Practical Tips on Securing Your Next Technology Role
Choosing your next job and moving on in your career can be one of the most important decisions in your life.
As much as we'd like to think it doesn't, our choice of job and career has a profound affect on both our happiness and life choices. Many personal relationships and families have crashed and burned because one party or another had a job that placed undue stress and demand on them and by proxy, their partners, children, or close family.
I hope to open Pandora's box on choosing which next role (or even which first role you should take) as a developer or IT professional. Let's dive in!
HELP! I've never had a job before—who the hell do I work for and what do I do?
We've all been there. Fresh-faced, spotty, greasy, and just fresh out of college / university and we've probably been wearing the same blue jeans for four days now. We're pretty naïve, we know next to nothing about the working world and we're already bricking the fact that we have to fend for ourselves without being spoon-fed commands like an animal on a talent show.
Keep cool – keep calm – it's okay. Things always seem a lot harder when you haven't done them before.
I was in this exact position 10 years ago. I'd just left Manchester University with a degree in Computer Science. I knew I wanted to be a programmer but I had nowhere to turn.
One thing I knew though was that I didn't want to go cap in hand back to my parents’ pockets and my sad lonely existence in my sad old bedroom back home. I would literally do anything to avoid moving back home. Including sell my mum for food.
I had my independence for years – there's not a cat's chance in hell I was going to move back.
To make ends meet in my final year at university, I'd taken a job at Domino’s Pizza – spinning pizzas, cleaning up, and manning the tills.
Sure it didn't pay well but what it gave me was breathing space, freedom and time. I finished my last exams in the final year – it was a giant relief but I knew I had to find my first job and fast. One of my housemates very kindly lent me my rent money until I could afford to pay him back (which I promptly did).
You have to do what it takes to put yourself in the best position you can. If I'd moved back to my hometown of Ilkeston (where my parents lived), I would have been in serious jeopardy of ruining my career chances or, at the very least, setting myself back a few years.
Initially, I went to a local Job Centre to look for roles but frankly the choices were depressing – I would say don't even bother when looking for tech jobs. So, I did the sensible thing and started looking online.
After scouring a few job sites I found a role advertised with a Software Insurance company called Cheshire Datasystems Limited as a Software Technician. The role didn't pay quite as much as I'd hoped (it was about £14,000 back in 2005 so £17,000 today) but I figured it's a foot in the door and a step in the right direction.
If I could just get in there I can prove myself worthy.
Suited and booted and ready to impress, I turned up at the CDL offices for my very first job interview. There were other candidates there and I was nervous. I felt about two inches tall – like they could crush me underfoot – but I marched into my first psychometric tests (presumably to suss out whether I have the brain of a peanut!) regardless.
After suffering a few days sweating over receiving my first possible job rejection, I received my first ever job offer.
My jaw dropped. I'd been accepted and they'd offered me real actual money. I gladly accepted the role and whilst £14,000 didn't seem a whole lot of money at the time, I'd been surviving on a heck of a lot less at university with my diet of tinned beans, Pro Plus and Red Bull.
By my estimation I was richer than a Saudi Arabian Prince.
So, the point of this little anecdote? Sure I made a big mistake here. First of all, I only lined up one job offer when I should have had several so I could play them off each other and command the biggest initial salary.
You have to consider personal circumstance. I was struggling to pay my rent and I had no frigging idea what kind of salary a developer with 0 experience should expect to get paid in the grand scheme of things.
What I did do right was that I stayed in Manchester (where the best tech companies were) whatever the cost and found a programming job as opposed to something like a data entry role or continuing to flip burgers.
I know too many of my friends who either stayed at home, never moving away, or just took a job at McDonalds and stalled their careers by 4-5 years.
Don't accept the norm, get a job that's going to move you in a positive direction.
In hindsight, if I were to offer advice to my former self I would have diversified my choices and had a few offers on the table. Also, I'd probably have applied sooner and probably to a graduate programme.
Hindsight though is a wonderful thing because sometimes, especially with circumstance, needs must.
