Archive for October, 2009

Create a Professional Portfolio to Demonstrate Your Skills

Friday, October 30th, 2009

A portfolio is more than just a souped-up resume. The process of creating a professional portfolio to describe your past work may help prepare you to talk about your areas of expertise with a potential employer, and may help you discover skills you didn’t know you have.

My introduction to portfolios

I created my first portfolio in 2004, when I applied for a position at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. I found the process to be enlightening–it reinforced in my mind that I had solved interesting problems in my past work experience and was fully qualified for the job. I got the job, and in that position I met Professor Dale Fitch (now at the University of Missouri) was working on a project to incorporate online portfolio creation into the curriculum (see his article, The use of ePortfolios in evaluating the curriculum and student learning, for details).

His scholarly findings go beyond the scope of this blog post, but for me a key takeaway was this: the process of creating a portfolio helps people better understand their own skill development.

How can creating a portfolio help me?

For a student, this may be pretty obvious. You’ve taken classes, written essays, taken tests. At the end of a few years, you get a diploma. But what job-worthy skills have you demonstrated? The process of creating a portfolio can help you identify and describe the skills you’ve acquired.

Likewise, in your work history, each project you’ve undertaken has required a variety of skills. Thinking about the processes for each project can help you integrate what you’ve done with competencies you demonstrated and skills you developed. This process can help you better understand what you already know how to do and are capable of undertaking–and give you the words to describe it to a potential employer!

Some fields, like graphic design or architecture, regularly require portfolios as part of the job application process. Even if your line of work does not require a portfolio, it’s a good idea to create one. Not only will the process of creating it help you identify your current strengths, providing it to a prospective employer can give you a leg up over candidates who submit only a resume and cover letter.

How to create a portfolio

I’m not going into details about how to format a print portfolio and organize it in a binder, or how to create a web-based portfolio. That will be a challenge I’ll leave up to you. Here is my advice on creating the content:

A portfolio is basically a collection of projects. For each project, include:

  1. Project description
  2. Project timeframe (and duration, if applicable)
  3. Project challenges
  4. Project solutions
  5. Project outcomes

Example Project Entry

In one of my past jobs I was the advertising production manager for, a Michigan news & information website. Requests for a new ad graphic or advertising web page could be triggered by various means: paper insertion orders delivered by the office manager, or phone calls or e-mail messages from members of the sales staff. The requests often lacked all of the necessary information to get the ad creation process started, so I created an online form that would prompt the requester the fill in all the necessary information, which then automatically went into an online queue. Here’s what the portfolio entry might look like:

Online Ad Request System, 2002

Challenge: Advertising creative requests were received from disparate sources and were hard to track by both the ad production team and the sales staff. Additionally, they often contained incomplete information, resulting in delays. As a result, the department often missed its target service level of a 2-business day turnaround.

Solution: I created an interactive online form using HTML, Javascript, and Perl to streamline the request process. All requests now have a single point-of-entry, and the request status can be tracked online by both the ad production team and the sales staff. This system improved request completeness and reduced time-consuming status updates, resulting in 95% request completion within our target service level.

Not only does this demonstrate specific skills (HTML, Javascript, Perl) that might not fit a resume job description, but it also demonstrates the ability to connect those skills to real-world business problems like project tracking and quality assurance.

Including an image, if applicable–even if it’s just a photo of a team of people you worked with on the project–can be a nice touch, and make it feel more portfolio-esque.

Have you created a professional portfolio?

Did you find the process helped you better describe your strengths and skills to potential employers? Let me know about it in the comments!

Adding Leadership to your Resume

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

How to make yourself the de facto leader on any project has a few tips for taking on leadership roles at work. However, if you are out-of-work at the moment, suggestions like “Offer an Agenda” don’t seem particularly relevant. How do you add leadership experience to your resume when you are between jobs?

My advice is to find a local professional or networking organization, and start taking an active role. I have been particularly impressed with the individuals I have met who have organized, or who have taken on additional responsibilities for, groups like the Philadelphia Standards Organization, WordCamp Birmingham, and TechMixer University. These three organizations/events really display a broad range: from small, informal meetings with occasional lectures, to large conferences with 400+ participants and corporate sponsors.

If there aren’t any organizations that suit your profession, consider starting an orgnaization. It can be as simple as setting up monthly meetings at a coffee house or even a (preferably quiet) bar. Sites like can help you organize a group, Upcoming can help you publicize events, Eventbrite can help you manage registration (if you can accommodate a limited number of guests), and Google Groups can provide an online discussion forum to keep communication open between meetings.

