Learning to code and getting technical skills is a big part of the battle – the other is getting your first job in tech. Whether you’re actively looking for something now – or if you’re still learning but are planning for the future, you’re in the right place! Because I’ve interviewed 3 brilliant self-taught programmers on their experience getting their first job in tech.
Here are these wonderful women:
Tara – Software Developer
Tayllor – Frontend Developer
Vicky – Software Engineer, Dashlane
All of the women we will hear from today don’t have a background in Computer Science. They used coding courses, bootcamps and other resources to teach themselves and get a job in the industry.
Masha: Was it easy for you to find your first job in the field?
Yes. This is only because I got lucky in the sense that my employer found me. Prior to starting my job search as a developer, I had signed up for AngelList, which is basically a place for employers and employees to match with each other. And they just so happened to reach out to me before I was even ready to start applying. So it was easy in the sense that I didn’t have to apply to a lot of different places to get my first job. It just happened to come to me.
I would say that my first job was definitely not software engineering related. I actually had a finance degree back in college. I had a few positions as a data analyst or business analyst, working in the financial industry for a few years. I came across an opportunity at a startup company in New York city, as a data analyst who are supporting developers in the engineering team.
My name is Tayllor and I am a self-taught frontend developer and I recently just landed a job as a frontend developer. I’m also in a six month bootcamp that turned into seven because of Covid. But yeah, I’m not done with that. I won’t be done until July. So that’s where I currently am in my tech career.
It was not easy for me to get to the point where I had an interview. It was easy for me to interview and feel good about possibly getting the job, which I ended up landing. So getting to the interview was hard. I probably applied to like 40 different places and I got two responses back and one of the responses was no. And the other response was the job that I got, in which they were open to interviewing me.
I thought that once I got to the point where I could interview and interviewing was like, I felt good about that part. I felt like I could get this job while I was interviewing, but getting to the point where I could get an interview, being self-taught, for me, with no job experience was hard. It was kind of hard.
What are the pros and cons of being self-taught when searching for jobs in tech?
I think one of the pros is having the skill set of being self-taught is very important. And I think it, how do I say this? I think that it helps you grow in the future. If you know that you can – like if I know I can sit down and teach myself a language proficiently, then I could learn every language if I wanted to. Not saying that that’s the best thing to do, but just, you know, looking ahead. I just think that it’s such a, a great skill set to have. So I think that that comes in handy because when you are on jobs, as much as things change in this industry from what I’ve seen, it’s important to know how to learn kind of on your, on your toes, kind of quick. So if you know that you can teach yourself something sufficiently, then I think that that’s a great skill to have.
A con is, I feel like, how do I explain this? I think that people don’t take you as serious and it was harder for me to get any responses. And I don’t know if that is for everyone when you’re applying for jobs, but I feel like people with degrees probably get calls back or emails saying: “Oh, we’re just considering other options”. I got nothing. So I feel like it might be a little harder to get people to take you serious or get an opportunity to interview or things like that if you are going against people who have degrees.
The hardest part is having a full-time job where a hundred percent of the time you are not coding and you work for more than eight hours sometimes. And when you get home it’s really hard to get yourself motivated. It’s really hard to make sure that you’re studying every day. I think that a lot of times employers are not only specifically looking for an engineer who has a computer science degree. Yes, the degree might help in certain ways, but a lot of times they want to hire someone that they feel like they can pay to program with. This person can be a nice person to work with.
I’m going to go ahead and start with the cons and then I will finish with the pros because I will want to leave that on a good note. I would say there are two main cons. The first one is if you have a computer science degree that expresses to an employer like right off the bat that you have some level of competence in this particular field – because you know, in order to go to college and get a degree, you have to express competence and complish XYZ things in order to get that degree. So the employer right off the bat, more or less can vet your skills just based on the fact that you have a computer science degree, which isn’t the same as when you are self-taught.
The second con of being self-taught: it can be (not always true), but it can be harder to grow a network of people to potentially connect you with jobs. Because you know, if you’re going to college, you have your classmates and you also have the entire group of alumni from your university. So that can quite easily connect you to different employers, people at different companies, but if you’re self-taught you may have to do a little bit more work to grow that network organically.
And then the pros. I think one of the biggest pros of being self-taught is: it can express to an employer that you’re quite serious about this because this is something that you’re doing amongst the rest of the things in your life. Not to say that’s not true with like a computer science degree, but it takes a little bit more of a dedicated focus because you probably have a job or maybe you have kids you have to take care of. There are a whole slew of other things that the traditional college student doesn’t have to come up against in terms of learning, cultivating that growth mindset and learning computer science and coding.
