Getting Your First Job As A Software Developer
Jennifer Konikowski Dec 30, 2016
This post is aimed primarily at people who are transitioning to another industry, not new grads. New grads will probably get something from this post, but they are not the primary audience. With that said, this post will discuss primarily getting a job as a web developer since, not only is that what I have experience with, web dev jobs are usually the ones that junior developers can get.
Getting the Interview
In some ways, this can be the most daunting part. I'm going to break this up and hopefully help you to see that you (yes YOU!) have what it takes to apply.
Getting Your Resume Ready
One thing I always tell people is to make their existing jobs as technical as possible. For example, when I was applying to my first software developer job, I made my job at Home Depot (which was a PM job) sound like I did way more development. I did all the things that I put on my resume, but I emphasized the more relevant tasks and did not mention that my day to day was mostly working in Excel. Did you optimize a process at work? That shows how you can problem solve! Did you write a script to help you analyze data? Definitely add that. Also, writing actual code is not the only skill needed by developer. Chris Doyle, CTO of Pretty Quick, does a good job of summing this up (slightly paraphrasing from tweets):
There are many valuable dev skills besides code, many of which you probably possess! Start there.Also, your dev skills may be relatively small, but it doesn't mean they aren't already useful. A junior developer sent me a cover letter identifying a potential UX improvement in my site, saying "This is something I could help you with." That was such a concrete demonstration of initiative! They were an immediate favorite who was ultimately hired.
For new developers, I expect to invest in their training, so it's really about "are they going to multiply or waste effort". I do consider their current ability and have a low minimum bar, but gaining confidence in trajectory is much more important.
What are these other valuable dev skills? Chris has created a whole list of developer competences. Don't worry if you look at that list and feel like you are missing a few. However, this list should help you decide what to include on your resume. For example, if you are currently in a customer support role, you are probably very good at suggesting possible causes for bugs! For more of my thoughts on resumes, see my post on the topic.
Creating Your Portfolio
This part of applying to jobs because less critical as you have more relevant experience. For example, a visit to my github or gitlab pages would make one think that I never coded! False... all my code is just proprietary and I invest my time in PyLadies vs OSS. Works for me because I have former employers and coworkers who will back up the quality of my code. If you are starting out, you need to show it. As Carlos Alonso said, as a junior developer, "your public code is the most important part of your CV." Dustin King recommends "writing a small game or other fun demo and putting it up online with code." Your project doesn't have to be huge, but you should have a friend QA it and make sure that there aren't glaring bugs. My project ended up being a choose your own adventure game that was part of going through Zed Shaw's Learn Python The Hard Way. However, I would recommend going a step further and building your own web app prior to applying. See the end of my "Getting Started As A Developer" post for more suggestions on how to get started with that.
Finding Jobs To Apply To
How do you even find jobs that are available? There are many great job boards out there, my favorite being Stack Overflow Jobs. But don't stick with just one. Search any job board that you can find and, as Christian Steinert says "try not to only consider common tech companies. Others (like financial services) might offer interesting stuff." At this point, most companies have at least a few software developers on staff. If there's a company you love, look at their job board. If it looks like they have a few technical jobs, reach out! Being passionate about a company's mission/product can often get you pretty far. As an example, if I lived in San Francisco, I would be hounding Betabrand until they hired me. If you have extensive in a field, look at companies with that focus so that your past experience can be even more beneficial. For example, if you are a biologist by training and looking to switch to development, you might find a place like AddGene to be a good fit. I, personally, have also enjoyed working with recruiters, like Talener in Boston. At bare minimum, they will get you in front of a ton of companies and get you in for interviews. Even if none of those pan out, it will be good practice and you will be better prepared when you find a job you are really excited about. Also, don't forget to milk your own personal connections! Do you know anyone who works at a company that's hiring devs? Contact them, see if they can meet you for coffee (buy them a coffee), and talk to them about what it's like to work at their company and their hiring process.
Now that you have a long list of job postings, you maybe are starting to notice that they all seem to say that you need experience with all these different languages, maybe one of which you have used... how can you ever be ready? GOOD NEWS! Most job postings are wish lists. Yes, even the parts that say "Required" are often negotiable. If a job sounds interesting, you should apply. Let whoever is reviewing your resume determine whether you are qualified. The only phrase that should give you pause is "Senior". If a job posting is looking for a "Senior Application Developer" or something like that, the hiring manager is unlikely to hire a junior person instead. Even so, if it's a company that you are really passionate about, reaching out will not hurt.
Acing the Interview
One way to prepare is to work through a list of common interview questions and maybe a few exercism problems. Almost every interview I've had has also asked questions about SQL. Given that every job I have had has required me to use SQL in one form or another, I would recommend learning a bit before applying to any job. If you aren't up to speed yet, work through exercise 12 of Learn SQL The Hard Way. It looks like most of the lessons probably aren't too time consuming and it will be well worth your time!
I wrote my own "Job Search Retrospective" last September which talks about some of the things that I did in my most recent round of interviews that made me feel a lot more confident. As a junior, the most important thing to remember is that it's ok to say "I don't know" or "I don't know, but I was reading about this recently and I think it is [x]". An employer who you actually want will not be expecting you to be super knowledgable about development at this point. Stay calm on just make sure all your awesome qualities are on display. Most importantly, don't forget to ask questions!
If you aren't sure that you did very well during the interview, don't despair! You still have time to make a good impression. Going back to Chris Doyle, he had a person who sent in a refactored version of a coding exercise they did during an interview. This is such a great demonstration of initiative and also that you continue to consider and think about your solution even after you have "solved" the problem. It is good to send an email to the interviewer and thank them. That's a perfect place to add in "and I've been thinking about that problem that we did and I think the solution could be improved by [x]".
Starting the Job
Getting the Offer
The only advice that Mr. Sam Phippen through out really struck a cord with me:
Charge. More. People entering the industry consistently underestimate their reasonable salary band by about 20%.
This hit me because, as of recently, I was underpaid by about 25%. To get an idea of what other places are paying, look at sites like Indeed and the recent Stack Overflow Developer Survey. If you find out after the fact that you have undervalued yourself, you can fix it, but it takes a while. I speak from experience.
Doing the Work
Never feel bad about asking questions. Take advantage of the senior devs that you work with and learn as much as you can from them. If your company supports pairing, pair program as often as you can. You will learn so much more so much faster that way. Also, take charge of a project or a feature. That doesn't mean you have to do all the work, just that you are taking responsibility for making sure it gets past the finish line. Along those lines, @codepaintsleep says:
Don't get stuck with grunt work just because you're junior. Push your knowledge when there's more experienced people to help! Also, don't write off grunt work as grunt work. Learn from everything!
To give an example of how you can learn from everything, I am covering for a coworker and working support this week. I am not doing any actual coding. However, the amount that I have learned about how our system works and what our users want in just a week is incredible. Learn. From. EVERYTHING.
I hope you got something out of this. If you think I missed something, feel free to comment on the post or contact me.