Taking Your Show on the Road: Constructing and Using an Online Portfolio

After I spent days wandering the aisles of warehouse stores looking for a five-inch binder, the idea of rethinking my portfolio started to make sense. Eventually I found the binder, but it was cheap plastic, not the brass and leather that had been my portfolio’s original housing. Clearly, my practice of simply adding a new section each time I worked for a new client was starting to be impractical. Even more clearly, it was going to fail about the time I tried to migrate to a seven-inch binder.

The obvious approach was to prune my portfolio’s contents. However, this idea was about as attractive as shaving with a chainsaw. I’m an experienced technical writer, damnit, and I want my portfolio to show it. More importantly, I sell myself as an experienced generalist, and a full and varied portfolio supports this claim.

Then I remembered the panic-stricken days when I was struggling to find my first technical writing job. Briefly, I had considered putting my makeshift portfolio on floppy disk. Lack of disk space and a widely-used viewing format made the idea impractical, but technology had moved on in six years, and neither problem existed now. Why not put my portfolio on CD?

Late in the summer of 2001, I plunged into the project on my holiday. The construction issues were uncomplicated, but, in putting my portfolio online, I found myself rethinking its structure for the first time–not just adding to it. The result is nothing fancy–just a series of Acrobat files, organized by project type, with title pages and links for navigation. Your design decisions will probably be different from mine, but you’ll find that a CD portfolio’s convenience during job hunting and interviews and its marketing advantages–to say nothing of the amount of information it can carry in a compact format–make it a job hunting tool that’s second to none.

Before You Start

To make a professional presentation with your CD portfolio, you need the following equipment:
A CD/R or CD/RW drive: Obviously, a basic pre-condition for the project. If you don’t already have one, get as fast a one as you can afford–at least a 12x writable drive. You never know when you need to burn a new CD just before you bolt out the door to an interview.

A scanner: If you’re like me, you don’t have the electronic files for all the samples in your paper portfolio. Scanned pages take up more space than a FrameMaker file, but they could greatly increase your possible samples.

A color printer: Not strictly necessary, but useful for creating a professional-looking CD label and for seeing how samples will look if a client prints them off (and they will print them off, chances are, even if you ask that they don’t).

Many technical writers have some or all of these tools in their home office already. If not, you can outfit yourself with all three for well under $500 [US] (and, chances are, write them off on your taxes; in most jurisdictions, job hunting expenses like a portfolio are an allowable expense).

If you can’t afford this equipment, ask around. Each of these items is becoming increasingly common, and the chances are that some friend or family member will have one or all of these items. The results will be worth the effort.

Planning the Portfolio Format

The file format for your CD portfolio should be as convenient for its viewers as possible. In most cases, that means that it should not require a specific operating system to view it. Nor, in general, should it require a specific piece of commercial software. At the same time, if design is part of what you sell, you want to preserve formatting.

Only a handful of formats even begin to meet these requirement:

  • PowerPoint: This format is viewable by many employers, and possibly useful for ads or single pages, but it’s less suitable for displaying multi-page samples. It can be viewed on non-Microsoft systems using Star/Open Office or another slide viewer, but formatting is often mangled by translation filters.
  • Windows help files: This format is widely viewable, but does not preserve formatting of many types of samples. View is limited on non-Microsoft systems.
  • Postscript: This option is cross-platform and preserves formatting; it’s best suited for viewing on UNIX or Linux systems, which often include a viewer. A viewer is necessary on most Windows systems.
  • HTML: This option is cross-platform and is ideal for Web links; however, many types of samples would lose formatting.
  • Acrobat: This option is cross-platform, with free readers readily available. It also preserves formatting, especially if all fonts are embedded, and is ideal for including samples in a wide variety of formats. This option also includes security, which may slow down or discourage limited copying, but does not prevent it.

Because I advertise a rough and ready knowledge of design and because I have worked with a wide variety of tools, Acrobat was the only real choice. I might have preferred HTML, which almost everyone knows how to navigate, but Acrobat links are close enough to HTML links that I could imitate a Web page in Acrobat without any problem.

You may find other formats suitable, depending on your samples and where you are applying. For example, if you’re positioning yourself as a writer of help files, Windows Help might be a better option for you. For that
matter, if all your samples are in Microsoft Word, and you never plan on applying to Linux shops, then there’s no reason why you couldn’t do a portfolio entirely in Word.

