Career Notes

Tips, advice, and guidance for changing your career.

What Companies Look for in Software Developers

Aaron Brager

on Tuesday, April 12 @ 8:22pm

Software developer positions are highly desired. Just as astronauts, Supreme Court justices, and Hogwarts professors must have a variety of skills and knowledge, software developers have a combination of technical knowledge and soft skills. This post explores the skills that many companies look for.

Familiarity With Multiple Languages

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More advice on changing careers

Impostor Syndrome for n00bs

New coders, does this sound familiar? You’re finally getting the hang of programming. But then you overhear a conversation about a language you’ve never even heard of. Oh no! How could you call yourself a programmer if you’ve never even heard of Haskell? (How many programming languages are there?)

Easy, tiger. Impostor Syndrome is setting in hard. You feel like a fraud, even though your accomplishments show otherwise. Maybe you have successfully coded your first app but you feel like you’re pulling one over on the world by calling yourself a programmer. Or perhaps you enjoyed dabbling in Codecademy, but you could never actually make the switch to becoming a developer. Feeling this way is not only normal, it could actually be a signal of greatness.

Learning to program lends itself tragically well to Impostor Syndrome. There is so much to learn about programming, it’s impossible to be proficient in every aspect. Do you know how many people know everything there is to know about Ruby? Zero. Not a CS grad, not your smartest developer friend, not even the guy who created Ruby in the first place.

Rest easy, you’re not alone. No matter how experienced you are, you will always hear other developers talking about a new concept that you have never heard of. You may feel like you don’t belong in the conversation, but you do. Frame it as an opportunity to learn and become a better developer, and remember, everyone feels this way.

I can’t think of a group more prone to feeling this way than bootcamp students. The beauty of programming bootcamps is that they allow people with little to no programming experience enter and succeed in the field. Thus, if you called yourself a developer before you enrolled, you really would be an impostor.

At the most recent Bloc Career Talk, Bloc students shared their experiences with impostor syndrome. Hillary, a student in the Rails course, shares her experience:

I started as a technical analyst at a company that created a proprietary application that worked alongside SharePoint. For the first few months I imagined myself getting fired daily. Six months after starting I was promoted, and three months after that I was promoted again to a managerial position.

Hillary says she’s feeling impostor syndrome all over again as she sets out to land her first developer position, despite crushing her course and having four completed projects under her belt (way to go, Hillary!).

Okay, so there’s a name for this rotten feeling. Now what? As with many struggles, your first step is to recognize the issue. It’s only overwhelming and soul-crushing if you believe you’re the outsider. Think you really are the only person that feels this way? Try voicing your misgivings about your developer skills to a community of developers—I’d bet a lot of 1’s and 0’s that you’ll hear many others feel the same.

Once you realize that it’s a common struggle among beginners in any subject, the problem shifts from an internal judgment of yourself (“I’m just not a programmer”) to an opportunity to expand your skillset (“I have a lot that I can continue to learn”). The key to persisting through this forest of self-doubt, hopelessness, and anxiety is to accept what you don’t know, and challenge yourself to master it.

Then you can focus on progressing in your work to prove to yourself that you’re no impostor. If you’re facing an overwhelming problem, which is likely what led to all those “impostory” feelings in the first place, break it into tiny steps. Whether this is fixing a bug, writing an app, or getting to the end of your foundations, it will feel more manageable if you break the problem into pieces and celebrate the small wins.

At Bloc, students can connect and commiserate with fellow students on this topic and others in our Student Slack Community. During our Career Talks, students also get to fire their burning career switch questions at our captive Director of Student Outcomes, Courtland Alves.

This blog post is based on the recently hosted Bloc Career Talk covering Impostor Syndrome. Career Talks are bi-weekly seminars that facilitate discussion among Bloc students about the career search process.

