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What it's *really* like interviewing as (and just being) a self-taught web developer

MERN Stack Developer
惻Updated on 惻4 min read

When I started seriously learning React and vanilla Javascript a few years ago, I approached it all with a fair degree of hope. I had already spent several years as a CSS coder - sometimes I got the Front End Developer title, other times I was a Technical Producer working within the confines of a CMS, and sometimes I built email campaigns. I have a degree (a BA, not in CS), and thought a bootcamp would be a waste of money considering I had the drive to teach myself (note: I still feel this way).

In these past few years I've watched a countless amount of videos on Youtube and Udemy which somehow contributed to this hope, that ending up on the dev team wouldn't take TOO much work on my part, that I could be in position to earn more respect at work and in life in general, and command a higher salary, if I just put my time into learning.

And yet, though I've gotten freelance work, the handful of full-time interviews I've been able to land have told me otherwise. I want to address some of these harsh realities: a few not-quite myths, but half-truths, that are circulating around the industry about what you need to do to land a developer job as a self-taught person. (Note: I haven't included anything specifically pertaining to being a woman in the field, though it may very well be a factor. I wanted this article to be relatable to anyone reading it.)

Half-truth #1 - Your degree doesn't matter

I've watched a few people get a developer job without a BS in Comp Sci, though like me, they do have degrees in other fields. (That's not to say it can't be done without one.) However, I've been flat out rejected without an interview despite my prior work history, which tells me your major matters. Most jobs that offered me an interview also included some type of coding test in exam question format, or technical questions asked on the fly by a hiring manager....often stuff that requires prior computer science knowledge. Don't assume that just because you put more time into tutorials, blog regularly, or contribute to open source that anyone will notice. Everyone is given these tests, while no hiring manager has time to look at everything you've ever made or talked about. Which brings me to my next point....

Half-truth #2 - Passion trumps all

Passion will help a lot, it will push you forward despite the low points and any burn out you experience. It will also make you more enjoyable to work with and likable as a human. However it does not override talent, ability, training, and knowledge ....all of which can be measured on tests. Think about this: how passionate did/do most of your coworkers and bosses seem? If you work at a decent or great company now, what about other places you've worked? Do you honestly think the most passionate people regularly get the best jobs or move into the highest positions?

Half-truth #3 - Smart people are less likely to/won't ask you dumb or pointless questions and are too rational to insult you

I have a full portfolio website and Github profile, including a functional MERN Stack app, examples of fetching data from APIs, various fairly complex front end projects (none of which are flat out copied from tutorials), and I've already discussed my prior work experience. Here are a few questions I've gotten during 2nd and 3rd rounds:
"Do you KNOW WordPress?" - asked by (another female) front-end developer, after the hiring manager told me knowing PHP was not a necessity and I've been using WordPress for over a decade
"Are you willing to dive into our codebase?" - same person. seriously, wtf
"Explain to me how promises work." - asked by a hiring manager after viewing a fully functional, bug-free MERN stack app which included both promises and async/await
"Is that a personal project?" - asked by a different hiring manager in regards to said MERN stack app
"How long did it take you to get comfortable?" - same guy as above, clearly an insulting question which tells me they're not comfortable with someone without a CS degree

Half-truth #4 - Your YouTube/Udemy tutorial projects will help you build your portfolio

Any tutorial projects you do are likely not as complex as take-home interview projects, hence a lot of people - often begrudgingly - studying algorithms and data structures even if they never cared about math. I won't get into the nitty-gritty details here, but I was left stumped by a few projects I was given even after watching a ton of videos (and understanding them).

I just wanted to share my experience because whenever I log onto sites like this one or Hashnode I am slammed with articles, many on topics already floating around various other places on the internet. And sometimes they are personal stories of hard work and hope. I don't want to discourage anyone from doing something they enjoy, but be sure to spend your time wisely. Build your own projects; better yet, try to build something for a real company. If no one's hiring, make up a name. If you enjoy it, practice data structures and algorithms...but (in my opinion) only if you enjoy it. The last thing this field needs is more disgruntled people who cannot find satisfaction in the work and their interactions with a collaborative team.

