Start at a small consulting company

Dear new developer,

If you are sure where you want to go in your shiny new development career, pick that and follow it. Whether that is embedded programming or high frequency trading or generic web development, pursuing a career with focus is a great option.

If you are just looking for that first job, remember it’s a numbers game and just keep applying and networking. Then take the first job that seems like it’d be interesting and treat you well. (Avoid those that play games in interviews.)

If, however, you are looking for a tour across technologies, domains and businesses, and you want to work in an environment where everyone’s effort counts, I’d suggest starting at a small consulting company. This is where I started. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but interviewed at some big companies like HP. I ended up getting an internship at a small web consultancy where I was employee number 61 (I believe).

By small, I mean between ten and seventy five people. Ten or more is big enough to hire new developers and give you some kind of structure. Less than ten means that you’ll have a lot more autonomy but that may be problematic when you want to learn from others–they may be too busy to help you.

Seventy five or less people means that every hire matters, and that you’ll be able to have a real relationship with everyone at your company. Larger than that means that people will start to be able to hide and not do real work. Small companies don’t have room for people not pulling their full weight, but bigger companies can.

I’ve written about this here as well. An excerpt of some other benefits:

  • Variety is the spice of consulting shops, so if a project isn’t working for you, you can often work on another project. If that isn’t available, the project might take months. This is hard, but a far cry from working on a product for years.
  • You will get as much client interaction as you want. As a developer, the ability to work with non technical people to build software to spec and on (or, to be honest, near) budget is a very valuable skill to have.

In general, working at a small consulting company is a great way to get a wide variety of experience. If you do a great job (especially at the beginning) and keep track of people you work with, it can set your career up for the rest of your life. I am still working and keeping in touch with people from the first consulting job I had, which was two decades ago.

Sincerely,

Dan

Use an RSS Reader

Dear new developer,

I highly suggest using an RSS reader. I use Newsblur, but there are several good ones out there. This will let you keep on track of any publishing platform that has an RSS feed. This includes this site, but many many others.

You can use it to keep tabs on your favorite online community discussions, tags in Stackoverflow or your favorite blogger. You can even use it to monitor your social media feeds, by using Zapier.

Think of it like a centralized information hub. Instead of you having to go to bunch of different places, you can just go to one. It’s similar to Facebook or Twitter, but the content tends to be long form and richer.

RSS is a venerable format, but one that still works. By using an RSS reader you’re also supporting open web protocols, so you get extra points for that.

Sincerely,

Dan

Think deeply about engineering management

Dear new developer,

This post from Charity about the choices you face as an engineer, and the challenges of technical management, is wonderful. As a new developer, you’re probably a few years away from thinking about that (but perhaps not. If you join a startup rocketship, it’s possible you’ll be managing people in months). But you have to manage your own career, and moving into management is one of the main career paths for a developer. (I’d say the others include: starting a business, becoming a senior developer, or becoming a consultant.)

Charity talks about how management is an entirely new skillset, and how being a technical leader plus a manager is a great way to get amazing things done. She also covers the negatives of “climbing the ladder” to ever more senior leadership. Charity doesn’t mince words:

Your job [as a newly minted technical manager] is to leverage that technical expertise to grow your engineers into great senior engineers and tech leads themselves.  Your job is not to hog the glory and squat on the hard problems yourself, it’s to empower and challenge and guide your team.  Don’t suck up all the oxygen: you’ll stunt the growth of your team.

I mean, there’s a reason we don’t lure good people managers away from Starbucks to run engineering teams. It’s the intersection and juxtaposition of skill sets that gives engineering managers such outsize impact.

One warning: Your company may be great, but it doesn’t exist for your benefit.  You and only you can decide what your needs are and advocate for them.  Remember that next time your boss tries to guilt you into staying on as manager because you’re so badly needed, when you can feel your skills getting rusty and your effectiveness dwindling.  You owe it to yourself to figure out what makes you happy and build a portfolio of experiences that liberate you to do what you love.  Don’t sacrifice your happiness at the altar of any company.  There are always other companies.

I don’t tell you this now, new developer, because I want to scare you away from management. I’m an engineering manager right now and it’s a wonderful place to be. You have autonomy, you can help fix problems you see in your organization, and you get to recruit and help grow people into the best developers that they can be. But just be aware that when you get to a certain level, it’s a one way path away from some of the most fun parts of software development–building things, solving hard technical problems, and being a doer.

Please read the whole post from Charity: Engineering Management: The Pendulum Or The Ladder

Sincerely,

Dan

Write a technical ebook

Dear new developer,

I suggest you take some of your ample free time (if you have it) and write a technical book. I’ve written one book and doing so gives you a deep understanding both of the technology you choose to write about and of the difficulties of doing so. It will give you instant credibility should you choose to pursue a job related to the technology. You can use it to make connections and give speeches at meetups.It may even make you some money, but don’t count on that.

