How I Landed My First Web Development Job With Zero Experience
May 20, 2019
My road to becoming a developer was not a typical one. Unfortunately for me and so many other aspiring devs, not everyone is primed from the tender age of childhood to become a developer. Some get lucky and pick up the hobby in high school, maybe even middle school, but the majority of developers don’t write much code, if any, until their freshman year of college. Personally, I didn’t write my first line of code until the age of 21. After two years in college spent bouncing between degrees, I found myself in an intro to Java course that just so happened to fill the last spot in my timetable.
Fast Forward three years later and I can proudly say that I’m employed as a web developer, and even had a brief stint running my own company. The steps I took to get here can be done by anyone, so if you’re interested in the way I did it, read on.
The process basically broke down into the following steps, I’ll give you a quick overview of what I did here before I dive into the details:
Enjoy the process, this took a long time and there was no way to get around that.
If possible, acquire some sort of formal training. College, bootcamps, online courses etc. I was already in college so I took that route.
I started small and looked for experience in ANY kind of real work possible that I could present to an employer. I couldn’t find a job, so I created my own, this is a great option for someone not able to attend college.
I always, always, always had some sort of side project on the go. Build a kick-ass portfolio.
I did everything I could to generate some sort of personal brand.
I learned to sell myself and my skill set.
I made a really good resume.
Whenever I felt defeated, I kept going, no matter what.
College and Humble beginnings
I had taken two intro to programming classes in the last semester of my second year before I decided to take a year off of school to “find myself” (cliche aint it). This was the only programming experience I had at this time in my life. I knew I enjoyed the classes, but building a career and a life around being a code monkey wasn’t a thought in my mind at this point, fun electives though. So, lost and confused, I stepped away from school for a while.
During this year I went in for an operation I’d been putting off for some time due to my schedule at school. The surgery left me sitting on my butt for about 4 months unable to reach my arm above my head or lift anything heavier than my xbox controller. Eventually, I got bored, and when I did I began to dabble in some online programming courses with the little knowledge I had from the previous year.
I was instantly hooked.
I had so much fun doing this that my controller was soon replaced with a mouse and keyboard (for a majority of the day anyways).
Everyone I knew responded about the same way when I came up with the idea to switch my degree, effective immediately (I was taking a mixture of economics and business classes in my previous year and had never even taken a pre-calculus course in high-school).
“Ya that’s cool man, maybe it would be a fun hobby one day, but CHANGING your degree NOW? That’s not a smart move this late in the game”
Luckily, I was fresh off an intro to economics class, and while I drifted in and out of daydreaming I managed to maintain the concept of a “sunk-cost” so I could shut down these objections pretty efficiently.
So I enrolled back at school and plugged along through my degree. I didn’t have the best grades, but I loved to write code, and I knew that was going to pay off one day. Most of the other students on my program seemed like they were light years ahead of me, and because of my own fear of looking like I didn’t belong, I tried to figure everything out on my own, never reaching out to my classmates.
By the end of first year I had a dismal GPA sitting somewhere below a 2.0 (I never really calculated it out because I was terrified). It has since then improved somewhat (probably about a 3.0), since most third and fourth year courses are actually centered around writing code, but my transcripts are not those of a scholar in the least.
Start Small and wherever you can
Okay so back to the point here: getting a job.
Everyone knows you need internships while you’re at school if you want any chance of landing a “good” job. Unfortunately for me, third year students who failed linear algebra the prior semester don’t get into co-op, oops. So I did what I could. I scoured my city for the closest thing I could find to pass as a summer “tech-job” and applied for all of them. This resulted in an IT position with some WordPress and Joomla development sprinkled in.
Not exactly the developer role of my dreams, but it was a start. I would spend that summer doing everything I could to spend my days at work designing websites, and doing my own studies on evenings and weekends. I knew I didn’t have a shot yet at interviewing for a developer position, but I was preparing for the possibility as early as possible.
This habit carried over into my next year at school. I soon found myself coding in my spare time just as much as I worked on school assignments. I did this strategically. School had my theoretical side covered, and I was filling in the gaps on my own with anything I thought an employer would look for. I aimed for web development and focused my studies around front-end technologies, I’m hoping to put together a complete checklist of everything I learned during this time (and what I shouldn’t have bothered with) in a future post.
Starting my own business
If you aren’t able to attend college or boot-camp and are going the self taught route, this one may be for you.
In my second semester of my third year in the program, three friends of mine came together with an idea to form our own web development company. This is 50% of the reason I have a job today. I couldn't get any real experience actually developing, so I created my own position. This is a perfectly feasible option for EVERYONE and through this process your abilities will be magnified like they never have before.