Note: I struggled the entire way while writing this. Who am I to think I’m a writer? #impostorsyndrome

Impostor Syndrome for n00bs
7 Traits of Effective Software Engineers

If you’re considering a career as a software engineer, then you may have heard how difficult it is to learn. But the right mindset can give you a significant advantage when learning and working in the industry. Software engineers who embody these seven character traits are valuable employees and productive contributors.

Curiosity

It’s what killed the cat, apparently, but that cat was a rock-solid engineer. Great engineers take responsibility for learning and exploration. They do not depend on their superiors to give them explicit direction for a new challenge – their curiosity guides them to reach their own conclusions.

At my first job as an engineer, I worked on an Android game. In the middle of working on a new feature, I noticed that some background tasks consumed an inordinate amount of time. After some investigation, I discovered that we relied on an Android API that took 50% longer on average to complete when compared to a simpler Java counterpart. I reported my findings and as a result, we swapped one for the other in all cases.

An engineer who seeks out new information and investigates the product may discover something new in the process. More importantly, the more versatile an engineer, the more valuable they become. Learn to serve your curiosities and feed them with research and experimentation.

Grit

All engineers require mental stamina. As a new engineer, you won’t solve the most challenging problems during your first attempts. In fact, you may have to spend days, weeks, or longer looking for a solution before finding one that meets both business and product requirements.

If you give up readily, you may not find yourself working on anything interesting, or anything at all. Engineers love solving problems and most refuse to give up until they work them out. Grit is what keeps engineers from throwing in the towel.

In 2014, the popular blogging platform, Medium, encountered a problem rendering underlines in Chrome. The author, Marcin Wichary, states that what was thought to be a one-night project turned into a month-long effort. After brainstorming seven approaches, the team settled on one and Marcin implemented it. Fixing something as seemingly trivial as a proper underline required incredible tenacity and the product is better for it.

Communication

This one is a no-brainer, but if you want to be a part of a functional team, you must communicate. If you’re shy or quiet, that’s fine. You can make up for shyness by communicating effectively in writing.

At Bloc, we rely on asynchronous communication – one out of every six employees works remotely. We use email, Slack, and GitHub to facilitate feedback and discussion. In these messages, we try to use as few words as possible and get to the point fast. This keeps our co-workers focused and eager to read and respond.

Your team needs to know what you’re working on and if they frequently ask for clarification, they may stop asking altogether. By communicating frequently and in brief but descriptive messages, your team will look forward to speaking with, and hearing from you.

Attention to Detail

Despite being another predictable member of this collection, attention to detail is vital for engineers and thus worthy of mention. If an employee at McDonalds applies two ounces of special sauce to your Big Mac instead of two and a half, will you notice?

As a software engineer, if you mistype even one line of code, it can crash an entire application. Details comprise software, and companies hire engineers to craft those details well. If you are someone that looks solely at the big picture, you have to learn to zoom in.

At Bloc, our students rely on our custom curriculum to learn the software trade. If we mistype a line of code or introduce a grammatical error, the student’s ability to learn the subject is significantly affected. We use grammar tools like spell check, linters, and Grammarly to draw attention to pain points.

Divergent Thinking

Some call this, “thinking outside of the box,” but saying that would be yet another cliché and this post has reached its limit of those. When solving challenging engineering problems, the best solutions often come from adopting a new perspective.

If everyone took a crack at a problem from the same angle, they would ultimately arrive at a similar solution. But a diverse team whose approach varies among its members will generate more ideas and non-conventional solutions. You and your team will benefit if you broaden your ability to see things that others overlook.

To allow team members to share new ideas and solutions, we occasionally hold hack day events at Bloc. These hack days, like hackathons at Facebook, permit anyone in the company to work on anything. Thus, people who rarely interact with an aspect of the Bloc product can build new features or solutions that the dedicated team had not yet thought of. For example, our hack days helped us design a new payment flow, student portfolios, a student glossary for recruiters, and so much more.

Modesty

Engineers collaborate, even when managers assign a task to just one engineer on the team. Team members review each other’s code before deploying it to production, and during these reviews, they may criticize or recommend significant changes to code written by their colleagues.

