How I Got My First Dev Job (Without Applying Online)

Career changing is a daunting task, and for my part I’m a little over a month into my first full-time job as a front-end engineer. Common wisdom says it’s hardest to get that first foot in the door, and for me it only happened after I stopped applying online.

The process was brutal and often felt hopeless- that is, until I finally stepped out of what I call The Cave (more on that later) and tried something different. In the end, I went to coding bootcamp and landed a job without applying through even a single unsolicited online portal.

This is a long post with a fair amount of biographical details, so if you want the tl;dr of it just scroll to the bottom.

A Bit About My Background

As a little kid I was totally into computers and coding, until I learned the importance of being cool (5th grade). Then I forgot about it. Sometimes I dabbled as a hobbyist, but that was about it.

I graduated with a Classics degree in 2008, which prepared me to do… nothing. Well, sales. It was 2008- jobs with base pay were basically not even a thing back then.

Not saying I never had a leg up, but ten years later no one’s Applicant Tracking System was about to screen me into tech interviews. I had to get unconventional.

Disillusionment, Freelancing, and The Cave

Queue up the Fight Club references. Work life sucked for me, and I felt like I was doomed for permanent underemployment.

I kept finding myself frustrated seeing my employers paying other people so much money for web work, when I knew I could do it just as well myself. At a certain point I had to stop complaining and start actually doing something about it.

Warning: survivorship bias. OK, so I happened to have outside interests that regularly put me in real live rooms with real live people outside my immediate social circle. And one of these people became my first (and best) client as a freelance web developer slash social media person slash web-whatever.

I learned pretty early on as a freelancer that trying to find clients online was a great way to tread water (thrash, really) while appearing productive (to myself). Still, I put a lot of time and effort into cultivating my online presence to impress strangers in cyberspace.

Ultimately all the real money and work came from meatspace. I did solid work for my clients and they referred me, or I met people randomly IRL (one of them in my building’s elevator- literally an elevator pitch).

Hiding Out in The Cave

As time went on, anything marketing-related began to feel like a necessary evil to get more technical. Designers cringe at the phrase “make it pop,” and then there’s pouring your heart and soul into a creative project only to have your client tell you they’re not feeling it. Crushing.

Eventually I got it in my head I could enjoy working in software if I leveled-up enough. I spent a year or so doing an hour worth of online coding courses every morning, practicing the new skills as much as I could on client projects. Then I started applying online.

And here’s where I went into what I call The Cave: hiding out in front of the computer, frantically sending out resumes to as many places as possible, treating my resume and portfolio like magical spells that would work if only I could get the words perfect:

Hermione Granger: It's LeviOsa, not LeviosAR!

More cave-y: rather than face dangers (rejection) in the wild, I tried expanding my cave’s walls with a hammer-and-chisel until I felt like I was exhausted and starving to death. “But it’s 2017- how else do people connect!?”

After months of silence from online portals and ghosting from tech recruiters, I became desperate enough to do the unthinkable- go out and be seen. Scary! #vulnerable

Coding Bootcamp

After a year-plus of trying to go it alone through online codealongs, I realized it was time to stop fucking around and finally take a firm stance on where I meant to go. It was time I got so good they couldn’t help but hire me.

I took four months out of my life to do an immersive, in-person bootcamp at the Flatiron School. It felt like kind of a scorched-earth way of making the transition, but then again people take years out of their lives (and often hundreds of thousands in debt) to become certified for basically anything comparable in terms of pay/benefits/etc.

When I finished I had gotten what I paid for: I had grown into a competent, full-time-employable software developer. More than just a freelancer who knew how to hack some code together when the job called for it.

Staying Out of The Cave (Easier Said Than Done)

Post-Bootcamp job search empowered me with the only thing I’ve hated more than putting myself out there for work- the spreadsheet.

As part of a money-back guarantee, I was eligible for a tuition refund if I regularly followed certain steps and documented them:

  • - Contact X amount of new people every week
  • - Follow up with them and track application status
  • - Make X amount of Git commits per week
  • - Write a new blog post every week
  • - Keep regular appointments with my career coach

I’m the furthest thing from a Type-A personality. Feeling responsible to stay on top of this thing motivated me to get out there and face my fears of meeting people IRL, rather than spend the next six months in a spreadsheet maintaining the illusion of progress.

Tools of Survival Outside The Cave

Go to Meetups – Go solo, and don’t only sit with your friends. Two meaningful conversations with strangers are enough to call the event a success.

Unlike online dating, walking up to someone and saying “Hi” is good enough. Literally. “Hi” is the first thing I said to the stranger who wound up getting me hired.

Don’t Commiserate – I quickly felt that other job seekers were dragging me down. Sorry, not sorry.

Going through one of the most uncertain and vulnerable periods of my life, the last thing I needed was to compare notes with other people who also hadn’t landed a job yet.

The anxiety is contagious, and we were basically competitors for the same thing. Not helpful.

Listen to Podcasts – Controlling your inputs is super important. Garbage in/garbage out. If I want to become a senior dev, it makes sense to listen to senior devs. And it’s free.

I burned through:

Don’t Only Look for Work – Avoiding burnout is easier said than done, especially when there’s too much free time and not enough money.

That said, you’re a human being, not a piece of factory equipment. For me the most important work happens when my brain can process things in the background, which means putting some attention into unrelated activities.

Actually Follow Up – Before landing a job, I didn’t realize how unusual it was for people to actually follow up on leads. And follow up more than once.

As a job seeker I was laser-focused on my job search. As a job haver, that laser focus goes into doing my actual job.

For my part, I take it as a responsibility/privilege to help the next person now that I have my foot in the door. That said, it’s hard to help a ghost.

Outside Recruiters Only Count for Practice – Companies pay big fees for recruiter-sourced candidates, and almost only for senior-level positions.

Don’t hold out hope for follow-through on their part if it’s your first dev job. Take every conversation you can though, because it’s useful (and free) interview practice for real positions you might actually land.

Busy Doesn’t Mean Effective – Creating a digital paper trail doesn’t mean you’re doing anything useful. Think of your attention as a very limited resource to use wisely.

Reading articles, “liking” things on social networks, spending hours learning oddball subjects some jerk might throw at you in an interview- it’s a waste of time if you’re not meeting real people who can get you a job.

And One Last Thing to Remember

Software employers need people who can figure out how to solve unique problems on a team, not people who already know all the answers. That’s the difference between you and Stack Overflow.

The learning curve at a new company is likely going to have the most to do with understanding what’s going on in their own codebase, more than anything you can research ahead of time.

I hope this helps! Feel free to share it around if you know someone who’s trying to land their first developer job. I’m not on social media, apart from the occasional LinkedIn post. You can reach out to me by email for any reason other than trying to hire me- I am very happy to say I’m off the market 🙂

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Mark Bello

Mark Bello