Knowing When Your Time is Up
I've been with six different companies over the last 10 years of my career as a Software Engineer so I hopefully at least have some relevant experience with understanding when it's time to call it with your current role and move on to pastures new.
The following are just some of the reasons why I've moved on from previous roles.
Every morning when you wake up, you should feel energised, looking forward to the day and feeling like you really “make a difference.”
If you wake up and the first thing you do is slam the alarm on to snooze and wish you could crawl back under a rock, it’s definitely time to brush up the CV. Having a job that you really love energises you. You should feel excited about going to your job and if you don’t, maybe you need something on the side in the meantime, while you’re searching for a new role, to keep you energised and keep your mind active.
Boredom is a classic and excellent reason to leave your job. If you’re finding you’re bored for long periods in your job not even remembering what you did all day, aside from watching that super-awesome Thug Life cat video during your lunch break, then you know it's time.
If every morning you're not bouncing out of bed ready for the day and looking forward to what the day brings, you're either in the wrong profession or working for the wrong people.
(Yes, work can be enjoyable too.)
Pay Peanuts, Expect Monkeys
There will come a time in your career when you feel that the value you're providing your employer far outweighs your current salary.
It's your responsibility to your family to maximise your earning potential. If you absolutely enjoy your job, love your life, can do what you want to do with your family in your free time, then you're probably paid enough.
If you're not happy on any of those accounts, you really should start looking for something new.
Jekyll and Hyde
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a well-known book by Robert Louis Stevenson where Dr. Jekyll seeks to discover his inner self but finds his other self to be nothing less than a monster.
For me, this is what happens when you're brought in and hired by an employer to develop in a particular language (that's your area of expertise) then you're moved over to other languages and technologies that you originally didn't sign up for.
Now, whilst this is fine in the short term, this can be damaging long-term since it's moving you away from your area of expertise.
Like in the Jekyll and Hyde book, being moved around, over time, can bring out the worst in people. They start to not enjoy their day job and gradually become resentful of the fact that they have been forced to do something they didn’t sign up for in the first place.
If this is the case, and you've asked and tried to get yourself transferred or moved onto other projects of greater interest and relevance but you’re still stuck there, then you need to get that resignation letter started.
There's no better time than the present.
Doing everything right but still — NOTHING
Sometimes you try everything you can. Taking additional courses, increasing knowledge, working on your soft skills, taking up further extra-curricular activities, as well as pushing initiatives at work.
You do absolutely everything right that you can possibly do but for whatever reason you just can't get the next job and the next step up.
I had a similar problem in my career where I applied for a role that required management responsibilities.
Problem is, you can't get a role that requires management responsibilities without demonstrating you can manage. But if you never get a management position, you can’t really learn how to.
This is a total chicken and egg situation and unless the right opportunity comes along at the right time, you can be waiting a long time for things to happen. This is especially true in large corporations.
My advice – if you don't want to wait around forever and you feel like you're at the right stage where you're capable of taking on and managing people – move on.
Finding the next step up
You’ve drafted your resignation letter, trying desperately hard to remain level-headed (I hope!) and not turn it into one long rant about why you’re leaving. Definitely don’t burn your bridges at this point – the world is a small place (trust me)! So, what next?
As a developer, you have a couple of options and these largely depend on your personal situation, how averse you might be to risk, and what your goals are.
The way I see it is that you have two main paths you can take. Make a career of it as permanent staff or jump into the contract world. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses.
Career vs. Contract
As a permanent member of staff, the main benefit is stability. When cuts come you won't be let go first, contractors will. You'll also receive many company benefits like possibly a decent pension or have training paid for.
Unfortunately though, that also comes at a cost of salary. You're never going to get the sort of rates on the whole as you might expect as a contractor.
Being a full-time staff member, you also get more of a say than contractors (from my experience) on how things are in a business and what standards / practices other developers should adhere to.
On the flip-side as a contractor, in general, you tend to have a lot less power and sway than full-time staff and are to a certain extent expected to “toe the line.”