Pick a technology that you use at work or on a side project. Characteristics you are looking for:

  • few books have been written about the topic
  • you are really really interested in the topic and want to master it
  • it is something you use regularly
  • the technology is either really new (and you think you might be able to do multiple revisions) like React, or is really old and slow moving (like bash)
  • it’s something relatively popular or new

I made a number of mistakes when I wrote a book about command line hooks in cordova (which is a framework for writing mobile applications). The mistakes I made included:

  • the market for cordova books was small, and the subset of people interested in automation of cordova actions was even smaller (even so, I found about 70 people willing to pay for the book)
  • I picked the technology because we were using it at the time, but after one project we stopped. I wasn’t really interested in mobile development, and so never updated the book.

Topics that aren’t technical are more evergreen (how to manage a software team has changed in the last 20 years, but how to build a javascript application how changed in the last 12 months), but there are more books out there about them as a result. Technical books have a shorter shelf life but also have less competition.

However, if you can find a topic you want to write about, don’t start writing the book from scratch. Instead, outline it and write a number of pieces of the book. An easy way to do this is to create a category on your blog (you have a blog, right?) and start writing regularly about the topic. Write an outline and add blog posts based on the outline.

After four or five blog posts, you’ll know if this is a technology you want to dig into and publish a book about. Keep writing the posts, but start looking for communities where the technology is published. Start answering questions about it on the forum and/or your blog. Set up an email list to capture people who are interested in your topic and visit your blog.

The risk is low. If, on the other hand, you write two articles about technology X and you are bored out of your mind, then just stop and don’t create the ebook.

Once you have about 20 posts, you can start thinking about pulling them together to form an ebook (the exact number depends on the size of your topic). I used leanpub and had a great experience. Note that you’ll be entirely responsible for not only writing the book, but marketing it. However, you get to keep something like 90% of the price of the book. Leanpub can pull an RSS feed into the leanpub format and you can use it to suck down the posts you’ve been writing.

After you do that, it’s really about continuing to fill out the outline, updating your forum posts to include a link to your book site, and marketing the book. I’m no expert there, but made about $700 bucks from my ebook. I don’t think I ever calculated the exact hourly rate, but I can say with confidence that it was far lower than I could have made contracting.

So, in the end, why is it valuable? I think writing a book, even a 40 page ebook like I did, challenges you to think deeply (to understand the technology and convey it in a way that other people can understand) and broadly (similar to holding a really large software system in your mind). These are both really good skills to acquire.

Sincerely,

Dan

The Cacophony of the 2019 Tech Landscape

This is a guest post from Rishi Malik. Enjoy.

Hello New Developer!

Right now, it’s Q1 2019. And there’s a lot of advice you’ll find out here on the internet. Much of it is good, some of it is bad, but the important thing to note is that these are all points of view from people. From that person to be specific. This letter is no different, this is just my view on what matters. Take it or leave it. In fact, that’s the first point I want to make.

2019 tech is full of voices. Social media, popular blogs, and news sites amplify voices and feelings. This is an awesome thing, but remember that loud views aren’t necessarily right.

What I mean, is that you’ll find points of view on everything. Developers have always loved flame wars, and pointless battles (vi vs emacs, tabs vs spaces). Now it’s “Javascript developers aren’t real engineers”, or “If you can’t code a binary search, you’re a bad engineer.”

Find yourself in all these voices. It’s not easy, and it will take time. But work on what you value, and develop your skills to who you want to be. It’s ok if you want to work by yourself on speeding up a search by .01 milliseconds. It’s equally ok if you want to ship a single page app with a brilliant user experience. Listen to the voices when they help, and ignore them when they don’t.

To help find yourself, focus on finding customers that value what you do. Most of the time, these customers are the people in the company you’re working for. But if you want to do algorithms, find people who will value that work. If you want to work on networks, find companies who need that.

It sounds obvious, but it’s an easy thing to miss when you’re looking for a job, and when you’re evaluating comp, culture, benefits, and offices. It’s also really hard to gauge from the outside of a company.

On that note, remember that the 2019 tech industry isn’t how it will always be. Right now, the job market is stellar. I mean really stellar. In most big cities, you can find a job doing just about anything you want, most of the time within a few days.

This won’t always be the case. It wasn’t years ago, and everything comes in cycles. That’s the 2nd point. Be willing to do things you didn’t think you wanted to. I worked on embedded systems when I started my career. I got into web technology not because I cared about it, but because it helped me get a job in a city I wanted to live. Turned out to a prescient choice, and opened up tons of opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

The tech choices come in cycles, but so does demand. I said before that the job market is stellar. But some of us old timers have been through the downturns. When you’re unemployed for 6 months because literally no one is hiring. When your choice is between a 50% pay cut, or a 100% pay cut. Be wise, be smart. It’s a great time to be in tech, but plan ahead for the times that are tough.