Selecting Basic Contents

Samples for your CD portfolio will come from a number of sources:

Word processing and desktop publishing files: These samples are created within common programs such as Word, FrameMaker, or PageMaker. As many technical writers know, if you want to convert these files into Acrobat, you generally get better results by outputting to a postscript file first, rather than saving as a PDF from within the programs.

Scanned files: These samples are mostly taken from paper copies when a word processing file isn’t–or has never been–available. Since these files are graphical, they are much larger than most word processing files. If you are interested in showing your design skills, you might want to scan some pages printed from a word processing file, and cut and paste them together to make a two-page spread in a program like PhotoShop or the GIMP.

Screen captures: Screen captures are useful mainly for online help files in portfolios that don’t use online help systems in their basic format. Like scanned files, screen captures take up space because of their graphical format.

Web site links: These samples redirect viewers to samples of your work on the Internet. If you are linking to an online article, then viewers can see your work in its published setting. If you think that previous clients are unlikely to have high speed connections to serve your published samples, you may want to limit these links to text-only pages, or not use them at all.

No matter what the source of each sample, always ask the client’s permission before using it:

  • Be specific and ask for permission to use the sample exactly as you intend to. For example, if you leave the CD portfolio behind, there’s a good chance that it might be copied electronically or physically, so ask the client for whom you did the work if there’s any problem with that. In some cases, there will be. Some clients, for instance, may be nervous about potential competitors seeing their work. Often, you can overcome these qualms by ensuring that a sample contains no confidential information; alternatively, you can doctor screen captures by putting in dummy information or by blanking data fields.
  • Get permission to include links to Web sites, too, if your samples are located on the Internet. Not that many sites are likely to object to a link–although some might–but professional courtesy is never wasted.
  • Exclude the sample from your portfolio if you don’t obtain permission or if you don’t get a response. People in high-tech talk and move about, for example, so your illegal use of a sample might get noticed. Getting a sample just doesn’t justify risking your professional reputation.

Selecting Bells and Whistles

Depending on how you use your portfolio and the skills you bring to market, you may want to add some extras to your samples:

Notes: Comments about the contents and the design of each sample. For example, what writing or design skills does the sample illustrate? Are you satisfied with the design, or did you have to compromise to meet a client’s needs or a deadline? Would you do anything differently now? What other writers or designers had a hand in the sample? What other writers or designers had a hand in the sample? After all, it’s not only ethical to give proper credit, but also avoids the embarrassment of having the lapse noticed.

Some writers put notes on a separate page. Others add them as callouts to the sample. With a CD portfolio in Acrobat, you could also use the Notes tool to annotate the sample, or provide links to your comments in other files.

In my hardcopy portfolio, my notes are usually a script I have in front of me when I’m talking about the samples. However, this preference is due entirely to lack of space. I don’t want other pages in my portfolio (I’m already up to a five inch binder, remember?), and the clutter created by too many callouts is one of my pet peeves in any circumstance. But, in Acrobat, I can add as many notes as I want without significantly adding to the clutter. The problem (as those who know me can attest), is not to say too much.

Viewing software: The software needed to view your samples, such as Acroread or ghostview (gv). Viewing software is not strictly necessary, but it allows you to accommodate anyone who doesn’t already have it. If I ever ran short of sample space, I’d remove the viewing software from the CD, but, meanwhile, it’s a useful addition.

Multimedia elements: These extras could include sound and movie files or scripts if you’re using Acrobat, or even Flash and Macromedia presentations in HTML. No matter what multimedia touches you add, be sure that they are either royalty free or your own creation. Professionals don’t violate copyrights; it’s as simple as that.

For my CD portfolio, I thought long and hard about multimedia elements. In the end, I decided against them for several reasons:

  • Multimedia files eat up space. Despite all the megabytes on a CD, I would quickly fill it, even with a modest multimedia presentation.
  • Business computers may not have some of the necessary plug-ins. In fact, some companies limit multimedia players, both to save drive space and to limit employees’ Internet activities.
  • More conservative businesses might consider multimedia unprofessional. Ever heard the comments about job applicants who include a photo with their resume? Or arrange their list of job skills into a cartoon of themselves? Same thing with multimedia.
  • All audiences are jaded with most multimedia: Letters sliding into place to the sound of explosions or dopplered sounds are about as current as the Spice Girls. So are electronic music and rolling thunder. And, by the fourth or fifth encounter with a multimedia presentation, jadedness can develop into a distinct testiness. “All flash,” people think, “and no sizzle.” I don’t want this verdict transferred to me and my job hopes.

