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.

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Why Apprenticeships Are on the Rise

Ask any VP of Engineering or CTO, and they’ll tell you hiring talented developers is getting harder. Meanwhile, ask one of the millions of underemployed millennials, and they’ll say they are willing to learn, but can’t get their foot in the door. Apprenticeship was once a commonplace feature of the American economy, but for the last 30 years it has been in decline. Apprenticeships are the critical link to closing the skills gap for employers and reducing unemployment for millennials.

To understand why apprenticeships can bridge the gap, let’s take a look at the marketplace for technical talent.

Traditional Universities are Failing Us

traditional-uni

First, the gap between supply and demand for technical talent is widening. On the supply side of the marketplace for technical talent, we have universities. According to the Department of Labor, 400,000 new CS grads will enter the workforce between 2010 and 2020. In that same period, nearly 1.4 million new tech jobs will be created. That’s a shortage – a skills gap of – 1 million more jobs than graduates.

Second, even those students graduating in computer science, aren’t prepared for careers in software engineering. Universities care about helping students become job-ready. But that isn’t their singular goal. Many also seek to teach a liberal arts education and to publish ground-breaking research. Because of this, there is no singular focus on one goal. As a result, students graduate ill-prepared for industry. According to Brad Neese, director of Apprenticeship Carolina, employers are seeing “a real lack of applicability in terms of skill level” from college graduates.

For example, top tier university computer science curricula often include courses in advanced math, physics, compilers, and operating systems. When we surveyed engineers at top companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they told us they used less than 25% of their university education in their career. According to Rob Gonzales, co-founder of Salsify, “many ‘core’ CS courses really aren’t that critical for becoming very productive engineers. I’ve never had to write a compiler or operating system in my career, and the last time I thought about finite automata was 2001 when I was studying them myself.”

Meanwhile, few universities teach essential skills a software engineer will use every day. According to Mo Kudeki, a Software Engineer at Twitter, “Although I went to a top Computer Science program, there are software engineering topics that we never covered that are crucial to being a great engineer, like how to methodically debug something, and how to give and receive a good code review.”

All of these factors combined result in a tremendous mismatch between the skills with which American students graduate and the skills needed by employers.

Employers are Hungry But Ill-Equipped to Train

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While employers are hungry to recruit great talent, their appetite for growing that talent themselves has been declining for the past decade. According to Lauren Weber of the WSJ, apprenticeships in the US have declined over 30% from 2003 to 2013.

Furthermore, even those companies that want to provision such training may be unable to do so. Training programs require experienced instructors. According to Gonzales, “you must have someone to manage the program full time, including doing daily coaching, code reviews, design sessions, planning sessions, one-on-ones, communication outside of the group to gather requirements, etc. This person should be respected throughout the organization, as getting the program started and effective is going to be a bumpy road that will draw on company resources even beyond the coach.”

Unfortunately, the shortage of technical talent has left most companies without the bench strength to fill existing headcount and also train a large pool of junior developers. According to Marcy Capron, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based Polymathic: “Companies don’t have an infrastructure for ongoing learning. We really need a guide to mentoring junior devs. Hourly consulting firms can’t afford it because you can’t bill mentoring to the client.

We’re Seeing Renewed Investment and Innovation in Technical Skills Training

pair-programming

So with universities failing us, and employers hungry but unable to grow their own talent, a new breed of apprenticeship-like programs have leveraged technology to deliver better outcomes, more affordably than ever before. Computer science bootcamps put students through compressed programs to prepare them for coding jobs. These bootcamp programs have found traction with employers and graduates alike. The first coding bootcamp was founded just four years ago, but Course Report estimates that over 150 bootcamps graduated more than 16,000 alumni in 2015 – a combined estimated market of $180M, up from $0 in 2011.

According to Western Governors University President Bob Mendenhall in the Washington Post “Neither accreditation nor regulation has caught up with the power of technology to impact both the quality and cost and accessibility of higher education.” And last month, Udacity raised $105 Million bringing their valuation to $1 billion, Dev Bootcamp was acquired by Kaplan, and Bloc recently announced a year-long Software Engineering Track, which includes a three month apprenticeship, before students start the job search. And now a slew of specialized apprenticeship programs are emerging.

Employees are also more open to non-traditional university education than ever before. According to a 2014 survey by Glassdoor, 72 percent of employees said they value specialized training over earning a degree. What’s more, 63 percent of respondents said they believe that nontraditional ways of learning new skills — such as certificate programs, bootcamps, webinars and massive open online courses — could help them earn a bigger paycheck. This growth for nontraditional skills training may be coming at the expense of graduate programs, with more than half (53%) of employees saying a graduate degree is no longer necessary to be offered a high-paying job.

What Should We Expect to See in 2016?

As apprentice-like programs cross the chasm from early adopters to early majority, we may see see savvy millennials foregoing the traditional 4-year campus experience in favor of a leaner hybrid, pairing community college with a technical apprenticeship that gets them into the workforce and learning on the job earlier and with less debt.

With the hype around coding bootcamps reaching it’s zenith, we may see these programs coming full-circle, as they begin adding-back curriculum covering the computer science theory that they once eschewed.

Why Apprenticeships Are on the Rise
7 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started a CS Program

It will be difficult

All computer science programs are difficult. This is primarily because the underlying material is difficult to comprehend. Computer science encompasses philosophy, math, science, and logic. All of these can be both very abstract and very specific. Your CS program will be incredibly difficult in this respect. You will have to stretch your brain to grasp concepts that you didn’t even know existed, but you will be glad to have learned them when you’re done. You will have to wrap your mind around something as concrete as binary numbers to something as abstract as encapsulation. These small battles of understanding one particular topic at a time will help you understand the overall picture much better when you’re done. It will take you a long time to win a small battle, but this is why wars sometimes take a long time.