Finally, my last point is to remember that there is a world outside of tech. It’s hard when you’re in it to see that. When tech was smaller, and more insular, it was easier to remember that this is a job.

But now, tech is everywhere. Apps are everywhere. The internet is everywhere. More people are writing code, building companies, and figuring things out. But, tech is not the entirety of life. Get outside of the tech zone, and connect with people who aren’t in it. It will change how you think, and how you develop code. And it provides a much needed break from the echo chamber that is tech.

Good luck, and have fun!

Rishi

Rishi Malik is the founder of Backstop.it, a company focused on making cybersecurity easy for companies to implement.

Learn your standard library

Dear new developer,

If you want to be good at interviews, learn your algorithms. Loads of companies treat algorithm knowledge as a proxy for general problem solving ability. It makes a certain sort of sense–you have to break down a problem into pieces, turn it into something software can digest, and implement it in code. You can practice these at places like HackerRank. Like any proxy, they can be gamed, which is why tech interviewing feels like a fundamentally broken process. (See this great post about humility in interviewers for another piece of the puzzle.)

But if you want to be good at your job, learn your standard library. This is the piece of software that surrounds you, in which your software will execute.

I remember the time when I was a contractor and started at a new place in the early 2000s. Someone there had written their own connection pooling library. This seemed like madness because it’s a complicated piece of work and there were several free implementations available for the language (though, to be fair, none were part of the standard library). This code, which provided very little business value, would have to be maintained and bugfixed and upgraded.

Every modern language has a definition (this includes syntax and keywords) and a set of associated, standardized classes. These classes allow developers to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and should be used whenever possible. Why? These libraries evolve over time as the language is released and have a number of beneficial properties.

  • Using the standard library lets you accelerate development. You don’t have to roll your own hash or tree, you can just use the one that ships with your library.
  • It is far more likely to be correct. This can matter a little, if incorrectness introduces a bug. Or it can matter a lot, if incorrectness causes your system to be fundamentally insecure. Standard libraries have a lot of eyes on them, including specialists.
  • As a corollary, standard libraries handle edge cases. They are well used code, in the sense of this post (source code doesn’t rust). If the language is used by any number of people, it’s going to be more bullet proof and handle weird edge cases that your self rolled code won’t handle (until a bug is discovered and fixed).
  • It will be more performant. Again, this is because the effort to make operations faster is amortized across all of the users, so specialists and experts are more likely to be involved.
  • The standard library for any popular language will be maintained over years, likely by developers you won’t have to directly pay.

All of these benefits stem from the fact that more people work on standard libraries than work on code in your company.

But, you have to know the standard library to gain all of these advantages. Unlike the syntax of a language, you don’t need to know the standard library to get things done. While you can’t roll up your sleeves and start coding until you know the syntax of ruby, php, java, clojure, haskell, javascript, etc, you can code for quite some time without knowing all the ins and outs of the standard library.

This is because standard libraries can be large: Java has thousands of classes in their standard library, and even a language with a small library like Javascript has about seventy objects, many with tens of properties or methods. It takes a while to learn. Plus, new developer, it can feel like you’re not doing much when you are reading docs. Certainly such reading  isn’t as fun as banging out code. But, it will have two benefits for the codebase:

  • you will save time in developing because of all the benefits above. You may have to invest some time up front, but once you do, you’ll be faster for the rest of your career.
  • you will write idiomatic code. Other developers who are familiar with the standard library will know the characteristics and behavior of the code you write.

and one for you:

  • you will gain a transferable skillset. Learning how to write the particular kind of ruby that your company uses is not nearly so valuable to other companies as learning the standard library.

How can you learn the standard library? I’d recommend taking a high level overflight. Google for ‘<language> standard library overview’ and read whatever articles or listen to whatever presentations are available. I’d also recommend just scanning the docs and seeing what piques your interest.

After you have that, the best way to learn the standard library is to use it. When you are about to tackle a problem, make it a standard part of your process to ask “is there a standard library function for that”. It can be difficult, but as it becomes a habit your code will become better and you will learn to trust the authors of the standard library.

If you have time and inclination, you can also search for ‘<language> koans’ which are small exercises in languages. These will often exercise the standard library. See Ruby Koans for an example.

When there is more than one way to do it using the standard library, which happens more in some languages (like PHP) than in others (like golang), think about the options and then try to be consistent.

So, learn the standard library. Make the time.

Sincerely,

Dan

Avoid The Impossible Goal of Being a Know It All

This is a guest blog post from Rick Manelius. Enjoy.

