6 Steps to a Great First Development Job

Many of those who attend my presentations on How to be a Six Figure Developer are new to software development and struggling to find junior-level opportunities which will support personal and professional growth. The best job openings aren’t usually the ones that get posted to employment websites or sent to recruiters, so in this article we’ll discuss how to find your ideal opportunity and techniques for landing the job.

Step 1. Know Your Strengths

If you just graduated school or completed online training, it may seem like you have very little to offer a potential employer. The truth is, technical skills are only one component of an attractive candidate and often one of the least important.

The number one trait development teams look for when hiring a new employee is social fit. Is this someone they can see working with on a daily basis? Do they take direction well? Are they able to work independently to solve problems? Will they admit when they don’t know an answer and ask for help? How driven are they to learn and improve? An attitude of eagerness to take on new challenges and a desire to become a more valuable employee is often the primary deciding factor in deciding to hire a junior candidate.

Domain knowledge can also be incredibly important depending on the company. For instance, healthcare companies love hiring individuals with experience in the industry. It doesn’t necessarily matter that the experience involved manual labor and not writing code. Familiarity with the industry means less time spent training the employee on business concepts and greater ability to contribute to problem solving. This goes for less common industries as well. Used to work as a long-haul trucker? Consider how that experience might benefit someone developing shipping logistics or roadside assistance systems. No matter what you’ve done in the past or where your passions lie, there’s a company somewhere that develops solutions related to that topic and your experience could make you the most attractive candidate.

Obviously technical skills are important since they are required to do the work, but very few new employees walk through the door knowing everything they need to do the job. Often familiarity with concepts is almost as good as experience with a specific technology. This is especially true with new products and frameworks that haven’t been around long enough to become common. That three-month course you took in Angular 2 may make you a better choice for a new single-page application project than a senior developer with 15 years of experience in more traditional web development.

Step 2. Identify Opportunities

Now that you’ve determined where your value lies, start identifying companies where those traits would be most appreciated and inquire about opportunities. If the company has an employment website with job listings, this is certainly a good place to start, but too many people submit a resume and wait for a phone call that never comes. The best companies are always on the lookout for good candidates and sometimes the best opportunities never make it to a job board.

LinkedIn is a great place to connect with current and past employees. Find someone who works in the job you want and ask them for insight into how they ended up in that role. If you can’t find someone in that exact position, look for individuals working in the same department or area, as work environments can vary by team and manager. People are often flattered by the attention and may even offer to provide an internal referral, especially if there’s a referral bonus.

Online networking is an excellent tool, but there’s no substitute for making face-to-face connections. Attend local user groups and networking events related to your chosen field with the goal of meeting individuals from your preferred employers. Let the other attendees know what you’re looking for and you may be surprised how quickly they connect you with the right people. Be sure to ask open-ended questions so they have an opportunity to share things you may not have considered. What is their most/least favorite thing about working there? What was their interview experience like? What reasons have people had for leaving? The more insight you can gain into the culture and work environment, the better chance you’ll invest time and effort on a job where you can grow and advance in your career.

Step 3. Evaluate the Company

Just because you CAN land a job doesn’t mean you SHOULD, and just because you don’t seem qualified for an opportunity doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply. Take what you’ve learned about the company and consider whether you will be given the necessary support to be successful.

Sometimes companies aren’t willing to pay market rate for more experienced talent and opt instead to hire someone with less experience expecting them to “figure it out”. One indicator that this might be the case is if other entry-level candidates have been hired into this role, but after several months they didn’t work out. Either the employer did not do a good job at screening these past candidates, or the expectations placed on them were unreasonable.

The better companies promote a culture of collaboration and mentoring where less experienced employees are provided the assistance they need to grow and succeed.  These opportunities generally focus more on the individual and how they would fit within the company long-term than what skills they can provide on day one. It’s also possible an inexperienced candidate could be considered for a position previously held by a more seasoned veteran, since the work environment supports improvement and growth.

Step 4. Sell Your Brand

So you’ve found a promising company and it’s time to pitch yourself for a position. What do you think the employer’s ideal candidate might look like? Which of your skills and experiences best support this image. Remember that it’s your job to ensure they understand the value you bring to the table, so now is not the time for humility. Be proud of your accomplishments and share your passion for growth. Employers are interested in what you can contribute moving forward, and where you’ve been is just one way for them to determine if you’re a good investment.

Always be honest about your abilities and weaknesses, but focus on the traits that indicate you’d be a good fit for the job. One of these traits may very well be your willingness to admit when you don’t know something. I was once told that I was hired primarily because I was the only candidate who was willing to admit when I didn’t know an answer, so they felt confident I would be willing to ask for help when I got stuck.

Step 5. Interview Them

Too many inexperienced candidates expect to spend the entire interview process answering questions and forget to ask them. Asking questions not only provides insight into whether the position is really a good fit, but it shows an inquisitive nature and expresses interest in the job. It also has the psychological effect of making the candidate appear more selective and, therefore, more desirable. Informed questions can illustrate your familiarity with the company and it’s business. Sometimes, by answering your questions about the company the interviewer is left with a sense of connection and common purpose which wouldn’t have existed if they had spent the entire time focused on your qualifications.

Step 6. Follow Up

From the moment the interview ends, start the process of following up. Ask what the next step is or if when they expect to make a decision.

Don’t let a poor interview get in the way of a promising opportunity. If you didn’t know the answer to a question, go find the answer afterward and follow up with an email sharing your conclusion. If you’re told they decided to go with another candidate, ask what areas you can work on to make yourself a better choice next time they have an opening. You might be surprised how often their first choice doesn’t work out and the extra effort places you next in line.

What do you think?

What other tips would be helpful to new developers? Have any of these techniques worked for you? Share your experiences in the comments below.


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