Engineers open to receiving critiques and feedback receive more support from their teammates, and the engineers that receive more support make bigger contributions to the product. More importantly, the product suffers if an engineer deploys code without revising it to meet the expectations of their peers. A good engineer is modest and willing to consider a different approach suggested by their team.

At Bloc, we have a thorough review process both on the engineering and curriculum side. Before we published this blog post, it received editing passes from two individuals that looked for quality content and prose. I was responsible for accepting modifications and including content suggested by my peers; the post is better for it.

Wolf Pack Membership

It’s common for some engineers to isolate themselves and work without consulting their teammates. The industry refers to this proclivity as Lone Wolf Syndrome. Lone Wolves, much like the animals after which we’ve named them, do not survive for long. Wolves hunt in packs, and engineers must collaborate.

To be a productive engineer: seek help when needed, express yourself when overwhelmed, offer to help when you see peers struggle, and in general, engage with the group. No one on your team is excited when one person goes off and returns with unwanted or otherwise broken code. Acting as part of the team builds better relationships and trust among your co-workers.

If you believe that your personality is set in stone or that you’ve grown fixed in your ways, we recommend you read this article from Psychology Today. Those who study the mind believe that personality is flexible and with concerted effort, anyone can alter their disposition.

7 Traits of Effective Software Engineers
The Path to Mastery in Software Engineering

Bloc’s Software Engineering Track takes approximately 2,000 hours to complete. Depending on your pace, we distribute those hours across 48 or 72 weeks. That’s a long time, and students often ask if they can complete the track faster. Our answer is unequivocally, “no.” We insist on 2,000 hours because — like mentorship, curriculum, platform, and community — adequate time is essential for learning a new skill. It can not be truncated, even in the spirit of hustle or efficiency. To understand why time is so important, you must first understand how we view the path to mastery.

Mastery

Any craft can be mastered, barring physical limitations. That is to say, I believe that I could become a masterful guitar player; but my dream of playing quarterback for the New York Giants is undoubtedly limited by my age, height, speed, strength, and my body’s inability to absorb blind-side sacks delivered by 250 pound linebackers.

mastery-football

But most crafts can be mastered, and the path to mastery has been well-defined for hundreds of years. During the middle ages, an apprenticeship system emerged where young adults lived, worked, and learned from an experienced mentor — a master. An apprentice signed a contract and spent seven years learning a craft like metalwork, medicine, cobbling, or tailoring. After their apprenticeship, the apprentice became a master, established their own business, and mentored apprentices of their own.

mastery-anvil

The apprenticeship system of the middle ages was successful, and still applies to current crafts, like electrical work, which has a standard apprenticeship of four years. The apprenticeship system is successful because of three factors: mentorship, practice, and time. In the middle ages, masters provided the mentorship and the apprenticeship contract ensured that practice and time were accounted for. Let’s discuss each of these factors.

Mentorship

A mentor is more than a teacher. Mentors know how to teach, but they are also masters of their craft. A mentor adapts to their apprentice and their apprentice’s learning curve. They understand when to pressure the apprentice, when to help, and when to challenge. A mentor can predict when the apprentice will struggle and adjust their lesson accordingly.

A mentor ensures that the apprentice practices realistically; they know that the apprentice can get only so far with drills and menial tasks, the apprentice must also work on real projects. The mentor knows how to administer these lessons effectively. In Mastery, Robert Greene discusses the benefits of learning from a mentor:

Mentors do not give you a shortcut, but they streamline the process. They invariably had their own great mentors, giving them a richer and deeper knowledge of their field. Their ensuing years of experience taught them invaluable lessons and strategies for learning. Their knowledge and experience become yours; they can direct you away from unnecessary side paths or errors.They observe you at work and provide real-time feedback, making your practice time more efficient. Their advice is tailored to your circumstances and your needs. Working Closely with them, you absorb the essence of their creative spirit, which you can now adapt in your own way. What took you ten years on your own could have been done in five with proper direction.

