As a self-taught web developer, I struggled to overcome the barriers of entry into the workforce. I had always done well in academia, which resulted in professor affirmation, offers for advanced classes, and offers for scholarships. I naively believed the workforce to behave similarly: that all I had to do was be good at what I did and the jobs would come to me. If I could pass an interview the way I could pass a test, my encyclopedic knowledge of programming would make finding a job easy.
That was not the case. Not only did job offers not come flooding into my mailbox, but I could rarely get a response to an application when I reached out to companies directly. What was wrong? I was a good developer. I could solve real world problems. I had created applications and met customer demands. Somehow, I was wholly unprepared for an enterprise setting.
I doubted my abilities. My ego was crushed. I thought I was intelligent; I thought my projects pushed the envelope; but employers seemed to disagree. They often did not see me as even worth interviewing. The most common feedback I received was that they required a degree. The fact that I had invented applications that generated revenue did not matter. I gave up and pursued other passions, leaving web development as my favorite pastime that it had always been.
Years later, I decided to pursue web development again after encouragement from my peers. I was still passionate about it. I was good at it. It made me happy. I attempted to re-enter the workforce, knowing from past experience that it would not be easy. I took the act of job searching much more seriously than before. The difference? Humility. You should know what you don’t know, and I knew there was something I did not know about web development careers and how they differed from web development as a hobby.
I spent a lot of time researching how to build a résumé and portfolio, the interview process, and the soft skills of developer careers. I sought résumé and portfolio critique. I did as many practice interviews as I could book. I networked every opportunity. I still research these topics to this day. I take a strong interest in them, as my ignorance of these topics held me back for so long. I am passionate that other developers be prepared to face these issues as well, especially those whom are self-taught, because they are often overlooked in academia and barely existent online.
Since entering an enterprise setting, I have been involved with as much interview training, sat on as many interview panels, and gathered as much employee feedback as possible. I have applied what I have learned to everyone I have come across who seeks it — from Reddit threads to direct LinkedIn messages. This is my attempt to publicly document and share this knowledge, in hopes that talented and self-motivated developers receive the fair shot at success they deserve.
Before you can become a junior developer that is in demand, you must first become a junior developer. This article is not equivalent to an education. This article is meant to be supplemental to an education, be it formal or self-driven.
Cracking the Coding Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell is another powerful education supplement that I highly recommend. It covers many of the soft skills required by companies and ensures you know the hard skills. You will see it recommended time and time again online, and it is easily worth the $30 investment.
You need go a step further than merely knowing what the data structures and algorithms are. Understand the trade-offs between them. When do you choose one over another? Which is more extensible and under what conditions? Which uses less memory or is faster to execute? When would you want to trade memory or efficiency for these other features and why? Knowing the answers to these questions will be very important during your interview process. You will almost certainly be asked to solve a problem that requires a complex data structure. Whichever you choose, you will want to be able to defend. “It’s the first data structure I remembered” does not fly too well on a production application, so it does not fly too well in an interview either.
I encourage you to open-source as much as possible. Your Quicksort implementation is not doing you any favors on your hard drive. Your intro-to-programming video game may be embarrassingly inefficient, but you are selling it short. These beginner’s projects show:
- You wanted to make something and have an interest in programming outside of work.
- You learned to make something and are both willing and capable of learning new technologies as needed.
- You completed a project without giving up. You can see challenges through to the end by overcoming obstacles instead of quitting.
- You did something. If you do not publish your code, employers will assume that you never wrote it. It is so much better to write something inefficient than to write nothing at all.
Since open-sourcing my projects, my development career has earned more value than those projects ever offered me on their own. I have received a significant amount of community feedback that has allowed me to prioritize what is important to customers and account for use cases and environments I never would have otherwise considered. Bugs that never existed in my environment have arisen in others’. From their reports, I have identified and learned from mistakes in my code designs. Today, I can create components and packages that are extensible to more use cases than just my personal portfolio and projects. These learned concepts and deeper understanding of technologies improve my quality of work.
For each project, I recommend adding the following to its
- An actual name.
repository-nameis nice and automated, but try to give it a description that differentiates you from other candidates. Every candidate has a “TODO App” and “Shopping List.” Why is yours better? Try “React TODO App” or “MongoDB Shopping List.”
