It’s one thing to do great work as an engineer – and quite another to show off that work to a potential employer without violating company confidentiality. And, there’s good reason to worry about it. According to research, more than 75 percent of trade secrets cases in state courts and more than half of cases in federal courts involved an existing or former employee.
Most standard nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) prohibit engineers from sharing work outside the company – even if it’s in the name of career advancement. But many top companies won’t accept applications without a portfolio. And, assuming that your degree, accreditation and work history is enough to land that interview, or that your portfolio is irrelevant because of confidentiality factors isn’t the right attitude to take, either.
The fact is, when you're competing with others for a job, you need to do more and show more – and offering up a calculation worksheet, an analysis report, or something else that shows how you think is invaluable to establish credibility.
So what’s the answer? While it can be difficult to find the right balance in this sort of catch-22 situation, it’s not impossible. Often, it’s a matter of respecting the process – and getting a little creative. Here are some tips to showcase your work and help you land that next amazing career opportunity – without getting into any legal snafus, or torching any employer bridges.
Read that NDA
You may have read your employer’s NDA when you signed on to your current job, but now’s the time to go over it with a fine-toothed comb, and preferably with a trusted legal adviser. The specific meaning of the wording in your NDA is important, especially in terms of applicability. There are also separate requirements for classified information, so be sure you understand exactly what they are before you pursue another opportunity.
Patiently await patents – but ask for recommendations
Once the patents for your designs are published, your contributions are fair game for sharing. But that process can take time, and that doesn’t help if you’ve got a great opportunity in the offing. One option, according to AskEngineers, is to list out projects (while also omitting confidential details) and include a customer recommendation for each – a la the LinkedIn approach. You’ll end up with far more than the standard three professional references, but it will give potential employers something to go on when gauging your experience for that great new gig.
Build it, and they will come
Once an engineer, always an engineer – especially outside the work environment – and that can come in handy when it comes to developing a portfolio. Your brain doesn’t stop after 5 pm, so take those projects and add them to the portfolio. For example, you could always develop your own GrabCAD profile with examples of side pursuits. The Community has been called the "GitHub for MEs." It's not a perfect analogy but you get the idea. Still, a GrabCAD profile is a great way to show another aspect of your creativity to employers beyond, say, the more rote aspects of projects you’re doing with a large firm. It’ll also give them a better idea of how you think when you’re working on something you’re passionate about – versus something you “have” to do for the day job.
Use common sense
While it’s obviously a huge no-no to show any work-in-process information to a potential employer or competitor during an interview, there are ways to add work to your portfolio anonymously. Delete all names and descriptions, title blocks and letterhead, and use the opportunity to talk through specific details, rather than show them. Another option is to refer to the company's website and mention the products you've worked on – and then explain your approach/problem-solving skills, how you think through a design, and how you dealt with potential challenges and roadblocks.
Understand the nature of the beast
Any employer worth their salt knows that good engineers are going to be working under NDAs – and that it can be professional suicide to share confidential work. Know that the companies you’re interviewing with will both understand and respect your position if you’re unable to share a portfolio. Potential employers are no doubt used to getting pushback when they ask for an engineering portfolio of confidential work. It’s always worth a phone call to discuss options and expectations before sending anything in for review. It’s also up to you to ask if not having a portfolio will cost you the opportunity to interview. More than likely, it won’t, and interviewers will appreciate your loyalty.