Whilst I agree this isn't the case in every workplace it is the case in most. Full-time staff in general also get paid holidays each year so as a contractor you're under an obligation to make sure you manage your finances correctly, such that you can squirrel away savings for when you want to take a holiday.
It's true that contractors, especially with tax rules as they are, can make an absolute killing in the UK (and abroad, but my predominant experience is in the UK contractor market) by filing their own taxes and claiming back VAT, etc.
But you do have to ensure as a contractor that you can survive several months without a paycheck.
Make sure you have at least 3-6 months savings behind you so you have enough money to tide you over should the worst thing happen and you get laid off.
Due to the temporary nature of a contractor and the fact that contracts tend to be ended quickly, you'll need to be okay with literally finding the next contract and have it signed and agreed within a week. You may also, depending on the market, be prepared to travel some distances (staying in hotels where required) to get the best gigs.
Unless you're fortunate to live in a large metropolitan area such as London where the contractor market is large, more than likely you'll need to travel.
The choice will probably come down to you and your personal circumstances.
How much do you want money over stability and how much do you mind moving from project to project? Are you bothered about long commutes and do you mind spending large periods of the week away from your family?
If none of that bothers you then contracting might be for you.
Finding the Next Gig
What company should you join? How should you choose your next role?
It’s a difficult decision. For you to know absolutely what role is right for you, you've got to know who you are. This sounds really wishy-washy but basically it means knowing what makes you tick.
Do you prefer front-end or back-end work? Do you enjoy working across the full stack? What type of environment suits you? A startup where there are no strict guidelines and you can be totally flexible but make a real difference? Or work in a large corporation where you get to work on some potentially high-profile projects that scale to serve millions?
Whichever role you choose, make sure the role excites you and the vision sold to you is something that you absolutely buy into and care about. Otherwise you may find yourself within a few months back at square one.
Using a Recruitment Agent
I've managed to find a number of roles via recruiters and this can work well.
However, there are a couple of big drawbacks. For instance, I've found there's a big danger of you telling a recruiter something (thinking you are speaking with them in confidence) and they simply convey everything that's been said with the company without asking your permission first.
On this point I'd heed caution when speaking with recruiters and make an assumption that you're speaking directly with the company even if they give you assurances to the contrary.
On which recruiter to approach, personally I'm starting to find that a personal relationship with a particular recruiter will work a lot better than with random recruiters who message you.
In my case, there is a particular recruiter (who just so happens to own his own recruitment firm) who has placed me numerous times. What made them stand out over other recruiters is that they listen to your experience and needs then seek out firms that would match your requirements.
Those are the sorts of lengths any recruitment agent should be doing on your behalf in order to find you permanent employment – or a contract should you be looking for that.
I've found that later on in your career, as you move around and get to know more of the tech community, it becomes easier for you to network and find out about roles before they're advertised.
This for me is the ideal way to find your next role. A personal referral from somebody who knows you goes a long way, plus you'll already have an insight into the way a corporation works without having to read up on review sites and sift through fake reviews.
I absolutely recommend watching John Sonmez's YouTube video on the subject: Should I use a Recruiter or Apply Directly?
Startups, Blue Chips, and Everything in Between
There are so many different companies out there to work for, and in so many different industries, that the options are quite mind-boggling.
Should you work for a startup? Or a big ass blue chip organisation? Maybe something in between?
Thankfully, I've worked in all of those types of companies, so I can probably give you at least some insights into what the pros and cons are for working for each.
You're probably given the impression that startup companies are filled with tea drinking, über cool bearded hipsters who regularly partake in Movember on an annual basis.
Thing is, this is just a crude stereotype.
In my opinion, startups are attended by pretty similar crowds to blue chip companies. They are in fact manned by normal tea drinking people like you (not me, sorry, I don't drink tea!).
If you're the kind of person who enjoys flying by the seat of your pants, late deployments, and cutting-edge technology decisions that backfire more often than not, startups are probably your thing.
Oh and potentially seeing your family like never! (Just kidding! That only happens sometimes….)
