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Eliot Sanford
Eliot Sanford

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Which came first? Work experience or the first tech job?

How can anyone escape the tech chicken and the egg conundrum?

The Quest for the First Job

Like so many people these days, one of the hardest things is to get that first tech job with no experience. Whether you're a recent college grad, bootcamp grad, or a self-taught code newbie, most of these people are having this issue finding that first job.

It's the chicken and the egg problem. Which came first? It's the first job in tech and the lack of work experience problem. Which came first?

How does anyone get a job without experience? They have no experience and no one is letting them get experience. How can anyone break in then?

There are a few key ways to stop the chicken and the egg problems and the hang-ups that employers can have when hiring junior developers.

Volunteerism

One important way to gain some traction with LinkedIn and your resume is to volunteer to get relevant tech experience.

Review job descriptions for entry-level roles that you're applying for, then find ways to volunteer to gain primary skills related to those job descriptions.

Make sure that when you volunteer that you put your best value into making it a success for the people that you've volunteered. Show up early. Stay late. Do things that no one wants to do, and make sure that you communicate through the issue. Find ways to reduce the burden on the leader. If no one is stepping up to lead, then step up and lead. Seek ways to fill into the gaps that employers want to see from you.

If you're volunteering is 20+ hours per week, then it's worthy of "internship" work experience. If it's education, then it needs to be in the education section only. Aim to have tech volunteering experiences that can be put into work experience because it was worthy of internship work experience.

A rung up from volunteering for free is taking an internship or apprenticeship that's practically working for half of what software engineer earn or it's a short-term free gig, but a little bit of pay is better than free. Again, look to find chances to get experience however you can find it.

You could also try to find a tech role that's not exactly development yet it's at a development company. You could work as a designer, product manager, scrum master, quality assurance engineer, technical support specialist, or any other number of alternative roles. After six months you could then seek a lateral move or a transfer to that coveted developer role that you were initially seeking.

Translate volunteer experience to an internship or full-time role. Translate an internship to a full-time offer. Translate an alternative tech role to a full-time dev role. Their are many scenarios here to land that first role, or they can be used in tandem with the next thing to do.

Documentation and Storytelling

Along the way, plug all your big win volunteer experiences into your resume and the featured section on LinkedIn. Ideally, you've got some front facing production code that you can be proud of and can give you conversation starters for interviews.

Another important way to show your value is to learn how to tell your story well in written form and in conversation. Collect all your relevant experiences and make them shine.

Giving anyone reviewing your resume and LinkedIn profile a reason to think, "this person is a noob" (even if it is true) is the quickest way to be dismissed.

Give them reasons to believe that you're a professional with some valuable entry-level experience already.

See ways to again volunteer and remove this stigma by documenting your journey. You'll be surprised the experience you can build over time by starting now. With those experiences you'll undoubtedly have chances like the next thing to build on.

Recommendations

Another great way to improve your chances of getting hired is through recommendations or referrals. Once you've finished that experience, seek feedback whether you brought them value. If they say "Thank you. You were amazing.", then don't be shy to ask for a recommendation or referral and ask whether they know someone hiring.

This step can remove doubts from employers that you're a noob that will need lots of hand-holding because others are saying that you're not a noob but a professional that's ready to step in and contribute.

Look at what they say about your skills and jot those down for yourself before you forget what you did. Add it to your LinkedIn and resume. Put those highlights into bullets. It's important to document everything that you can.

Another powerful way to gain a referral is to reach out to junior software engineers with a similar story as you that are at companies that you want to work at that are hiring. Message them with a congratulations note in your connection request. They just went through the same thing that you did, so they will really appreciate someone taking the time to give them kudos.

Find out their story. How did they get into development and what things did they do to land at their current job? You might be really fortunate and land not only a recommendation but a friendship.

You may not want to look at only large companies for referrals. Look at the smaller startups, too. A recommendation or referral from a developer at a smaller team would mean a lot more in most situations.

Collecting referrals and recommendations are one thing, but building on those relationships can be important for the next step.

Reputation

The last thing is being active in your network to build your reputation as a person worthy of a referral.

Your network is filled with people that want to help you out. Get to know them. Find ways to help them out. Initially, be genuine and seek nothing in return. Use the steps I've highlighted above and aim to be a helpful volunteer on a short-term basis.

Sign up for free demos, newsletters, live streams, and newsletter of senior engineers and hiring managers. Participate and offer some excitement and passion at the places where they hang out. Ask genuine questions unrelated to your job search but on the topics they are discussing and be friendly. Let them be the one to ask you about your story. Again this point is where it's helpful to be a really good storyteller with a good bit of resume experience that you've built up like I've mentioned above.

At that point if you're going to layout your "big ask", then ask "Would you mind telling me if your team hires someone with my experience who also has a solid portfolio?" Sometimes those people don't have opportunities to share in the now, but six months later something comes up where they know of a junior developer role that would be perfect for someone looking to break in. Who might be top of their mind at that moment? Aim to make that person you.

Build those experience to the next level, repeat. It won't happen overnight but start somewhere, then over time you'll build some experience and have better stories to tell in conversations with others in your network and in interviews.

Conclusion

Seize the opportunities because it's one of the best ways to accelerate your career that costs absolutely nothing to do. Play this out and see where it can take you.

Yes, it's really frustrating. Trust me when I say that I've been there. It can be one of the hardest things that you'll face, but hopefully some of these strategies help you avoid it taking longer. You can do it.

Discussion (4)

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andreidascalu profile image
Andrei Dascalu

Strangely, I'm not sure how to answer that. Which is why I'm just brainstorming here.
Back in 2001 I was re-starting University and found myself part of the select community of internet cafe operators (by necessity, uni Labs were packed and it wasn't cheap to buy internet time). I was a good customer, studying computer science and willing to work partly just to be online.
Is that a tech job? Most of the time it was about manning front desk and collecting payment, operating the cash register and occasionally showing a grandma how to email.
In time I also learned about networks and got to replacing our tech support in times of crisis. As a side thing, internet cafe operators were the backbone of the local IRC communities, being able to man channel operations day and night - which allowed me to try writing IRC scripts and bots (not my first brush will the programming but the first with a practical use).
One of my colleagues was a very talented girl, the first full time Linux user I met (pure Debian) who went on to design network security systems.

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techieeliot profile image
Eliot Sanford Author

If it took up more than 20+ hours a week for more than a month, then yes, it's work experience, especially if you used enough of the tech skills that it seems like you had to learn to do those tasks.

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asinkxcoswt profile image
Ngaww

First job without some experience is a cruel experience to have. That happened to me when I was over-confident and think I can handle anything as long as I get the job, especially when you are too old to be a junior.

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techieeliot profile image
Eliot Sanford Author

It is tough, but volunteerism is of no expense to the receiver. It's hard for them to turn you down.