Are you ready to kickstart your tech career? If you’re starting now, you might be discovering that it can be challenging just to know where to start. It’s no easy task to find your first foothold in the industry. But, it’s absolutely possible.
This is always a challenge for new college graduates. But it’s also challenging for those who are changing careers as well. You may be looking at “entry level developer jobs” and seeing that employers still expect previous experience. It will take creative thinking and hard work, but it is possible to get started even without a “real developer job” on your resume. So, for my first blog post here on Dev Playbook, I decided to give you seven tips for kickstarting your tech career. The best part is that these aren’t random tips – these are things I personally have done throughout my career. That means that I know they work! Let’s get into it.
Volunteer for Tech Gigs
Volunteering to support non-profit organizations is a great way to build your tech resume. You’ll get the satisfaction of giving back to the community as well. Non-profit organizations often need assistance with maintaining websites, building applications, and managing data. They are similar in many ways to for-profit organizations. The primary difference is that they often have very restrictive budgets and rely on volunteers to assist with much of their work.
There are a number of ways to find these gigs. One way is to use a website like Volunteer Match to search for organizations that are in need of your skills. These might be local to you or virtual/remote roles. A non-profit organization might also be more flexible in its deadlines than a corporate job. They will usually be very understanding if you have to juggle other commitments.
There are downsides to volunteering. For one thing, it may be difficult to find a gig that is a good fit for your skills. Additionally, you might not have a large team of more senior technicians to work with. However, these organizations are often used to relying on entry-level team members to support them. It is important to be upfront with them about your skill level and your time commitment. But doing so can lead to good relationships that can be used as references in the future. Go in with confidence that you can help. Remember that you are not just a developer – you’re a problem solver!
Open Roles in Your Current Company
Now for a little story time. At the beginning of my career, I worked for a start-up that had a digital learning platform. My job was in the “post-production” department. We took videos that were recorded at conferences and converted them into digital media. This content was then made available online. Most of the work I did involved sitting at a computer and waiting for a video to finish streaming, then switching out tapes. It was boring work, but it was great for college students because we could do our homework at the same time.
One day, the CTO of the company walked by my desk and saw me reading a book on ASP. (I’m aging myself now.) He asked me how I was enjoying it. We ended up having a conversation about development and the fun projects he had done. At the end of it, he asked, “Why are you over here and not in Development?” Two weeks later, I started my first job as a Developer!
My point here is that there might be an opportunity around that you’re not even aware of yet. It might mean that you just have to look around and try to talk to people. If your company has an IT or Development team, it never hurts to make it known that you’re interested in a transition into tech. It may require talking with your current manager and getting permission to transfer if you get an offer. But that hurdle is often easily overcome with a direct conversation and a promise to help train a replacement. So look around and see what might be available right where you are.
Contract or Gig Work
Taking on contract gigs is another way to get your foot in the door. This could be as simple as talking to people that you know and finding out who needs help. You might know someone who has a friend that needs a website. This can be a simple way to start getting experience not only with technical skills but also with managing customer expectations. You will probably have to go above and beyond for your first few customers. Frankly, you probably won’t get paid as much for your first projects as you will once you’re established. But right now, building experience and references are equally as important.
You may also use websites like Upwork or Fiverr to find customers. The drawback of these types of websites is that there will be a lot of competition from all over the world. Do your research to see what the rates are. You should also look at the top sellers and see what is unique about them. What stands out? How does their portfolio look? How do they position their services?
Start a Side Project
I love side projects for a lot of reasons. For one thing, they are yours. There are no deadlines, no customers to please, and no constraints on what you can do with them. Your side project might be building a tool that solves a problem you have. It might be just to create something cool or fun. You can use a side project to push the limits of your current skills. As you build your project, share it. (Tweet it to me! Or share it on SideProjects, or write about it on Dev.to.)
You might find that your side project becomes something viable that you can build into a business. It’s also possible that as people see your projects, they will reach out and ask you for contract work or even offer employment. (Both of these have happened to me and many other people!) At the very least, it keeps you sharp and engaged.
Write and Publish Articles
Writing is one of the most important skills that you can have as a human being. Communication is critical to success and writing helps you hone your communication skills. Writing about technical subjects is even more challenging. One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein, who said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
I think about this quote a lot. We use and do things all day long that we might not actually understand all that well. When we sit down to write about a topic, it forces us to dig deeper. We start to ask “Why” and “What happens if…”
It can be daunting to get started with writing. You might think you’re too inexperienced to have anything of value to share. That’s not the case! For every one thing that you know, there are thousands of people or more that don’t know it and want to. That’s your audience. Again, sites like Dev.to are great places to publish your work because there is a built-in community of people who are already interested in your topic. I recommend keeping track of your writing so that you can build up a portfolio and launch your own blog in the future as well.
Internships and Job Placement Assistance
If you’re in college, one of the best ways to get hands-on experience is through an internship. You can work with the applicable department within your school to find internship opportunities. These may be over the summer or during the semester as course credit. (When I was in school, I was able to use my first job as a developer for course credit in lieu of an internship. My boss just had to complete a form evaluating my work at the end of the semester.)
Even if you don’t do an internship, many schools have job placement services that help you to find your first job in the industry. The “post-production” job that I mentioned previously actually came from a posting within a job placement department at the school I was going to. It wasn’t directly in tech to begin with, but it was with a tech company and it led me to my first dev role.
Code Schools with Placement Support
If you’re enrolled in a coding school, check with them regarding the placement support that they offer. If you are evaluating code schools, I highly recommend asking about their placement support early on. When I was running the Development and Architecture team at a previous company, I worked with a local coding school to hire their graduates. We needed people who were hungry to learn. The curriculum at the code school aligned with our tech stack, so it made for a great way to find new talent. From that experience, I found that employers were competing for talent as much as candidates were competing for jobs. Ask these questions when investigating code schools or “boot camps”. In some cases, there may be arrangements where the employers cover a portion of the tuition as well.
Kickstart Your Career, Then Keep it Running
Getting that early experience can be difficult. But it’s very possible. You might find that you need to leverage several of these suggestions to round out your resume and to make connections that lead to your first actual job. That’s okay. Now is the time to really dive in and commit to building a career that will enable your goals for a lifetime. In the process, you’ll build skills throughout the process that can enable the lifestyle you want in the long run – more freedom, better pay, and more options.
As a final word of parting advice, I recommend setting up a LinkedIn profile and using that to make connections. Stay in touch with the people that you work with. Ask for references and ask for referrals. Solicit honest feedback about your work and learn from it, even if it might seem harsh. Doing this will allow you to build and grow a network. Your professional network is a critical tool in the longevity of your career.
Have you recently started your tech career? Have you taken a big step or made a big move? How did you get started? Drop me a line on Twitter (@dev_playbook or @happyfridave) – I’d love to hear more about it!