How to Get a Programming Job Without Any Experience

How do you stand out from the crowd if you have no experience? This question is probably the most difficult for anyone to answer. Let alone anyone who is contemplating switching career without the correct credentials. No matter what career you are striving for, there always seems to be this catch-22. How do you get experience when no one will give you a job?. Even entry-level positions ask for experience.

If you have looked at job postings and thought to yourself, “I couldn’t get that, I don’t have any experience” then this article is for you. Let’s break it down to what experience is and why employers it want so much.

I suggest reframing experience. Instead of thinking about experience as something that you accumulate over time spent in a job, think about it from the employer’s perspective. Employer’s don’t actually want college degrees or experience. They want someone who can fill a need in their business. Employer’s need skills and added value not experience or degrees. You need to build your skillset and be proficient at it. You need to be so good that people can’t ignore you. The important thing is to demonstrate to employers is that you have the skills. How you gain those skills is irrelevant. The important thing is to actually build a way to demonstrate your skills. This can be through different means. Let me lay out some strategies for getting experience:

1. Work For Free

This is my least favourite way of obtaining experience. By offering your services for free, you risk the chance of actually devaluing yourself and your skills. It is important to come from a place of power.

If you are going to work for free then it is important to set strict criteria. For example, tell prospective employers you will only work for two weeks with a view to having paid work after 2 weeks.

However, it does not have to be strictly in a professional setting. You could also volunteer your time at organisations like Coder Dojo which helps kids to learn how to code. This can be done on the weekends and hopefully outside of work hours.

The final classic way people work for free is to intern at a company. This has strengths and weaknesses but if it is suitable to your situation then I recommend it.

2. Contribute to Open Source

This is something I have never done but it is on the to-do list. Speaking to interviewers and having interviewed candidates myself, I would be interested to hear of any contributions to open source. This shows an active interest in the community at large and would make anyone stand out from the crowd.

It is very easy to start small and just simply submit any bugs that you find. This alone does a massive service to the community. Submitting bugs will also teach you how to format a bug report so that it is easier to reproduce and resolve.

If I was contributing to open-source, I would look to start small and see if there were any handy methods I could bring over. For instance, Rails has loads of handy helpers that other projects would kill for. These same ruby methods could be brought over to brand new languages such as Go or Swift.

However, even though it is advice that is thrown out there a lot, contributing to open-source is not the most important thing. I know many programmers who benefit from open-source and have never given back in terms of code(I do donate money to important projects such as The Internet Archive). I also know programmers who have donated tons of time to open-source projects such as Rails, Rubinius and Go.

If you can contribute then absolutely but don’t feel that it is a must have. In my opinion, number 3 is the most important.

3. Build Your Portfolio

Building a portfolio is essential. If you are a self-taught programmer then it is a necessity in order to stand out. If you went to college, you still need a portfolio because you still need to stand out.

I love building portfolios for two reasons. One is that each project is a learning experience. Each project shows how far you have come and how much you learned. It is that beautiful combination of building experience and demonstrating skills as well as learning.

Having a portfolio that you are always contributing to serves many purposes. It is the key to employment that a lot of career guides overlook. It is also great to look back and see how far you have come. It is even better when you go back and re-work your old projects to see what you would do differently.

The portfolio was without a doubt my strongest asset when I went out into the market. How do I know? I split-tested it. . . massively.

When I was showing my resume to a prospective employer, there was not much interest. They seemed to flick through the pages while I stood there dawdling like an idiot. After a while, I stuck a third letter on my resume with a list of my projects, a short description of what they did and a link to view them online or on Github. This proved to be the turning point in my career.

All of sudden, I started getting more interviews and eventually I managed to get an in.

With, that little tweak, the recruiters who were not developers started forwarding my applications through for interviews.

So what was different. You see I was not thinking of the people who were in charge of recruitment. Most of the time, these people are not technical. They only know the keywords and are given the task of funneling resumes that match these keywords.

By adopting my projects into a language anyone can understand, I started getting a higher response.

So there are 3 ways of getting out of that catch 22 of getting a job with no experience. The answer is to reframe it in such a way so that you present your skills in a completely different way from other employees.

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Originally published at on April 10, 2016.

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