At a startup you tend to be given a fair amount of freedom, technology wise, and also a fair amount of sway on the direction of the product. Just don't expect to get paid top brass and be sent to the swankiest conferences (unless your VC backer is completely loaded and cares not one whit about the viability of the business in turning a profit).
Don't expect to be always practising the cutting-edge practices like pair programming and full test coverage at all times either. You'll need to use your experience and wily nature to figure out when are the best times to cut corners and just ship it and when you need to knuckle down and make sure something is done properly.
Time is very important in the startup business, so making sure you don't waste it is going to be critical.
On the other hand, leading blue chip companies like Facebook, Google, etc., will be heavily pushing for full test coverage, monitoring, and all the bells and whistles associated with it.
They can afford you this luxury because they have large teams of developers working on extensive platforms that can help deliver a combined vision.
You'll also be heavily enshrined in the DevOps culture, will be able to attend more hack-days, conferences, and training than you can shake a stick at. You may also, if you're very lucky, command a pretty decent salary (although that's not always the case – often it can be just a little over average).
The only thing is, this all comes at a cost.
With larger organisations your job is arguably safer but then the opportunity to progress can seem like a huge mountain to climb with lots of red tape.
Unless of course you're prepared to either game the system or sit in the right position for the ideal opportunity to arise. You should think seriously about these options and make the best decision for YOU. Only you know which type of organisation is right. Think about your strengths, likes, and dislikes around culture and see if they fit in with the type of person you are and want to be at that point in your life.
If you’re very very lucky – you might find yourself (as I do now) in a situation where you’ve joined a startup company that’s also part of a larger blue chip corporation. This could be in the form of a subsidiary. I’ve found myself very luckily in that situation.
This is a nice mix of both worlds. Not only are you given the freedom to choose the technologies and have a big hand and influence on steering the approach on business decisions, but since you often speak directly to decision makers but you also there’s also a fantastic opportunity to prove yourself and gain a quicker promotion route than the norm.
On top of that, you also get the benefit of financial stability (if the startup fails, you’re unlikely to be fired on the spot but rolled into the larger corporation or moved to another part of the business), a decent salary, training opportunities, and a chance to move around the business.
Not to mention huge growth opportunity since the larger blue chip can bootstrap the startup part of the business.
If an opportunity like this comes along, you’d be very wise to give it some serious consideration against other options as it doesn’t come along very often.
Negotiating Your Salary
Having experienced just a 1-2% raise over a 2-year period, I recently moved to a new role in a startup and received a near on 20% pay rise. I'd argue this was solely after taking John's Dev Career Boost course. It's paid for itself thousands of times over so I can't recommend it enough.
Pretty much the key to negotiating your salary is to understand how much you and your skills are worth.
To get an idea of that, take a look at what other developers in a similar role at similar corporations are earning. Look also at the skillsets they have.
You can even take this to the next level and truly delve into the people behind the positions. Browse LinkedIn for people you’re connected to in the local area, at businesses you’d like to work at, in roles you’d like to work in.
This is admittedly significantly easier to do later in your career because your network will grow as you move around, but it’s still worth taking a little time to understand what’s required to get where you want to be and for understanding what people are worth for the skills they have.
To figure out what businesses are paying for your role, look at job websites for advertised roles and what salary ranges they’re offering. Websites such as Glassdoor also show a list of actual salaries submitted anonymously so that should give you a decent idea for a ballpark salary figure.
Be Happy with Yourself and Confident in Your Decisions
Phew! There’s a lot of information crammed in there and I hope you’ve digested it all.
Finding the right job is a very difficult topic and not always one we get right. I have made some mistakes myself; we all do. The important thing is to learn from them and make better decisions along the way.
What we’ve presented here are practical tips that will help you to ask the right questions so you can understand whether the next role you’re considering is really right for you and your family.
This advice is by no means perfect but it should provide a reasonably good guide for most people.
The most important thing discussed here is that you make decisions that will make you the happiest person you can be, because the happier you are the better you’ll perform.
I hope you've enjoyed this article. Please feel free to leave a comment in the comments section.