Screwdrivers and the future of portfolios

The longer I work on software, the more all I want is a screwdriver.

A screwdriver is a tool. It does a thing. It has no learning curve. You don't need to replace it every two years.

Six years ago (has it really been that long?) I spent a few late nights working with Liz Gelardi and Jenn Kovaleski on what would eventually become The Portfolio App - a tool for journalists to show their work.

And people liked it. At the time, the affordable options were Weebly (which was unusable) and trying to force Wordpress to be a good portfolio, which was beyond the skill of your average broadcast journalist.

But what I built had natural limits. It made assumptions - if you're a young, fresh graduate who's looking at TV jobs, it makes sense to have a big bold picture of yourself on the front page. But if you're a video editor, or a producer, or a writer with a big bushy beard, or (like me) look ridiculous in all your pictures, that doesn't make any sense.

... I probably shouldn't run that giant on my portfolio site.

The other assumption is that it made sense to organize content by type - all videos go on one page, all writing goes on another. Again, it made sense for fresh journalism graduates. But for Randy Prywitch, the logical breakdown of his work is by genre - keep the television episodes in one place, the pitch reels in another, and his own narrative filmmaker separate.

On the other hand, when I was just starting out I had a portfolio filled with little projects. These days, virtually all of my work is tackling hard problems for The Atlantic, many of which are invisible, and even if they had distinct pages to link to, enumerating them would be a disservice to what I actually do. As you gain experience, you need a different set of tools.

The other factor in play is the state of the press. There's no reason to make a tool to help young reporters work for local news if the newspapers and TV stations are all in ashes - but that's a conversation for another day.

A while back, I asked the site-owners, Mizzou J-school folks, and my usual soundboard of sharp friends if this was a tool anyone even needed. The answer was a resounding "yes."

But as we talked it through, and I looked at the various tricks people used to work around my limitations, it became clear what we really wanted was a tool that allowed you to tell a story about yourself.

Speaking of which, did I mention, the longer I work in software, all I really want is a screwdriver?

2.

LinkedIn is also a tool for professionals. It provides me no value and nags me constantly. It uses little micro-encouragements to try to convince me to interact with it. "What volunteer work do you do?" "Do you want to congratulate Phil on his work anniversary?" "What causes do you care about?" "Do you, like, even have passion, bro?"

Seriously?

I'm a watch person. I wear a digital/analogue hybrid and pretty much never take it off. It does one thing: it tells me what time it is. It's done this every day for 5 years. In that time, I've gone through 3 phones.

The truth is, I don't have a ton of time to dedicate to The Portfolio App. Squarespace has a full-time design and engineering staff. I have a Sunday afternoon and a good french roast.

That's okay, but it means the app has to be a screwdriver, something that doesn't need my attention.

And wouldn't it be great if it didn't need the users attention either? It should be like my watch. Set the time once, and let it just be for years on end. After all, you and I don't work for LinkedIn, and your life's work shouldn't be maintaining your portfolio.

3.

When you look at the problem this way, it gets a lot clearer. How many layouts do I need? How do I balance control over color against keeping it easy to use? Do I need builtin blogs?

The answer to all three: what let's the user do the minimum amount of work to tell their story, and then get back to their real work and real lives, neither of which involve engaging with my app every day.

That's what I've tried to build.

As always, thanks for your support and feedback - and say the word when you're ready to upgrade.

Jason