- An actual description. “TODO App” can mean a lot of things. It is obvious to you, because you made it. What CRUD operations does it support? Does it use server-side code? Who is the target audience? What problem are you solving and how? For example, my Shopping List application “was created for my father, who needed a printable shopping list for his home care aides. To support his declining memory, the application keeps track of past items so that they may be re-added with ease.” I have put the customer first, identified a problem, and executed on a solution.
- Nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to clone your repository, install it, then run it locally just to see your work. Companies are often flooded with candidates (whether or not they are good candidates). They will just move on to the next candidate instead. At this point in time, to the company, you are statistically likely to be average. Their time is better spent researching another candidate than wasting time or muddying their machine. If your project is front end, consider deploying it to GitHub Pages. If your project is not front end, consider adding screenshots of any GUI, linking to a live demonstration of any API, or documenting example inputs and outputs.
- Document your API, if there is one. This is good experience and practice for when you are creating highly used, production-facing APIs in an enterprise setting. Companies want good documentation, even for APIs that are only used internally. Every time an internal customer references the documentation, there is one less support ticket to answer and one more free hour for a developer to implement new features instead of support existing ones. When the creator of an API leaves the company, how quickly can their replacement support the service they have inherited? Many companies have been burned by this before, and they know that good documentation is indicative of team-thinking.
If you want to stand out, then you first need to stand. Not only should recruiters be able to find you, they should be impressed by what they see. Get your name out there for good reasons.
Under your Career Interests, let recruiters know you are open. Reply to every recruiter, whether or not you want the job. Practice your professional communication skills. Practice putting complex social and career situations into words that are articulate and unoffensive. These skills will translate both into an interview setting and the workplace. Sometimes, you know what you want, but you do not quite know how to say it. Later, when you are interviewing, it will be good to be able to articulate professionally what it is that you want from the job — and that is the best way to get it.
Practice declining jobs in which you are not interested without burning bridges. That recruiter may reach out to you in the future with a better opportunity more tailored to your interests. Similarly, job offers that you do not accept today may become desirable in the future. Finally, when you leave your first job for your second, your experience in rejecting your current company without burning bridges will help you get that professional recommendation.
Squeeze recruiters for information. Find out what is in demand. For what skills are they looking? If they inform you that you are not the right fit for a position, ask them why. What are you lacking? What should you study? If you re-apply in some number of months, what do they want to see improved that could land you the position? Drop your pride, up your humility, and understand that employers want an employee that can learn, not one who thinks they know everything already. A candidate telling me that they will be back and more ready than ever is a very positive sign. It shows dedication, it shows an eagerness to learn, and if they come back having corrected their faults, it shows an ability to succeed at their goals.
Learn your worth. No matter the recruiter or the position, what is the compensation? What does a front end engineer make in Seattle? What does a PHP developer make in Indiana? What does a React Native developer make in India? (Do note that I included a location in each of these. The greatest determinant for compensation is location!) When your first job offer inevitably asks what you want as far as compensation, you will know what you are worth. Do not be afraid to high-ball. Once they have decided that they want you, they will not just reject you for asking too much. They will counter with their max. This is better than low-balling yourself and making closer to minimum wage than your worth. This is a great way to lose motivation, feel underappreciated, and quickly burn out during your job.
Link to your LinkedIn profile liberally. Your projects outside of LinkedIn should include links to LinkedIn. Recruiters who are impressed by your work need a way to contact you. Developers who are impressed by your work may be willing to give you a job recommendation. For example, I end every Medium article with “Follow me on LinkedIn.” At this time, these link shares have resulted in 300 connections.
Stand, and allow yourself to be found.
Keep your Twitter account professional. It is okay to have personal tweets, but do not have anything controversial. Build a following by constantly tweeting what you have accomplished, and share your Twitter profile on your projects to build a following. For example, I end every Medium article with “Follow me on Twitter.” At this time, these link shares have resulted in 300 followers.
Twitter is free marketing. I have never made a social tweet. I maintain a strictly business Twitter account. If I post what I have made, people will see it, interact with it, provide feedback, and share it. Related hashtags, such as the tech stack, can be used to encourage bots to auto-retweet you for a wider audience.
The million dollar questions are, “How do you stand out from every other equally-education recent college graduate?” and “How do you show that your self-taught education is equal to your accredited competitors?”
