Preparing yourself for a software development career

Sometimes people ask me, “what should I do to transition from my current career into a software development career?” Many have answered this question, but here are my suggestions.

Talk to people who are software developers. See if you will like doing what they are doing. One of my good friends entered the field not because they loved writing code, but they wanted to earn a great salary. We both finished the undergraduate computer science program at Carnegie Mellon University. He hated the courses and once he graduated, he continued to hate programming while in industry. Before you invest significant time and money into a new career check it out.

If you are going to be writing code, then you will also be finding defects. This can be a very annoying, frustrating, and unfulfilling part of the job. For example, there’s a new third-party library you will want to use (or a new language feature, or a new framework). You’ll read the API and write code that should work. But it doesn’t. How do you figure out what is going wrong. This is a hard skill to learn. Sometimes typing it into google will solve the answer, but it wont’ always work and it is clear that you don’t have enough knowledge of what is really going on. It will make you feel like an idiot. Debugging is part of the job. There are some who really enjoy figuring out why something is broken and enjoy the journey. I only enjoy the destination, working code. Teachers have to do grading. Nurses have to deal with blood. We fix defects.

Find a mentor. Find a friend who is good at software development and learn everything that they know. Write software with them. Do paired programming. If you don’t know anyone, find some one. Go where the geeks are hanging out. Search for groups that meet in your area. If you still can’t find someone, it’s probably because you aren’t trying. If you already know a programming language, work with people in an open source project. Let them know that you want to help and could they mentor you. Several core contributors to projects began their journey this way. Learn the programming language that your mentor knows.

Learn an object-oriented programming language. Take courses at your local community college. Start going to meetups. Contribute to open source projects. If you skipped the “find a mentor” step because it is too hard, go back and do it. Working with open source projects can be a great way to find a mentor. Note that you don’t necessarily need to know an “object-oriented” programming language, but most people in industry will expect you to know the fundamentals behind object-oriented programming, so you might as well start here.

Learn the basics. Take courses at your local community college in data structures and algorithms.

While there are great books that will help you on your journey, reading will only get you so far. The easiest way to learn the craft of software development is by writing code with someone else. Once you start writing code and begin to get the basics, I would recommend checking out “Apprenticeship Patterns” and “New Programmer’s Survival Manual”

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