One year ago, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and was looking for a testing job. Without a long work history to rely on, I decided to start my own practice projects and build a testing portfolio. This raised an obvious question: What does a testing portfolio look like?
Test Artifacts as a Portfolio
A quick search didn't turn up any examples of testing portfolios, so I started thinking about portfolios in other industries. A painter's portfolio is often a collection of theirpaintings, a software developer's portfolio is a collection of their software. So as a tester, my portfolio should be.... a collection of tests, of course. Well not just tests; test plans, bug reports, automation suites and all the other artifacts of my trade. It wouldn't be as sexy as a picture or a program, but a tester would be impressed, right? Right?
So, I packaged up all of those test artifacts, called it out in my resume and cover letters, and sat back to let the job-offers roll in.
That artifact portfolio didn't get much of a response. I wasn't hearing back on job applications, I wasn't getting many cold-calls from recruiters, and website traffic for the portfolio was relatively low. Maybe I needed to wait longer, maybe my artifacts were just bad, I wasn't sure.
Feeling a little lost, I turned my attention to an ISTQB ceritifcaton. This cert was mentioned in a few job postings, and it seemed like a safer bet than attempting to guess at the problems with my portfolio. So I studied, wrote an example exam with solutions and,before long, that cert was added to my resume.
Exams > Actual Work?
Something funny happened. I got a few callbacks on applications, and website traffic jumped up. Both the callbacks and the site traffic indicated that people were interested in that example exam, much moreso than my portfolio or even the certification itself. Again, why?
Around this time, I was hired into my current testing gig so I stopped worrying about the question. But recently, the Weekend Testing Toronto meetup has been covering a lot of Job-Finding topics, and I was prompted to share my own experience. So, a few months older and wiser(?), I returned to the question: "Why are recruiters more interested in an example exam than a portfolio that shows my actual work?"
Here's my best guess.
Artifacts are not Testing
Painters and software developers create artifacts which carry value with minimal context, and which are technically difficult to create. I can casually enjoy a painting or a video game while knowing virtually nothing about how/why it was created. If I know a little about brush techniques or coding, then I can recognize how difficult it would be for me to produce the same artifact.
On the other hand, Tester's artifacts require a great deal of context and are technically very easy to produce. Any unskilled person could create a valid, good-looking test artifact by recording random inputs and results in a spreadsheet. But It takes skill to figure out a sequence of inputs which give useful information.
So without context, the test artifacts in my portfolio mean very little. Sure I wrote some testcases, but why did I choose those testcases over others? And did I choose right? Once the testcases are chosen, executing them and recording results is trivial. In short, my portfolio artifacts didn't illustrate the difficult part of testing, the thinking part.
Compared to artifacts, exam questions are nothing but thinking. The question presents its own context, and by explaining the answer I demonstrate whatever skills I used to figure it out. Sure there are no spreadsheets or JIRA tickets or other testing artifacts, but who cares?
In a portfolio, exam answers a few other advantages:
First, exam answers are short. In four or five sentences, you get a full question and answer, meaning you get a complete thought with whatever value that carries. Test artifacts won't be so short, especially not if you explain enough context to actually make those artifacts meaningful. For a time-pressured recruiter, faster is better.
Second, my exam answers name-dropped the ISTQB certification. That likely improved my search-engine ranking compared to my no-name portfolio.
Third, I originally sought an ISTQB certification because recruiters were looking for it. Those recruiters would likely be extra-interested in ISTQB-related content.
How would I make a new portfolio?
Putting it all together, I think a stronger portfolio item would:
1) Explain an interesting context
2) Analyze that context and explain some solution
3) Present artifacts only if they do something unique/interesting in context
4) Focus on popular, search-friendly topics (as much as I can stand it)
5) Be quick to read
I can immediately see two ways to fit those requirements:
1) More exam solutions. I doubt these will be the most deep/interesting content, but they were good enough for entry-level recruitment. Very quick to read, and if I pick well-known exams then they may get picked up by search engines. There's a risk of turning off more knowldgable testers, who might find exam questions boring/shallow.
2) Blog articles, based on whatever questions I can think or gather from other testers. Meetup groups and testing blogs should be good sources. Explain the question in a few sentences, explain my answer in a paragraph or two, and create some sample artifacts if they're relevant. This should be interesting content, and hopefully I can write attractive titles and summaries to help recruiters glance through.
As I gain work experience and move towards higher-level jobs, I expect exam results would become less valuable and regular blog articles more valuable. Going forward I intend to try both approaches, though I likely won't get much data until I reenter the job market. Should be interesting!