Interviewing and Confidentiality

Hey Everyone -

Started a new account for this post.

I’m sure that this topic has been covered, but I wasn’t coming up with much in my quick search.

A little background: I’ve been working in a corporate ID role for about 5 years now. My current organization doesn’t have more more room for growth, and I will be interviewing at a few places in the coming weeks for a more senior position. Over the course of 5 years, I’ve had more of the projects that I work on get cancelled than not. Leaving me with a portfolio of finished projects that doesn’t look like 5 years of work. There are also a few projects that I am currently working on, and I’ve always gone with the mantra that it’s OK to show work that has been released, etc etc. As you know corporate design tends to drag its feet and my current projects have been underway for more than a year.

My main question is: Is it acceptable to show this work (the cancelled projects)? I haven’t included it in my portfolio that got me in the door, but I’d like to be able to show more to the hiring managers. As a hiring manager what would you recommend? What would you do in this situation?

Thanks guys!

I think you have a few options here:

  1. get permission from your boss. Has its obvious draw backs of you boss knowing you are looking.
  2. if the project is truly dead and you don’t think you will be infringing on any IP then you can make that call
  3. beef up your portfolio with some side projects that communicate what you have learned

Thanks for the response, Yo!

That’s sort of what I was thinking, too.

The company tends to like to keep the work in their back pocket for potential future projects, so without letting anyone know or asking for permission I think that’s out.

I think option 3 is probably where I was leaning. I definitely want to avoid any IP fiascos.

Have you ever had an interview where the candidate brought process books of cancelled projects or projects that are currently underway and not leave them behind as supplemental work to show? If so, how did you take it as the hiring manager? I can see how it might benefit the candidate, but also might worry the manager of the candidates trustworthiness?

Showing things that got cancelled is always tough. In my time I found a couple loopholes that have helped out which might apply to your situation:

-Were cancelled projects ever socialized externally? IE something that might have been shared at a trade show, customer meetings or some other event not covered under an NDA? I had a “secret” project which later became used as a public tech demo, and once it ended up on Youtube it was no longer a concern to show it even though it was never a released product.

-Do your cancelled projects show some particularly valuable piece of your process that can’t be illustrated via another project? You may be able to get away with sharing some concept sketches for an unreleased product, depending on the field you are in and the amount of IP behind it. If you design smart phones and you share 50 concepts for a 5" smartphone, in reality you probably are not giving away any IP - people know what phones look like. If you were working on a top secret next-gen industry leading thing, that’s another story. I would not walk into an interview and say “Hey here’s the Apple self driving car I was working on”.

-Can you “Anonymize” your concept? This is common in UX where changing the clients name and any important content lets you show that you worked on a popular “E-commerce site”, but not “I worked on the cancelled version of”. In the hardware world this could be something as simple as removing any ultra-unique features from renderings/views, getting rid of logos, and just using pieces of the project to explain “here’s the best rendering I ever did” or “look at these 300 foam models I made for a handheld widget that got cancelled”.

I know people who have gotten fired for sharing client concept work - it’s a very small industry and you never know if your new interviewing manager is your current managers former college roommate. If any part of you feels that you shouldn’t show it, then you probably shouldn’t.

As mentioned, if your portfolio is too weak without these projects, consider looking at your weakest skills and doing a project that specifically demonstrates your skills in that area. Does your portfolio not show your awesome CAD skills because your company makes garage door openers? Spend a few weekends modeling a sports car.

You can always go with the “Show it anyways” and pray approach, but you have to decide if the risk is worth the squeeze. This is especially dangerous if you are interviewing at any company that could be considered a direct or indirect competitor. Showing concept work from Nike to Addias is bad form. Showing work from Qualcomm to Nike…probably not so much.

I think Mike brings up a great point that the audience is important to consider. I’ve never gone to a competitor, in that case I would definitely be more restrictive. If you know your company likes to keep things around and potentially release them then I would also be more restrictive. I have had someone come in with cancelled projects and show them, and not leave them. In that case the projects had been cancelled a couple of years prior and the company in question was starting to fold and everyone knew it, so the potential for them to use the project was low. I thought the way he handled it was professional and it didn’t raise any red flags.

As someone who is a design leader I try to empathize with my team here and when something is canceled and totally dead I give them permission to show it in their personal portfolios. Portfolios are different then they were 10-20 years ago. Yo used to only put a portfolio together when you were interviewing. Now people keep their portfolios continuously updated online, so the times are just different.

Public portfolio: never.

Private: Sometimes.

As others have said, know your audience. If you are at Ford and you get an interview at Dodge, assume that everyone at both companies is going to find out about the interview and what you did or didn’t show. If you are interviewing at Bouty Chairs (different industry, different region), assume that no one will ever find out.

Second is how you use it. Don’t lead with, “This is a super top secret never to be disclosed prototype I worked on.”. Keep it incomplete, vague and punch up the skill it is showing. ie show a render, prototype detail, sketch but not a 60 page technical package.

