Take jobs that help you grow

This is a guest post from Adam Steel. Enjoy.

Dear New Developer,

Getting your first developer job can feel like a big accomplishment. And it is! It can feel so big and you can feel so relieved to have any job at all that you might start to develop your worldview around that one job. “This is how things are in the real world” you might tell yourself. “I’m lucky to be here,” you murmur. “Leaving too soon looks bad on your resume,” says an older friend.

This sort of thinking can be entrapping. I’m writing to show you a better way.

The spectrum of jobs and companies in tech is broad. To understand how the world is and what your options are you have to take a couple samples and grow, grow, grow! To that end, there are three “traps” I see developers get stuck in early in their career.

The first trap: Spending too long at your first job

In your first 3-4 years, it’s critical that you fuel your motivation and inspiration into learning and growing. It’s also a critical time for a steep increase in your salary. Too many companies fail to recognize that a junior developer’s abilities are growing far faster than their compensation and responsibilities. Or it’s recognized but the company cannot afford to promote or give a raise. It’s up to you to take the reins and move to a new job to find the new challenges and new salary that match where you are in your career. This is especially true for self taught and boot camp taught developers.

How long is too long? How long is enough?

“Enough” time as a junior can be surprisingly short, depending on how you learn. At 6 months it is reasonable to consider switching jobs if you are learning quickly. Not for all positions you’ll hold, but specifically for this first one. Juniors are paid less because they need to come up to speed on all the terminology, tooling and processes.

Once you don’t need hand holding to tackle moderately complex features, you will be far more attractive to other companies. Occasionally a company may recognize and reward your growth, but that is rare.

Stay longer only if you’re feeling significantly rewarded and challenged. Which brings me to…

The second trap: Not investing in learning

Building business software in teams requires a set of skills that are hard to acquire in the absence of customers and a team working to support them. This learning curve can only be tackled when you have these components. And the best way to move along the learning curve is to take a job that helps you learn faster!

What does a “learning” job look like?

“Learning” jobs tend to have similar characteristics. There are resources to learn from and the autonomy to work however suits you best. There is time built into the team’s cadence to allow for research, either organic time throughout your week or time specifically set aside.

Most importantly, there are lots of smart people who give you feedback and engage in discussions about the best way to do things. These people will focus on things like best practices, optimization and customer value. Often they argue! While the arguments might excite you or wear you down, they should feel overall productive and, at the end of the day, move the team toward its goals.

Think of a learning job like an additional career investment, beyond whatever you’ve already paid to learn before your first job. What you need is exposure to good ideas in the context of solving a business problem with an experienced team, and a good learning job gives you that. You may take a lower salary in the short term, but by expanding your knowledge your career will be more fulfilling long term.

What should I avoid?

The list of positions where learning is difficult is much longer than the list of “learning jobs”, but here are some examples:

  • Isolation: Working alone is the hardest career decision to come back from, but it’s especially destructive in your first job. If you aren’t challenged by the ideas of multiple people, your world becomes small. You also won’t have a chance to build your network.
  • Micromanagement: Good companies work to give their developers autonomy and space to do the right thing. If someone is managing the details of your daily life, you aren’t learning how to flex that autonomy muscle. For example, once I had a job where a senior manager stood over my shoulder and dictated what he wanted to see as I wrote code.
  • Lack of visibility: Do you get a chance to learn how the pieces fit together? Do you get a chance to fit them together? A narrow field of view restricts your ability to build a larger context. For example, are you only ever asked to fix specific bugs, or are you encouraged to think about the larger architecture while building new features?
  • Unsafe environment: If we don’t feel safe, we cannot learn well. Depending on the threat, there could also be much bigger concerns. Examples include, but are not limited to, yelling or harassment of any kind. Leave as quickly as you safely can.

The third trap: “Being glue”

“Being glue” is when your role is focused on filling gaps like coordinating between teams and keeping everyone organized, as opposed to actually writing software. Especially in smaller, more dysfunctional teams it can be a tempting role to fill. The team needs it, after all! It’s an important role for managers and higher level engineers to fill, but if you step into it too early it will stunt your learning curve and can leave you forever feeling like you are “behind” the rest of the team. It’s first (and best) described in this noidea blog post.

Once you are technically competent, and everyone knows it, consider taking on this work.

Finding a job that maximizes your growth

There’s no silver bullet for this problem. My best advice is to try to develop the ability to “sniff out” the kinds of companies you’re looking for. Did someone impressive speak at a meetup or write an inspiring blog post? Track down where they work. Job descriptions that are well written and articulate good values are promising. And if you end up in a job that you misjudged and find yourself stagnating, don’t feel guilty about quickly moving on.

Consultancies with great practices, like TestDouble, can be great accelerators for your learning. Changing projects more frequently results in a broader experience, but at the predictable cost of less experience with how your decisions in a codebase will age.

What does a “good” job description look like?

Writing a good job description is hard, but the best companies will put in the effort to do it right. Some attributes of good job descriptions include:

  • Reasonably correct English and readable formatting
  • A description of philosophies and values that align with yours
  • Reasonable requirements (e.g. no CS degree required for a junior level frontend position)
  • Specifically calls out personal traits like kindness or empathy as desirable

What can I ask in interviews to vet the position?

Remember that interviews are your chance to interview them as well. Examples of questions you could ask include:

  • What best practices do you think have made your team successful?
  • What kind of developers thrive at your company?
  • How do you support developers when they come onto a team?

How frequently can I change jobs?

This is a hot topic, but varies by which part of the industry you’re in. Early on, hopping jobs more quickly is fine. 3 jobs in your first 3 years? Not uncommon. Working in startups especially can lead to shorter tenure as companies fail or are acquired.

However, there are skills and wisdom you will only be able to build by staying longer. For example, no amount of training or reading will result in the wisdom you gain by wrestling with a technology decision you made over a year ago as you watch it cause painful issues.

The resume to avoid building is the one with only <2 year tenures over a 10 or 20 year career.

Happy growing!


Adam Steel is the VP of Engineering at TrueCoach. He lives outside Boulder, CO.

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