I learned at a rate which I was never capable of doing on my own since I was in an environment that demanded me to do so. When there are real clients giving you real money for your service you will be surprised how resourceful you can get.
This experience opened me up to a much wider set of skills than any internship or class ever could. There is nothing that will comfort a potential employer more than knowing that you have actually lead projects from start to finish, dealt with clients personally and delivered. Take every job you can get seriously, be professional, even if the company folds or doesn’t make any glorious amounts of money, it doesn’t matter. The end goal is the experience.
Lastly, this enabled me do something none of my classmates had the liberty to do. I could put whatever title I felt was appropriate on my resume. Since it was my company, I made the title. So when I started my job hunt, I applied as Full Stack Developer and Partner, not a Quality Assurance intern who actually spent most days fixing printers.
This might sound a little shady to you, but it’s not. If you are able to market yourself and deliver even one product to one paying customer, you are a working developer. Don’t lie about your skill set and don’t take credit for anyone else’s work, but don’t sell yourself short either.
Building my portfolio
If you’re lucky, the previous step will generate some serious projects which you can add to your portfolio, However, this may not be the case or you may need to supplement with personal projects of your own.
I thoroughly believe that every developer, regardless of the stage of their career, should have a personal project on the go.
If you don’t have experience and/or are not attending college for development, this is basically mandatory for getting an interview.
So when things were slow in my business I worked on my own websites outside of school. This began with a portfolio site I used to display my projects, which now houses a link to this blog along with a few other projects I took part in with the company.
I tried to pick projects that weren’t trivial but were not so complex that I’d risk not finishing them at all, at least in the beginning. Once I had one or two under my belt and could trust myself to complete them, I moved on to something more ambitious - the biggest reason most developers lack an impressive portfolio is follow-through, not ability.
Building my brand
Building a brand should really be done simultaneously with building a company and a portfolio, here’s how I did it.
Owning a company will get your name out there as a developer in some way or another, even if it’s just a website popping up when a company googles your name. Not only does it show your drive to code, but there is something about having your picture and title on an actual legitimate company website (that is what you’re making) that gives employers comfort in reaching out to you.
I again really suggest trying to tie in your personal projects to building your brand. For me, that was developing this blog, now I use it to make content for the developer community and link it to every resume I send out.
Now I have a personal website, a legitimate web development company that anyone can google and find a nice little picture of me with the title “Full Stack Developer”, and I have a personal blog which I built myself and plan to use to give back to the programming community.
Not a bad start, and probably enough to get me through HR screenings.
Learning to sell myself
The biggest obstacle I had to hurdle in my journey to becoming a developer, was my doubt in my abilities. Impostor syndrome is real, especially in late bloomers. If this is something you’ve experienced, take a look at my last post where I go into detail about my own experience and the steps you can take to limit impostor syndrome.
The bottom line is that you will never be able to convince someone else (an employer) you can code if you don’t even believe it yourself. Put in the work and increase your confidence as a developer and it will come.
Building my personal brand aided in this immensely as well. Having real resources to prove and display your abilities publicly can help solidify in your mind that you are indeed a capable developer.
Making a kick ass resume
The last step. If everything else was done right this should be a piece of cake. I kept it simple, one page is more than enough since I don’t have decades of experience to go over.
I highlighted my best projects, not all of them - three or four usually will do the trick. I made sure to know these projects inside and out and prepared to answer questions on them. Books like “Cracking the Coding Interview” can show you how to prepare for this in detail and highlight the kinds of questions you should prepare for. This was my chosen resource.
If your GPA isn’t awesome (3.0 or higher at least), don’t list it. Most companies won’t care once you’re in the interview, but showcasing a poor GPA won’t do you any favors. I did highlight all relevant coursework to the job based on the position I was applying for. If you didn’t go to school, this is where forming your own company and personal projects have to be on point. Use these to highlight your skills in every way you can. The medium has a great article on how to format a software development resume, this is the template I used which got me the job I have right now.
Going from zero to hired is going to be a long and tedious process. Be prepared to devote hours and months of your life to honing your craft, networking, and building your reputation as a developer.
This didn’t happen for me over-night. The following steps took me the course of three years to complete, and I still haven't even graduated. That being said, for those not opting for formal education, this process could be sped up immensely. And if you are in school, don’t rush, picking away at these goals over my degree has left me in a great position to find the career path I always wanted coming into this game.
I’m now working as a Web Developer on a four month contract before finishing up my last semester of school (PS. they never asked about that linear algebra class I failed).
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