What Should You Look for in a Software Engineer Portfolio?

Although software engineers are in high demand, hiring them is hard. Understanding a software engineer portfolio isn’t something they teach you in Hiring 101.

To help with that, we’re going to share four steps to get the most out of looking at a developer’s portfolio site. Then we’re going to walk you through some of the things you should look for in a software engineer portfolio.

By the end of this article, you will be in an excellent place to find impressive candidates for the positions you have available.

Four Steps for Success When Looking at Software Engineer Portfolios

As tempting as it is to start clicking around to get a feel for a potential new hire, you need a good plan. Often, you’re looking at several candidates at once. Unlike resumes, there are no standards for portfolio websites.

1. Define the Role You are Filling

The first step is to define the role. Doing this will help ground your other actions and prevent you from reviewing portfolios without proper context.

Two questions you should ask yourself are:

  • What is the job title?
  • What is the expected level of seniority?

You can arrive at these answers by talking to the hiring managers or look at the job specs, if available.

Once you have defined the role, you can move onto step two.

2. Define the Skills Needed

Now you know the role to consider when reviewing the software engineer’s portfolio. The next step is to break the job down into the required skills and attributes.

We’re going to cover some of these skills later, so don’t worry if you aren’t sure what you need to be looking for. A well-written job spec will include these.

Take the skills and put them into a spreadsheet. You are going to use this spreadsheet to record evidence of candidates’ proficiency in said skills.

Naming the spreadsheet by job title and seniority helps when referencing this later.

The finished spreadsheet will look like this:

A spreadsheet table show skills along one side and evidence fro two people in the next two columns.
An example of the spreadsheet you should use

Creating a spreadsheet is helpful for several reasons:

  • It keeps your browsing focused
  • It helps you keep track of the skills you couldn’t find evidence for
  • It’s a resource to reference during interviews

Once you have a well-defined list of skills to look for, move on to step three.

3. Look for Examples of Those Skills in the Portfolio

With your spreadsheet prepped, add the candidate’s name and start looking for evidence.

By the end of your browse through their portfolio, you should have added some notes for each skill. We find it useful to add links to their site that showcase the various skills. If you can’t find any evidence, you should write “no evidence.”

4. Make Some Decisions

By this step, you have gathered your evidence for each candidate. Now you need to act on this information and make some decisions about moving a candidate forward or not.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for this. Lack of evidence doesn’t mean a lack of skill. It means they haven’t showcased something. However, if you couldn’t find any evidence they would fit this role, it is not the role for them.

You’re not finished with your spreadsheet yet! If you’ve invited a candidate to continue the hiring process, take notes of where you couldn’t find evidence for something. These are areas you can dig into during the interview.

If you’re rejecting a candidate, use the data you have to provide feedback, if possible. This will help them do better at selling their portfolio to the next potential employer.

What Skills to Look for in a Software Engineer Portfolio

For the rest of this article, we’re going to be talking about the skills to look for. This is not an exhaustive list. The skills you need are dependent on the project, the team and the job spec.

These skills will give you a fabulous starting point. Soon you will be an expert at reading developer portfolios!

Universal Skills

Regardless of the role, there are skills you should look for when reviewing portfolio websites.

  • Communication – Is the candidate an excellent communicator? Do they match what they are trying to say to their intended audience? Have they given talks?
  • Empathy – Does the candidate care about the people they are working with and for? Are they dismissive of “the user”?
  • Ethics – Does the developer showcase that they understand the ethical implications of software?
  • Appropriate use of toolsets – Has the engineer shown that they can evaluate toolsets and pick the right tools for the job?

Other skills you might incorporate are desirable traits you want to have in your company. If you have a culture of reflection, evidence of performing reviews would be positive.

Front-End Developer Skills to Look for in a Portfolio

Due to the nature of front-end development, a lot of the skills the developer will need are skills they can showcase in a portfolio. For example, if you need a front-end developer with an eye for design, their portfolio site should look visually pleasing.

  • Accessible – Does the developer make software in a way that allows it to be usable by the majority of people?
  • Performant – Has the developer shown care over how much data the project uses and how fast it works for the end-user?
  • Standards – Does the code use current best practices and standards?

Front end work is visual and interactive. You can expect to find interactive demos and experiments in a front-end developer’s portfolio.

Back-End Developer Skills to Look for in a Portfolio

With a back-end developer role, things become a bit more interesting. The nature of back-end development means the work isn’t visible. Yet there are plenty of things you can look for when evaluating a back-end engineer portfolio.

  • Understands fundamentals – Does the developer have a grasp of the fundamentals of the languages and tools they use?
  • Reasons well about tooling – Is there evidence that the developer reasons about the options open to them and picks an appropriate one?
  • Shows the code – Does the candidate work in the open? Do they show their code when possible with work samples?

Part of the back-end developer’s portfolio will be their version control profile, such as a Github or Gitlab account.

With any technical role, you might want to ask someone on your team with a relevant skillset to help review the portfolio.

Looking for Experience in a Software Engineer Portfolio

The importance of skills will change depending on the level of experience you need. You wouldn’t expect a junior developer to be able to architect new solutions or mentor people.

Generally speaking, the more junior the role, the more slack you can cut someone. Look for evidence of being curious and trying different things.

When hiring more experienced people, look for evidence of how they plan and bring others along with them.

Go Forth and Find Awesome Software Engineers!

To summarize, when looking at a software engineer portfolio, you should:

  • Understand the role
  • Understand the skills required for that role, using our examples as a starting point
  • Document your evidence
  • Make decisions based on the information you’ve gathered

We’re always interested in seeing great examples of programmer portfolios. Please share yours with us on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments below.

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