First things first, actually write your résumé! Be sure to keep your portfolio and résumé in sync with your LinkedIn. This helps recruiters find you and know what tech stacks with which you are familiar.
Keep your résumé to one page. If you think you need more than that because you have accomplished so much, you are wrong. For reference, my 17 years of experience is still a one page résumé. It is more likely that you are including information that should not be in a résumé. Remember that a résumé gets you to the interview. The fine details come up in the interview itself.
LinkedIn often has promotions with free courses on their LinkedIn Learning platform. Completing these courses adds a Certification entry to your LinkedIn profile — an easy and fun way to stand out.
Tailor your résumé to the job to which you are applying. Your education, experience, interests, and goals can all be conversation pieces during the interview. Know how they relate to the job. What formal training have you had in the field? Note college courses or online training that were particularly relevant. What past work applies specifically to this job? Remove unrelated projects. An employer seeking a front end engineer is not going to ask you about the time you coded a Caesar cipher in assembly. Any time they spend reading about it is mental fatigue that turns them off to you as a candidate. Any time they spend discussing it with you is likely time wasted. They will not have learned if you are a correct fit for the job. That time is better spent informing them of your strengths in the field.
Do not list items on your résumé that you cannot defend. You may think you need to lie to land an interview, but you do not. Part of the interview process is specifically tailored to weed out liars. You achieve nothing more than wasting everyone’s time, including your own. You will be grilled on technologies you list and asked to give specifics about past projects. It will be apparent if you are not familiar with these technologies or supposed projects. It does not look good to claim to have worked with NPM and Travis CI but be unable to define them, what problems they solved, or how these tools solved those problems. Even vague answers can be red flags. You know that NPM managed your Node packages, but you do not know what packages, why you would want this tool on your project, or the commands you used. These are great reasons to explicitly not hire you. It would realistically be a better choice to hire a candidate who has no experience with NPM than one who supposedly does have experience but cannot answer the above. The inexperienced candidate may be able to learn. The lying candidate has demonstrated that they are incapable of learning.
I do not say the above to make you fear of listing a technology on your résumé. I say the above to emphasize how many candidates lie, how employers have come to expect this, and to encourage you not to waste your time lying also. If you honestly have experience with a technology, do not be afraid to list or discuss it. If you do not know the answer to a question, admit it and explain why. “We used NPM to install packages, but the only one I know is
npm install. The CI/CD pipeline ran the rest automatically, so I am unfamiliar with them.” You have demonstrated that you do understand what the tool is and what the tool solves. You have not demonstrated that you are incapable of learning. If I heard this answer, I would think you are perfectly capable of learning NPM better on the job. This is in stark contrast to the lying candidate who claims to have used a tool but cannot offer specifics about when, where, or why.
Sell yourself. Don’t sell yourself short. Be proud of what you have accomplished and be confident in your verbiage. You did not “make a small website for a friend.” You “exceeded a customer’s expectations by delivering a accessibility-compliant single-page-application and maintain it through an Issues tracker and a CI/CD pipeline.” Employers do not want to make small websites for your friends. They want to make SPAs, perform long-term maintenance, track issues, and automate deployment. Your description of your project should not be “I made a tic-tac-toe clone in the browser,” but “A React application that implements Flux architecture through Redux, supporting keyboard navigation and performing animations with CSS.” Remember to tailor the résumé to the job and describe your projects with marketable terms.
Why are you interviewing for this position? What are your short and long term goals, and how does this position help you reach them?
For my last interview, my answers to these questions were: I want a higher skill ceiling than my previous job. I want to be challenged to learn new technologies and better myself. I feel like I have plateaued at my previous place of employment, and I have an intrinsic motivation to become the best developer that I can be.
Employers want to know you are a right fit for them. If you just want money, you are a right fit anywhere — meaning there is no guarantee you will remain loyal when a competitor offers more. They do not want to invest in you if this is the case. For my last career shift, I would have been willing to take a pay cut, because it meant I could achieve greater things, and that is what mattered to me.
You should have the mentality that every interview is good for you. Much the way you can squeeze a recruiter for information, you can do the same with an interview. Determine what tech stacks their company uses, what skills are in demand, and why they are not interested. Some interviewers are unable to give you this information without first passing it through to HR, so be sure to follow up with HR after the interview. Use this information to better yourself between interviews.