Practice

When you commit to learning a craft, you accumulate personal debt. “I will become a grandmaster chess player” is a lofty goal that will require an arduous apprenticeship. The only way to pay down a debt is with consistent payments over the course of months or years. In an apprenticeship, your payment is practice.

Your payment may be small one day and large the next – 30 minutes of practicing chess tactics or 4 hours of match play – but the key is that you keep paying. Any debt can be paid off, as long as you commit to a regular payment schedule. Consistent practice is absolute with an apprenticeship, without it there is no path to mastery.

Practice is effective enough to overcome the lack of natural abilities. Bill Bradley was tall as an adolescent, but not athletically gifted. Despite his lack of natural aptitude for the game, he fell in love with basketball and committed himself to playing it well. In another excerpt from Mastery, Robert Greene explains Bradley’s approach:

Managing to get his hands on the keys to the high school gym, he created for himself a schedule–three and a half hours of practice after school and on Sundays, eight hours every Saturday, and three hours a day during the summer. Over the years, he would keep rigidly to this schedule. In the gym, he would put ten-pound weights in his shoes to strengthen his legs and give him more spring to his jump. His greatest weaknesses, he decided, were his dribbling and his overall slowness. He would have to work on these and also transform himself into a superior passer to make up for his lack of speed.

mastery-jersey

Through disciplined and consistent practice, Bradley became an all-time great professional basketball player. He mastered a craft that’s constrained by physical attributes, which is a remarkable achievement. After he retired from basketball, Bradley applied similar rigor and work ethic to another craft he was not naturally suited for – politics. He served three terms as a U.S. Senator for New Jersey, and a campaigned for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.

Time

Time is the most misunderstood factor in the path to mastery, because a beginner underestimates how long it takes to become proficient at a new craft. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulates that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a craft. This has become commonly known as the “10,000 hour rule,” and has proliferated in both supporters and detractors. Gladwell defended the rule in his article Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule. Gladwell cited the conclusion of a 40 year old study about expertise, regarding their research of chess grandmasters:

There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…

mastery-chess

The time it takes to master a craft depends on the person, the craft, and the mentor, though 10,000 hours seems to be a reasonable average for most cognitive crafts. For 99.99% of people, there are no exceptions to this average. Mastery takes time, and there are no shortcuts.

An Apprenticeship for the 21st Century

The need for cobblers isn’t what it once was, but as software eats the world, the need for software engineers grows. The craft of software engineering lends itself to the apprenticeship system. It is complex and requires skills in reasoning, logic, art, math, and theory. Software’s complexity requires masters to develop it, and teach it.

Unfortunately constraints such as time, money, and competition in business impact the ability for masters to train apprentices. Formal software apprenticeships exist – thoughtbot, 8th Light, and Trunk Club offer paid apprenticeships where apprentices train with master software developers – but these apprenticeships are limited. They last only several months, are offered in specific locations, and admit a small number of apprentices.

These limitations demonstrate the difficulty with scaling apprenticeship programs. Coding bootcamps attempt to solve the problem of scale by offering online and and classroom-based focused training, but they lack the key factors of mentorship and time. The average coding bootcamp lasts 12 weeks, or approximately 500 hours.

master-learning-curve

This is the average learning curve for becoming a software professional. The minimum number of hours needed to become a proficient, entry-level full stack web developer is approximately 1,000 hours. After consulting with world-class engineering teams, we learned that there is a skills gap between a full stack web developer and software engineer, which neither coding bootcamps nor universities are addressing.

We believe that this skill gap can be closed with an additional 1,000 hours of focused practice, which is why we require a minimum of 2,000 hours for our Software Engineering Track. We support this requirement with a tuition reimbursement policy – if you’re not able to start a career as a software engineer after graduation, we’ll refund your entire tuition. We are able to make such a guarantee because we know that the apprenticeship model is effective, given proper mentorship and 2,000 hours of consistent and focused practice.

