As I alluded to in my previous post about leaving school and the state of the modern CIS program, I recently got a job! I’m really excited about this opportunity and wanted to take a look at it from a different kind of light. What I didn’t really talk about much in the previous post was what it took for a solo amateur developer to join the ranks of the paid professionals. Maybe you’re in the same boat and want to become a developer in one of the most awesome industries ever. Well, this is how I did it; maybe some of the stuff I learned can help you in your own journey.

this is what I think…

There’s no way anyone can really know, short of just asking, why they were hired by a particular company. I really have no idea why I was hired by my new employer. I can take stabs at some reasons why, but I really have no clue. This is just some of the reasons I think they noticed me out of the masses and gave me a chance…even without a formal education.

actually writing code

This was definitely the key, essential ingredient in my career cake; the flour to your normal confectionary delight. Note, I didn’t say actually publishing an app, although I have this really killer idea I’m working on and have some others in the pipeline. I also think publishing your software is really important and something I plan on doing. But, I haven’t actually published any live application yet. I can’t rightly say that publishing code as software got me my job. But writing code sure did.

I have several repositories on my github account and will likely have several more being created in the coming months as my ideas start to become reality. The important thing though is that I’ve written, relatively, a decent amount of code. Enough for a person to get a feel for my coding style and problem solving process. This is the important part; get enough of your code that somebody can have a general idea for how you do things and get that code out into the open.

documenting my code

I make no secrets in my feelings on code comments and take great pride in the consistency of my documentation. I attempt to stick to explaining why a piece of code exists instead of explaining what it does. I would hope the code itself is descriptive enough to tell you what it is doing. More often then not you look at code and you don’t know why it is doing the thing it is doing. This is the part you can’t tell about the code by reading it; this is the part you need to be putting into documentation.

I see so much code that has seemingly no documentation whatsoever. If you’re of the belief that documentation should be kept to a bare minimum then at least give me a class and method doc-block. Regardless of how beautiful you think your code is I may not be able to immediately grasp its elegance. What I can grasp is English. Give me just a little bit of that so I can know why your code exists and shouldn’t be removed when it’s decided 6 months from now to refactor that part of the code base.

unit testing my code

Oh man, I love unit testing. It’s just a blast. I like the confirmation that my code works. I was doing it before but just not automated and in a structured fashion. You know what I mean. Popping a few var_dump() throughout your code, refreshing the browser, making some changes, refreshing the browser again. Don’t lie; we’ve all done it. Well, unit testing changes all that; no more inadvertently dumping that entire object onto the production code because some boneheaddeveloper didn’t catch that last var_dump before pushing to production.

If you’re a solo developer and you think your projects are too small for unit testing, well you’re wrong. Go back and unit test your code, yea even if it already exists. It tells the people that are looking that you actually care. Having managed people in the real world, not in the programming industry but in a pizzeria, I can tell you first hand that the hardest thing to find is a person who cares enough to actually try. If you care enough to actually try chances are you’re gonna figure it out if you keep getting back up. There’s nothing wrong with showing that you care and your passioniate for a subject; in my opinion, as a solo developer unit-testing is a great way of doing this.

Oh, and it makes your code way better. There’s that too.

reading books

Yea, that’s right. You better work that noggin and read some books. You can pretty much start with this list and when you’re finished you’ll have read some of the most influential and timely works on software creation ever published. For me there were 2 books in particular that really stuck and had a drastic influence on how I go about writing code. The first being Clean Code by Robert Martin and the second being PHP In Action by Dagfinn Reiersol, Marcus Baker, and Chris Shiflett. Of course, you should read what is most relevant to you but chances are if you read some of the books in the list you’ll learn quite a bit of useful information.

get involved; find support

Chances are in this day and age there’s some kind of community online to support your development needs. I found mine at Stack Overflow, Programmers, Code Review and Careers. Through these Stack Exchange sites I’ve found all kinds of awesome reference material, help on coding problems, a place to find honest, critical reviews of my work, and my employer. As a solo developer these tools are extremely invaluable and should be taken advantage of as much as possible; if you’re willing to do the work it’s almost like your own little Stack Overflow University.

Find some support in that community. Doing this kind of thing on your own can be mentally challening. How do you know if you’ve gotten it right? How do you know if anything you’re doing even makes sense? Find somebody that knows what they’re doing to provide support. Fortunately, I found that support in the Stack Overflow PHP chat room. One user in particular though, edorian, really provided the kind of problem-solving help and motivation that a budding developer needs to get past those rough spots. Sometimes just knowing that somebody out there cares enough to help you and is watching can really make you strive to put forth your best effort. If you can find your own mentor then definitely hold on to that as long as possible and learn as much as you can from the person.

wrapping it up

It was certainly an unorthodox approach to getting a job: write a bunch of documented, unit-tested code that never gets published, join a Q&A site, find some great support, and back it up with real-life job experience in other industries. Maybe perhaps not the best approach one could take but it still got me to my destination none the less.

Besides the things that I talk about here I believe the most important thing to possess is passion for the subject . I’m extremely passionate about programming; without this passion that drives me there’s no way I do the things that I talk about in this post. There’s no way I spend so much time over the past 2½ years to get to where I am. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing and you’re willing to learn you will be great at what you do. If you’re passionate about programming and are flying solo then I hope these bits of advice help get you to where you need to be.