Selling yourself as a self-taught developer: It’s not as hard as you might think
The idea of telling a potential employer that you are a self-taught developer and have no formal qualifications sounds crazy, right? Well, it might not be as crazy as it seems. Think about it. You need huge amounts of determination, drive, and willingness to learn to teach yourself how to code. From an employer’s perspective, these are highly desirable traits.
What’s more, you are definitely not alone if you’re self-taught. According to Stack Overflow’s 2017 Developer Survey, 90% of developers consider themselves at least partially self-taught. That means there are a lot of developers just like you who have already sold themselves as self-taught, got tech jobs and launched their careers. It also means that employers are getting comfortable with hiring developers from this non-traditional background.
This makes sense because a career in software development is a career of constant learning.
What does it mean to a be a self-taught developer?
A self-taught developer typically doesn’t have a university/college degree in computer science or other tech-related subjects — or doesn’t have a degree at all. They have learned to code while working a regular job while going to school full time or while taking care of their family. This shows that, more often than not, self-taught developers are pretty great at managing their time and staying motivated.
Let’s talk about a few things these developers can do to put a positive spin on the fact they are self-taught:
Understand Imposter Syndrome
You’ve heard of imposter syndrome, right? It’s the voice in your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough. It’s the voice that asks you what you will do when people find out that you’re self-taught — do you even belong here?
Learn to silence those thoughts. Trust me when I tell you that everyone has those feelings at some point. I’ve been working as a developer for over five years now and I still Google how to do the simplest things with code. If you don’t believe me, have a look at any code-related forum. They are full of questions from smart people who make mistakes and forget things, just like everyone else.
It’s important to remember that just because you’re a self-taught developer doesn’t mean that you are any less of a developer than someone with a degree.
Get some experience
Experience trumps qualifications in almost all scenarios. From an employer’s perspective, it makes more sense to hire someone who has experience but no college degree over someone who has a degree but no experience. A college degree is proof you can pass an exam. Industry experience is proof that you can actually do the job.
That said, getting experience can be tough. It may be worth volunteering at a local meet up or hackathon. Not only will you learn a lot about how the industry works, you’ll also have a great time and make valuable connections.
Build your portfolio
Without prior work experience, the best way to prove you know how to code is to create a portfolio full of interesting projects. A Github profile bristling with activity will give a warm, fuzzy feeling to any prospective employer. It shows that you write code regularly, and gives them the opportunity to have a look at your work.
A great way to make projects worth putting on Github is to build something using skills you have learned each time you absorb a new tutorial. Actually building something also helps with retaining your hard earned knowledge.
Having a portfolio can often make the interview process easier too. There is a good chance that you’ll be asked about the projects in your portfolio, which is something you can prepare for. This gives you a subtle way to steer an interview in the direction you want. Throughout the interview, you’ll be able to refer to these projects as examples of how you’ve worked with technologies the company is looking for.
Start a blog
This may not seem like an obvious way to demonstrate your chops as a developer, but writing about things you are learning not only helps you understand them, it also demonstrates to employers that you have great written communication skills.
Writing about what you are learning can be a great tool to help you stay motivated, especially if you have a few people reading what you write.
When I was learning to code, I built a really simple portfolio site that showcased some of the projects I had built. It also had a blog where I wrote about what I was working on. Sure, my articles weren’t great, but that blog was what ended up helping me get my first job. During the interview, I mentioned my website and the interviewer loaded it up on his laptop. I was asked questions about how it was built, how I made it responsive and what challenges I faced while building it. This felt more like telling the story of how I built my website than an interview, but it got me the job.
Put a positive spin on being self-taught
As I mentioned before, a developer who is self-taught is no less of a developer than someone with formal qualifications. When being asked about it, especially in interviews, being self-taught can definitely be used to your advantage.
For example, being asked about a technology you are unfamiliar with in an interview is almost inevitable. This can be a good opportunity to remind the interviewer that you are self-taught. Show that you have a track record of being a self-starter who learns new things quickly.
Another way to put a positive spin on your education during an interview is by explaining that you are learning to code and want the job because you are genuinely interested in it. You’ve spent months of your spare time preparing for it. You’re there because you want to be, not because you spent four years at college and now it’s all you know how to do.
Prepare for interviews
There are a few really important things to remember when interviewing as a self-taught developer. In no particular order, here are a few of my top tips:
- Don’t lie on your resume. If you are questioned about it in an interview, it’ll be obvious you lied and you’ll look like a fool. There is no shame in admitting you don’t know something. No one can know everything.
- Never forget that being self-taught means you are driven, passionate and dedicated.
- Be prepared to talk about websites or apps that you like. I was asked this in one of my first interviews and I had never thought about it. It really knocked me off my game. Have a look online for websites or apps that inspire you, figure out how they are built and talk about them. Such an analysis would make a great blog post if you’re keeping a blog charting your learning journey. (One of my favorites right now is firewatchgame.com.)
- A lot of companies may ask you to complete a code test as part of the interview. It is a really great idea to practice these using hackerrank.com or something similar. While a lot of these code challenges don’t reflect how you would write code on a real project, they can be great for getting better at coding.
Being a self-taught developer is a great thing, it’s important to remember that a college degree doesn’t necessarily make you a great developer, practice and experience does. Modern employers are used to interviewing and employing self-taught developers, so don’t let the fact you don’t have a degree put you off.
Paul McBride is a self-taught developer and former Treehouse student who lives and works in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He has worked with startups around Belfast for the past five years, and recently launched his own business, WeCode NI.
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