Discussion (8)

ekeijl profile image
Edwin • Edited

About #3 - you seem frustrated about being asked these questions because you know you have experience, but how can those people know that you didn't just copy some example project and claim you have the experience? The only way they can know for sure is by making you explain those concepts, right? It's like passing an exam, you prove that you have mastered the concepts and that you can apply them.

christinavoudouris profile image
christina Author

I see your point, but employers need to do more research on their candidates. You can look up projects on Github easily - why don't they? Also it can be hard to explain programming concepts sometimes even if you understand what you did. At least I think so.

I don't think asking me how promises work is necessarily an unfair question, but "are you willing to dive into our codebase?" is a weird one. Clearly I am because I'm interviewing. I think there's a fair amount of projection by other workers who are a little "over it" sometimes. For context, this woman was also a bit older than me, has a background in animation, her own business (supposedly), but no projects up on Github. Interestingly enough, I'm pretty sure their back end developer was the only person on that team who seemed to like me. It's always the people who don't have to compete with you.

My dad's an enterprise architect and he doesn't like the fact that I'm getting hit with coding tests. He says he never had to do them, and they're basically "calling me a liar and saying they want proof." I tried to keep an open mind about it, but the more I've interviewed, the more I agree with him.

0x12b profile image
Simon Aronsson

"are you willing to dive into our codebase?" is a weird one

Agreed. This is a really weird question.

He says he never had to do them, and they're basically "calling me a liar and saying they want proof."

I think your father is interpreting it as way more hostile than what's (likely) intended.

You can look up projects on Github easily - why don't they?

Not everyone is on GitHub or even has anything public to show. While some do, it's easier to just use the same process for everyone. Especially considering you sometimes might get hundreds of applicants for a single position.

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christinavoudouris profile image
christina Author • Edited

I don't think it's being interpreted as too "hostile"; what he's saying is completely accurate. I showed a manager examples of Promises and he asked me to explain them, i.e. implying that the code may have been copied, that I didn't write it myself. That IS basically calling someone a liar, or at least saying they MIGHT be lying and instead of hoping for the best, they interrogate.

As far as not everyone being on Github, I'm not applying for internships at the "0+ years of experience" level here, so I would imagine that everyone interviewing has SOME code samples, even if it's school projects and they send the links via email.

As far as having "the same process for everyone" ... that would be called GATEKEEPING, and how is asking more questions "easier?"

Feel free to respond, but I posted this article as a relatable story and also as a bit of a warning to people who think getting into this field is a piece of cake for everyone. Definitely not as troll bait.

Thread Thread
0x12b profile image
Simon Aronsson

Iā€™m not looking to pick a fight. Rather tried to provide some encouragement. Sorry if it came off as flame.

I too come from a background such as the one you describe and have also had my fair share of frustrating moments while trying to find a job.

Wishing you all the best in your job search!

Thread Thread
christinavoudouris profile image
christina Author

Thanks, appreciate that. I just think we need to stop giving employers breaks. We give them the benefit of the doubt, but this is rarely given to us, or returned. They clearly have biases and use outdated processes to hire people. Maybe there isn't a whole lot we can do in the span of an interview to change all that, but awareness can help us going forward. I have wasted a lot of time commuting to interviews and having pointless conversations with people who apparently had already decided they probably weren't going to hire me anyway. I'm just done with it.

naseki profile image

Haha, this sounds all too familiar. Especially the technical questions and the "dumb, pointless" questions of people asking you whether you know certain technologies you've just shown them you've used in practise.

It's not entirely clear whether you've ended up landing the job you want, but if you haven't yet, I just hope you're not losing hope.

You sound quite frustrated throughout the article, and I can't help but feel a little concerned. I do understand the situation (self-taught webdev as well, and I've been back in interviewing hell after losing a job I loved). However, in the end, you just need one company that sees potential in you.

Good luck!

christinavoudouris profile image
christina Author • Edited

Thanks for writing and I appreciate the concern. I have lost a bit of hope I had previously but I'm sticking with my journey because I enjoy the work. I'm not sure a full-time developer role is right for me, but I apply to the occasional job that seems interesting.

You're right that it just takes one company. I am hoping this article will be helpful to others (or at least amusing in that familiar way) because being too hopeful or overconfident can of course lead to disappointment. We def live in an age where enthusiastic Youtubers are trying to get your Patreon donations.

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