Leadership roles are not restricted to your profession: you can pick up leadership experience anywhere. I know a lot of people who have gained valuable experience through religious groups or social organizations. A couple other examples from my experience:

  • In 1998, a friend and I organized Quick Novel, an event at which a handful of authors collaborated to produce a novel in a single day. Although the result was not high literature, the ability to pull it off at all required organization, team-building, scheduling, and finding and securing a location with sufficient computer workstations for all the authors.
  • In 2002, 2 friends of mine organized an art show at a local gallery space, titled Immedia Des Refuses. Again, my friends had to secure a space, curate the show, publicize the event, and provide hors d’oeuvres and beverages. The event was a great success, thanks to their great efforts, and as a result they were seen as leaders in the local art community.
  • Just last week, the neighborhood association in my community sponsored a showing of The Little Shop of Horrors in a local park. The organizers had to secure permits, raise funds, contract with a company that could provide the required screen, projection equipment, and sound system, publicize the event.

I think 2 things become clear from these examples:

  1. You can develop your leadership skills in almost any area you can imagine
  2. Leadership is primarily initiative and effort, with a strong dose of coalition-building

Think about it from an employer’s perspective: do you want to hire a complacent employee who waits to follow others into action, or do you want someone dynamic who will initiate action?

Beware of Job Scams

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I just saw an online ad that said, “Make $63 an hour–All you need is a computer!” Obviously, I’m not falling for that. If you could really make $63 an hour with nothing more than a computer, I know a lot of people who would quit their day-jobs.

Scams related to job searches are on the rise, though, and they aren’t always so easy to identify. There are more telecommuting positions open today for which you might never meet your employer in-person. If they ask you to fax a copy of your social security card and driver’s license for verification and tax purposes, how do you know if they are legit? They say they want to set up direct deposit because their payroll has phased out paper checks, but should you really provide a stranger with your bank account number?

Time Magazine’s recent article, Job-Search Scams on the Rise in the Recession, has some tips (e.g. be wary of ads written in poor English or that use a address). also has tips for avoiding identity theft employment scams.

Other scams include requiring a payment for a credit or background check, or payment for (usually nonexistent) training or certifications. I would be skeptical of any job that requires any of those things but is unwilling foot the bill themselves, but one option is to offer to pay for the credit check or background check directly to the providing agency, a 3rd party, and send the results to the prospective employer. A scammer will probably make excuses as to why that isn’t acceptable (i.e. because they won’t receive the money).

It takes a low sort of person to scam the unemployed, but we are living in an age of low people. When in doubt, doubt! A healthy dose of skepticism should keep you safe.

Deal Like a Man

Monday, October 26th, 2009

5 years ago, I ran across a xeroxed handout about salary negotiation. It said that if a salary range for a given job was $30,000-$35,000, women would tend to ask for $32,000.

Men, on the other hand, would ask for $37,000.

Ten Things Companies – and Women – Can Do To Get Ahead provides 2 top-10 lists. The #3 item on the second top-10 list, “10 Ways Michigan Women Can Rev Up Their Careers,” is Dare to Apply. It turns out, when it comes to applying for jobs, women will apply for a job only if they meet nearly all of the listed requirements of the job posting.

Men? They’ll apply if they meet just over half the requirements.

As someone who has reviewed stacks of resumes for position openings, let me say that I am not encouraging unqualified job hunters to send yet more resumes destined for the shredder. When creating a job posting (particularly online, where you’re not paying by the word), you list everything you would like to see in an ideal candidate. But the ideal candidate rarely, if ever exists. Meeting 80% of the qualifications isn’t bad, and in some cases, 60% might be worth a shot.

You don’t have time to apply to every job for which you meet 60% of the posted job requirements. But don’t let a couple details stop you from putting your resume and cover letter in front of a hiring manager. You might just be the best candidate they have.

Too Much Experience?

Year ago, I interviewed a woman who had virtually all of the qualifications posted for the job opening. In fact, she already held a similar position elsewhere. This raised all sorts of questions:

  • Will she be disappointed at the lack of opportunity for career development?
  • Does she have the desire to expand her roles and skills?
  • Does she have a personality conflict with her present employers?

Her answers as to why she was applying for virtually the same role were ambiguous at best: she said she wanted to “keep her options open.” Does that sound like someone you want on your team?

Overqualified candidates often demand higher salaries and have higher turnover. Or, they may not be the dynamic team member you are looking for. If you are applying for a job where the requirements are in easy reach, make sure you know why you want the job and how hiring you will benefit both you and the company.

