A few months ago (as of this writing) a student inquired about how to get an entry level job in coding/programming on the Treehouse Forum. It sounded like he had hit a low point after interviewing at a tech startup, but not making the cut. I felt the same way when I was looking for my first coding job. Every job listing seems to require 5+ years experience, so how do you get all those years of experience when you can’t find an entry level job to gain said expertise? It is a strange catch-22 every self-taught programmer needs to get through when transitioning from learning to working. Navigating that divide can often be intimidating and full of unknowns.
For the sake of not repeating myself here, I will post some excepts from the conversation, but you can find the entire thread at TreeHouse.
Warsama Gabriel: “Hi treehouse family, Like many of you on here im trying to take that first step into the web developer industry but im finding it increasingly hard to do so and feel frustrated that at this point that I sometimes feel like I have no chance especially in the hot market of the SF Bay Area. My first chance was blown when I was called in to a face to face interview at a Bay Area startup for a QA gig last week, it seems like they needed way more experience and depth that I could give and unfortunately I was turned away almost immediately!
My question is how does one get that vital experience needed to get my foot in the door. It seems like most web startups just want people who already well established for an internship, but will look over you if you don’t have deep coding skills despite you wanting the job really bad and being really passionate about what you do!”
Riley Hilliard: “The good thing is that you have the numbers on your side. There is a huge tech talent shortage, so there are a lot of companies looking for help. That doesn’t mean that google is hiring any intern they can find, but it does mean there there is plenty of opportunity to gain some experience helping build a site for a smaller client than something the likes of Google. I am not sure the level of the startup you tried out for, but there are tons of businesses that will take any help offered. When I first started out, I interned (for free) for a couple friends who were starting out ecommerce stores online. I was able to get the experience I needed because I knew the guys I was helping out personally, so see if you have any friends that may need some web work done. Even if it is a small project building out a friends online portfolio or something, that will give you valuable experience, and if you do a good job (worth showing to an employer on a job interview) you can add it to your online developer portfolio. Your portfolio is one of the things that will help you out the most come interview day.
I wrote an article on my experience learning how to code & getting my first developer job in hopes I might be able to help others that are starting out just like I did, but if I were to give you one quick paragraph of advice:
When you are starting out take on projects no matter the size, because you never know where they might end up leading you. Go to meetup events and cool stuff like Startup Weekend etc. You cannot wait to be discovered, you have to build your own empire of skill and make it hard for an employer to say no. It takes time to get there, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Warsama Gabriel: “Hey Riley, thanks for the response ive read your blog before and it really meant a lot to me as I can relate to everything you went through. Its just that im going through a pretty dark time right now and that intern position would have totally helped!
I do agree that having a portfolio is important but for me it seems that I have so much information to go through before I feel like I should attempt my own project. CSS HTML, JQUERY etc. I have several subscriptions on different sites like treehouse but I still have a long way in covering all of the technologies used today. Ultimately I do have that big project in the back of my mind which is an electronic music app but have no idea how to even start it!
Money is also a huge problem for me right now and I cant lie about that but it would be so awesome if I could get some kind of help while working and studying programming full time as an intern. Obviously prospective employers see my enthusiasm and drive but im routinely turned away because im not skilled enough. Whatever happened to giving someone a shot/chance??? who knows him or her could be the best hire they ever had!”
Riley Hilliard: “When starting out, it is important to pick projects that are much more ‘small picture’ than ‘big picture’. If you like music, you can totally start making some really cool stuff by using API’s from stuff like SoundCloud, but making something big picture like a social music site will probably burn you out before you can complete it enough to get stoked on your own work. If you’re short on ideas, a good spot to start is make your own personal website where you can both develop your skills, showcase your work, and write about your experiences. You’d be surprised how much you end up learning when just setting up a wordpress, theme, and start messing with the internal settings/code.
Just keep in mind, some of the smartest people in the world have been turned down at interviews. You can’t really blame a company. Many need to develop quickly, and may not have the support structure to help teach a greenhorn and grow their business at the same time. Many people’s lucky breaks come from personal referrals (mine did), which is why going to meetups, and networking like a champ is super important. You can’t expect to walk into an interview with a blank piece of paper and a good attitude and come out with a job. You’re going to need to prove that you’re as kick-ass as you are, and show the interviewer that passing you by would be a mistake.”
Warsama Gabriel: “Thanks riley your such a big inspiration to me you don’t even know it lol! It is true that im super into electronic music and programming and I really want to do something with that marries the two!
I think you nailed it on the head for me. Thanks!”
To expand a little more on the conversation above, I can tell you that the first step is to stay positive, look at where your skills are at currently, and where you want your skills to be. Take the areas you think were weak on the interview, and focus intensively on improving that area of your skillset. I certainly had a few job interviews I left feeling shut down, but the key is to have a look at the areas of failure and work on improving those skills for the next shot at an interview. You won’t be the right fit for every company, and every company will not be the right fit for you. Keep that in mind before feeling disheartened about being turned down. That being said, it is your responsibility to build a large enough foundational skill-set to be hirable. Programming is not a job that you can just wake up one day and decide you are going to be a coder and get hired that day, that week, or even that month. It takes a lot of self-determination to learn the skillets needed to be a good entry level developer.
Networking is really important for landing an entry level job, which is why going to tech meetups in your area is a great idea. Being a regular face in your local tech scene will start to build your reputation in the area, and is a fantastic place to start when looking for a job. Meetups can also be a good source of motivation to keep learning. You will meet other developers ranging from newbies to seasoned coding veterans , all of which will likely offer encouraging words and help you navigate your current situation. Meetup events like hackathons, or group work / co-working meetups are an especially good place to meet and work with other developers. If you have the skills, but lack the experience, participating in an environment where you can start displaying your skill never hurts.
The best advice I could give is to try and look at your current skillset, look at the skillsets that companies are looking to hire, and start catering your learning to those skills. If you can prove your proficiency in an interview, your lack of experience won’t be an issue. If you are having an issue landing that first interview, hit the Tech Meetup circuit for a few weeks and start getting to know your local tech community. In today’s tech job market, companies are always looking to hire new talent, but you have to have a solid foundation of knowledge first before expecting to land a job.