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I've been in my current position for a long time (10 years) and in that time, I feel like I've performed well as a designer, system architect, and programmer. However, all that work has been on internal projects that aren't accessible from the outside world.

I see a lot of advice like this that suggests 'If you can literally point to something and say "I wrote this" it's very impressive'. What about if you can 'literally point to' nothing at all, because while you're a passionate programmer who (as the classic Joel-ism puts it) "is smart and gets things done", all those things are invisible?

Do I need to start frantically committing to open-source projects? Start a "real world" (not corporate-internal) blog? Frankly, I spent most of my 10 years happy here, and only recently have considered leaving for greener pastures. Am I going to be sunk before I start looking because of my focus on work my current employer, at the expense of my "public presence"?

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Do you have any weekend/weeknight projects? Some stuff that required quite a bit of engineering and work? I've always found that those are great to introduce. And it also gives them perspective on how passionate you are about your trade. –  user29981 Aug 9 '11 at 4:28
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I'm in the same boat - according to Joel Spolsky internal developers are worthless though, or so he says... –  JonH Aug 9 '11 at 17:11

7 Answers 7

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Showing external projects is helpful but it's never been an blocker for me hiring or getting hired in the past.

If you can talk about the projects you worked on and explain to whoever is interviewing you some detail about what you did, what went well, how it provided value to your organization. Getting excited about what you did and programming in general is a good way to score points in a lot of places. Showing interest in open source stuff, having a github account, even if all you do is follow some projects, maybe a small patch, does show some value. I've found most employers don't actually try and look at the details of my open source projects on github, they are just excited to see it ;)

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+1: always document your personal projects - and it never hurts to write an article on CodeProject. Several prospective employers have responded positively and commented favorably during interviews. –  IAbstract Aug 9 '11 at 16:59
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And I think people mentioned blogs. I've never been huge on blogs as an employeer unless they are really prolific. However, I do normally glance at a few of the posts so if they are really good then it will stand out. –  Travis Sep 6 '11 at 12:26

This is very common -- there are a lot of contracting companies out there with a lot of staff writing code under non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements that will never be set free.

A lot of them don't have side projects or open source work, but still manage to change jobs with no problem. So you need to can talk about the types of work and projects you have done without breaking the NDA.

Of course, if you did join or start an open source project (or two), that's a great way to actually show something off.

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My solution to this sort of a problem was to come up with a small, password protected web site that I could use as an online portfolio. I was then divided the work I've done by employer and then by project. I have an index of skills elsewhere that links to particular projects.

Confidentiality clauses prevent me from providing a lot of details, even on my site, but I'm able to highlight what I was doing and what the relevant skills used or gained were.

Something like this may help you. Ultimately though, I agree with others here who have said it won't be a make or break situation. 10 years of experience coupled with a few positive recommendations should carry a fair amount of weight.

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While contributing to open source projects would probably give you some advantage with some interviewers in some environments, not having them is unlikely to detract for the other interviewers or environments out there.

Some specific environments or interviewers may place more emphasis on the open source projects they use or contribute to, but if your CV is otherwise good, you are unlikely to suffer for not being involved with those projects.

As always though, you have to tailor your job application to the job you are applying for. Emphasise areas they are likely to be interested in, de-emphasise areas they are unlikely to be interested in.

Interviewing for my current position, I emphasised the work I once did on a Extreme ultraviolet microscope, as I knew that my prospective employers would know what that involves. I made it clear that while I wasn't an optical or UHV engineer, I had, as a software engineer, an appreciation of reflective (rather than refractive) optics and ultra-high vacuum systems. This almost certainly made me stand out from the crowd.

Finally, just because you can't show them the code (or sometimes even talk about the product in any detail), doesn't mean you can't talk about the the design decisions you had so make, and the effects you had on the product.

From my own experience I might explain that:

  • In my first job after university I re-factored a military GIS client/server system so that it had constant performance over all zoom ranges rather than getting exponentially slower as the user zoomed out.
  • I took on a project which was already 6 months late, where no software had been written and successfully delivered the most important functionality by the time the hardware was ready for live testing.
  • I successfully ported a machine vision application from an obsolete library to modern one, adding Firewire and Gig-E Vision camera support while retaining backwards analogue camera compatibility.

and so on.

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I wouldn't stress it. I'm in the position where I work on projects I really can't talk about in much detail to anyone because I'm in the defense sector where a lot of things are classified. This combined with not having a github account doesn't get in the way of me showing that I know my stuff and am good at what I do and doing well in interviews.

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I agree with everything said so far, and I would strongly advise making something on your own. It doesn't have to be something big, just something little and interesting that you are doing in your spare time. It shows an attitude "hey look, I'm interested in doing things even after work hours are done", which is always a plus.

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It's never too late to start, of course.

I meet programmers all the time that have no online presence; they're content consumers rather than providers, and yet the good ones never seem to have much trouble finding work. If you've been in the same place for ten years, hopefully you have a laundry list of accomplishments to list on your resume, and a few people you've worked with that can attest to them.

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There are many crappy blogs out there, 90% in fact. I think it takes a brain to know when not to write :) –  Job Aug 9 '11 at 3:11

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