Picking a Second Career

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Last week in Real-Estate Pros Go Moonlighting, we discovered that real estate agents have been hit hard by the economic downturn. One agent turned to law enforcement, sacrificing 53% of his former pay. Others are turning to part-time consulting work to supplement their incomes, while others are opening retail shops, either on their own or in partnerships.

Patent-Leather Bootstraps

I have to say, I have a hard time sympathizing with one of the real estate agents mentioned, Jill Galloway, who said her income would drop 60% from the usual $200,000-250,000, forcing her to seek other sources of income. Imagine, having to eke by on a mere $80,000-$100,000 a year! But I do admire her can-do spirit: she opened a retail store, rent-free, because the landlord didn’t want too many vacant storefronts in his building. She sells showroom overruns and pays cost when the item sells. It’s a lost-cost, low-risk enterprise. She’s a savvy entrepreneur. (If you want to follow her route, check out our earlier post, No Job? Create Some.)

When should you consider a second career?

Although I don’t expect the economic downturn to last forever, certain sectors of the economy will bounce back more than others. Check out the 30 fastest declining occupations on, and if your profession is listed, it might be time to think about a second career. (#6 on their list, bookbinders & bindery workers is something I did for a couple years.) It’s not all manufacturing, either: telemarketers, data entry operators, and even radio and television announcers are all seeing jobs disappear due to automation and consolidation.

Never fear, it’s not all bad news: also provides us with the 30 fastest-growing jobs. You’ll see that most of these are health care related, with a good number of technology jobs.

Health Care or Technology?

Although health care jobs are a good bet, the training is often very specific: a physician assistant is not a nurse is not a physical therapist is not a dental hygienist. Technology, on the other hand, is more flexible: the knowledge and experience are more easily transferrable. A systems analyst may not be a database administrator or a software engineer, but making the switch may not require as much additional training and certification.

Additionally, as my wife puts it, we don’t need any more people working in the health care profession who are there because they couldn’t find any other work! Not everyone is cut out for working directly with patients on a daily basis.

I lean towards technology. Mind you, my background is in technology, so I’m biased. Picking a second career is about both what is marketable and what suits you best. If your strengths are working with people, rather than staring at a computer screen, don’t let my opinion sway you! Although I haven’t read it–shame on me, I know–the classic book on the subject is What Color Is Your Parachute?. It might be a good read if you are considering a career change. 

Customize your Cover Letter (and Resume)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Giving a Stalled Job Search a Jump-Start in yesterday’s WSJ tells the story of Rachel Jones, who applied for 130 jobs and used the same cover letter for every prospective employer. It wasn’t until she started writing cover letters tailored to the companies and position openings that she started to get called back for interviews.

Mating Rituals

Think of it like a dating site: would you contact a prospective date with a form letter, or would you take the time to mention interests listed on a prospective date’s profile, and highlight areas where the two of you are compatible?

A form letter is a big turn-off: “This person isn’t interested in me; they are just interested in a date–any date.” In the same way, a person reading a form cover letter is going to see that the applicant isn’t interested in the position; they are just interested in a job–any job.

The same kind of details need to go into your cover letter. Show that you know something about the company. Show that you paid attention to the job description, if you are applying for a specific open position. For example, if the job description mentions budgeting, you can mention your 4-years of experience creating budgets at Widget World, Inc. If you are applying to work in marketing for a tree nursery, mention the tree identification class you took from the city Parks & Recreation department last summer. Find the things you have in common and emphasize them!

Your Resume Deck

Don’t think that a custom cover letter is the end of the story. You should customize your resume as well, particularly if you are applying for jobs that are a little outside your usual field of expertise.

People who give frequent slideshow presentations often refer to their PowerPoint decks. Like a deck of cards, the slides can be shuffled and dealt to best suit the intended audience. Giving a presentation to a technical audience? Include all the slides with the nitty-gritty technical details. Giving a presentation to the executive suite? Skip the details and give them an executive summary, along with a dose of what it means for their business strategy.

In the same way, you should have a resume deck. For each position you’ve held in the past, you demonstrated a variety of skills. However, the graphic design skills you used to create advertisements at your local newspaper 10 years ago aren’t going to impress anyone at your new accounting firm. On the other hand, your project management skills and attention to detail at that same position are far more relevant.

For your resume deck, under each position held list every skill you demonstrated and project you completed. You will never send this version to a prospective employer, but it will be your starting point for each resume that you do send out. When it comes time to send a resume, keep only the items that best fit the job description.