Third, modify it. If you want to show your mechanical abilities, show an exploded view with no recognizable features or logos. That way, you show your ability and keep the confidentiality of whatever the design was.

Another thing is to do a concept sketch with some modifications on the side. “I worked on a flux capacitor a few years ago and this is one that I came up with over last holidays at home.” That way it is a little removed from what you actually did.

Lastly, you can always ask your boss, just practice the conversation in your head before hand. “Hey, next time I update my portfolio, could I toss in that derailleur gear concept we canned?” Lots of coulds-woulds-ifs makes it seem like you have no immediate plan. Just plan for follow up questions in case the boss is paranoid.

That is a good strategy, just be casual about it, even for designers not planning to leave it is probably good to have some sort of agreement or understanding around this. Consider establishing these ground rules with your new employer.

I would also say that if you are interviewing at a company in a totally unrelated industry then it would be less risky, but I agree, you never know who you might run into.

If some of the projects are purely stylization projects then I think those should be fine unless your company has a strong reputation for being a trend setter in a realm like fashion, apparel, or soft goods.

Would it be strange to ask your interviewer to sign a NDA before showing any work?

Thank you all for your responses. Great information here, and I think Yo put it best by mentioning how portfolios have changed over time.

First and foremost, the companies aren’t competitors. Let’s say Company A (which I work for now) does business in a variety of sectors, one of which what Company B (I am applying to) primarily deals in, and those tend to be the projects that have been cancelled most frequently.

This is why I brought my question to you experts on the forums, I think my portfolio showcases my skills effectively (it did get me the interview.) I was worried about the potential for seeming like there was a lack of overall experience.

I think being more open with my manager would have been a pretty good place to start, but I’m a bit beyond that point in the process where asking might ruffle more feathers and raise more questions than worth it. I’d like to keep the status quo in that relationship, for now at least.

I’m leaning toward having sort of that public/private portfolio and not leave the private one behind.

The question about the NDA is pretty interesting. Sometimes a potential employer will have you sign an NDA before entering the building. Would you hiring managers find that strange? Annoying?

If you are asking me to sign an NDA to show me the IP of another company it would be a red flag that you do not understand the concept of IP ownership. Don’t do that.

If it’s under NDA it doesn’t get shown, simple as that.

If it’s a concept that’s been sitting out in your reception area for 5 years, go for it.

I would never sign an NDA to look at a portfolio. Definitely a red flag.

Yes it would be odd/bad form to ask an interviewer to sign an NDA. Sort of a segue here, but I’ve been an interviewee brought in to discuss a design job where the employer could not share any of their work with me or tell me who any of their clients were. I knew what type of design work that they did, but in order to determine if I would be qualified and/or enjoy the work I wanted to see some examples of their projects to get a better feel, if for nothing else to engage in some interview dialogue. They refused, I offered to sign an NDA, they even had to refuse that due to stipulations in their client contracts. I declined their offer.

The point is if you have time gaps in your portfolio due to things you cannot share, I’d recommend being well prepared to point that out, but also be able to discuss your role and thought processes for those projects without divulging any confidential details, if you can relate those experiences to the projects that you can show then even better, it will show how you can apply that experience to your new employer’s projects as well. The company that I interviewed with didn’t do such a great job in articulating at least what it was like to work on their projects or speak to process and it made me uneasy about the job, the same thing can make a hiring manager uneasy about a candidate.

I definitely agree with the ‘if it hasn’t been released, don’t show it’ view. Even if it’s not in the same sector of design, it’s a small world, and a small world of designers who talk to each other! I once interviewed a candidate who stated talking about unreleased product, they even started the line with “I probably shouldn’t talk about this, but…”, it made it worse that they knew they shouldn’t be talking about it, it didn’t give me much confidence that they wouldn’t do the same with any of our work!! An NDA is the same flag for me.

I think most employers will understand that you’ve worked on products that have been dropped or shelved, it’s all part of the design process. I’d agree with Yo, beef up your portfolio with alternative examples of work, or even demonstrate how you work as well as what you’ve worked on. I spent about 6 months concepting around 360 ideas recently… and not one concept made it to development, but they’ve all been archived for the future, so I’ve tried to show how I concept and how I typically work, and hope that that can somehow show as much as a concept!

Thank you all for the responses! This is exactly why I posted this here.

I appreciate the recommendations and the discussions.

I went the safe route and didn’t share anything that hasn’t been released. During my interview, there was of course the HR line of questioning, where I was asked to describe 2 times I was faced with a challenge etc etc and how did you overcome? It was here that I could mention the challenge of having projects cancelled after months of work and how it can be disappointing for sure, but also how you can learn from those experiences and apply that learning moving forward.

Another one of my important things that I have learned is to be open with my manager about updating my portfolio early and often. That way it wouldn’t come as a big surprise out of no where, when I ask if I can put a project in my portfolio.

Thanks again everyone!