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I'm on the job market for the first time in ~20 years, and find that I can't show to prospective employers any of the code I've written professionally, because it's all proprietary.

I imagine this is a fairly common situation. How do people normally work around it?

I'd be happy to work for free for a couple of weeks to show people what I can do, but no one seems to be interested in this arrangement.

Is there some other way that prospective employers will accept as proof of my programming abilities?

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  • Unsure ... what you're asking? Don't they see "20 years of experience" and assume you can code? Are you being told "we don't want to hire you because" we think you cannot code, or are you being told something else? – bharal Apr 28 '18 at 22:23
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    @gnat perhaps not a duplicate exactly, but surely highly relevant and recommended for OP – DarkCygnus Apr 29 '18 at 0:02
  • Can you show them or demo the product of the code you wrote? The software, web page, or whatever the case may be? – Blair Fonville Apr 29 '18 at 0:22
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    In 22 years, I've never yet been asked to show any of the code I've written for previous employers. Normally the code written for an organisation is considered commercial in confidence, and I would hope that a prospective employee would be careful not to readily hand over any code I paid to be developed to another company either. – Jane S Apr 29 '18 at 5:52
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Contributing to Open Source Projects.

You might consider building your own, side projects and contributing to countless of Open Source initiatives to show off your skills, the way you think, solve problems, and organise your codebase. You can attach your portfolio (hosted anywhere you like, but I guess Github became de facto industry standard) to your resume and cover letter, explaining that you cannot share bits of code you have written professionally in the past years, but you would like to share yours open source contribution. Apart from the obvious advantage (you show off the code), you came out as a person who is deeply interested and involved in tech and tech communities.

You might find this helpful.

On a side note, I find it rather bizarre that employers wouldn't like to hire extremely experience software engineer with such an admirable employment history. I hope you will find a new gig soon!

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    Absolutely not. In what other profession would you suggest to people that in addition to doing their job, they should do more work for free? – gnasher729 Apr 29 '18 at 8:32
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    @gnasher729 Absolutely not? Many developers post Open Source. It is a way to get your pet projects out there and get feedback. If you don't have any pet projects then I guess you don't enjoy programming. You are doing work for free here. – paparazzo Apr 29 '18 at 9:16
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    @gnasher729 I understand your point, but I think this is a very much popular approach in many, many professions. Lawyers take pro bono cases, doctors volunteer in many different ways, architects work with their local communities, and so on. I wouldn't consider it necessarily working for free. It shows the character, skills and involvement, which are great qualities when it comes to hiring the right person. – Raf M. Apr 29 '18 at 9:21
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    Many other professions require similar "free" work to build a portfolio for the sake of improving one's resume/cv/application (musicians' mix tapes, graphic artists' portfolio of sketches, models' head shots, actors' audition tapes). Since the contributor can decide for themselves which projects they'd like to contribute to or if they'd like to star their own, I really don't see this as some unethical "free labor". – Glen Pierce Apr 29 '18 at 14:59
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Disclaimer: I'm in software QA (thus programmer-adjacent but not actually a programmer.) I'm also not a hiring manager, so I can only work with conversations I've overheard my coworkers having about what they look for and how they interview.

All that being said, I think most employers understand that you can't share you actual work from previous companies, so they don't ask for it. This is my impression from speaking to coworkers who conduct interviews, as well as my own experience discussing QA automation coding in interviews.

Is there some other way that prospective employers will accept as proof of my programming abilities?

They might ask you to complete a sample coding assignment to gauge your ability, or they might show you a snippet of code and ask you what it does. Also, the ever-popular "ask him to define coding concepts and other technical things." That sort of thing.

Programming languages and features change so rapidly these days that I think the focus of interviews most places is less on specific things you've done in the past and more on your general understanding of best practices, as well as your ability to learn new things.

Any discussion of past work would have to be limited to open source submissions (as Raf suggests) or personal projects you might have on the go, so those would be the things to include in a portfolio, if you want one.

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  • "Tell me about your worst failure and greatest success"... – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Apr 29 '18 at 11:50
  • @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen When I said "the focus would be less on specific things you've done" I didn't mean to imply that there would be no discussion at all about such things. The particular question you raise is a good example of what I mean - in asking that they want the candidate to relate (verbally) past efforts and how they handled it in order to gauge work ethic and professionalism. (General concepts.) I don't think they usually expect the candidate to pull out a hardcopy of their worst code ever and walk them through it. – Steve-O Apr 30 '18 at 13:00
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Most developers are in the same situation. Most companies know that most developers are in that situation.

You have your CV where you describe what you have been doing and what you can do. The CV will initially be believed, and gets you an interview. That's where you go in with confidence, and show them what you can do. If they already have a team with good team members, they can often ask you technical questions where you succeed or fail in five minutes. And with your experience, you should succeed.

If you want to, you can pick some problem that is not too large, and that can be solved in good ways or in bad ways, and write the solution for it. One piece of really good code. Nothing that should take more than a day.

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Is there some other way that prospective employers will accept as proof of my programming abilities?

The resume selection and the interview process is about to probe your personality and your programming skills. You can increase your image by:

  • Creating a portfolio
  • Contributing to a open project
  • Writing a blog or tutorials
  • Attending some community events: javascript meetup, .NET usergroup, etc.
  • Volunteering to an online community or be a mentor
  • During your 20 years, did you ask multiple questions online? Those questions can hurt or increase your reputation if those are related to advanced concepts. If it is favorable, publish your community profile on your resume
  • Completing challenges like codewar and publicize your profile
  • Recording personal programming session with out loud decision process
  • Mentioning books, videos and online classes that increased your skills
  • Describing in your resume technical decisions you have take and how the project have been positively impacted

As a side note, not a lot of company would take the offer to employ you for free. It is time/money expensive to take a new team member aboard and there is some risks to manage because you will probably gain access to some private information and the code base.

I would stop using the strategy of "working for free for a short time", it look very desperate and usually in my past experience, this mindset does not properly fit with a company that has a healthy culture. You will probably attract bad company that will try to take advantage of you.

Not related to the question, but if you have a hard time to get a job in IT and the market is good in your area, I would revise my resume if I do not receive interview call and if a get a lot of interviews without any offer, I would check my soft and hard skills. I would not hesitate to invest into a professional service to get feedback even if it is expensive because the return of investment is excellent compared to not have any job. Additionally, those advises will help you for the rest of your life.

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    That second to last paragraph is some very wise advice. Great to see it included in this answer. – Michael Karas Apr 29 '18 at 3:45

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