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. — Sun Tzu

We will never understand the entire picture, but understanding computer science is a big piece to that puzzle.

You will fail, but you will also succeed

You will fail. You will lose some battles. You will not understand certain things. It will take you a longer time to understand certain concepts compared to some of your peers, but you might learn other concepts more quickly. Failure is an integral part of success. If you don’t fail, you can’t learn from our mistakes and push ourselves into the next stage. A sailor who ties a knot incorrectly that causes a sail to blow out does not stop sailing; that person continues to sail until that knot is tied correctly. Repeated failure leaves a more permanent mark in your mind than repeated success does. This is called progression. Success tastes much sweeter when you have repeatedly failed.

You will be working with analytical people, AKA: you will be working with nerds

This is a great thing! Nerds are a great type of people. Don’t be afraid to assimilate with your fellow nerds. Most nerds are introverted, but don’t be afraid to talk to them. Most likely, they want to talk to you as well! You might make a wonderful new friend or study partner, and these connections might be helpful down the road as you expand your career.

You will not be the smartest person in your program, but you have the ability to be better than the smartest person in some way

As is the case in most of life, you will never be the best. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be the best in a certain facet. Strive to compete with your peers in a respectable, reasonable way. You will not be the best, but you can be the best in at least one thing. Find that thing, set an example. It might be asking more questions in front of an audience, or solving a problem in a graceful manner while thoroughly explaining how you solved it. Find your talent and harness it.

The key to succeeding is to never give up

When confronted with a problem, most computer scientists will tell you that, “there’s a better solution”. The truth is, they’re often correct. For example, one could use an iterative search to search through a list, but a computer scientist would tell you you’re wasting your time. But the trick is that you can still solve any problem with brute force. Giving up is the only type of real failure that you can commit.

Your journey is your reward

Your journey starts in the marina. Your journey ultimately ends where you started. Along the way, you will experience both rough and calm seas. The reward is the wealth of experience and knowledge you gain. Your mistakes, failures and successes along the way will mold your character and build you into a tougher, more resilient person. You will also obtain a cunning ability to solve not just math and programming problems but also anything that needs more efficiency. When you are done, you won’t even care about your “merits” because you will be so excited with the new knowledge you have at your disposal to give to the world.

I work hard for the audience. It’s entertainment. I don’t need validation. — Denzel Washington

Computer science programs focus on theory over practical application

If you only learn what a CS program offers, you might graduate with very strong theoretical and analytical skills, but only minimal practical skills. To maximize your chances of getting a great job, ensure you’re also studying popular frameworks, platforms, and languages. For example, many employers expect software engineers to be familiar with modern tools like Ruby on Rails, GitHub, AngularJS, Heroku, Amazon AWS, etc. The combination of a theoretical foundation with practical skills will make you invaluable to any team.

If you’re considering a CS degree, you might want to compare it with Bloc’s Software Engineering Track which builds upon CS degree fundamentals with things like mentors with actual industry experience, an open source apprenticeship, the aforementioned technologies, and a whole community of people rooting for you every step of the way.

Go forth, and conquer!

7 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started a CS Program
Meet Jack Pope, Marketer Turned Web Developer

meet-jack-pope

We had the chance to catch up with Rails Web Development alum Jack Pope, on what life has been like post-Bloc. Originally from Connecticut, Pope recently moved to New York after accepting a job as a web developer at Tsu, a social media company.

Before enrolling in Bloc, Jack was a photographer and internet marketer. As he got involved with the more technical aspects of his job as a marketer, Jack’s interest in web development was piqued. Although he had some experience with HTML and CSS, he found himself wanting more.

Determined to learn, Jack looked into on-site coding bootcamps in his area. While applying, he kept running into the same dilemma: the upcoming cohorts weren’t starting for another 4-5 months. He refused to wait that long; his mind was set, and he wanted to start programming immediately.

Jack found Bloc, an online alternative to the on-premise programming schools that allowed him to start almost immediately. According to Jack, “Bloc’s just way more practical.” He gave his 2-week notice, and started his course at Bloc.

After completing Bloc’s 12-week Rails Web Development course, he started freelancing and adding projects to his Bloc-built portfolio. “I definitely learned a lot at Bloc and it was a great foundation, but the extra time to work on real projects after Bloc was really important.” Equipped with Bloc’s 12-week course and eight additional months of freelance work, Jack was ready to get a web developer job. He started his job hunt in September, and accepted his offer at Tsu in December.

For Jack, the job hunt was tough but crucial for learning. As expected, there were many rejections before he found the job he wanted. When asked about what he learned from his job search post-Bloc, Jack said, “The interviews you go in for and get rejected from are still really useful. I wouldn’t have passed the interview for this job had it not been for the previous interviews I went through. In each interview, I picked up a different skill and learned how to answer questions in a better way. Even the ones you end up not wanting or getting rejected from are worth having because they’ll help you prepare for the right interview and right job.”

So, what’s Jack up to now? As a Connecticut transplant in New York, Jack is busy working at Tsu, eating all of New York’s delicious food, and exploring the city he now calls home.

If you are looking for a similar career change, check out our Software Engineering Track.

Sign up for one of our upcoming online info sessions to learn more.

Meet Jack Pope, Marketer Turned Web Developer
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