Bloc’s mission is to offer software engineering mentorship at scale; to provide a way for anyone, anywhere to learn software engineering as an apprentice. The tuition pays for the factors required in the path to mastery:

  • Our mentors and curriculum teach students and provide realistic practice through building software and contributing to open-source software.
  • Our platform ensures that students develop a consistent and focused practice schedule.
  • Our track is paced for 2,000 hours, which ensures that a student has spent enough time as an apprentice to begin work as a professional software engineer.

While it would be interesting to offer a 10,000 hour program for software engineering mastery, we believe that 2,000 hours is an appropriate amount of time to start a new career as a professional software engineer. A graduate of our Software Engineering Track will understand how to learn from a mentor, they will have disciplined habits and practice consistently, and with these skills internalized, they will know that the path to mastery is simply a matter of time.

It’s an inspirational idea – to think that you can master a craft with such a simple formula. Seek mentorship, find realistic ways to practice your skills, develop consistency in your schedule, and practice for years. You will become a master.

The Path to Mastery in Software Engineering
Don’t Learn to Code in 2016

If you want to fail at something, make it your New Year’s resolution. “I will get in shape,” “I will be a better friend,” and “I will learn to code” are all unattainable goals. Goals in general are misguided and formless ideas. Achieving something is the result of many small steps performed consistently, not the result of an intangible idea.

I’ve worked at Bloc for three years, and have seen many students learn to code and change their careers. I’ve also seen students fail. I believe most students fail because they focus on the goal of learning to code, rather than the steps for learning to code. If you want to become a developer in 2016, don’t make learning to code your goal. Instead, complete small tasks related to coding, and do them consistently. Each of the tasks below requires only 10 minutes. To kickstart your new coding habit, do at least one per day. I’ve outlined six tasks, so even if you do all of them in a day, you’ll only spend an hour.

Sign up for GitHub and Watch a Repository

GitHub is where developers collaborate on software. You won’t be able to contribute code right away, but there’s no reason not to sign up for a free GitHub account. A GitHub account allows you to follow developers and source code (known as repositories, or “repos” in GitHub). Pick a few repositories and follow them by selecting the “Watching” notification, shown below:

watch-repo

You’ll receive emails when developers update the repositories you watch. Read the updates and focus on the narrative – you won’t understand the code yet – just read the comments and get a sense of what the developer is trying to do with the code they submitted. Here are a few active repos you can watch, though the actual repo isn’t as important as becoming comfortable in GitHub, and learning how developers collaborate.

  • Twitter Bootstrap – The most popular HTML, CSS, and JavaScript framework for developing responsive, mobile first projects on the web
  • jQuery – A JavaScript library that makes it easy to program dynamic web site interfaces
  • HTML5 Boilerplate – A professional front-end template for building fast, robust, and adaptable web apps or sites
  • Ruby on Rails – A popular web application development framework

Codify Your Twitter Feed

Most prominent software engineers, developers, and designers use Twitter more than any other social media platform. Following them is a great way to learn about the software industry: trends, lingo, open source updates, hiring trends, etc. Unfollow Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, One Direction, and other people who don’t even tweet for themselves. If someone tweets their inane political ramblings – unfollow, pictures of their meals – unfollow. You get the picture; eliminate the noise in your Twitter feed. Once you’ve pruned your list of followings, consider following these prominent developers and companies:

  • Chad Fowler – Author, CTO, speaker, and early Ruby evangelist
  • Dave Thomas – Programmer turned publisher of one of the most well-respected technical book brands, The Pragmatic Bookshelf
  • David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) – Creator of Rails, CTO at Basecamp
  • GitHub – The world’s most popular code collaboration tool
  • John Resig – Creator of jQuery
  • Kent Beck – Author of Test-Driven Development, programmer at Facebook
  • thoughtbot – Well-respected development and design consulting firm, and prolific open source contributors
  • Yehuda Katz – Prolific open source developer, Rails contributor and Ember creator

This is a small list, but once you follow them you’ll receive recommendations for people like them. Spend 10 minutes per day reading their tweets, and you’ll start to learn about the software industry and how developers think and speak. The purpose is not to mimic them, it’s to understand them.

