How To Get A Job As A Web Developer
I had an email recently from an 18 year old asking if I had any tips or advice on getting that first job as a web developer. At the time of replying I didn’t think much of it, however over the next couple of days this email remained in the back of my mind, and I began to realise that there are things that we can do to improve our chances of getting our foot in the door.
The majority of the tips that I’m going to share will also be applicable to other industries, however I still think it’s important that these are also focused on to ensure the best results.
Why do I think I’m worthy of handing out tips to people at this crucial point in their career? Well, since leaving college at the age of 17 I can recall five jobs in the web development industry that I’ve applied for. Of these five jobs I got asked to an interview for five of them, and then later had a job offer from all five of them. Now, that’s not me trying to sound big-headed. Some of it might have be down to luck (the number of other applicants, the location of the job etc) but I also believe a massive part of it was down to the preparation and the execution of the tips I’m about to explain.
Ok, let’s get down to business…
1. Build a site to showcase your skills
If you don’t own or manage a website already, make up an imaginary company and build them a website containing a bit of everything. Write clean code (yes, any employer will/should look at the source code) and include enough features to demonstrate your skillset.
In my scenario I built a band directory where musicians could create a profile for their band. The site had a forum, a blog, image sliders, galleries, RSS feed etc etc. Not only did this provide somewhere for a potential employer to go and view my skillset, it also gave me the opportunity to think about the languages and best practices that I knew. We’ll need these to put on our CV a little later down this list.
2. Set up a personal website and email address
Yes, another website, but this time it’s a website purely about you, a kind of online CV. Buy a domain (ie. http://yourname.com) for a couple of pennies and setup a site. Add a photo, contact details, a biography, link to any sites that you’ve worked on (including the site you’ve made from tip #1) and really sell yourself. Put yourself in the shoes of the employer and think: “Would I employ this guy/girl?”.
Whilst your here and buying a domain, set up a personal email address. This might be just me but there’s nothing more off-putting and embarassing than seeing something like groovy-boy-2YK@hotmail.com as an email address.
3. Do some freelance work
Not essential this one but freelancing in your spare time will give you four great advantages:
a) It’s commercial experience and can go on your CV. You can add these sites to your portfolio and outline what bits you worked on.
b) You get a reference and a testimonial. Do a good job for someone and they should be willing to say a few good words about you.
c) You’re constantly expanding your skillset. If you get a freelance job using a CMS or framework you haven’t worked with before, don’t say you can’t do it because you don’t know how it works. Learn how it works and get inside it. Once you understand the basics that’s then another skill to go on your CV.
d) Unless you’ve agreed to do the work for free, there’s also the added benefit of getting some pocket money whilst you continue your search.
If you don’t personally know anyone that needs some work doing there are some freelancing sites out there such as freelancer.com and peopleperhour.com that allow you to bid on jobs, kind of like an eBay for freelancers. You may have to reduce your costs to compete with others bidding on the same job but the benefits will be worth it.
4. Clean up or hide your social persona
Being on social sites and promoting these to potential employers is great in my eyes. It shows you have a life outside of work and programming, and reveals any hobbies that you might have. All I will say here is; take a look at your public profile and make sure it’s suitable. I remember I looked at a candidates Twitter profile before where every other tweet contained a swear word. Doesn’t bother me personally but it might have given others the wrong impression. If you’re unsure or don’t want others viewing your profiles, simply ensure they’re hidden from public view.
Even if you don’t put links to your profiles on your CV or personal website, employers will easily find you with a simple search on your name. Trust me, any keen employer will do this.
5. Write your CV
When buying a house they say that you’ve made up your mind eight seconds after walking through the front door and I relate this process to a recruiter reading your CV. Aside from the actual interview itself, this to me is the next most important step of applying for a job. It’s the first view that a potential employer will have of you so make it good, put the important stuff nearer the top, and sell yourself.
In your CV be sure to include the following:
a) Your name (duh!) and contact details
b) Links to your personal website
c) A link to your personal website (from tip #1) and/or links to a pick of the best websites that you’ve been involved in. Explain your involvement and the key parts of each website. If you’ve worked on over 50 websites, for example, maybe just list the top five.
d) Your skillset. Make a list every single skill you hold, regardless of how little or insignificant it is. I’ll come back to this in tip #9.
e) Previous employment and previous education.
f) Your hobbies and interests outside of work
g) Your future goals. An employer is going to be impressed if you demonstrate you’re not one to sit still and that you have ambitions. Maybe there’s a new language you want to learn, or perhaps you want to improve your design skills.
Now let’s begin to make all your hard work worth the effort and start looking at jobs. There are lots of job websites out there and, unfortunately, they all list different vacancies. My best advice here is to sign up to the top 10 job websites, upload your CV and make it visible to recruiters. Note: You will get swamped with emails and calls for months from employment agencies so making it visible is a personal choice.
7. Sign up to email alerts
To save you having to visit each job website every day, setup email alerts so you can get notified of new jobs that match your criteria as and when they’re added.
8. Go against the job description
Don’t worry if the job description reads ‘Must be degree graduate’ and you don’t have a degree, or ‘Basic PhotoShop skills required’ and you’ve never touched PhotoShop in your life. If you can prove to the employer that you excel in all other areas then they may be willing to relax on other criteria.