2 Pages – Make Them Count

You generally have just 2 pages to impress a prospective employer (sometimes more, if your work experience merits a multi-page resume). Every word should help get you to an interview. If there is something on either your resume or cover letter that is not going to convince a prospective employer that you are the right candidate for the job, get rid of it! Replace items of questionable merit with something relevant and impressive.

Business Cards

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Even if you are unemployed, you should have business cards and carry them with you. You never know when you are going to run into someone who is in your line of work, or who might be interested in hiring someone with your skills. Jotting your info down on a scrap piece of paper is awkward and time-consuming, and the promise of beaming our data via IR or wireless from one smartphone to another fails on a variety of levels. Even the trendy (and goofy) Poken don’t have a critical mass in most circles to replace a classic business card.

The subject of business cards always makes me think of the film American Psycho and the scene where Christian Bale’s character starts to burn with quiet hatred for a fellow Wall Streeter who, although a clearly inferior person, has a business card that is even more elegant and understated, yet demonstrating more confidence and refinement, than his own.

Yet, the business cards I see rarely look anything like the classic dark text on white or ivory card-stock. Real estate agents almost invariably have glossy business cards that contain a full-color headshot of themselves, along with their agency logo. Some printed on both sides with, frankly, more information than I care to read in such tiny type.

Elements of a good business card include your name, your professional position (or desired professional position, if you are between jobs) and contact info. Contact info can range from simple phone & e-mail address, to phone, address, e-mail address, portfolio and/or resume website URL, and even a twitter username, e.g. @foxsuit (assuming that social media is important to your line of work, you are a frequent twitter user, and you tweet things that are professionally relevant).

A Great Business Card

I recently came across what I think is a particularly great business card. A few weekends ago, I was at the local farmers market and overheard a woman ask one of the sellers if they had their website up yet. She mentioned she’d be happy to help them build it. Since I am in a very similar line of work, I introduced myself, and she had with her a business card.

Shirley’s business card is well-designed (particularly important for her since she does design work) and is not overly busy. It uses 4 colors: black, white, a pale orange, and a pale brown. It lists her full contact information, and on the back it lists some of her professional specialities. But the best part, in my opinion, is that it features a stylized image of a bicycle. That, combined with a bicycle-themed web address,, gave me a pretty good clue that she is a cyclist. I asked her about cycling and we had a conversation about that as well.

That extra design element provided me an opening to ask her about something other than her professional interests, and gave me a chance to connect with her on a more personal level. You may not have the design skills to come up with such a concept, but you might be able to sneak something interesting and intriguing in a word or two: “Electrical Engineer & Pinball Wizard” might spark someone’s interest.

A Less-than-Great Business Card

I met a fellow at a recent conference who I think is a great guy, but his business card needs help! It is simply too busy to easily discern what it is he actually does. It contains 6 full-color logos, one for his company and several for software packages, and one for a professional organization. Everything about the card suggests that he is a software developer or provides software support, but underneath his name it says writer and blogger. I suppose I could find out more about him by visiting his web site, but he hasn’t provided me with a compelling reason to do so.

It also features a full-color photo of himself, which I would generally discourage. Sure, it puts a face to the name, but you want associates and potential employers or business partners to remember what you do more than what you look like. I think real estate agents put their pictures on their business cards to try to establish trust with their clients and future clients, but honestly–some of them have “faces for radio.”

Getting Business Cards

Most shops with print services, like FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s) or OfficeMax, will print business cards. Online services like will also print business cards and ship them to you, generally for 6-7 cents if you order 250. (You may get a better rate, but I have yet to go through 250 business cards with my most up-to-date information).

Other Ideas

I received a business card that was hand-stamped, which is clear from the variation of the ink. This is a nice touch–it feels more personal, although it clearly requires getting a custom rubber stamp made and spending the time to cut and stamp card-stock. That extra effort isn’t going to help, for example, a mortgage loan officer, but it may give an edge to someone in a crafty line of work such as cake decorating. I’ve also seen cards in irregular shapes and sizes, which may stand out among a stack of other business cards, but may also get lost by because they can’t be filed with traditional-sized cards.

I’ve read a variety of articles lately heralding the death of the paper business card, but I think they are wrong. It’s a simple, easy, and inexpensive solution to passing on your contact information to an associate.

