Programmers: Here’s How to Boost Your Career

We may not like to admit it, but recruiters and resume screeners see candidates in “tiers.” When they review a resume, it’s not just about matching a Java programmer to a Java role, it’s also about questions like, “Is this candidate good enough? Is he or she likely to pass our interviews? Would he or she be a strong performer if hired?”

Hands on KeyboardNote that these questions are not just about whether you possess knowledge of the right languages and technologies. In fact, sometimes that’s not even a significant factor.

You can debate all you’d like about whether recruiters should do this, but it’s barely debatable that they do. For example, an Amazon recruiter hiring for a team that works with C++ would probably prefer a Google engineer who’s been working with Java over a C++ programmer working for a small medical-device company. Although the latter candidate has the right knowledge, the former candidate is seen, rightly or wrongly, as being in the right tier.

Do the Right Thing(s)

So how do you quickly present yourself as being in a higher tier? It’s not about learning the right technologies — although that can help — it’s about doing the right things.

What are the right things? Projects. Yep, we’re going back to high school and college. You need to work on your extra-curricular coding activities.

Spend your next free weekend building an iPhone app, a Web app, or a desktop app. Exactly what you work on isn’t terribly important. It’s more critical that you show you’ve built a real, “meaty” project. A weekend or two is enough time to build something serious. This means that in just one or two months of work, you can have three or four major projects to show on your resume.

Projects demonstrate a passion for coding and an ability to go above and beyond. Even if your work experience doesn’t shine, your projects can. I’ve seen a number of candidates go from almost no interviews to countless interviews with just this simple change.

And, there’s an added benefit: diversification. If you have been pigeonholed as a Java programmer — or even as a tester — and want to shift into being a Ruby on Rails developer, projects are a great way to get that experience.

Image: 123RF

13 Responses to “Programmers: Here’s How to Boost Your Career”

  1. jlhopkins28160

    The project idea is not a bad thing to do for marketability in the job market. I used to write programs for “the heck of it” in college but never thought to save my code as I am in the job market right now. I would have to think of something substantive for a weekend project but I know I can do it.

  2. “Show us how you can be an even better worker bee”

    Yes, home projects are cool and awesome. Yet, that thing called ‘life’ gets in the way and that messes everything up. Life, ya know, as in taking care of non-work stuff some of which happens to be essential like cooking, cleaning, groceries, spouse, kiddos and such…

  3. “What are the right things? Projects. Yep, we’re going back to high school and college. You need to work on your extra-curricular coding activities.”

    Translation: be willing to sacrifice your life on the altar of your job.

    The most interesting IT folks are those who have hobbies that don’t revolve around ‘puters. A former coworker, when she was interviewing folks to assist her with PC and network issues, would ask a candidate “What are your hobbies?” If the response was “I like to build computers, write apps, and develop games.” she would cross them off the list for being too much the geek.

    Technology is a tool, don’t let it be your life.

      • That assumes the employer is interested in hiring a person who has learned a skill (s)he has not actually used in the “real world”. Additionally, too many stories exist in which employers complain about the lack of talent with the skills they seek. So, I take issue with the statement “It’s not about learning the right technologies — although that can help — it’s about doing the right things.” If “you” have experience of any type your ability to learn and utilize is proven.

      • When I see articles like this, I go through the roof. Mark, yes, it *IS* sacrificing your life on the alter of your job. IMO, this article documents the utter meltdown dysfunction of this occupation. DICE.COM is filled with articles like this about the gamesmanship required to get the opportunity to show your stuff. The best coders (like me, for example) are often unwilling, and even psychologically unable, to play the game. So we just say, “Fuck it!” and either start our own businesses or leave the occupation altogether.

        The fundamental problem in the marketplace for software engineers is lack of trust, which in turn is due to selfishness. Articles such as this one are workarounds, not fixes. If we, as hiring managers and as individual contributors, want to thrive in software engineering, if we want to love our jobs the way that I loved my programming jobs when I was young in the 1970’s and 1980’s, we must embrace the need for a moral transformation and we must personally and individually embrace the ethic of living unselfishly.

        When there is trust, the hiring process is simple. “We need a C++ coder. Can you code in C++? What have you coded in C++? Why do you like coding in C++? If we hire you, will you focus on using your skill to help us achieve our business objectives? Ok; we’ll give it a try. Be here tomorrow morning and we’ll get started. You’ll receive minimum wage for the first month. If we decide to continue the relationship, you’ll be retroactively paid a raise for that month.”

        • @Wo’O Ideafarm: I don’t disagree with you on your wider point, and may you’re right in saying these articles are “workarounds.” But until managers are convinced to approach hiring the way to say they should, isn’t that what people need?

          Would you be interested in writing a blog post to make your argument? If you write, I’ll run it. Send me an email, or let me know here if you prefer.


          • Life is a firefight for me right now. I’ve been in and out of jail since last Monday. All I did was hold large signs on a city street. I bailed Saturday, spending my last $500 to purchase about 48 hours of freedom so that I can get the story of what happened up onto IDEAFARM.COM . Before the end of today, it will be there. Before the end of today, I might be back in jail on a new warrant for my arrest.

            Until things settle down here, the best that I can do is take “pot shots”. But I would like to take you up on your offer. Send me an email next week. If I am still out of jail, I’ll reply and we’ll do it.

    • Gayle Laakmann McDowell

      Oh, you don’t have to do projects on the side to keep your current job. Go ahead — work the standard 9 to 5, then go home and check out. That’s perfectly fine. You shouldn’t get fired for that.

      But, if you want to move to a better company or a company working with different technologies, projects on your own time is a great way to do it.

      Some people — not everyone, but some people — actually really love programming. (I’m one of them!) Those people tend to be the most motivated at work because they love what they’re doing. They also tend to be the most up to date on technologies, because they want to learn more. Can you blame a company for wanting to hire passionate people who want to learn?

      Your coworker who didn’t want to hire IT people who were too into technology doesn’t sound like the best interviewer. If she wanted social people, fine. You can get a feel for social skills by talking to the candidate. Rejecting people because they actually love technology is just stupid. She’s rejecting her best candidates. She’s not only the exception here, but she sounds like a terrible (and judgmental) hiring manager.

    • Gayle Laakmann McDowell

      Sponsoring H1B visas is considerably more expensive and more hassel than hiring someone in the US. If a company is hiring people with H1B visas, it’s because they can’t find enough qualified people in the US.

      H1B visas *add* jobs for Americans by allowing tech companies to grow. As a programmer, I firmly advocate for more H1B visas, not fewer — and so does every other programmer I know. Startups and the top tech companies cannot find enough qualified people to hire, and this hurts everyone.

  4. Looking at programming job descriptions, looks like most positions require around 5 years experience. Almost nobody needs more than 10 years work ex.

    My reading is that coding is great for young workers, but after a while you need to move into other areas, usually management.

    Wonder if others share the same experience..