How to Evolve Beyond Your University Education (for Developers)
Your education can only get you so far in the world of development. This might be discouraging to someone who just spent four years and upwards of $30,000 on an education, but it’s true.
Sep 2019 - 4 minutes read
This field moves so quickly, and evolves at such a rapid pace that it’s not enough to rely on a university or college education. You need to be continually improving your skills, and learning about the newest technologies and tools in order to have any chance of getting hired in this field. Staying in this field long-term takes continual work. It’s not for people who have a casual interest in the subject, or think that they’ll be able to make tons of money effortlessly.
We’re not saying any of this to discourage you- actually, it’s the opposite. Development is one of the most democratic fields out there and is incredibly welcoming to anyone with passion and skills. You absolutely do not need to have a college or university degree in order to succeed in development. In fact, roughly 21% of professional developers who responded to the 2019 Stack Overflow Developer Survey did not have a degree. 41% had been coding professionally for less than five years.
So, what are the important skills necessary to make it as a developer? How do you cultivate them? Here are some ways for recent grads to build up their skillset and gain more confidence as they pursue a career in development.
Know the Basics
When you first get out of school, your knowledge is the freshest it will ever be. Before it all fades away, make sure you really understand the basics of development. Keep up your study of math, algorithms, data structures, and any other fundamentals that will help you throughout your career. Maintaining your education in these key areas will help you understand the logic of coding, which will enable you to write simpler, cleaner code.
Stay on Top of Current Development News
Development changes so quickly that it really pays to be on top of the latest news. Not only will it give you a sense of your work in a global context, but it also gives you access to the latest updates and news in the development community. Hacker News is a popular news forum, and posts there are up or downvoted by the community, almost like a single-focused Reddit. FreeCodeCamp is another great resource with plenty of articles and news stories updated on a daily basis.
Learn by Doing
One of the most consistent pieces of advice we’ve seen in the development world is to stop reading about coding, and just start coding. Begin with a problem in your own life, or an idea that could make things more convenient. Then, use what you know to start working on a program to fix the problem. Jumping in headfirst like this is a great way to explore the limits of your current knowledge.
You can also start with a game, or another fun app just for your own enjoyment. Making something fun and useful takes the pressure off when you’re just starting out. This is also a great way to explore a new language.
Get Comfortable With Failure
As you’re starting out, or during the initial learning phase for any new language, you’re going to screw up a lot. The faster you’re able to accept that, the better off you’ll be. Being a perfectionist as a developer might seem like a useful trait, but it can be a huge stumbling block. If you’re obsessed with perfection, it becomes much more difficult to complete projects, or move on from minor mistakes. In most professional development companies, a minimum viable product is the ideal- not a product that’s technically perfect but 6 weeks late for delivery. Make sure you’re always working towards concrete goals, not a vague idea of perfection.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Becoming well-versed in one programming language is great, but you’ll never know how useful another one can be if you never branch out. After you’re familiar with one area of programming, set a goal to teach yourself some new skills that are outside of your comfort zone. Having a diverse skillset makes you an even better developer, and is the only way to compete in a crowded industry. Working with a new language may even show you undiscovered elements of the language you already know so well.
If you don’t have the time, you don’t necessarily need to learn a dozen programming languages- although it can help! You can get out of your comfort zone in a language you already know by diving into a more advanced project on your own time, or making an effort to improve in the area where you’re weakest.
Ask for Feedback
A great way to identify where you’re weakest is to ask for feedback. Honest, constructive feedback from a work colleague or manager is a great way to make yourself an even better developer. So many people graduate from post-secondary education thinking that they know it all. Having the humility to ask for help and solicit useful feedback will help you grow as a developer. A code review from a senior developer may feel nerve-wracking, but the opportunity to receive detailed, personalized feedback on your work is definitely worth the stress.
The best developer isn’t someone who writes perfect code. It’s the person who spends their free time keeping up with the latest development news, teaches themselves new skills, and makes themselves available for constructive feedback. Don’t let your university degree, or lack thereof, hold you back from a rewarding career in this field. It’s your attitude, and your willingness to learn that’s much more important than a degree.