Tech & Work

10 programming career tips for students and new professionals

Getting ready to go back to school or busily searching for a programming job? Here are some tips that can help you be a success in the field.

We all look back on our formative years wishing we had done something differently. That especially goes for our college career, where many of us establish work habits that will stick with us for decades.

That doesn't mean it's ever too late to change the way you do things, which is what makes a recent Experts Exchange list of 11 tips for freshman programmers so important. It might be targeting students, but anyone who codes can benefit from taking a new approach to their career. I've combined some of the Experts Exchange tips with several other tips for programming professionals—here's hoping you'll find a strategy that works for you.

Prep for interviews

Interviews for software engineers and programmers usually include some coding exercises. Businesses want to know what you can do in a pinch, so be sure you practice various scenarios. Showing flexibility and problem solving skills during the interview can make or break your job prospects.

Get the right tools

There are a few things programmers need in their careers, so learn them early.

  • Advanced programming often relies on free libraries, which are easier to deal with in UNIX. Get a computer that runs on a UNIX base, like a Mac or an Ubuntu machine.
  • Vi is the standard editor that comes with UNIX systems. You need to learn to use it too.
  • Source version control is fundamental to success as a programmer. Get familiar with a program like GIT or SVN as soon as possible.

Don't stop with these few tools—keep expanding your coding kit with new languages, programs, and online resources to help you succeed.

SEE: Why open source programming languages are crushing proprietary peers (TechRepublic)

Leverage success online ...

The internet is a great place to go for help when you're stuck on something, no matter what it is. There are plenty of digital communities, like Experts Exchange, where you can pose questions and get answers from fellow programmers. Find one you like, start an account, and become an active user—you'll be glad you did.

... and in person

A digital network is one thing, but you still need a personal one. Make friends with fellow programmers and tech professionals—the advice they can give you is invaluable, and you'll be able to help them in return.

If you're a student make friends in your cohort. You're going to be working on group projects, which are easier with people you know and like.

Accept criticism

Your code is going to be criticized, both as a student and a professional. It's easy to take negative feedback personally—break that habit early. In many cases the people criticizing your work won't be programmers, and they won't understand what's going on under the hood. Accept the criticism and then work to make changes.

Not all code is perfect

Coding is all about efficiency, but that doesn't mean yours is always going to be perfect. Sometimes deadlines are more important than writing the most beautiful piece of software the world has ever seen, and that's okay.

SEE: IoT developers: Master this coding language if you want to thrive (TechRepublic)

On the other hand, you also need to recognize when a new idea is better. Don't be afraid to dump bad code if you've found a more efficient way to accomplish something.

Read your error messages

It's easy to get in the habit of glancing at error messages without really digesting what they're saying. Take the time to dig into them and find out what they're trying to say—it makes your bug hunt easier.

DO sweat the small stuff

Programming is all about details, so get used to paying attention to them. Micromanaging your code is a key part of success—the second you get lax is the second you start chasing down the tiniest bugs. Ever spend hours looking for a single misplaced comma? It's frustrating.

Don't be consumed by your work

Programmers are notorious for being workaholics, which is just plain unhealthy. Find a good work/life balance that includes hobbies away from the computer, time with friends and family, and proper amounts of rest. Tired programmers make mistakes.

Break stuff

Did your code fail miserably? Was a program-killing bug left in? Are you rebuilding a machine you bricked? It doesn't matter—they're all learning experiences. The best way to improve your skills is to learn from your mistakes, and you will make them. Don't beat yourself up when you could be gaining something positive instead.

Also see

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About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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