Getting Your Foot In The Door As A Software Developer

20 January, 2019

I've had a number of similar questions sent in through Twitter DMs and replies via my email newsletter. Why don't we tackle a couple all-at-once?

One person asked:

"I resonated a lot with your post due to my past work experience and degree. But I’m having trouble getting any interviews to transition into a dev role. Was able to land one for a front end position at Amazon and have my phone screening Thursday. I’m pretty nervous about the technical questions. Do you have any advice? How did you get your foot in the door when you were starting out?"

Another asked:

"Does knowing how to code in a particular language makes one a developer? I just graduated from the university and want to be a professional developer, what must I learn, I’m learning C# and Python now. I’m confused because I don’t even know how to apply the coding I’m learning in solving real life problems?"

Let's address some of the issues I think are most pressing.

I don't know how to apply what I've learned in University to solve real-life problems.

This is a problem 😋 This is why I prefer community college vs. Universities. Usually, a 2-year college program will give you much more practical experience and knowledge than Universities usually give in 4-years!

Anyways - a topic for another day 👀

The answer: You need to build some real-life projects that you can show off!

Companies want to hire people who can demonstrate that they can solve real problems. The questioner understands this - otherwise, they wouldn't be asking the question 😜

You need to be a problem solver - who just happens to know how to build software to solve some of these problems.

So your task, so you choose it, is to find some problem - big or small. Then build something to solve it.


Let me give you a couple examples.

A few years ago, I built a really small JavaScript tool to figure out the most common words in a given chunk of text and count each occurrence. I.e. Tags.

This is a problem that blogs, for example, have to address.

If you turn this into a GitHub rep then you can showcase things like:

Understanding how to solve a real-life problem by building software Ability to write very clear documentation (don't look at my tool as an example 🤦‍♂️) Initiative and passion to build this in the first place!

If you want to do something more impressive, then build an entire app!

I did this when I was learning how to build web apps using Laravel.

In this case, I demonstrated that I could do front-end and back-end development, among other things.

Does knowing X number of programming languages make you a developer?

No. It just means you can make something that someone else told you to build.

Sadly, many companies (most?) will interview based on irrelevant technical knowledge alone (which doesn't test if you can think for yourself, etc.)

The better companies will assess not only your technical knowledge (that's very important) but also your social/personal skills. Are you easy to talk to? Socially awkward? Negative? Positive?

Do you have any advice [for getting your "foot in the door"]?

To build upon the previous answer, here's some of the advice I gave this person:

Phone Interviews

Usually, initial phone interviews are more-or-less just to get a feel of what you are like: are you kind, are you ambitious, have a positive attitude?

They want you to talk a bit about your experience and get a general sense of who you are.

Usually, the more technical stuff comes at a later point. Plus, if you are looking for junior positions they usually expect that you don't know tons of stuff - but just want to know if you are a quick learner, can communicate well, etc.

A number of years ago, I had bombed a phone interview because I was bitter about certain aspects of the work I was doing at the time. It became very apparent in the interview 😨

That was a wake-up call for me. I had to stop being bitter about the poor choices other people or organizations had made and focus on providing the most value I could despite the situation.

From then on I could position my situation as an obstacle I overcame instead of some oppressive organizational failure.

Did I ever mention that your attitude about things matters? 🤣

Experience From Other Disciplines

This person had experience leading people in a previous position.

That is very important to highlight during the interview as they help you to understand how a team works and how to work well in one.

A Note About Competitive Companies

The first questioner had an interview with Amazon - which is great!

But I'm sure you can imagine, Amazon is a very competitive company. They screen tons of people.

They also want the best. Whoever that is.

The questioner had sent me a copy of the job posting. That position would not be considered by me as an entry-level position - even though it was advertised as such. But that's how they roll.

So for those who are just trying to get their first position as a developer - don't be too picky.

Just get your foot-in-the-door.

It's far easier to get a better dev. role when you already have some experience.

That's what I had to do 👌

Always Be Ready

This goes without saying. If you know your stuff then you'll most likely do fine.

The obstacle at this point then is just knowing how to interview. I won't go into this now, but a few tips:

  • Answer, in writing, your responses to the most common interview questions and keep this document up-to-date
  • Try to frame your answers as stories
  • Use that document to study for each interview
  • Verbally answer your questions as practice
  • If you're serious - get someone to mock interview you using those questions (and maybe other "surprise" questions 😉)

Interviewing is not "fun" - but it's a skill that is learned. Most of us will have to fail many times before succeeding.

But most importantly, learn from each failure.

Make sure you analyze what went well and what didn't. Work hard on what didn't go well for next time.

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