How to become a software developer without a degree
In 2014, careers in the software industry are wide open – even for people who don’t have a degree in the subject. Although it is a highly skilled profession, unlike areas such as law and finance, there are no accreditations or formal exams needed to become a developer.
Generally, graduate programmers do have an easier time finding jobs, as they require the employer to take on less risk. However, through focusing on the following areas, aspiring developers will find themselves at an advantage, with or without a degree.
Be enthusiastic – you need to enjoy programming to do it well
When interviewing candidates for a job, the most important thing many hiring managers look for is enthusiasm. It’s not uncommon to interview someone who is qualified for the job but doesn’t seem to actually enjoy working with computers. Technical knowledge can be picked up if you have the aptitude, but you can’t fake enthusiasm.
Your passion for programming can be demonstrated by the projects you are working on in your spare time and your knowledge of different methodologies such as Agile and Kanban. Even if you have no working knowledge of these approaches, doing some research and understanding how they work will demonstrate your eagerness to learn.
Do your research to learn the most relevant practices
Starting out is hard, particularly without any experience or qualifications. By its very nature technology is constantly evolving and it can be difficult to stay on top of developments if you have no solid framework to guide you.
The Spring Framework may seem less exciting than writing Android apps, but there is far more work available with web applications. Gaining experience in the wrong thing can be detrimental for an applicant – few companies have an interest in Java desktop applications.
It’s important to understand that coding is not the only part of working as a programmer. Knowledge of version control systems such as Git is vital. Knowledge of unit testing and TDD is also essential. Fortunately the web is full of tutorials and guides to these subjects. The Spring website contains useful 15-minute tutorials introducing their different platforms. Stack Overflow is also a good community for finding answers to specific issues.
Open-source projects, where people from different disciplines work virtually on the same project, are also a great resource because anyone can get involved in the design and development. Many jobs expect applicants to be a member of GitHub – the world’s largest code host where developers can get involved in projects and build software together on a regional or global scale.
You do not need to be an expert coder to get involved in open-source projects – non-programming roles are incredibly useful, for example: testing, triaging bug reports, or writing technical documentation. Also, due to the public nature of these projects, your contribution will be obvious to future employers.
Participate in communities – both real and virtual
Fortunately, the technology sector is a very friendly place, with lots of groups for enthusiasts that welcome people of all abilities. There are technical conferences, some of which allow volunteers to see some talks in return for helping out.
This is a good opportunity to ask questions and draw from the experience of others. By attending sessions you can see which skills are in demand and what companies are hiring for them, and can find suggestions about what to learn next.
Look for opportunities to develop your IT skills
Working in an office with a computer is far more valuable for this line of work than a totally unrelated field. Many companies will offer you opportunities for professional growth, which may include IT training. If you can demonstrate how this will benefit them, most companies will in turn support your development.
If you’ve got the talent and drive, freelancing can be a good way to find a foothold in the industry. It’s not an easy option, but the ability to set up a decent-looking website for a customer is increasingly in demand. Many developers start freelancing and find they enjoy it so much they continue working for themselves for many years.
There’s a fantastic freelance community in the UK, with co-working centres (such as Brighton’s the Skiff) springing up in cities across the country. Joining a co-working space can also be a great way of finding like-minded people within a collaborative, supportive atmosphere. Websites such as Freelance Adviser, Guerrilla Freelancing and Freelancers Union provide useful resources about freelancing in general, while bodies like PCG can help you connect with like-minded people.
It’s a very exciting time to be a programmer and there is a massive need for talented people. The web may have been around for over 20 years but we’re still at a very early stage – and those with passion and acumen will always be able to find a place within the industry, regardless of their academic training.