While on a road trip with his girlfriend, 27-year-old Jeffrey Walsh came up with the idea for what he then called “Travel Buddy,” a social network for backpackers. The idea stuck, and as his initial excitement continued to grow, he finally said, “What the hell: I could at least try to make a website!”
At the time, Walsh was working as a phone salesman, making half his current salary.
“I needed an out, which I think is a common theme among web developers. Very rarely does anyone say, ‘Ah, I love my current high-paying position with immense satisfaction. I wonder what making a website is like?’”
Walsh is an excellent example of someone who not only committed himself entirely to the craft of coding, but who was always looking for ways to enhance his value to an employer. I had a chance to speak with both Walsh and Dominic Magnifico, a senior developer at the web design agency Zenman. Our conversations yielded some excellent advice for developers looking to give themselves an edge.
1. Build A Portfolio
Once Walsh made the decision to teach himself web development, he quit his job, flew to Colombia, and spent five months doing nothing but studying. He then built a portfolio page with everything he’d developed during those five months, such as Vagabonding, the latest incarnation of “Travel Buddy.” Proud of the work he’d done and eager to help other prospective developers, Walsh made a post on Reddit in which he outlined his path of self-education. The post attracted attention from a growing startup, which admired his portfolio and recognized his potential value as an employee. He was hired later that evening.
“I think if you can prove you can use some of the tools a company is working with, then you can find a job,” Walsh said. “My inbox was flooded with people who said they have been teaching themselves and want to know how to know that they’re ready. Almost all of them were stuck in a sort of perpetual limbo of having acquired some skills, but not having made anything with them.”
Making things is a developer’s bread and butter, and Dominic Magnifico cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is for developers to do just that. As a senior developer, Magnifico is often asked to make hiring decisions for his company, and a solid portfolio is at the top of his criteria.
Dominic Magnifico, Senior Developer at Zenman
“The first and foremost thing I look for is if that person has a portfolio,” says Magnifico. “That’s paramount. If you don’t have a presence on the Web, then I have no way of looking at your code. Having a portfolio site is you on the Internet.”
2. Never Stop Learning
Walsh’s one-year ascent from phone salesman to lead full-stack developer was not exactly typical. He put in 16-hour days of nonstop studying, obsessively developed web applications that no one ever saw, and traveled around the world — twice. But at the core of his motivation was an intense eagerness to learn, something common in successful developers.
“I learn every day,” Walsh said. “I think every developer has to, otherwise your worth remains a constant, while new technologies and clever hacks get written around you instead of with you.”
Walsh has also had to make some hiring decisions for his startup. He recalled one candidate who only had one month of real-world coding experience, but who showed such incredible determination that Walsh chose to give him a chance. Walsh said that if the job market were better, he might have opted for someone more experienced, but as it’s currently a developer’s market, personal qualities have never been more important. Experience is valuable, but it isn’t everything.
“Now is the time to prove you have the enthusiasm and attitude to do it,” Walsh said.
Magnifico agrees, and looks for largely the same qualities in all prospective employees. “I start the interview by asking them what they’re really passionate about,” he said. “Do they have that eagerness to learn and to continue growing? They don’t necessarily have to be a master of everything, but this industry evolves very rapidly, and having that knowledge to draw from, to know what technology is right for a certain scenario, that’s huge.”
An eagerness to learn increases a developer’s value because it increases a company’s value. Existing technologies are advancing and new technologies are continuously emerging. Having someone on the payroll who keeps up with these trends helps companies stay on the cutting edge.
3. Participate in the Community
Just as a portfolio showcases your skills in action, community participation tells employers that you’re invested, that you care about advancing the craft, and that you play well with others. Open-source platforms like GitHub and Bootstrap top the list of web developer stomping grounds, but even Q&A sites like Stack Overflow are on an employer’s radar. Answering questions, contributing to the community, and generally maintaining a positive online presence go a long way in demonstrating your commitment to your work.
Magnifico doesn’t put as much weight into the number of followers you have, or how fully fleshed-out your profile is, but if he sees that you’re involved in the community, it definitely piques his interest.
Participating in these communities also helps you grow as a developer. You can learn something from everyone, and by collaborating on projects, helping to resolve glitches and bugs, and exchanging ideas on any level will only broaden your knowledge and sharpen your skill set.
“Any extracurricular projects are a good idea in any form,” says Walsh. “It makes you a better developer and that’s what does, for sure, make you more valuable.