Interview places that you “know” you will not accept. I put know in quotes, because I have known someone to accept a job offer after following this advice, interviewing with no intention of accepting, finding out they actually loved the company, and accepting the offer. This is my only morally-ambiguous piece of advice. Practice interviewing at places in which you do not have an interest. Squeeze them for the same information — what is their tech stack, what skills do they value, in what areas can you improve, and if you receive a job offer, what is your worth? These practice interviews will allow you to better communicate your soft skills with less anxiety, and it will show when you take on an interview for a job that you really want.
Treat your interview like it your first day on the job. This should help decrease your anxiety and feel less pressure of being judged. Interact with the interviewer as if they are your coworker. The entire point of an interview is for the interviewer to determine how you would behave on the job. When they ask you questions, it is not because this is a test, and you have to achieve 90% of higher to pass. It is because they want to see your thought process when you are given real world problems to solve. This thought process is not just getting a right or wrong answer. How many edge cases did you consider? Could you discern which did or did not apply to the customer in this use case? Did you take extra steps when solving the problem to make your code extensible to possible future modification, despite it not being a part of the current feature request? Can you communicate difficult technical concepts, data structures, algorithms, and their trade offs? Do you know when to ask for help, or do you think you know everything? These are potential areas in which the interviewer is taking notes, because these are the things you will work on in a team. Engage your interviewer. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Describe your thought process. Think out loud. Seeing them as a coworker really helps aid in this task.
To prepare for your interview, make sure that you are intimately familiar with the S.T.A.R. format. When your interviewer asks you to describe an event, try your best to answer with S.T.A.R. This ensures you provide the information for which your interviewer is probing and that there is no miscommunication between the two of you. If your misinterpreted the question, it should become clear by the situation or task that you are answering the wrong question. If you are answering the right question, the interviewer may be looking for relevant experience (situation), problem identification or communication skills (task), problem-solving or technical skills (action), or ability to deliver results, compromise, or learn from mistakes (result). By answering with S.T.A.R., your bases are covered, and strong communication is achieved.
Impressive is subjective, but here I mean the projects that were the most extensive or unique. You worked on a team, you worked with clients, you worked with a manager, you received notable amounts of community feedback, it went viral, or you accomplished something that took weeks not hours. Prepare to reference your most impressive projects during behavioral questions. Unlike the quantitative, encyclopedic knowledge of programming, sometimes you can draw a blank when asked qualitative questions. You have so much experience writing for loops and traversing arrays that it comes second nature when asked to do so. Unfortunately, when asked to “name a time you had a disagreement with a superior,” you might not have an example at the ready. Your mind can go blank as you try to process this question.
What if I’ve never had a disagreement? If I say I have not, do I sound inexperienced or like I’m lying? And if I have, will it sound like I am difficult to work with or oppositional? What counts as a disagreement? Who counts as a superior? I have little to no work history! How am I supposed to have disagreed with a superior?
Do be aware that behavioral questions do not typically mean on the job. In the previous question, a superior may be a professor or a mentor. A disagreement does not need to be a heated argument, but could be different opinions on implementation details. You can make the question as generic as it needs to be to have an answer, and that’s why creating a list of your most impressive projects up front can be beneficial.
I highly recommend reading through Amazon’s Leadership Principles. These are some of the most well-rounded, all-encompassing, and rigorously tested behavioral skills on the Internet. You would be hard-pressed to find a soft skill that is both important and not on this list. For each leadership principle, I recommend associating it with one of your impressive projects. Add new projects or situations as needed.
- Project A — I learned something new.
- Project B — I invented a tool to aid the development process.
You may absolutely assign multiple principles to a single project, but I strongly recommend that you have a project or situation for each principle. If you find yourself unable to associate some, think harder. Try removing the job or development aspect from the association. A time you were frugal may have just been in your day-to-day life, where you have managed to cut expenses in order to prioritize paying off your student loans and therefore decreasing your accumulated interest.
Once you have associated each leadership principle with a project or situation, clean up your list. Remove projects or situations that are not associated with any soft skills. You should be left with just a list of your actual most impressive projects.
Bring this list with you to interview. When you are asked a behavioral question, if needed, read over this list to jog your memory of a time it applied. Do not write the soft skills next to the projects. The point of this list is to be memory-jarring. You should be able to skim it in a few seconds in response to a question, not spend several minutes reading a page of summaries before you answer. The combination of the location (project) and event (question) should be enough to quickly jog your memory of any relevant experience you may have.