Anyway, there’s nothing more pathetic than a middle-aged man following yesterday’s fads, so I decided to keep whatever rags of dignity I might have left.

If multimedia savvy is among your job skills, you may decide differently. Even then, unless you can think of something original, you’re probably better off keeping your portfolio simple. Personally, I’m a writer who does some basic design on the side, and I want my portfolio to reflect that. If you’re anything like me, multimedia content would only overwhelm the features that you want viewers to notice.

Organizing the Contents

Whether hardcopy or electronic, most portfolios I’ve seen are organized in one of three ways:

  • Chronologically: Usually, the earliest pieces are last, the most recent first. This organizing principle is easy to update, so it tends to be used by writers who only occasionally need to look for a job.
  • By company: All work done for a particular company is placed together, with a title page to mark each company. This organization principle is ideal for those whose work doesn’t vary, but can be confusing if a writer does business, marketing communication, and technical writing for the same company. Often, it is combined with chronological order, so it tends to be easy to update.
  • By content: Work is divided into different categories, such as online help and product sheets, with a title page for each section. From my experience on the interviewer’s side of the table, I believe that this is the rarest of the three, probably because it requires the greatest effort to keep updated.

Most writers, I suspect, choose chronological or company order without making a deliberate decision. The first time they put their portfolio together, they usually have few samples, so these structures make sense. If they are not contracting, they rarely think about the structure, except to add new samples.

However, if you’re a seasoned writer, developing a CD portfolio gives you a chance to think about the structure again. When you take this second look, you are likely to find that the structure that was adequate for a raw beginner (whose main concern was samples–any samples) does not do justice to the seasoned veteran of today. You have more samples, and possibly more types of samples, so a higher degree of organization is needed.

This was my reasoning process as I started preparing my CD portfolio. Onscreen viewing is much less forgiving than hardcopy, and a structure that is acceptable on paper will show its weaknesses on the screen. I soon realized that, if my portfolio was going to represent me adequately, it could only be organized by content.

Perhaps if I regularly worked in a single industry, I might have considered organizing by company, but I don’t. As for chronological order, it seems such a weak organizing principle that I hardly considered it.

Over an evening, I rearranged my portfolio into several categories:

  • Ad Campaigns: Samples of ad campaigns that I have overseen or written copy for. I give artistic credits prominently, so that nobody imagines that I’m claiming responsibility for everything.
  • Journalism: Published articles and columns. I try to lean toward the configuration and how-to articles, since these are the types of journalism that are closest to technical writing. However, I also include some opinion, news, and people-oriented columns to show that I’m capable of other types of writing.
  • Kudos: Articles about me or ones that quote me as an expert. I also include the few quotes that I’ve managed to pick up from users about my technical documentation. If you enter contests, you might also include awards that you had won in this section.
  • Makeovers: Before and after shots of manuals I’ve revised and updated. Many makeovers are from my early days as a technical writer, when I was desperate to have something to put in the portfolio, but they are still useful today as a quick illustration of the services I offer, especially when I’m selling design.
  • Manuals: Paper and online documents, ranging from Quick Starts to complete help systems. I try to include documentation written for different levels of users. In my script, I talk about how the users affect the writing, as well as about how corporate branding affects the design.
  • Marketing: Brochures, product sheets, CD sleeves, posters, success stories, and commercial software boxes that I’ve had a hand in. Again, I give prominent credit to other people’s work.
  • Miscellaneous: Classroom exercises, early pieces done for the portfolio, and volunteer work–in short, anything that doesn’t belong anywhere else or that is a one-of-a-kind that I want to show.
  • News Releases: Official company releases, as well as one or two public letters I’ve ghosted for CEOs.
  • Resume: A current copy of my resume, as well as lists of classes that I’ve taught and taken. I include the classes I’ve taught because I sometimes apply for jobs that require instruction. Anything else relevant to my job experience also goes here.

This rearrangement made so much sense that I braved broken fingers to open my paper portfolio’s binder ring and rearrange its samples.

You might have other categories, depending on what you’ve done. Business Writing might be a useful category for corporate profiles, biographies, and case studies. Windows Help might be appropriate if you’ve done a lot of help systems. Perhaps you want to highlight a particular type of writing, such as white papers, by giving it a section to itself. If you’re short on professional writing, an Academic or Volunteer Work section might be appropriate.

