The Software Development profession is still a relatively immature profession. There are few real certifications and no real licensing processes that provide any realistic guide to an individual's competency. The landscape evolves quickly and covers a very broad spectrum of skills. These reasons make it difficult to map out a career path that will lead to the development of a complete Software Developer. In this article, I intend to lay out what I feel is a solid career outline for a Software Developer, and why each step is important.
It is important to note that this is not the path to be a competent developer, but to be an outstanding developer. The tools and resources available today make it possible for someone to achieve reasonable levels of successes with minimal levels of skill and education. Instead, this is a roadmap to become what I consider to be a complete developer. This includes more than just pure technical skills, but someone who can work with others to solve problems.
A favorite movie quote of mine is from 'Die Hard':
"'And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.' Benefits of a classical education." - Hans Gruber
While a Computer Science or Computer Engineering degree is not required to develop software, it can provide an understanding of the foundational elements on which everything else is built. Understanding both how a computer actually works, and the fundamentals of algorithms, data structures, and operating system design will provide a solid theoretical foundation for an entire career. I also believe it is important that the degree focuses on theory more than practice. A Computer Science degree that spends time teaching how to use Visual Studio or Eclipse may produce students who can be more effective in year 1, but does them a disservice in years 2-n.
The only other degree I've seen with some regularity provide individuals with a solid understanding is Physics. Even so, they have had to learn the fundamentals along the way. I guess with the Physics background, they probably understand everything at a much deeper level anyway.
I believe that every new college graduate's first job should be with a consulting company. Not just any consulting company, but one large enough and experienced enough that it provides real training on how to be a Consultant, in addition to how to develop software. Consulting is a skill, and it is one that will pay dividends through an entire career.
Working at a consulting company will expose new Software Developers to a variety of technologies, business domains, and cultures. Ideally, the consulting company works in a variety of technologies and new consultants get an opportunity to work on projects across multiple languages/technologies/platforms.
Travel is not a requirement, but can provide some added benefits. From the simple worldly benefits of seeing different parts of the country, to business dinners with clients, where new developers can gain a real insight into how business gets done. You may also get to eat some great meals along the way as well.
Consulting also helps new developers learn to market themselves. Since consulting companies really sell the competency of their staff, and their 'unique process', developers will learn how to position their skills and experiences to demonstrate competence and credibility. After consulting for a while, every future job interviews will be much less stressful.
Ideally, spend 2-3 years broken up into six month projects across at least two different platforms (Java, .Net, etc.), and with at least one project in a different city.
This experience will do several things. First, it will teach new developers how to be a consultant. This includes everything from dressing professionally, to presenting ideas and concepts to non-technical customers, to understanding the business of selling services. Second, it provides a broad experience base while new developers are still young and impressionable. There are many different technologies and platforms out there, all taking different paths to solve problems. Seeing this diversity early insures that new developers do not become assimilated into the group think of a single platform or pattern. It is hard to work in different platforms like .Net and Ruby on Rails without developing a knowledge about how the underlying technologies work. Finally, new developers will also see the rich diversity of business and cultures across companies. It is an opportunity to learn the trade-offs of different business models and cultures, and how they impact the ability for software development teams to be effective.
After spending some time in Consulting, it is time to move into a role where you can own and support a product. This can either be within an internal IT department, or for a Software as a Service company. A packaged software vendor provides many of these benefits but I believe that a critical part of this experience is 'carrying the pager', which packaged software usually avoids.
The key learning here is to own and support a system across several major releases. Building version 1.0 of an application as a consultant is very different from enhancing and maintaining an application across several minor and major releases. Being responsible (indirectly, if not directly) for the support and success of a production application is a critical learning experience.
Ownership is an important concept. This experience provides the ability for a new developer to really work on something over a long period and 'own' it. A developer can see the payoff of a bit of foresight or extra effort they put in 12 months ago. They can also feel the pain of taking shortcuts that were ill-advised. They can learn how those trade-offs work and begin to get a sense of when they are worthwhile.
In the end, working in IT or Engineering provides a different set of goals and drivers for Software Developers than Consulting can provide. These different goals force new developers to see software development through a different lens.
Performance and Scaling
The opportunities within most consulting and traditional IT/Engineering roles to really focus on high performance code and application scaling are limited. Within consulting, it is often a non-factor, as performance and scaling issues often do not appear until long after the initial deployment. Within IT/Engineering roles, there is often an opportunity to address issues, but only within the context of a single application and infrastructure.
Therefore, the next stop on the career path is Professional Services or other specialized consulting. Professional Service organizations often focus on providing extremely skilled resources for short periods to address critical issues. These can often focus on performance or scaling issues, and provide a great opportunity to gain exposure to a broad set of problems, architectures, technologies, and infrastructures. To be successful in this role, an individual needs both a deep understanding of the product they are supporting but also an understanding of how it fits into the greater ecosystem.
In a Professional Service or specialized consulting role, individuals often interact with very senior members of the customer's staff, allowing developers to gain experience and exposure to a individuals they may not traditionally interact with.
This type of experience provides an opportunity to solve a large number of very intense problems over a relatively short period of time. This provides a breadth of knowledge about how the different types of major systems in production, and the problems that they face. It also allows developers to build an impressive network of contacts across a broad range of companies.
As a career outline, I believe this is a great start, but it is probably incomplete. There are many other valuable experiences that an aspiring Software Developer should experience. Some of these can be done in parallel with the above outline, others may be additional steps.
- Build a product - Whether it is an Open Source application, shareware, or a commercial application, build something from scratch that other people will use. Interact with your user base and understand the challenges that product managers face.
- Manage a team - Lead a team. Learn the interpersonal skills necessary to manage a team, and learn the leadership skills and qualities necessary to rally a disparate group of individuals into a team.
- Work for a startup - As a side project or part of your career path, understand how a small company can often achieve more than a much larger firm.
- Work for a Fortune 500 Company - In a consulting role or as an employee, understand how the right decision for an organization isn't always the right decision for an individual team or group, and the political and interpersonal issues that this can create.
- Learn - Learn a new language every year, at least. Learn a new framework, pattern or approach ever quarter, at least. Understand how things work on the other side of the fence, you'll be amazed at how it can change your perspective.
- Mentor - Learn to help others grow. If you can't teach someone else how to do it, you probably don't understand it well yourself.
- Build your Network - It is a small world. You will run into folks again and again. The impression you make on them as a junior developer may be important a decade later.
- Maintain your Network - Keep in touch with as many people as you can. Reach out to them and help them as much as possible. It will pay off.
Go Forth and Create
Now, focus on your passion. You have the background necessary to learn any new technology, solve any problem, and effectively communicate with others. It is time to focus on what you are passionate about, and become a leader in your chosen field.