It may feel odd to have to look at notes of your own life story in response to a question about yourself, but do not worry. Interviewers are aware of the impact of nervousness during the interview process, and I assure you no one will mind that you took notes about your own soft skills. People struggle with these questions more than any others, so your ability to answer at all will put you ahead of the curve.
Numbers are the universal language. They remove ambiguity and drive business decisions. If you have data to accommodate your claims, bring it. By what percentage did you boost productivity or revenue? How much money did you generate? How much time did you save? If you only have qualitative results, they are better than nothing. Measuring your efficiency not only drives home the reality of your value, but it shows a mindset of valuing analytical data that indicates that you will do the same on the job.
For example, some data I collected prior to my last interview:
- I reduced network traffic by 30% (gzipped) to 60% (non-gzipped) by implementing an opt-in (backwards compatible) compression algorithm on the API. This was not a complicated algorithm. I never had formal training in compression or data. I simply noticed that network traffic was being wasted downloading the same property names repeatedly. A quick Google search shows that I was not the only one to seek this data conversion. I measured the packet sizes with and without this change, and viola — data.
- I simplified an existing internal testing framework for a project. This resulted in the development time for end-to-end testing decreasing from 3 days per path to just 1. This wasn’t rocket science. I was annoyed by how difficult the existing framework was to use, so I turned common commands into re-usable function calls. When the team responded that it was much nicer to use, I documented the change in development time.
Confidence is important. Identify your insecurities and practice addressing them. If your interviewer probes these aspects of you and your achievements, you do not want to validate their concerns by lacking answers.
Do you lack a degree? Why? You thought it was the right choice for you to make. Why? You decided that you could achieve academic equality to a college graduate. Why? Leave your fear of judgment behind and take pride in your decisions. If you cannot be confident that your choices thus far are the right ones, how can you be trusted to make the right choices for the company?
I lack a degree in Computer Science. It was my biggest insecurity in my first attempt to enter the workforce. Now, I am outspoken against learning software development through college curriculums. I am confident that it was the correct decision for me. It would have cost me too much money and provided too little benefit. I learned faster on my own than in a classroom. I have worked with developers in open-source, in person, and engaged myself in as many developer communities as I can find. I have proven that I can comprehend and discuss complex topics, so I am confident that a college education would not improve myself as a developer. I can articulate that sentiment to an interviewer.
Once you understand yourself, practice articulating it. Practice by yourself, putting your thoughts into words. There is a lot of emotion behind anxiety, insecurity, and fear of judgment. It can be difficult to find the right words to label emotionally-charged aspects of your life. Practice, practice, practice. Once you believe you have adequately described your biggest challenges, practice with friends and relatives. Then, practice with mentors and coworkers. Practice, practice, practice.
Seek honest feedback. If your goal is to improve or land a job, you do not want your ego stroked. You want constructive criticism. Make sure those close to you know that they should not be afraid of hurting your ego, and make sure your ego is not hurt by opportunities for self-improvement.
When the interview has come to a close, your interviewer will often give you an opportunity to ask questions. Do ask questions. This shows that you have an actual interest in the company and are not just here for a paycheck. Do not ask about pay, vacation time, time off, or anything else that insinuates that you care more about money than your career. Do ask about company culture, opportunities for growth, team dynamics, tech stacks, and making sure you are a good fit for each other. You are interviewing the company just as much as the company is interviewing you. They do not want to put you in an environment where you will not be happy — that’s the fastest way to have an employee quit. Identify what is important to you, and ask how questions related to your short and long term goals.
End the interview with a closing statement. It does not feel as natural as it should, but after you have asked your questions, segue to a closing statement. “I don’t have any further questions, but I do have one comment.” This is your opportunity to describe your best qualities and what you can bring to the team. Instead of the interviewer leaving the interview fixated on your minor imperfections, have them leave with a positive thought. If your greatest qualities did not come up naturally during conversation, now is your opportunity to address them. During an interview, the bottom of my notes reference a few of what I consider to be my strongest qualities. If they came up already, I ignore them; if they did not come up, I bring them up now.
If you have any questions or relevant great advice, please leave them in the comments section.
You can also check out my portfolio on CharlesStover.com.