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Can you become a developer on a team with no devs?

heysarahpaz profile image Sarah Paz ・3 min read

Is it possible to become a developer on a team with no devs? To create a role for yourself in a company that normally outsources their development work? On top of this - what defines a 'developer'? It may be imposter syndrome, or the fact that I've never actually had a job title as a developer that makes me wonder all these things - but then again, does a title define who you are?

I ask these questions because it's the current situation I am in. I work in e-commerce as a digital marketing specialist for a startup I love, with core values I believe in. We're a small team, starting to expand and up to date our app and web development has been outsourced. But just because that's what has been done, doesn't mean there isn't an opportunity... right?

Let me explain a bit more..

The 'role' at a startup

If you've worked at a startup before you know that the job description doesn't define your responsibilities. That's actually what I love about startups. You have the ability to touch all areas of the business, learn what you love and don't love, be creative and really create your role the way you want it to be. And because I've been transparent from the very start, sharing my passion for code, my technical skills and my career goals I've been lucky to immediately be thrown into owning the website more heavily than other team members. This includes any front-end changes, building responsive landing pages, collaborating with the existing outsourced web developer, A/B testing, customization etc. I am coding everyday, although it's mainly HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and isn't really to the extent of what I want to be working on, it's a step closer - so I am grateful.

The transition - is it doable?

I feel like I've been doing everything right. Taking on more of the responsibilities I'm interested in, being transparent and open, and continuing my learning on the side (or as much as I am able to during these trying times 🙃). To add on to this, I've kept open communication with my manager about transitioning into a web developer role. But, is this really doable?

My questions are:

  • How do you become a developer without a dev team? Especially as a junior where mentorship is an important factor.
  • What will I work on? Does working mainly on a Shopify site, editing themes, coding in HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Liquid qualify me as a developer? Would I be one? Am I already one?
  • Is this a good first step into my career change?
  • How can I ensure I get the most out of this opportunity? Or is this an opportunity worth pushing for?

I've read somewhere a while ago that you should take every opportunity that you're faced with, as you'll never know what it could be unless you try. So I'm moving forward with that in mind - there may be no actual team right now, but we are rapidly growing, and who knows what will come in the future?

I'd love to hear any thoughts! If you've been in a similar situation, or your outlook in general? What defines a developer? Can I really become a developer in a team with no devs?

Feel free to comment below, or connect with me on Twitter - DM's are open!

Thanks in advance!

Posted on by:

heysarahpaz profile

Sarah Paz

@heysarahpaz

Web Dev + Digital Marketing + E-Commerce

Discussion

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Can you become a dev without working with other devs? I did.

  • I never had a mentor
  • Stackoverflow didn't exist
  • I didn't have a CS degree

Just to spend one day with real developers I had saved up enough to take a 24-hour greyhound from Thunder Bay to Toronto, to go the second meeting of the Rails Pub Night.

I grinded for 3 years, coding every day, building application after application and I made very little money building e-commerce websites on the side for random and very demanding small businesses.

Then one day I complained on Twitter about an open-source application, the co-founder asked what was wrong with it, and instead of telling I just contributed 2 weeks of commits with no expectation of pay. Turns out I saved the startup and they asked me to join the team and I became the CTO fo that company.

 

This is just such an incredible story! I love hearing about people's journeys, especially when they are self-taught. It's a huge motivation and inspiration. I can't imagine how it must have felt to be offered a position after contributing towards that application. It's stories like this that keep me positive and believing the best is yet to come. Thanks for sharing this!

 

Yes you can but...
Firstly, a web developer is one who codes, not just HTML, CSS or editing templates.
You have to be good in at least front end or back end technologies.
Front end must include a good knowledge of JavaScript else, you're just a web designer.

From, what you explained you are already coding a bit with the outsourced developer but you want more, right?

I believe you have two options here:
It is either you leave the company and join a dev company or where they mainly code their projects. With this, you'll have access to mentors and work on real code regularly and grow.
OR
You continue with them and work on some personal projects that are challenging and push you to learn more. With this, you could prove to your current company that you're worth giving a shot to develop some features of their existing product (I hope it's not just Shopify stuff because your knowledge would be limited).

But know this, being the only dev in your company would make you a full stack dev plus some dev ops skills.

In conclusion, it is possible but you'll need to put in some serious work and you should be higher than a beginner developer.
Take your time to learn the process and not be in a hurry to scale up fast if you've not gotten a solid grasp of coding.
I wish you the best in your journey/decision.

 

Thank you for your feedback, Emmanuel - the two options you mentioned are pretty much what my focuses have been. With the pandemic it's been a tough job market, and work has been crazy busy so I've had to cut down on some studying time. But my main goal is to find the right dev job for me, at the same time be open to opportunities that I cross paths with. I am a beginner looking for a junior role so I understand that it may be a lot to be the only dev, but maybe that just means being the only onsite dev, working with outsourced devs more? Rather than having just the one outsourced dev on their own? I don't really know how it looks to be honest, but it's worth riding the wave for to see what happens. I'll stay positive throughout the journey 😊

 

I started my career at a start up, and I was the most qualified developer there, with about 6 months of experience (from freelancing). I didn't have a team I could lean on or a senior developer to learn from. It's definitely possible to start in this way, but expect to put in time outside of work to learn and soak up all kinds of information you'll need for you job. This website is a great resource for that as well.