The point is to select categories according to the available samples, and how you want to present yourself. Then, when you want to display your skills, you can direct viewers to exactly where they want to go, instead of forcing them to search through all your samples for the few that they’re interested in.

Remember: Everything you do on the job involves organizing information, so your portfolio’s structure is as much an example of your skill as correct spelling and punctuation is on your resume.

Putting Your Portfolio Together

With your portfolio planned, you’re now ready to put it together:

Step 1: Create the files. The files can include both your samples and talking points. For single-page samples, a two-page spread with your comments on the left and the sample on the right is ideal, but, for longer samples, you may want other alternatives. In Acrobat, a Note in the upper left hand corner of the sample may be a useful place for comments.

Whatever their contents, the main concern with files is their size. Even though a CD gives you plenty of space, leave room for your portfolio to grow. Scanned files or screen shots are likely to take up the most space, so experiment with file formats, resolutions, and color palettes to reduce their size. If, like me, you choose to use Acrobat format, you can also save space by optimizing files.

Other things to remember when using Acrobat are:

  • Use Distiller, not the plug-ins for Word or FrameMaker.
  • Set the Distiller job options to “Screen Optimized.”
  • Set the job options to “Embed All Fonts” if you use any unusual fonts.
  • Consider whether you want backwards compatibility. My personal preference is to make all Acrobat files compatible with version 3.0. Not only are people spread out over all the recent versions, but also some readers on non-Windows platforms may not be compatible with the latest version.
  • Decide whether you want any security options. Acrobat security is so weak that I generally don’t bother, but it might prevent some casual copying.

Whatever your chosen format, experiment with a file or two until you’ve produced an optimum file. Once you’ve perfected a couple of files, the rest should be routine.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t forget to change to a color printer driver. So much of a technical writer’s work is black and white, you can easily forget this option (which is to say, I did, repeatedly).

Step 2: Design title pages for the portfolio sections. Title pages should include your name, your company name (if you have one), contact information, and a menu that links to the portfolio samples.

Whatever you do, don’t forget the contact information. As a frequent browser of corporate Web pages, I’m constantly irked by the difficulty of finding contact information. More times than you might imagine, Web sites give either incomplete information or none at all. Since the purpose of the portfolio is have clients contact you, be sure that they can easily do so.

Embellish the title page with artwork to taste. However, don’t lie awake at night worrying if you’re not a designer. Viewers won’t be lingering on the title page any longer than they have to, and, unless you’re selling yourself as a designer, easy navigation is more important than artwork. Even then, simply arranged words are better than cheap clip art. If you need direction, think of a corporate home page on the Web.

Step 3: Link the title pages and files. This is the most mechanical part of creating the CD. If you’re using Acrobat, you can be content with bookmarks, or create your own links.

My own decision was to avoid the bookmarks. With long titles, they can only be read by resizing the
column–an action that many people don’t even know is possible. Moreover, a long list of bookmarks is disheartening–to me, anyway–and I don’t want to discourage reading. Anyway, the people looking at my portfolio are likely familiar with Web links, so why not imitate them as closely as I can?

Step 4: Design and print a CD label. The CD label should contain your name and contact information, and look as much like your title pages as possible.

In addition, I include a version number, so that I can track changes to the portfolio easily, and make sure that I grab the current version as I’m packing for an interview. This version number is keyed to a change log I keep in a plain text file in the root directory of the CD that lists all the files on the CD and their sources.

Step 5: Test the CD and the navigation. When you’re finished, check all your files and all your links. If possible, check them on different machines and operating systems, and get someone else to check for you. If your files won’t open on Linux, or if a link is a broken, better for your professional image for you to make the discovery than an interviewer.

Taking the Show on the Road

Once I finished my CD portfolio, I started mentioning it at the end of query letters and offering to send it to potential employers; I also started carrying it to job interviews. I like to think that, in both cases, the CD portfolio sets me apart from most other applicants. Many applicants don’t even have a portfolio, let alone one ready on CD. So, if nothing else, it shows that I’m better prepared than most, and willing to go to some effort.

Clients who respond to my offer and ask for the CD are almost always those with a serious interest in my services. So far, of the dozen CDs I’ve dropped in the mail, five have resulted in contracts, and another four are likely to. Of course, clients who ask for the CD may simply be ready to hire. Some, however, tell me that they appreciate being able to look over the portfolio at their leisure. And sending the CD provides an ideal excuse for a follow-up contact that reminds potential clients that I exist without applying any high-pressure tactics. After all, they asked for the CD. What could be more natural than asking whether they got it, or had any questions?

