Projects software engineers need in their portfolios to get hired

By Wendy Gittleson for Hack Reactor

Employers know that graduates of Hack Reactor’s coding bootcamps bring a lot to the table. They know that graduates’ skillsets rival those of applicants with university-level computer science degrees. Despite the fact that Hack Reactor helps open doors for alumni, it is tough to seal the deal unless graduates can show what they’re capable of, and for that, applicants need a portfolio.

Fortunately, Hack Reactor offers its students more than just a path to a six-figure salary. Hack Reactor helps teach graduates how to actually land those lucrative jobs, which includes helping them build job-catching portfolios.

To learn what employers look for in coding portfolios, I sat down with the expert, Sophie Leroi, Hack Reactor’s Associate Director of Career Services. Leroi has more than 20 years of experience as a trainer, career coach, and executive coach. She has held various roles at Hack Reactor for the last five years. First, she was a cohort lead, then a Career Services Manager, and now she oversees operations for the Career Services department.

Let’s get right to it. What projects look best on a portfolio?

That question has evolved over the years as we have adjusted our curriculum. We’ve discontinued certain projects that our students were working on a few years ago, we’ve introduced new ones, and the goal is to make sure the projects we offer reflect the needs of the industry. What do we need to teach our students so they’re prepared for the work and they can sell themselves in the job search, especially as they’re making that career pivot, specifically in Hack Reactor? The projects that we need to see on the resume are going to have to be functional, practical, technical, and collaborative.

But if I had to give you an overarching framework for the best projects, it would have to tell the hiring manager that you are a functional engineer, you know how to use relevant technologies, and different types of technologies. You also have experience working in different types of developing environments, from solo to group work. You know how to collaborate with other engineers, you know how to review other people’s code, you know how to really work together, get stuck together, help each other get unstuck.

Is the stereotype of the asocial, hiding underneath a hoodie, type of coder still applicable today, or do you see coders having better social skills?

They definitely have better social skills. And if they’ve been through Hack Reactor they certainly do. In terms of training software engineers, that’s what really differentiated us from other bootcamps: that focus on the social aspect. I think to some extent it is still an existing trait of the software engineer personality, but not as much as it was five, six, or seven years ago.

What do hiring managers look for in a candidate?

Depending on the position, it could be that we’re talking about the hiring manager who’s really interested in a bootcamp grad because they want talent that is functional and social, but they also want someone who is early enough in their career that (the company is) going to be able to coach them and train them to the ways of doing within their company’s technologies.

There’s a lot of interest in working with relatively recent engineers to have that mentoring and coaching opportunity, but really they want an engineer who knows how to work with the full stack, from front-end to back-end. They’ve been exposed to a number of different technologies, and they’re relatively autonomous. They can pick up new technologies fairly easily. They don’t have to be told how to do things, so they have autonomy, interest, and soft skills.

Should a student avoid passion projects unless they are related to the desired field?

They should never avoid a passion project. They should pursue the passion project if it fits the requirements of the project that they’re given during the immersive. They also have lots of opportunities to pursue their passion projects during the job search, and that’s actually what we recommend for our grads, especially right after graduation. We don’t want them to lose their momentum, we want them to continue using those technologies, we want them to continue building, and practicing.

So we ask them right after graduation, what’s your passion? What is the thing you wanted to build during the immersive but you couldn’t, and that you want to build now? It could be that you build it yourself or you reach out to other engineers or open-source contributions. Show me what you want to do now. Show me how resourceful you can be. That’s another thing hiring managers are really interested in. Beyond the bootcamp, what else is this person doing? How engaged are they with the community of engineers, including people they did not know before? Those projects are going to be great for the applicant to talk about during interviews because they are passionate about (them). The conversation will go well. They will be able to tell them why they chose this project, what’s important to them, and what steps they’ve taken to complete their project on their own.

Can we dive a bit deeper into the types of projects that should be included in portfolios?

I touched very briefly on things like front-end and back-end. If it’s okay with you, I would like to give you a bit more information around the types of projects with the lens of outcomes and in the job search, what happens in those interviews when they talk about the projects? What do they need to highlight?

The value of the portfolio for our grads is really having a variety of experiences so there’s the individual project…the thing you can do on your own. You can self-manage, you follow deadlines, you produce work that is basically your work so you will have to be very self-reliant.

Our front-end capstone and system design, our back-end capstone, are very different. The front-end project results in a very polished and functional front-end application. It’s a great thing to show off. It’s a great demo if you want to show what you’re capable of producing on the screen, great, but maybe that’s where it ends in terms of the conversation with your interviewer. It’s not going to give you a lot of great conversation talking points.

The back-end project, however, the system design, is still a very individual project. They learn a ton of new technologies and higher web development concepts, so they really get into the engineering process. They will have a lot of talking points. That’s a fantastic project to discuss with a hiring manager. That’s usually when the hack reactor grad is bringing added value. The unique value of the proposition is, “okay, they’ve worked a lot on the back-end. They know how to work with a database.”

The first project gives you the visual and the second project gives you whatever happens in the background and the engineering experience.

There’s a third project called Blue Ocean, and that’s not individual. That’s a group of engineers who really have to work together to produce an application that’s functional. It looks great, but it also has a great back-end. It’s interacting and the engineers learn teamwork. They learn everything that has to do with development processes, agile owning decisions, and collaborating and negotiating with other engineers.

We want them to have different kinds of experiences to be able to, in their interviews, talk about different aspects of what it’s like to be an engineer.

How important is graphic design?

Not really. I’ll tell you a thing that we tell them on the first day of the program. What do we value the most, function or form? Function.

They can work on graphic design. We work with the front-end. They can produce something that’s great to demo, but it’s not going to be impressive. It’s not going to be great graphic design. That is not what we do. That is not what we teach. But they learn the technologies to be able to work on that and improve after the program.

So they need to be able to collaborate at least with a graphic designer.

Cross-functional collaboration is also important. We are not going to spend a ton of time talking about the various roles that they will be interacting with at the company, but they know that it’s going to be crucial. They also know that we’ve managed expectations. We tell them “when you first become a software engineer, they’re not going to ask you to produce a large project on your own.” Very likely in the first few months you’re going to be working on tiny features that no one will see. The customer won’t see that. You will not be interacting with the customer. You’re going to be working on the back-end of things or on functionalities that will contribute to the end result. You’re not going to be responsible for the full design and the full production.

Do you keep in touch with graduates?

We absolutely do. Our Alumni Community is an integral part of Hack Reactor. We keep in touch with them after a year, two years, five years, or since they graduated. They always sound satisfied with their roles, their managers, their companies, and their environments, and their career path in general. Some of our graduates now work as staff at Galvanize. Other alumni come back to meet with our students and the alumni community to share their experiences and expertise.

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