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Three ways to gain programming experience

Justin James offers advice to a reader who needs experience but can't find work because he has very little on-the-job experience. Check out these recommendations for picking up programming experience -- sometimes even without having a job in the field.

 

A TechRepublic member is trapped in the chicken/egg situation that far too many entry-level IT programmers find themselves in: Businesses do not like to hire people without experience, and many businesses are not willing to train. If so many companies aren't open to hiring people without experience, how does someone get experience? Unfortunately, this scenario is a major issue for many IT pros.

In my long running, back-and-forth discussion with this member, here are three ways I suggested that he kick his career into high gear.

#1: Work for free (or close to it)

While the corporate world may not always be eager to hire people with little or no experience, the non-profit world is often delighted (or at least willing) to take volunteers with little or no experience. I got my start as a programmer in high school by volunteering for a local home for developmentally disabled adults. I worked on Excel spreadsheets to manage their finances, I put together a Web site for them, and so on. Was it glamorous? Heck, no. I was working for free on my afternoons and weekends. The only perk was that the place had a stocked pantry that I could hit whenever I wanted. Aside from the emotional satisfaction of doing something positive for the community, it gave me experience that I could put on a resume, and it gave me a reference. Some non-profits will be able to pay you a small amount of money.

And there are plenty of open source projects that can use some help. Or, you could pick up an "abandoned" open source project and revive it. Open source work is a great resume builder.

If you can't find a local charity or non-profit, maybe you can work for family. Perhaps a relative has a business that needs some programmer work. Offer to do it for free, and I bet that you will find that Uncle Jimmy or Aunt Betty would be delighted to have you on the team.

#2: Work like a dog

If you want to get ahead, you're going to have to hustle; I haven't met any developers who were handed opportunities on a silver platter. I suppose a few developers got lucky, and maybe a relative hired them at a very nice salary right out of school. And a few other developers managed to get great internships that led to other good opportunities. But for the vast majority of the people currently in college or just out of college, the only way to differentiate yourself and get the experience is to work, work, work. Period.

Your boss probably won't let you spend huge amounts of time writing code instead of manning the help desk. So, if you want to turn that help desk job into experience developing software, you're going to have to make the time. Code through lunch break? Check. Work after hours? Check. Plan and develop at home? Check.

I know, I know... working for free and working more than what is expected of you doesn't sound like much fun. It could be worse, though. Ever look into what doctors do during their residency (not to mention their pay)? Think of this period as your residency. You're going to bust your buns for a few months or years to get some experience, and your next job, though it may not be any easier (it won't be), it will likely pay better.

There are ways to get experience and get paid; the trick is to sneak in through the "back door" of employment. For example, I had a job where I was doing network management and monitoring. It had been a few years since I had been a professional programmer, and I knew I wanted to get back to it. But between the fact that most of my experience was in Perl (which was fairly dead by that point), and the years since I had been programming, I knew I needed to freshen my experience before I would be employable. So what did I do? I started writing applications to help my department in my free time; on occasion, I would even write code while not on the clock — all to get some experience under my belt and a reference.

Maybe you can't get a job as a developer, but you might be able to get a job as, say, a desktop technician or in the help desk. From there, you can start flexing your coding muscles and either build up a good resume and leave or get promoted. In fact, working at a help desk or as a desktop technician (or a "computer operator") is one of the oldest ways of getting your feet wet in this industry.

#3: Work at home

Maybe you can't find anyone willing to let you code for free. Perhaps there is no way that you are able to fit programming into your nonprogramming job (such as an hourly worker who can't get authorization for overtime). That's where your home comes into play. If all else fails (or to supplement your existing efforts), do some work at home. Find an application you really like and write your own version of it. Or, think of an application you always wish you had and write it.

When you work at home, try to emulate software development in professional environments as much as possible. Write a project plan, create unit tests, set up a nightly build, and so on. I guarantee that you will become a better programmer for it, and you'll have something to show perspective employers, which is actually quite important.

I have never worked somewhere where I could take my labor and show it to potential employers. Not only would it violate my employment contract, but it would often violate my employer's contracts with their customers. But when I do something at home on my own time and on my own dime, it becomes something I can show to potential employers. For example, I wanted to get a job doing more Web development and less Webmaster work, so I put together a Flash presentation that had highlights from my resume, quotes from my references, and so on. I even packaged it in a nice CD case and gave it an Autorun launcher, so potential employers could just pop the CD in. The CD got me a job in the middle of the dot-com bust in an instant. It was a real game changer.

As someone who has been on both sides of the interview table many times, I can tell you that it's impressive to have a candidate come in and talk about work they're doing on their own. Does it get the same level of consideration as paid, professional work? Sometimes. From what I can tell, doing "real work" on a credible open source application is just as good as a paid job; the only time it can hurt you is if the application is awful, and you show it to the interviewer anyway. So, yes, this is another "work without pay" suggestion, but it's often the only differentiator between you and the two dozen other entry-level developers who apply for the job.

Related TechRepublic resources

J.Ja

Disclosure of Justin's industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine. He also has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.

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Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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