How to Land Your First Job as a Software Engineer

How to Land Your First Job as a Software Engineer

Build a portfolio: In addition to being a great tool to assess your skill level, if you don't have a portfolio, it will make the hiring manager question how seriously you take your development career, or how passionate you are about programming. Time to stop making excuses and get it done.

Getting a job as a software engineer is never easy, but, for a few key reasons, it’s especially difficult the first time around. First, you’re not likely to have a professional network or existing software engineer connections who can make introductions on your behalf. Secondly, you’ll need to acclimatize to the standard application and interview processes for software engineering roles. If this is your first career, that’s probably also true of general application and interview processes. And finally, whether this is your first engineering job or your tenth, the process is just designed to be difficult. Because holding mission-critical applications in your hands is a serious responsibility, employers take the task of finding the best engineers seriously. As a result, the hiring process is optimized to minimize false positives and, in turn, to reduce the likelihood of hiring the wrong candidate. That is why it’s notoriously difficult to land jobs at great tech companies. Luckily, there are thousands (maybe even millions?) of engineers who have been through this process before you.

I have first-hand experience with these challenges, having recently graduated from a coding bootcamp into the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite many companies being on hiring freezes, I landed a job and am now working full-time as a software engineer. Unfortunately, there was no magic bullet or secret sauce. There are, however, concrete actions you can take to improve your chances of success. If I could do it, you can too.

What follows is some advice based on my own experience, focusing mainly on what you can do to get an interview rather than how to pass your interviews. Getting through to an interview from the application stage is often the hardest part for new engineers, and, while there exists plenty of good advice on how to prepare for and pass interviews and tech tests, how to get that first interview is less well understood. Hopefully, you can learn from my experiences, and, with a bit of luck and a bunch of hard work, you’ll be well on your way to landing your first software engineering job.

Grow, and then leverage, your network

A common theme you’ll see repeated throughout the advice that follows is that you should do whatever you can to avoid being a single, flavourless, data point. To illustrate, within minutes of a job opening becoming available on your favourite job board, hundreds of people will have applied. Hiring managers and recruiters are then tasked with assessing this heap of applicants, trying to pick signal from noise. It’s not hard to see how even the strongest applicants can have trouble standing out from the crowd.

The truth is that single data points — papers in a pile, blips in an applicant tracking system — don’t get hired, humans do. Humans with rich experiences and interests (and flaws!). So, it’s imperative that you do what you can to avoid the standard ‘apply now’ button and that you find another way to get in front of hiring decision-makers.

The ‘other’ route

There are two ways to get an interview at most companies. First, the ‘apply now’ button, to be avoided where possible (or supplemented with other measures, discussed later). The other route, the ‘inside track’, is unlocked when someone at the company gives you a referral to whoever is making the hiring decisions — usually a senior engineer, people/HR team member, or the CTO. These people often have the authority and leverage to help you circumvent some of the traditional hiring processes, fast-forwarding you beyond the paper-in-a-pile point and increasing your chances of success.

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