How to Change Your Software Developer Career Path and Succeed
“I finally found a job! Going from the frontend over to the backend.”
“Those of you who switched from software engineering to data engineering, were you happy with the change?”
“Should I shift my career from software developing to being a sales executive?”
These and similar posts are frequently published in developers’ communities. While many specialists keep to their programming domain, some of them venture out and attempt quite a radical professional shift.
Indeed, having built a career in C# programming, developers could take a substantial risk if they decide to switch to Python.
But does this risk prove to be true? What pushes developers to choose a new career path? And what benefits and challenges can this decision bring?
4 Scenarios of Professional Refocusing
Outsiders to the software development world often consider it an ideal world. Competitive salaries, exciting projects, tons of software developer job benefits, and corporate perks. What more could one ask for?
That’s why those who are unsatisfied with their current positions in programming or those planning a software developer career change surprise others.
However, it might soon become obvious that there are many good reasons for software professionals to seek greener grass.
Scenario #1: You Got Stuck
It’s true that some developers work with the same technology stacks for years. This is a typical situation among baby boomers and Generation Xers who entered the software development field in the early 80s and 90s and are often pioneers in particular development domains or founders of specific software.
These specialists are usually deeply respected by business owners. The latter oftentimes support these so-called software veterans and let their projects run.
I saw such examples as well. Two of my former employers had software departments filled with the very first hires who continued working with outdated technologies while being immensely respected by the management and younger colleagues alike.
At the same time, it is unlikely that modern developers can stay put for such a long time, especially considering the pace of technological evolution and younger generations’ lifestyles.
Today, if developers see that their projects don’t advance or if they deal with an unpopular tech stack, they start looking for alternative ways of growing their career, including through learning a new programming language and getting engaged in the new technology domain.
The challenge here is how to face downgrading.
Having met one of my colleagues in the office before the lockdown, I learned that he decided to go for a radical change.
A senior Java developer and a team leader with almost 10 years of experience, he decided to become a Salesforce developer. I was no less surprised to know that his greatest struggle wasn’t dealing with the new platform but accepting being downgraded to a junior Salesforce developer.
What to do: Choose related technologies or build a new career.
If you aren’t ready to restart your software development career from scratch, it’s more reasonable to opt for technologies that are more or less close to those you have already dealt with. Switching from Android to iOS development will be less dramatic than diving into data science after years of Android app development.
If your downgrading is substantial, then you will have to repeat your software developer career path and move from a junior to senior engineer not only by doing your job well but also by collaborating with your new teammates actively, voicing your ideas during team meetings and helping other team members if you can.
Scenario #2: You Are Looking for a Higher Reward
It’s no secret that the salary level depends not only on seniority but also on technologies programmers work with. According to the Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2019, developers engaged in data-centric projects, particularly data scientists and engineers, as well as DevOps professionals, earn more than their colleagues from other expert areas with the same level of experience.
At the same time, Clojure, Scala, Go, Rust, and R developers get a higher reward for their work compared to PHP, Assembly, and VBA developers with even more years of experience. Such a disparity can be a good reason for programmers to rethink their software development career.
This time, the challenge is about facing the downsides of technology-centric choices.
Even when you feel confident about new technologies and enthusiastic to demonstrate your new skills, another trap can await you along the way. Being absorbed by programming, developers can look for an offering that fits their technological expectation ideally while forgetting that there are people and processes behind every technology.
The example of a developer who joined a new company just because she could deal with her favorite Node.js there proves that technology alone doesn’t guarantee professional happiness.
What to do: Explore social aspects.
Learning more about the company, its employees, and its internal workflows is a must before signing your next contract. Remember that the career path for a software developer depends a lot on the working environment, so even deep knowledge won’t help you if you are in conflict with your team or you feel uncomfortable in your workplace.
Scenario #3: You Feel Lured by Emerging Technologies
Technologies move ahead, and it is impossible to stay away from this exciting evolution. Developers who once started out in web development can change their software developer career outlook and turn their attention to such progressive domains as artificial intelligence or the internet of things. This requires learning new programming languages and frameworks.
Starting off with advanced technologies can also be a way for developers to stay ahead of the competition and minimize the personal risk of being replaced by computer intelligence.
Back in 2016, as many as a third of the surveyed developers expressed their concerns about losing their software developer jobs to AI automation. Today, industry experts aren’t so convinced in AI’s potential in replacing developers but rather speak about AI as developers’ major assistant.
However, the coming of AI is still a great motivator for tech specialists to grasp new programming languages and ML frameworks.
In this scenario, the challenge is about eliminating knowledge gaps.
As I mentioned before, learning new technologies requires time. That’s why many software developers start to prepare for a new position beforehand. However, more often employees have to adapt to the new duties on the go. In this case, a lot depends on the developers’ efforts, their learning skills, and self-discipline.
Organizations, though, can help their specialists to dive deep into their new responsibilities. Those with established learning and knowledge management processes, for example, with SharePoint as a knowledge management system in place or a well-managed LMS, can offer formalized knowledge and learning content to new arrivals and quicken their adaptation.
What to do: If you plan to start a new job at a new company, you can ask about their current internal learning and knowledge management process during the interview. If your future employer neither offers any software development training nor supports knowledge transfer between employees, you will know that you can count only on your own effort in mastering the new technology and becoming part of a new project.
Scenario #4: You Want To Step Up From Pure Coding
Some software developers find coding very attractive and engaging, yet at the same time stressful, challenging, and exhausting. That’s why, even after years of their active development practice, specialists may feel disappointed with coding itself, the development process, their teams, or their software developer career on the whole.
In this scenario, programmers can decide to upgrade their soft skills and step out of pure coding in favor of more customer-oriented software development areas such as software architecting and design, sales management, business and development, R&D, or business analysis.
Here the challenge is about getting through the extra load and pressure.
Few mature professionals would stop working so that they could devote all of their time to self-education before joining a project in a new role.
Taking into consideration that learning the basics of a new profession can take up to several months, developers usually have to combine work and learning, which means extra tiredness and a higher risk of burning out. It also means taking up new tasks and duties even if you aren’t 100% sure you are a perfect fit for them.
“When my last assignment as a backend developer ended, my manager approached me with an assignment. A large telecom company was building an app, and their architect had just resigned from the company. They needed someone quick. I was concerned about my lack of experience in the architect role, but the challenge was tempting. In the end, I said yes,” says Karl Eriksson, a backend developer who decided to become a software architect.
When switching to new technologies, specialists have to adapt to a new working environment, different project workflows, and new teams. If you are downgraded, there is also a high chance of being managed by younger team leads, which adds psychological pressure as well.
What to do: Start learning within a familiar environment.
It is reasonable to start learning a new subject before you change a workplace. Adding some learning to your standard working day in a company or a team that you know well is less painful than trying to learn and assimilate at the same time. What’s more, the stress from handling new technologies and environments can lead to poor results. In a familiar workplace, though, you can do your work well and learn efficiently.
The Main Question Is “Why?”
Software developers might have multiple career objectives. Some work because it’s fun and they love technologies. Some choose software development to find financial stability. Others want to reach the top of the career ladder by moving from a junior specialist to a CTO.
Before you make the determined decision to choose a new career path, it’s worth thinking why you want to do that and how this change can help you achieve your major career objectives. Jumping between positions and technologies because you get bored quickly might not be the best strategy.
At the same time, if you understand that you have hit the glass ceiling while your potential is much bigger than your current professional domain can offer, it’s reasonable to take up this challenge.