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The Chicken or the Portfolio:

April 6, 1998
by Pat McClellan

At one time or another, we've all been stuck in the frustrating situation where you can't get a job without experience... and, of course, you can't get the experience without a job. Even if you're well established as a developer, it's all too easy to get pigeon-holed into one type of work. For example, it's difficult to win a contract for an exciting new web-based game if you only have corporate training CD-ROMs in your portfolio.

When I was starting out, I saw lots of programs that I knew were no more sophisticated that what I was producing. Yet, they benefitted from the "glamour" of bearing a recognized trademark. Why is it that we afford such status to projects produced for "big companies"? I know from experience that these jobs suffer from all the same budget, time, creative and management constraints as my less glamourous jobs. And yet, they're the names that draw people's attention to my portfolio.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to load your portfolio full of the glamourous work that you know you're capable of producing, and which will surely win you that next juicy contract or position. It will take an investment of your time -- which, if you're looking for work, you'll have an abundance of. And, depending on your range of skills, you may need some teamwork. Here's the plan.

The Idea

Let's say that your ideal job is producing CD-ROM/web-based annual reports for Fortune 100 corporations. Don't wait for someone to take a chance that you can do it... prove it. Pick a company and produce your ideal project. As with any project, you'll be limited by time and available resources -- but that's realistic. This is an investment in your portfolio.

Getting Started

How do I get started? Pick a company which might reasonably produce a program like you want to do. Since this is a multimedia approach to business, pick a related company. Let's do Compaq. Three clicks on the web into the site and I've found the phone number for Compaq's headquarters in Houston Texas. Call the switchboard and ask for Shareholder Services. Tell them that you're considering a small investment in Compaq and ask them to send you the most recent annual report and any other materials they think you'd be interested in. Presto-chango, three days later you've got your source for content and graphics. The reason this is so easy is because they get paid a lot of money to distribute info about the company to people like you.

The Creative Team

If you're a jack-of-all-trades, then you may be able to produce your portfolio piece without any outside help. But for most of us, now is the time you need to exercise your teamwork skills. If you're a programmer, with limited graphic skills, you'll need to find a graphically talented counterpart.... someone who would love to have a piece for their portfolio. You may also need a writer and/or art director. Tap into the pool of people you enjoy working with. I think you'll find many others who are willing to make the same sort of investment that you are expending.

Another benefit of this teamwork is that you're networking your sales effort. If you graphic artist demonstrates the program to someone and it results in a contract, chances are good that you'll get the call to do the programming.


Because of the time a program like this will require, you should limit the scope of the project. You don't have to produce a full program... just enough of it to demonstrate your capability. Set a timeline for yourself. Even though you're your own client, you don't want to let this project drag on forever. It's just the sort of thing that tends to get left half done. Work diligently and do the sort of work that you know you're capable of if given the chance.

The Pitch

It is very important NEVER to misrepresent the program or why it was produced. There's really no reason to portray it as anything but what it is. You can call the program a "portfolio exercise" or a "proof of concept". Tell people exactly why you produced it and describe the process and the teamwork. Be sure to credit the source of your materials -- such as the graphics and copy that you use from the annual report.

You'll find that people will respect your initiative and inventiveness. Worst case, you've gained the experience and confidence of producing the program and you've probably strengthened some contacts with other creative people. At best, you'll land a contract to produce a program like what you've demonstrated. Good luck spicing up your portfolio!

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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