And if you’re self-taught, that is something you have to be a little bit more disciplined about. So that can be a good thing. And then the other thing that goes along with being self-taught is more than likely it’s cheaper than getting a college degree in computer science. And you have, I think, more flexibility to choose what works for you. You know, in a computer science degree program, like in any college program, it’s structured, it’s set up, you’re going to do this thing and then this thing and then this thing. Whereas if you’re self-taught, you know, maybe you can choose a different language to start learning with first or use different resources. You can choose the resources essentially that will work for you and get you to where you want to be.
Masha: How did you approach the job searching process? Did you have to do anything different because you don’t have a computer science degree?
I think that a lot of times I created a lot of personal projects to make myself stand out from the crowd and also highlight a lot of my non-technical work experience. A lot of times I think that employees are looking for not only if you can code, but also are you a good communicator – or can you communicate properly, are you a nice person to work with? So I think those soft skills are also worth highlighting in front of the employers and the recruiters.
I don’t fully know the answer to that because I don’t know what people with degrees do. I don’t really have any friends who work in the industry who have degrees. A lot of my friends are self-taught and they’re just like kind of coming into this industry as well. I did everything that I read I was supposed to do. You know, I studied and learned languages as proficient as I could. I quizzed myself over and over, you know, I got into a bootcamp, I started a portfolio, I’ve built projects on the side. I refreshed my resume. I made a cover letter. Like those are the things that I personally did.
I don’t know if people with degrees are doing all of that stuff too or they just walk into the room with their degree and being like: “I know stuff” – you know? I don’t know. But that’s how I approached this process, just like read what, how to get a tech job and then I did those things – and then I got a tech job.
Like I said, I got lucky in the sense that my employer reached out to me. That wouldn’t have happened had I not taken the deliberate step to set up an AngelList account because I knew when I was eventually going to be ready to job search that I wanted to use AngelList because I really wanted to work in the startup space. So I just happened to get lucky that they reached out to me, before I started looking for jobs. But I did take that very deliberate step to set up that account – that way it would be ready to go when I was ready.
Masha: What would you recommend for other self-taught programmers when looking for their first job?
I would recommend a few things. So one, be open to anything and everything. Of course, this comes with some limits and some caveats. I don’t think you should necessarily have to take unpaid internship work. I would never advocate for that, but be open to industries or companies that you might have not otherwise considered. I ended up working for a startup in the advertising technology space, which is not something I ever in a million years thought I would do. So just keep an open mind. Because the first job that you have doesn’t have to be the job you have forever. You can always move later. So just be willing and be open to whatever may end up being the first opportunity you have.
The second thing I would say is be diligent about your application process. What I think really works well is like have a running list – keep a list of companies that you’re really interested in, the job opportunities they have, the different technologies or tools that they maybe use. So that way as you know, you go along, you can cultivate an idea of the kind of companies you want to work for, the kind of jobs that you are a fit for or want to be a fit for. And you can start tailoring your resume and start tailoring your skills to those particular opportunities.
And then the last thing I would recommend is just persistent. If you have gotten far enough to kind of learn how to code on your own – congratulations, that’s a really big deal! So just continue to be persistent in your job search. You may get a hundred “No’s”, but all it takes is a one “Yes”. Literally, that’s all it takes. I know that sounds incredibly cheesy, but all you need is one “Yes” – and then you’ve got your foot in the door and then from there it’s a lot easier to make moves. So yeah, just keep an open mind, be persistent and be diligent.
Just talk about your strengths, show personality, smile, be personable. I think that to me when I was talking to the person that interviewed me, they made it very apparent that a lot of the personalities they have ran into (I think they did like 24 other interviews) weren’t the best. And so I always just try to be personable and talk about myself and the job and not just be so serious and tense.
I know it’s a super nerve-wracking process, but you know, try to make it a little fun for yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself. And like I said, just be honest, be honest about where you are. Don’t lie about the skills that you don’t have.
I think that one of the biggest recommendations that I will give someone who is self-taught is having a really solid portfolio. I think that having your personal projects and things that you’re passionate about building, really speaks a lot about you as a developer. Because I think a lot of times being an engineer, being a developer is trying to problem solve and trying to improve people’s lives in a very technical way. And I think that having that passion and being who you are and also having solid projects to demonstrate that you are a great candidate for that is super important.
Thank you so much Tara, Tayllor and Vicky for sharing your experiences, insights and advice. Make sure that you’re following these wonderful ladies on social media:
I hope this was helpful to anyone who is looking for a job in tech right now – or if you’re planning to do that in the future. Let me know in the comments what stage of this process you’re in.
And don’t forget that this is post number three of my series of interviews with self-taught programmers. You can find the other posts here!