Landing your first professional programming gig

BY Christo Mabbs

{Front-End Web Developer}

16 March 2017

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Finding your first full-time gig in the tech industry isn’t easy, it’s daunting and takes a lot of effort. You’re venturing into the unknown and the industry has a pretty challenging barrier to overcome, even after you’ve just invested a tonne of time and money into educating yourself.

As somebody who’s just made it to the other side, I’ve put together a few tips I would have wanted to hear early on. So take it from somebody who just landed their first gig like a pro, the most important lessons I learned along the way…

Showcase your Enthusiasm and Passion!

Ask any good employer, the number one trait they look for in a graduate is enthusiasm and a passion for their work.  When you leave University you can probably do some pretty cool things, like write a pathfinding algorithm in Java and replicate Frogger on your mobile.  But the unfortunate truth is tertiary education usually doesn’t prepare you with a practical skill set you can bring straight to the workforce.  Once you reach the workplace there’s still going to be a learning curve you need to overcome before you can actually do anything really useful.

Employers want to see first and foremost that you’re keen on the work and have a lot of drive.  You could find your boss just won’t have the time to monitor your progress as closely as you might think.  They need to be confident that you’re going to put in the effort when they’re not watching and not have to constantly push you themselves.

Align Yourself Early

By this, I mean begin to think about what particular field of tech you want to get into.

Find what it is you love about programming and showcase that to any potential employers.  Work on passion projects, find an internship and talk to employers about why you did these things.  Show them you love what you’re doing and that you can’t wait for more.

Let’s say the job comes down to you and somebody else with relatively similar qualifications.  The other person might have a nice amount of experience in a few different areas, but you’ve shown that your goal is to get into this area specifically, and you have the experience behind you to back it up.  They’d be crazy not to choose the person with the drive in that particular area over the person who’s just OK at doing anything.

And let’s say you work on a bunch of iOS apps and then end up applying for a job as a Java developer.  Worst case scenario: you still have experience behind you that puts you ahead of most other candidates.  As long as you demonstrate you’re excited to work as a Java developer, they’re not going to care that you chose to build a few iOS apps during University.  They’ll just be impressed you’ve put the effort into working on those projects.  Like I said, it isn’t hugely important where you start, just pick a field and run with it!

Network, Seriously!

You might be reading this one and cringing a little, you’ve heard this one a million times, right?  That’s what I used to think.  Every article and lecturer told me how important networking is, but it was still difficult to see the value in it.

It’s all true though, and in my brief time in the industry I’ve honestly found it to be the most important reason I successfully landed any job or internship in the last two years.  The people in your network are there to help, just as you’ll be helping them one day.

Networking is easier than you think, so here are some simple steps to get you started for a beginner…

  • Tell your relatives and family friends the industry you’re looking to get into
  • Go to industry events in your city and find the courage to talk to just one other person
  • Go to career days at your University and talk to everybody you can

That’s all it takes to start.

At the end of the day it’s about putting yourself out there, and trusting that it’s going to pay off.

Find a Mentor

I was lucky enough to be at a University which offered a Mentorship program, something which helped me in a few ways.  Firstly, it enabled me to hear about the tech industry first hand from the perspective of an insider.  Remember that barrier of entry I mentioned earlier?  A mentor lifts the veil and shows you what’s really happening underneath.  They give you some great insight and make that daunting world a little less scary.

Secondly, it’s about the networking again!  Put yourself out there, tell people you’re looking to get into the industry and that you need help.  Finding a mentor not only opens your network up to them, but their network.  If you get along, they’re usually more than happy to give you a tour of the office, introduce you to their coworkers and invite you to industry events.

Third and most obvious, a mentor is just full of great advice.  They’ll listen to your concerns, answer your questions and if you’re lucky they’ll even help you apply for jobs (or give you one).
OK, so finding a mentor isn’t that easy for everybody, but my own mentor gave me a little trick on how to get started.  Just call or email somebody you admire and offer to buy them lunch or coffee.  It may sound silly, but it works!

Experienced professionals actually enjoy helping beginners in need. So put yourself out there and see what they have to say.  People are more willing to help than you probably think, and the worst thing they can say is no.

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