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Breaking into Web development

4 min read

Last week, I gave a lightning talk at Front End Sheffield. It was an evening about careers in the Web industry. It was fantastic to get the opportunity to share my own experiences, but 8 minutes is very short. I had lots of great discussions afterwards, and realised there was more context or detail I wished I'd been able to cover in my actual talk.

Whether you're switching careers or applying for your first role, getting that first break into an industry is tough. I know, I've been there.

My personal journey involved teaching myself different Web technologies whilst pursuing a career in Physics research. When I realised research was not doing it for me, I made the decision to switch to Web development. It had been a hobby for many years, but something I loved doing and was passionate about.

Now, I realise my own experiences will differ from others. However, there are challenges everyone face when trying to get that first job:

  1. How do you show experience?
  2. How do you stand out from the competition?

I believe that both of these can be tackled together.

Soft skills

Soft skills can often get undervalued by job applicants, but are really important. These are those transferable skills you can evidence from things like previous jobs, schooling or voluntary work.

Some examples of soft skills are:

  • Adaptability
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Team work
  • Time management

Take communication as an example. As a Web developer this is an important skill to possess. We often have to interact with others to explain our work, or the problems we are encountering. Those could be people like fellow developers, designers, project managers or clients. Good communication skills makes these interactions more productive.

When I made the move from physicist to Web developer, communications was one skill I was able to highlight to potential employers. I regularly had to describe my research to people less familiar with the subject area; sometimes that would be through giving talks and other times through written papers.

Obviously, your experience is likely to differ from mine. However, identifying the transferable skills you have, and how you can evidence them will help you sell yourself for a new role. You'd be surprised at how many people neglect to demonstrate these in their applications or interviews.

Hard skills

Hard skills are obviously much harder to evidence if you're starting out. These are the job specific abilities. For a Web developer, it will be things like HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other Web languages.

I taught myself these skills, but for many people they will learn them through university or a bootcamp. All are valid ways of learning how to code. The challenge comes when applying for jobs. How do you prove you have the relevant experience? Education is often not enough.

The way I demonstrated experience when first entering the industry was by showcasing side projects I had worked on.

Unlike many industries, the Web is one where we can fairly easily practice outside of a job. Someone wanting to become a train driver can't readily drive a train in their spare time. However, web developers can build websites or contribute to open-source projects on GitHub outside of a formal role.

Take having your own websites as an example. They can help show a passion for building websites and your current abilities. Having your own website can really help you stand out from the competition and gives you something to discuss in your interview.

Having your own website doesn't have to be anything complicated. Start with just a simple HTML and CSS site if you want to make a mark. If you're not sure what to build a site for, take one of your interests and create something for that. Combining your enthusiasm for becoming a web developer with one of your hobbies will make it a more enjoyable task.

I've seen so many CVs/resumés that list a person's interests. Far too often, these are just the same set of interests as the next person (playing computer games, watching films or going to the gym). I understand the intent, but this is often a wasted opportunity. If you can utilise your interests to show your suitability for a job then all the better. So instead of listing your hobbies, consider linking to a website you've created to demonstrate them.

Be proactive

It's never easy getting that first new job in an industry you're relatively new to. Applying for jobs requires effort. You need to take a proactive approach. Utilise the skills you already have and work to make your application stand out from the competition; and whatever you do, be honest. If you make things up for your application, you will quickly unravel when probed about them in an interview.

© 2024 Andy Carter