, so they may not be a great fit”, your chances may end right there.

You may not even get to impress the technical hiring manager with your code if you can’t get past the gatekeeper

But you’re still not out of the woods. Because the reality is, a technical hiring manager would also like to see someone who communicates well. They may place more weight on your coding chops, but if there are 2 people with roughly the same coding chops but one is a stronger communicator, guess who wins in today’s marketplace?

So let’s dive into that portfolio summary

What is a portfolio summary? Really it’s a 1-3 sentence description of each project that showcases your abilities. It should communicate the following pieces of information:

  • A high level technical description of what you did
  • How what you did helped move the business/company/institution forward

It’s simple, but not necessarily easy especially if it’s your first time doing job interviews.

As an example, let’s dissect a summary I wrote

Here is the summary for a Time Tracking project I worked on:

Working on a Rails 3.2 legacy codebase to allow statistical research consultants to track their time and billing on client work. It uses AJAX and jQuery to allow real-time updates of the relevant numbers on the client facing user interface.

There’s some technical bits I mention like the Rails version (Rails 3.2) to let a hiring manager know I’ve dealt with legacy code bases and contributed. There’s also bits about AJAX and jQuery to let the hiring manager I’ve worked on the front end as well. The part that communicates how I helped move the company forward is track their time and billing on client work.

I actually could make that even stronger by tying that result to how it saved researchers time and/or the institution money. But in my humble opinion, it still does the job.

To summarize:

A well written portfolio summary for each of your projects will help you:

  • Get your story straight and into your memory so you can talk fluidly and confidently about your experience
  • Will help you keep things at a non-technical, yet results-oriented level for non-technical gatekeepers
  • Will give you practice at communicating your skills and accomplishments

So go write those portfolio summaries and get that job!