I'd say, if you have to opportunity, grab it! It's possible, but it'll be difficult.

 

Thanks Roelof! I think that is the plan - to grab the opportunity when or if it's presented to me! I know it'll be tough, but I'm up for the challenge. I'll never really know til I try!

 

Is it possible to become a developer on a team with no devs?
Yes. First, you need to have the technical skills to do the work. Second, you must be able to demonstrate that your development work adds value for your company. Third, be careful how much work you take on. If you are the only developer you will be in a lot of trouble if you over-extend yourself. Fourth, you must make sure that you are not violating any laws or company policy (for example: don't use tools that are free for personal use but require a license for business use...unless your company pays for a license. Make sure you are not violating any information security policies or writing insecure code that puts your company at risk)

To create a role for yourself in a company that normally outsources their development work?
There are a lot of compelling arguments to having someone internally who can do the work. In many cases you will be more familiar with the business logic and provide better or faster results than an outsider. However, you need to make sure that you have a solid business continuity plan. If you create things that only you understand then there is a lot of risk if you leave the company (or are hit by a bus). You need to make sure that you provide adequate documentation and training materials in case someone else needs to do your work in the future. You may even end up collaborating with some of the outsource teams.

On top of this - what defines a 'developer'?
There is no consistent professional requirement. If you can deliver value to your company by writing code then you are a developer. However, part of being a good developer is knowing there is always more to learn. Stay humble and keep learning. It may take a long time to fully transition to where you want to be but you will get there if you keep working at it.

Basically, you will succeed as long as you are persistent and can show that you can provide high value with low risk.

 

Thanks for all your feedback, it's great to hear another devs perspective! The point you mentioned about tools for personal use vs business use, I never even thought of that - so I'll keep that in mind for sure. I'm also understanding the documentation portion you speak of too - It makes sense, especially if I'm working on things that no one else within the company has before or understands, I definitely see the importance in that! And yes, I agree about being a good developer is knowing there is always more to learn! Ever since I first discovered code I've been ongoing learning on the side and I don't see this as a thing that will ever end. Not because I have to, but because I enjoy it and I want to!

 

One suggestion might be to see where you think you might be able to build something that somehow fixes or improves a process inside your company. This could be a tool that streamlines some task and or automates it. This could be a way to show your skill level as well as giving back to your company.

 

That's a great idea, and actually something I did want to do. But the one tool I could think of building would take more time than I could put into it. Work is also crazy busy right now (I've been working late every day including weekends), so it'll be hard to take on what I wanted to. But, I can for sure make time for something smaller, so this weekend I'll brainstorm ideas on smaller tools I can build to improve a process. 😊

 

I learned to code because the music school I work at was losing productivity to ill-fitting off-the-shelf software. I took CS50 online, researched web frameworks, and just worked through one problem at a time.

The software I wrote now runs the school, and has kept us operational through a transition from in-person to remote lessons/classes due to the current pandemic. I'm still the only developer.

What you're asking about can be done.

I've noticed, though, that developers can be focused on titles and hierarchy (Am I a junior? A senior? What's the next step for me?). To be the only developer in a workplace, you have to be comfortable without that stuff. There is no hierarchy, milestones, nothing. You're either liberated from those things or deprived of them, depending on your outlook.

Since none of your co-workers code, there will be many decisions where you answer to no one but yourself. In that type of situation, it's normal to have self-doubt, but you have to have an ability to cope with it, especially since your coworkers will have limited insight into your struggles. How much support do you need, and can you get it?

If you find yourself struggling, what is at risk? Some informational web pages? Or the infrastructure your company operates on? These are dramatically different levels of stress, and require different levels of coping skills.

I've found my job to be rewarding. If these challenges excite you, you probably will too. If this all sounds terrible, then for you it probably would be.

 

Thanks Brian! And wow, that's an amazing and inspiring story to hear and I'm sure incredibly fulfilling to build a tool that kept your company operating!

I was thinking that even if this role (or potential role) doesn't end up being what I expected, the title of Web Developer would help me when I do look for other roles. So, pretty much it either is great and works out, or can be helpful and doesn't work out. There's a positive in both outcomes.

And yes, I agree with self-doubt being normal, especially with this potentially being my first dev role in a team where no one else can weigh in and help me with decisions. I would have to work on being more confident, while being open about my capabilities because I would not want to take on more than I can handle. Don't get me wrong, I'm up for it - but I wouldn't want to struggle and put the company at risk.

I guess what I'm saying is, now that I've heard a few comments about this being a possible transition (hard, but possible!) I am up for the challenges that will be thrown my way! I'd rather try with a possibility of failing, than not try at all. Also, sometimes people thrive when put in difficult situations, and realize that they know more than they thought. That's happened with me a lot when dealing with code. Feeling like I know nothing, then realizing I actually do understand. So this may be a huge growth milestone in my career, where I really put my skills and knowledge to the test.