Dear new developer,

Can you name all 50 US states? How about their capitals? Every city in the US? Every town? Could you list the GPS coordinates of every coffee shop?

Of course, you can’t, wouldn’t, and don’t. It would be absurd to spend the time and effort to memorize such a vast amount of information that you can Google within seconds. Yet developers often fall into the trap of over preparing and learning a myriad of facts and syntax trivia for a new programming language or framework before diving in and getting their hands dirty.

A personal example: When I landed my first contract as a web developer, I recommended Drupal for the client’s project. However, I was deathly afraid of not being able to address any questions that might come up. To satisfy my “need to know it all” before I put forth an initial proposal, I purchased have a dozen ebooks and read the more popular ones cover to cover several times. Meanwhile, I was only dabbling in writing code by following the tutorials.  Unfortunately, this was about as effective as trying to learn a foreign language without a practice partner. The information was forgotten almost as soon as I learned it.

I contrast this with how quickly my experience and skills grew when I started to give myself the permission to play, to test, to tinker, and to interact with the community through IRC and the issue queue. It was there that I would run into a blocker and use those eBooks as a useful resource because I had a specific purpose in mind. Moreover, when I couldn’t find my answer there or with Google, I could lean on others that were actively learning, growing, and sharing along their career trajectory.

Years later, I discovered this humbling infographic titled Becoming a Web Developer in 2017. I love this because it highlights the absurdity in trying to learn everything about everything in the web dev ecosystem. While all sites eventually roll up to HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, the number of underlying technologies used to support them is visually overwhelming.

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A select infographic from The Web Developer Roadmap 2017

Each of the boxes represents a different subject matter. Each of these subject matters has additional, hidden complexity. Also, within that, there might be subsystems that maybe only a few core maintainers of that specific project would understand. Each box may take a day or a week to learn the basics, but perhaps months to years to master.

Trying to do that for every topic becomes an overwhelming investment of time for increasingly diminishing returns. It’s equivalent to learning the GPS coordinates of every coffee shop in the US.

To make matters worse, this infographic only represents the hard skills necessary to produce and maintain the software and its supporting infrastructure. It says nothing about the soft skills of how to participate and grow a high-performance team, how to make solid architectural choices, how open source governance works, how to handle change and release management, how to apply different project management methodologies, etc.

Before I overwhelm you any further…

…there is hope.

You don’t need to know it all. In fact, some of the most successful developers I’ve come to know are skilled searchers and askers. They may not know the information, but they know where it could be. They know how to parse documentation to find the salient details they need to accomplish the task at hand. They have a network of colleagues in other specializations that they can lean on for help. They are confident in asking even basic questions (gasp) in public, because while it may seem obvious for many, there is always at least 1 other person who has the same question.

Let’s look at the medical profession for inspiration. While they all go to school for 6-12 years to gain a base level proficiency, they can then either stick to general practice or hone in on a dizzying array of specialties. When we get sick, we start by going to our primary care doctor. Their goal is to identify and solve the problem there, or narrow down the answer space and refer you to a specialist. Unfortunately, even the specialists don’t always know what the issue is. This is why people sometimes need 2nd or 3rd opinions.

The good news is that in software we don’t need to go to a school for a decade to get started with experimentation or specialization. We are one tutorial and terminal prompt away from trying a new language or checking out a new library and testing it in a local sandbox where little to no damage can be done. There is so much power in this! And it’s also where it can be overwhelming given the 28 million public code repositories on GitHub alone.

Adopt a Hive Mind Approach

We live in a golden age of sharing and collaboration. Developers from all around the world ask and answer questions on Stack Overflow. They write tutorials and howtos on their blogs or Medium. In any given city, there may be anywhere from 1 to 20 tech Meetups a week. There are podcasts, Reddit channels, newsletter aggregators, and active conversations on Twitter.

By asking, discussing, and sharing openly in one or more of these venues, you are adopting a hive mind approach. You are both able to contribute to and receive ideas, perspectives, and solutions. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this strategy and mindset. In my experience, it’s many times more valuable than reading the 3rd or 4th ebook on a given subject (although these are often a useful reference). Beyond just discovering technical solutions, interactions with other developers often result in friendships that can last well beyond the burning framework question you had when you first met them.

So my advice (take it or leave it) is to abandon the lone wolf, know-it-all approach to software development. Instead, learn to contribute to and draw from the collective skills, talents, and experience from our fantastic community that is literally all around you IF you are willing to connect with them.

Final point. I stayed isolated for years until I broke into the Drupal community. Once I did, my career rapidly transformed. I wrote about that here.

So get out there! And good luck!

– Rick

Rick Manelius is an MIT engineer turned web developer turned startup CXO (operations, product, and technology). You can connect and learn more on his personal blog and his LinkedIn profile.