How to grow into your best developer self

Getting started the right way as a developer is tough, so I wrote you a letter I’d love to have received some ten years ago.

Here’s my five minute how-to guide on how to be productive and enjoy what I do while making decent living.

Getting a diploma does not mean the end of studying

Holding that shiny piece of paper you worked so hard for in your hands? Congrats!

In reality, you are just getting started. While your official studies are over, it does not mean that you do not need to learn new tricks anymore. Quite the contrary, actually: modern software evolves so fast that you need to learn new things every day to stay current. It’s a good idea to come up with a daily routine of checking what’s new in your field. For developers, Hackernews and Proggit are good for this. Ask what your colleagues read.

The real gems – and most satisfying lessons – lie in the comments section. When browsing Proggit, I recommend reading the comments before committing fifteen minutes to reading a nicely titled (or click-baited) article. Do this. Do this daily. Even on the weekends. You will thank yourself in a year.

Try on different hats, even the ones you think will not suit you

Don’t take it from me. Ask around about how people got to do what they love. My guess is many of them ended up where they are now by sheer accident.

You think you want to be really good backend coder? Get in trouble – start coding frontend. Sure, this might feel awkward at first, but give yourself three months.

Even if you do not fancy frontend (or that other new thing you tried) after three months, you definitely learned a lot of lessons about REST API design and how good and bad things propagate from backend to frontend. These lessons about backend development you cannot read in any book.

If you decide to return to doing stuff in the backend, you are an order of magnitude better at it.

Find a mentor, better will you get (Cue Yoda joke)

If you like shortcuts, this is for you.

A good mentor helps challenge your own ways of thinking, makes sure you do not learn bad habits, and transfers a lot of tacit knowledge that’s just impossible to google.

The thing is, a good mentor is hard to come by. This means that you have to put active effort into meeting people that could guide you in your path. Optimally you will find one amongst your colleagues. Complete tasks together, repeat why a lot, never be afraid of critique, and invest in your relationship both as friends and as colleagues.

In case you cannot find a mentor in a modern IT environment, the second best thing would be pair programming and pedantic code reviews. However, whereas these simulate mentorship, they lack two important things: a long-term relationship and personal connection.

Optimize your career, not your salary

Now that you have learned skills that can be monetized, you will quickly find out that tables have turned. Now it’s the potential employers running around trying to catch you, not the other way around.

This leads to a situation where you can upgrade your out-of-work comfort (i.e. get better salary) and, perhaps, even work comfort. So how do you know whether you should stay – with a smaller salary – or go out and get that dough?

Here’s a prioritized checklist to assess potential companies:

  • Are you truly interested in your employer’s domain?
  • Do your bosses understand how your work is affecting the company?
  • Do you have a friendly and active mentor?
  • Can you learn and do something new every quarter?
  • Can you choose your tools (computer, desk, et cetera)?

If you check yes four out of five bullets in your current workplace, I would say you are in a good environment that facilitates your growth. After all, that is the most important quality in an employer.

Going for substantially higher salary elsewhere quite often risks your further development as a professional (i.e. your value as an employee decreases). Worst case scenario, you end up frustrated and hating what you are doing.

Given you managed to get a decent salary, the next step is to stop thinking about it.

Really.

This concludes my letter to You Who Are Me Ten Years Ago.

For your first four years, it’s much more important to develop your skills and seriously enjoy what you do than to aim for a fat wallet. This will pay off with a fantastic interest in years to come.

If you are starting out and need a guidance on how to pursue your career, feel free to drop me a line at nizar@reaktor.nl or @n1zze on Twitter. I had plenty of guidance when I was starting out, and would love to pass a good thing forward.

Love,
Nizar

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