Sunday, 14 February 2016

Starting out in software development

If you're trying to begin your career in software development it might feel like all the positions you see are asking for previous experience and there are few opportunities to gain that required experience. In my opinion, as a relatively new industry, it feels like we're currently going through some growing pains. Companies are struggling to find suitability qualified mid / senior developers but very few organisations have a plan in place to help train the juniors required to feed into the system to generate tomorrow's mid / senior level developers.

I also feel that the current (UK) education system is letting down graduates by not preparing them with the programming skills needed by the industry. It seems like it is possible to graduate a computing degree with only a few months exposure to actual development. This practical experience is critical to understanding the theory and it's application. I'm sure I'm not alone in that feeling, with Scratch and the current crop of micro computers, such as the Raspberry PI, focused on building a new generation of developers similar to ones that cut their teeth on Sinclair, Amstrad and Commodores, or in the early days of the web.

But that doesn't help you if you're trying to enter the industry and are experiencing companies that are all looking for developers with at least one previous role. The good news is that it has never been easier to improve your coding ability. To stand out from the crowd you should invest in your future career by:

  • Code, and code again: There are various coding dojo / kata sites that have many programming exercises that you can practise in your chosen language. This is the number one recommendation I can make, do these and do them again, trying them in a different language or look to see how you can improve on your previous attempts using what you have since learnt. Get a Github account and commit your code to demonstrate your skills, if you only link to one thing in your CV - make it your GitHub account!
  • Stack Overflow: We all use Stack Overflow when things get tough but don't be a lurker. Set up a profile (ideally with your real name, see the last point) and ask questions if you can't find an answer to your issue (don't worry, all the questions haven't been asked yet). Take notice of the feedback you get when asking questions and if your question doesn't get any answers / feedback, revisit it and see if you can provide more detail to clarify / define your issue further. You'll be surprised how quickly your writing / question asking skills will improve. Also it's a great buzz when you find a question that you can answer and even more so if it gets accepted!
  • Be part of the development community: Do a Google search for any events that are taking part in your local area, if you're lucky you'll find a group using the technology you are interested in just down the road from you. Be brave, the first one can be a little scary but if it's a good group they're always welcoming to new members and see my initial comments about the current state of the industry. The people running these groups are aware of the challenges in recruitment and will want to help you. Make sure you continue going and take time to get to know other people, if you follow most / all of the points listed here then it can be a great opportunity to find a fantastic role in which you could really grow.
  • Learn: Depending upon the language you're looking to learn, you'll be be able to find varying free or paid training sites. .NET has Channel 9 whilst Android has a fantastic YouTube channel. Whilst it is not free I am a big fan of the content on PluralSight which covers many different languages and technologies as well as having some good videos on career development too.
  • Stay up to date: Get on twitter, follow popular blogs (maybe even this one), listen to Podcasts. Find out what the current trends are in the technologies you are interested in. Many technologies have forks / competing versions (Python/Node) and/or a next version with breaking changes (.NET core/Angular). Being aware of these things and what they mean can make a big difference during the interview process.
  • Blog: Writing a blog can be extremely difficult, I've found it to be one of the hardest things you can do. Don't expect it to be an overnight success, all the advice is that you need regular content that is relevant to attract return visitors. Keep an eye on your stats to see what your most popular articles are and try to determine why. It would be nice if it was my content / writing style that was the draw but my most popular articles are ones that contain a clear error message so are obviously being turned up by web searches by people that are having the same problem. I can remember feeling fantastic when I noticed Stack Overflow in my referrers and found that someone had linked to one of my articles in their answer.
  • Find a mentor: This is something that I have heard about recently in a podcast, there are several coding mentor sites out there. I can't comment on their quality / integrity I'm afraid, but it is something that I'm going to be looking into further.
  • Build your online presence: Make it easy for future employers to find out as much as they can about you with the minimum effort on their part. Use it as a chance to demonstrate your web skills, get a domain, put a web site up and make it look good (note to self, follow own advice).
  • Remember it's about shipping stuff: A bit of a bonus point really, demonstrate in the interview that you're aware that code no one is using has no value no matter how well it is written! So it's all about early visibility/feedback and SOLID, DRY concepts and automated unit testing should only exist to help promote that and make shipping easier / repeatable.

If you follow some or all of the steps above, you can be sure that you will stand out from the crowd! I wish you good luck in your journey in software development and if this article helps it would be great if you left a comment to let me know.

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