At the job interview, the fact that I’ve sent the CD ahead seems to help, too. Recently, I was interviewed at a company that I had sent a CD to. The interview was much friendlier than the average one set up after a glance at my resume. Coincidence? Possibly, but I don’t think so. The interviewer mentioned that he had had trouble in the past with technical writers promising what they couldn’t perform. “But,” he added, waving my CD, “I can see that won’t be a problem here.” Later he admitted that he probably wouldn’t have considered talking to another writer if my CD hadn’t shown my competence beforehand.

If the interviewer wants to see the CD portfolio immediately, a moment usually comes when we gather around a computer to give my presentation. There’s nothing like clustering around a monitor to make people feel like colleagues–and that’s not a bad feeling for the interviewer to have toward me. More importantly, viewing the CD breaks the static faceoff across a table that is typical of most interviews, and it gives me a chance to control the dialogue and to make sure that none of the points I use to sell myself go unnoticed.

In effect, using the CD changes the atmosphere from that of an interview to that of a sales presentation. Not that an interview isn’t a type of sales presentation, but, under normal circumstances, that’s a fact that is easy to forget. As we gather around the computer to look at the CD, the purpose of the interview is suddenly much clearer for me.

Even if the interviewer prefers to view my paper portfolio, I still take the CD along to leave behind. Unlike a paper copy, a CD is likely to be stored right beside the interviewer’s workstation. Even if the interviewer never actually views the CD, each time the interviewer sees or moves the CD, there’s my name and contact information on the label.

Some other advantages:

  • With at least 650 megabytes on a CD, portfolio size won’t be an issue for a long, long time.
  • I can carry a CD portfolio without deforming one shoulder until I look like a stand-in for Quasimodo.
  • The cost is much cheaper than a hardcopy portfolio. The CD and label cost less than $1.25 per copy. That’s less than I might spend on breath mints in the lobby on my way up to the interview. I don’t count the cost of the hardware because I had it already–and, even if I hadn’t, it’s useful for far more than my portfolio anyway. By contrast, a hardcopy portfolio sets me back $30 just for the binder, plus a dollar or more to laminate each of sixty or more pages–and that’s just for one copy. Frankly, I couldn’t have afforded to distribute a hardcopy portfolio as freely I’ve done with my CD portfolio.
  • If I lose a copy of a CD portfolio, I can replace it from my backup copies at home in ten minutes. By contrast, my hardcopy CD would take hours of work to duplicate. Moreover, a replacement CD is less than two percent the cost of a replacement hardcopy portfolio.
  • The size of a CD means that I can present whole chapters, instead of a few pages, thereby giving the samples more context.
  • I can provide far more detailed notes than I could ever have space for in a hardcopy portfolio. As a result, my portfolio speaks for itself in a way that it never could before. When I send it ahead of time or leave it behind, it represents me well.
  • The problem of what to leave behind is solved. I no longer have to remember to copy extra pages to leave behind, nor worry about retrieving samples. Instead, I can just hand the interviewer my CD.
  • I always have samples ready to send on request. More than one interviewer has been surprised when I responded to an email request for samples within minutes. Similarly, when I do my Web site, I’ll save time, because I’ll have the samples ready to go.
  • I can point to the CD portfolio as an example of my design work, or even as an analogy to a help system. In other words, the CD portfolio is itself a sample.

Conclusion

The CD portfolio hasn’t replaced the paper version entirely. A handful of companies don’t have Acrobat ready to use. What’s more, they aren’t willing to install it, even if I provide a copy on the CD. Similarly, some interviewers prefer to review hardcopy material. However, even in these circumstances, I can use the CD portfolio to my advantage: When the interview is being arranged, I ask which version of the portfolio the client would prefer to see. Being able to offer this choice is so unusual (I like to think) that I’ve made myself memorable as a well-prepared candidate before the interviewer even meets me.

A CD portfolio is like a T-shirt or a desk toy that’s given out at a trade fair. It’s an extra whose real job is to
advertise. Add the convenience and the ability to guide clients through your portfolio even when you’re not around, and you’ll understand why I now consider a CD portfolio as central to my job-hunting strategies.

Bruce Byfield is a freelance journalist, product manager, and technical writer. A recovering academic, he is the writer of the standard reference on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and a widely published poet. His other obsessions include raising Nanday conures; running long, painful distances; listening to punk-folk music; and indulging a four to 10 book a week reading habit.

Read more articles from Bruce Byfield