With regards to having a degree (I only raise this because I see it as a requirement on a lot of job specs), I’d employ someone with 2 years experience and no degree, over someone with only a degree and no experience any day of the week. If an employer is adamant that applicants must have a degree then they’re absolutely bonkers.
9. Customize CV to the role
If you do find a job of interest don’t just hit the ‘Apply Now’ button and send your default CV. Read the job description and visit the companies website when possible. Find out exactly what type of people they are and what they’re looking for. Once you know, open your CV and adjust it to the job specification.
If they say PHP is a mandatory language requirement, move it to the top of your skillset list. If, on the company website, the director is a fan of Arsenal Football Club and you are too, give a small mention to this in the ‘Hobbies’ section of your CV.
Agreed, this will take longer if you have to change your CV each time but it definitely gives you the best chance of standing out.
10. Apply quickly
The email alerts from tip #7 give you the best chance of this but I think it’s important to apply as soon as possible. If you see the job drop into your inbox don’t think “I’ll apply for that this evening when I’m in bed”. Do it now. They could of had twenty applications by the time you’ve got your PJ’s on ten hours later. Get your CV in before everyone else and you could have an interview arranged within the same day.
I’ll just refer back to my own experience for a second here to demonstrate how effective this can be. For my first job the following happened:
Day one at 10:00: Job listed
Day one at 11:00: I applied for the job
Day one at 11:30: I had a call from the employer and an interview arranged for the next day
Day two as 13:00: Interview
Day two as 15:00: Call from employer telling me I had the job
Now, this is probably a very rare case but as you can see, in the space of just over 24 hours I’d gone from no job, to having an interview, to being employed, all because of quick reactions on everyones part.
11. Throw enough shit at the wall…
… and some of it might stick. It’s a worthwhile saying and one which I also think applies to job hunting. If you see a job that doesn’t exactly match your criteria, or lists a skill that you don’t have, or is 2 miles further to travel, apply anyway. Apply, apply, apply. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Until you get an opportunity to meet the employer and see their setup you can’t be sure whether if it’s the job for you. It’s better to have 10 interviews for jobs you’re 90% sure about, than no interviews at all.
12. The interview
You’ve had a call or an email back and you’ve been offered an interview. Firstly, congratulations! To get this far you’ve already beaten off some of the competition so take some pride in that. I won’t go into the details of how best to conduct yourself at an interview as this is a more generic subject. All I will say is:
a) Dress smart. This goes without saying but I’ve seen people turn up to interviews in jeans before. I don’t care how casual everyone is dressed on the companies ‘Meet The Team’ page. Go and buy a suit and look the bees knees.
b) Be on time. In fact, be 10 minutes early, be 30 minutes early. If you’re travelling a distance to get to the interview leave an hour earlier than you’ll think you need. If you get there early, so what. Being late to an interview is an instant reflection on your punctuality and we don’t want to ruin our chances before we’ve even got through the door.
c) Take a portfolio. It’s doubtful that there’ll be a computer present in your interview and, if there is, you don’t want to be fannying around with, for example, an anti-virus program popping up every 10 seconds. Print out the websites from your portfolio so you can talk through them on a bit of paper and take multiple copies for each person present at the interview so they’re not all squinting to look at the same copy.
d) Take a copy of your own CV. Not many people do this but I see it as an important step because:
i) The recruiter might not necessarily have printed a copy out for themselves.
ii) You can refer back to it throughout the interview. We’ve all had mental blocks during an interview and I find that the CV is a great reference when you get stuck
iii) You can leave a copy on the table. Leave a trace of your interview and remain in the minds of the interviewer after you’ve left.
e) Take food. No, not a lunch box or a picnic. Just some doughnuts, homebaked muffins or similar treat. I haven’t personally tried this one but heard it from Sir Alan Sugar a few years back and love the idea of it. He talked about an interview he had where there were twenty candidates. One of them bought in some treats and, out of the twenty people he interviewed, guess which one he remembered? That’s right, the one that bought the food in.
13. Offer to work a day unpaid
To get a real impression of someone in a thirty minute interview can be difficult. You don’t get to see how they cope in a working environment and how they get on with the rest of the team. As a result, offer to work a few hours or a day unpaid. This not only allows the employer to see you in action, but gives you the chance to see the company in action too. Is it somewhere you’d like to come and work every day? Do you get on with the other members of the team?
14. Follow up
Once the interview has taken place, leave it a week or so and, if you don’t hear anything back, maybe drop the company a quick email to touch base and see if they’ve made a decision. If they have and you weren’t selected then try to find out why so you can improve for the next interview you get. If they haven’t made a decision your enthusiasm won’t go unnoticed and you’ll remain in the minds of the decision makers.
15. Don’t give up
Jobs are getting listed every hour of every day. If your perfect job isn’t listed, or if you don’t get an interview, don’t worry. Just keep on applying and making refinements to your portfolio and CV. Keep on building your skillset to enhance your portfolio and that job will come along eventually with enough determination.
There we have it. My 15 tips on beginning life as a web developer in a commercial environment. I’d love to hear any tips you might have or things you’ve done in the past to ensure success.