How to Develop A Web Portfolio When You’re a Newbie

It’s been some time since I last checked in since I’ve been so busy juggling projects. However, I wanted to make a quick update this weekend. I thought this would be a good topic.

Most of my readers I suspect are experienced web developers, but not everyone. Unless you have a formal education in software development or graphic design, getting a foothold in the industry is a lot like the chicken and egg paradox. Unless you have experience (and a portfolio to prove it), it can nearly impossible to find employment. Likewise, it can be difficult to develop said portfolio without having work. Difficult maybe, but not impossible.

Don’t work for free

First: resist the temptation to do professional work either for free, or at a cut-rate price, just to say that you’ve done something. You should want to establish a reputation as someone who does quality work for a reasonable fee. Freely giving away your work does nothing to advance that goal. Everyone and their brother is armed with pirated copies of Frontpage and Photoshop nowdays and they all call themselves a “web designer” (or worse a “webmaster”). If you start competing with these amateurs by cranking out $200 websites, it’s going to stagnate your career. Place a higher value on your finite time and skills and you’ll reap higher rewards.

You’ll also often find that a client’s expectations don’t change much whether you’re doing the project for free or several thousand dollars. They expect a well-designed and functional product delivered in a timely fashion and aren’t likely to give you a break simply because you gave them one. Worse, pro bono projects are often very informal: no written scope of work or defined process for handling changes. You could be supporting a free website years later, having to juggle update requests while still handling your paying customers. If you begin to brush off the client because you have higher (paying) priorities, your reputation will suffer because of it. A non-paying client is still a client. So take the high road and don’t work for peanuts–you’ll thank yourself later.

Be your own client

This blog runs on a dedicated server that I lease in a datacenter somewhere. It also serves as my staging server (where I move stuff that’s mostly developed, but doesn’t have it’s own home yet). Mostly though, I consider it my “side project server”. I currently have about a dozen side projects in various stages of development. Some are just stupidly simple (and somewhat poorly coded) like, which I wrote because I needed an afternoon mental break. Others are complex, database-intensive web applications. All of them were created simply because I had a cool idea.

Even though I’ve been a web weenie since ’97 and have a pretty lengthy resume, I still sometimes show off these side projects to potential clients/employers because they tend to be more interesting than your everyday business website. They’re also less likely to have HTML murdered by client edits or go dark due to unpaid hosting. If you don’t have a long list of clients to showcase, then become your own client. I bet that everyone reading this has at least one cool idea in the back of their mind. Build it and you’ll have an interesting start to your portfolio.

Do work for free

There is one exception to my “don’t work for free” rule: charities. Charity work is the number-one best place to start looking if you want to build your portfolio. Working on a cause that excites you is an excellent motivator to producing a top-notch site. You’ll also find that charity work can lead to other, paying opportunies down the road. Many of the key players you’ll be working with at non-profits are well-connected, which can pay off if you network a bit. Investigate them a bit before committing. A great place to look for non-profit volunteer work is over at the GuideStar classifieds. Charities there frequently seek volunteer web design/development work.

However free chairty work does hold some of the same pitfalls as free commerical work. Despite the fact that money is not exchanging hands, still draw up a formal proposal. Spell out exactly what the expectation of both parties are: Who’s going to write the site content? When is the site going to go live? Where is it going to be hosted? How will future updates be made? Etc, etc. The goal is to provide a framework for a successful site launch, and then allow you to break free of your obligation. Even with charity work, don’t get suckered into providing ongoing support until the end of time. It’s ok to provide occasional maintaince, just make sure everyone agrees on a frequency and scope. Because, again, even a non-paying client is still a client.