How not to apply for a job

Monday, October 12th, 2009

A little humor for a Monday morning:

In Phillies Fan Flees Game With World Series Rings, we discover that Matthew Mervine, the alleged crook, was caught because, in addition to being caught on tape, he stole the rings from an office after he had filled out a job application with his actual contact information.

Add that to your list of ways not to apply for a job: don’t steal from your future employer!

Networking for the Uninitiated

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Dealing with one job loss is quite enough, thank you, but a number of people (like Norm at Jobless and Less) are dealing with multiple layoffs in the past few years, the topic of Coping With a Job Loss–Again from the Wall Street Journal.

One of their tips mirrors something I’ve mentioned several times: volunteer. While I recommended volunteering as a way to fill resume gaps and get additional work experience, the article suggests finding “a volunteer activity that already involves a company you’re hoping will hire you.” Essentially, in addition to volunteering’s other benefits, it also helps you network.

The article also mentions online networking, through sites like LinkedIn and twitter. If you aren’t on LinkedIn, you should definitely join today.

Maintaining a network is good advice even if you aren’t currently job-hunting. As pointed out in Maintaining Networking Momentum After You Land the Job, you never know when you’ll need your network, so it’s best to maintain it in both good times and bad.

Networking doesn’t come naturally to most people. It often feels artificial and forced, although it doesn’t have to. For many people, it just takes a change in perspective.

Here’s a fun stick-figure slideshow that explains in detail: The Shy Connector. The most important point, to me, is that networking is not about bragging about your accomplishments and other shameless self-promotion. It is about finding out more about other people and what they do, letting them know about your skills, and suggesting areas where you can help their projects and businesses.

In another article, How to Network: For Introverts, I like the tip to invite people out for coffee, lunch, or a beer. Huge industry & networking events can be intimidating, but chatting with just one person, or a few other people, is often much easier.

I also like one of the comments on the article, from Mukul Gupta: arrive early to networking events. In addition to Mukul’s suggestion that early birds have an advantage in placing themselves by important and well-connected people, I think that it provides additional benefits. By arriving early you get to introduce yourself to a much smaller crowd, and you can introduce yourself to newcomers as they arrive. With such a tactic, it’s possible that, at any given time during the event, your will see more familiar than unfamiliar faces.

3 of my last 4 jobs came through my network, through not necessarily in typical ways: one job was through a friend’s boyfriend, whose company was hiring IT support; another was through a friend’s mother, who had a friend working for an Internet startup; the third was through a former co-worker, who knew of a position opening in web and information systems that matched my qualifications and recommended me for the job. A large part of networking is making sure that the people you know know about your skills and experience, and that you are looking for work.

Do you have networking tips for those new to networking? Share them in the comments below.

401(k) – Rollover, or Cash Out?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

If you recently lost your job, you may be wondering what to do with your 401(k) account. Even if you haven’t lost your job, you may still be wondering what to do with it, as many employers have stopped offering to match contributions or have eliminated the program entirely.

In most cases, you have 2 options:

  1. Rollover your account to an IRA
  2. Cash out your account

Cashing out may be tempting in the face of reduced income, an uncertain future, but all the usual bills. You should avoid cashing out if at all possible, though–when you cash out you will pay:

You may end up seeing only $650 for every $1000 in your account. Ouch!

Nearly all banks and credit unions offer IRA accounts. You can also get an IRA account through an investment management company like Vanguard, although their minimum investments may be substantially higher. A 401(k) rollover to a traditional IRA will incur no penalties, and you won’t pay taxes until you start taking distributions in retirement.

Other advantages of an IRA? You can take distributions without penalty (though you still have to pay taxes) for qualifying medical expenses, higher education expenses, and a first home purchase. It is also not at risk in the event that you have to declare bankruptcy (which is unlikely, since you are, without a doubt, a clever job hunter).

There are a few cases where it may make sense to cash it out. For example, if the penalty+tax is 25% and you have credit card debt with a 32% interest rate, it makes sense to cash out and pay off the debt.

(Remember that the value of your retirement account should be going up–if you expect a 7% return, then you are losing that return plus the 25% in penalties and taxes–which makes paying off that high-interest credit card seem like an even exchange. I would still lean towards an IRA rollover, though, because the IRA probably has a longer time horizon than your credit card bill.)

Also, if you don’t have a lot of savings and are not eligible for unemployment compensation, it may make sense to cash out your retirement account so that you are not immediately faced with the prospect of late payments and other financial mishaps. If you have a substantial 401(k) balance, you should be able to cash out just a portion of it, while rolling the remainder over to an IRA.

Hang on to that retirement account if you can!