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Michelle Swolfs

SFU Co-op Student
Communication, Art + Technology › Interactive Arts + Technology

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Having a nice portfolio is never where your job-hunting journey ends – instead, your willingness to learn, adaptability, and soft skills can propel you much further than you anticipated

If you happen to be looking into applying to SIAT co-op, you are likely to need a portfolio that contains 2-3 projects (which are strongly recommended not to be class ones) that show your skills, your process, and the work that you want to do. How do you make the time to create projects that are okay to put on your portfolio in your free time.

You could make projects alone - but sometimes you can't muster up the motivation between assignments, exams, work, and a personal life. Not everyone can afford to work for free for long periods of time, so unpaid internships are also off the table. Here are some ways I've gone about working on portfolio projects in my spare time.

1. Join a Club

SFU has over 100 clubs who are all trying to get their message out to the student body. Many of which need designers to help do so. Next time you see a club hiring, why not check out their creative team roles? (I for one recommend SFU Surge.)  As everyone in these organizations are students, the roles are often very flexible to your schedule and allow you a lot of creative freedom.

2. Hackathons and Designathons

Hackathons are team events where designers and developers work together to create a digital product in the span of 48 hours (while designathons focus mainly on designing a digital product in the same timeframe). Projects from hackathons are an easy way to show your skills, process, and the work you'd like to do, in addition to teamwork and other soft skills. On top of that, taking the time to refine a hackathon project can only enhance your portfolio. I’ve participated in nwHackscmd+fSystemHacks, and a lot more.

3. Short-Term Projects

Finding short term projects to contribute to can be a challenging endeavor as it can be difficult to figure out where to look. However, there are a growing number of organizations that bridge that gap. For example:

  • Hacktoberfest: Hacktoberfest is a specific event that promotes contributing to open-source projects by giving merchandise to people who reach 5 contributions in the month of October. Despite Hacktoberfest only happening in October, open-source projects are always looking for contributors to help develop new software! On top of that, you are not expected to be working on open-source projects all the time.

  • benefit.design is a community of designers that do pro-bono design work. By joining the community, you are able to take on short term team projects (ranging from 1 week to 1 month) while meeting other designers along the way. It's a great way to stay accountable while not committing to work for a long period of time.

  • Female Laboratory of Innovative Knowledge (FLIK): FLIK is a platform that pairs female university students with female founders for short term apprenticeships. These apprenticeships are flexible and are less than 10 hours a week for 3 months. They are a great way to learn about the industry, do meaningful work, and make new connections all at the same time.

Of course, these projects can't replace paid work experience, long-term self-initiated projects, or an exceptional class project - but they're a great way to get started until you are able to put those things in your portfolio.

Having a Nice Portfolio Is Not Where Your Job-Hunting Journey Ends

Why did I provide all of these tips? Portfolio pieces are an important component of your application process because they show your competency in the core skills (such as graphic design, writing, and communication) necessary to complete an internship. Although having the core skills often gets your foot in the door, it does not guarantee that you land the job.

Two examples of this are the interviews I completed for both my prior and current internship positions. At the interview for my prior employer, I had reached the office early so I was rehearsing in a nearby coffee shop with my portfolio and other tabs open, and then when ready walked into the office to complete the interview. However, as my computer disconnected from the coffee shop internet, my portfolio tabs failed to load, and I was left staring at an empty tab. I happened to have another tab open with some photography I had recently done, so I flipped to that and talked about that to the best of my ability. I walked out of that interview not expecting to get the job but was happy to receive an offer a week later.

At my current employer, I interviewed for a product design and web development position. I went into the interview knowing that I was only qualified for about 60% of the job, and then proceeded to not answer any of the technical questions correctly. Let's just say I walked out of that one not thinking I was going to get the job either, but here I am. My co-op supervisor says this was due to my willingness to learn (by taking IAT 339 during my work term), and my performance on the design challenge I was given after the fact. These are just two examples of why your job-hunting journey doesn’t end with your portfolio.

In both of these examples, my portfolio, consisting of mostly hackathon and short-term projects, allowed me to be considered for these positions. However, having a nice portfolio is never where your job-hunting journey ends – instead, your willingness to learn, adaptability, and soft skills can propel you much further than you anticipated. 

About the Author

Michelle Swolfs

SFU Co-op Student
Communication, Art + Technology › Interactive Arts + Technology
Michelle is a 5th year Interactive Arts + Technology student concentrating in design.  She is a 7-time hackathon & designathon participant and 4-time design/marketing intern. She hopes to work in Product Design and Marketing in the future. Connect with Michelle on LinkedIn.

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