Ask a Question

I’m always surprised at how much I can learn when I simply ask the right person the right question. No matter if you’re a total beginner or an expert, you will always have questions when learning. To receive a good answer, you must ask a good question; yes, bad questions exist. A question is bad if it’s not asked thoughtfully. A thoughtful question provides context, is articulate, and has a defined scope. Here’s an example of a bad question:

I have a Ruby array of two fruits, and I can’t seem to access an element successfully. What does “nil” mean?

That’s a bad question because it’s impossible to answer without more information; it lacks context. How are you trying to access the element? Which element are you trying to access? Are you getting an error? If so, what’s the error? Does nil refer to the problem you’re having or something else? Ask a bad question like this, and you’ll get a bad answer.

A good question looks like this:

I just started to learn Ruby. I have an array consisting of two fruits: fruits_array = [“apple”, “banana”]. I’m trying to access “banana” by referencing fruits_array[2] but keep receiving “nil” in my irb. Why won’t it return “banana”?

This is a good question because it’s written well and is grammatically correct. It also provides adequate context: “I just started to learn Ruby,” “I’m trying to access by…,” “I keep receiving nil…,” etc. This question provides all the facts someone would need to answer it. It’s an easy question to answer for an experienced developer, which makes it likely that someone will answer it and answer it well.

There are many great places to ask questions. Quora is built for asking questions in general and Stack Overflow is built for asking technical questions. We’ve written “Getting Help on Stack Overflow” at Bloc, which provides details on using Stack Overflow. Once you have a GitHub account and have codified your Twitter feed, you can ask questions on those sites as well.

Write a Blog Post

Writing is one of the best ways to improve your coding skills, because it forces you to clearly articulate your intent. Coding forces you to articulate your intent as well, only to a computer instead of a person. You write for people, you code for computers, but you use the same thought process for both.

Write 100 words (less than half a page) about anything you’d like. The only constraint is that you must try to clearly articulate your thoughts. Medium is a great platform for writing, and integrates with your Twitter account. As a separate task, read Writing to Learn by William Zinsser. It will open your eyes to the power of writing.

Write Code

At some point, of course, you’ll actually need to write code. There are many places to write code – none better than a simple code editor on your laptop – though as a beginner you may want an easier place to start. Sign up for a free account with Codecademy and Codewars. Codecademy has tutorialized, in-browser courses that teach you the basics of programming syntax, while Codewars will challenge you to solve puzzles (called “katas”) with different programming languages. Both are great places to practice writing code.

Read Code

Reading code is an under appreciated practice. It may not be as exciting as writing code, but it is equally, if not more important. GitHub and Codewars are great places to read code. You don’t need to understand all the code in a GitHub repo or Codewars kata; start small and pick a class, method, or single line of code. Use the Rubber Duck technique to explain the code to yourself. By reading code you’ll expose yourself to new patterns, syntax, logic, and approaches that you would not otherwise know. Tutorials can only teach you so much, reading code will take you much further.

10 Minutes a Day and Free!

All of these small tasks are free – they don’t require subscriptions or memberships. You won’t learn to code by doing these tasks consistently, you will code. Please, don’t make a grand resolution on December 31st – instead, commit yourself to small tasks and you’ll succeed in 2016. After you’ve created habits out of these small tasks, you may find yourself wanting to take your coding journey to the next level and change careers.

At that point, consider Bloc’s Software Engineering Track, where you’ll learn full stack web development, computer science, and open source software development with an experienced mentor. We guarantee you’ll get a job after you graduate, or we’ll refund your entire tuition.

I may not love New Year’s resolutions, but I do love New Year’s Eve; friends, college football, those tiny hot dogs… it’s an amazing night. Happy New Year, and I hope you find success in 2016.

Don’t Learn to Code in 2016