Starting your career in software development

Last December I was asked to give a quick talk to a bunch of programming undergraduates at Kings College, London. Emboldened by Christmas cheer I said “yes”, arranged the date and thought little more about it.

Now that date is almost upon us it transpires that whilst I’m still only giving a quick talk (15 mins), that ‘bunch’ of students turns out to be up to 250, so I’m getting my thoughts together here first rather than winging it and hoping for the best.

Given a free rein to talk about pretty much anything I immediately wanted to talk about my favourite subject: me. Or more specifically my career. I’m currently an engineering manager at OpenTable leading a team of front-end developers, but my career path is no gold standard for how to be an amazing software developer.

However I’ve been around the block enough times to talk a good game so I’ll offer some advice based on what I know now rather than what I actually did.

Getting that first job

Whilst I can still remember the interview for my first job (I’ll talk about The Naked Dwarf later), I have greater insight these days from interviewing developers, and I have personally recruited and managed a number of junior engineers at the beginning of their careers. At OpenTable we have a well practiced hiring process and based on that here’s how you’d get me to give you a job.

The CV

The CV is not as crucial as you might think. Get the basics right – no typos and a neat layout – but don’t cram it full of everything you’ve ever done, just enough to whet my appetite. A single page is usually best (no more than two).

The most important thing for a job as a developer is to show that you love writing code. Nothing conveys this passion better than sites/plugins/projects that you have worked on, particularly outside of your employment. Even better, provide links to repositories, websites, blogs or Q&A sites to show your work and genuine interest.

Dare I say it, but your exams results do not really matter to me. Passion, backed up with examples of work will grab our attention, with that hard-earned first or 2:1 counting only as a tie-breaker.

The Test

If we like your CV we’ll ask you to complete a test in your own time. The coding test will vary from role to role but will need skills that will be required in the job. If you can’t do the test at all then this isn’t the right role for you, but if you can do part of it then give it a go as we may well still like what you submit.

The Interview

If there’s enough quality in your test we’ll invite you for an interview. It is daunting, but we like to talk with you for two to three hours to make sure you’re right for the role and that the role is right for you.

The first half hour will be a code review of your test in which we’ll get you to explain how you completed the exercise and we’ll work with you to refactor or modify the test’s functionality. We’ll be impressed at this stage if you’ve looked again at your code before the interview and can confidently justify your programming decisions. Even if you couldn’t do half the things required in the test, you stand a good chance if you’re knowledgeable about the sections you did complete.

For the next 30-60 minutes we’ll conduct a technical interview. You’ll be interviewed by people whose skills overlap with yours and we’re looking for both a general programming understanding and a couple of subjects in which you can speak more deeply. If you don’t think you’re going to be asked about your favourite subjects try and drop them into the conversation. “Do you work with xxx because I’m really interested in that?” will grab our attention and prompt us to ask more.

The next 40-60 minutes will be a cultural interview in which we want to get to know you as a person, how you like to develop code and your understanding of the software development lifecycle. Even if you’ve never written code professionally try and convey passion and a genuine interest and you’ll impress us. A sense of humour is always welcome.

Finally we’ll ask you to spend some time with the hiring manager, the person to whom you’ll report. This is usually the most relaxed time in the process. If you’re good enough to make us want to meet you you’ll definitely have other companies knocking on your door so we’ll try and convince you that OpenTable is a great place to work and assess whether it is the right place for you. We encourage candidate questions throughout the day but this is the best time to have a genuine chat.

One final word of warning about the interview – be careful what can be discovered about you online. In my first interview my interviewer casually asked me about a site I’d built, The Naked Dwarf. Trust me, you really want avoid having to explain in an interview how your 5’4” friend’s 21st birthday ended with his clothes being stolen and the photographic evidence finding its way online.

The first year or two in the job

Congratulations, you’ve got your first job. What now? Now, you simply carry on learning (and get paid for it).

You won’t know a fraction of what the job involves, but in software development no one can know everything. Not even search engines know it all and this is where you will spend a lot of your time. Vastly experienced developers still have to google the answers to things, but when you start out you’ll be doing this a great deal – and that’s absolutely fine.

If you have the drive to solve problems and know how to look up answers then you’re in the right career. Never be embarrassed to teach yourself as you go. Trial and error will be your default technique and you’ll probably repeat the same mistakes more than once. Software development is constantly changing but if you’re always learning then you’ll be successful.

If you want to try something new in your job don’t ask permission, just give it a go. Unless it could affect the company’s bottom line, most mistakes are forgivable and you’ll learn your lessons. Just don’t be reckless.

Get active in the developer community. There are hundreds of free and inexpensive meet-ups and conferences. Be talkative with the people you meet – you’ll learn from them and get to hear about projects or jobs that could be perfect for you. Don’t be self-conscious, and ask as many questions as you can. You’ll find this much easier earlier in your career before you’re too embarrassed because you feel you should already know.

Things to consider as you progress

You’ll hopefully love the company you work for, but only stay with them if you’re genuinely still learning. Job hunting is hard and it’s easy to pretend your current job is just fine – especially if you like your colleagues – but be honest with yourself about your situation to keep progressing.

Don’t feel like you have to go into management. I have as I like going to meetings and shirking responsibility – but if this isn’t for you then find a company that nurtures individual contributors. You can still become very senior in the industry as a Principle Engineer or Architect, with little or no people management required.

Finally do your best to build a good relationship with your boss. This starts with being reliable and prepared, but take it to the next level by understanding what are your manager’s biggest problems and frustrations, and do what you can to solve them. If you struggle to communicate with your boss identify someone with whom they have a good relationship, analyse why and emulate this. Try to understand the business strategy and identify opportunities and threats.

A proactive, reliable employee who understands their boss will get the most interesting projects and the early promotions.

In summary

  • Start building things straightaway
  • Be passionate in your interview
  • Embrace trial and error, don’t be afraid to make mistakes
  • Get involved in the developer community
  • Don’t stay too long in a job in which you’re not learning
  • Get on the same wavelength as your boss for good, long-term prospects
  • Don’t put naked pictures of your friends online



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