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The Developing Developer is a blog series giving advice for early-career developers.

In my last post for Developing Developer, I talked about getting started in your first job. Once you've settled in, it's time to start thinking about what comes next. Learning how to build your career is one of the most challenging things for new developers, because you're never taught how to do it. It's a skill that requires years of painful experience to learn.

In this post, I'll cover some of the ways in which you can make yourself stand out from the crowd, and take your career to the next level.

Thinking big

Man looking at bulletin board

Imagine this scenario: you've been asked to attend a client meeting with some other project members for an app you are building. In the meeting, the client outlines her idea for a new feature that she wants to see added to the app. When she finishes, everyone turns to look at you to get your input as the "technical person".

No pressure.

Before you reply, think about the wider implications:

  • Is this feature difficult to build and/or test?
  • Does it fit into the overall goals for the app, or is just something random that took the client's fancy?
  • Is this something that users actually want?
  • Does it meet web standards? Will it be accessible?

All of these questions are about being able to see the bigger picture for what you are working on. If you don't do this, you are doing your client a serious disservice. (See my previous post on why we should say no to clients.)

Being able to think strategically about your work is the most important factor in being able to advance your career, and is a standard criteria for senior roles. Strategic thinking ensures that you deliver high-quality work that users actually want. This will save your company money in the long run, and will make you an asset to your team.

If you've never taken the time to look at what your organisation's strategic goals are, go read up on them. Most organisations will publish these on their website. If you have specific standards or goals for your team, take the time to understand what they are.

This is also a good way to say no to client requests without coming across as rude. Saying "this feature goes against our strategic goals" sounds way better than "this feature is pointless and stupid". (Even if you are thinking it.)

Growing your skillset

Ok, for this next section, I have a confession to make...

I'm not the greatest coder.

In fact, my technical skills are about average. And yet, I've never found this to be a drawback in finding work, because I am good at lots of other things (like being a strong user advocate, and bringing teams together). Being technically amazing isn't the only way to get development jobs.

For new developers, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd as you'll likely have a similar skillset to other graduates. Make a point of continuing to work on your personal development. The specialties you learn will start to make you unique over time. In particular, focus on soft skills (e.g. leadership, communication, teamwork) and areas which are interdisciplinary, as these can be particularly valuable.

Some inexpensive ways to keep on top of your personal development are:

  • Reading up on a subject
  • Signing up to mailing lists
  • Attending training and events provided by your work
  • Joining local special interest groups in your area

If you see a conference nearby that you are interested in attending, don't be afraid to approach your boss and ask them about it. At the least, they will be impressed at your initiative. Conferences are a great opportunity to learn from experts and do a bit of networking.

Taking action

People who complain, but never do anything - don't we all hate that?

  • "Urgh, this code is terrible. Someone should really clean this up."
  • "If only we had a tool to do X, it would be so much easier."
  • "Why are we doing it this way? It makes no sense."

And then they will finish with: "Oh, but I guess it will never change..."

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DO. NOT. BE. THIS. PERSON.

Folks, I am here to tell you that only you do have the power to make change, if you only take the time to do it. Last year, I was able to get funding from the University of Edinburgh (where I work) to start up a community for people working on web development at the University. I got this funding because I wrote an application for it. Nobody asked me to do this, but I thought it was a good idea, so I did it anyway. The group has been a success, and I've gotten the chance to meet some amazing people. We've just secured more funding for another year.

If you see an opportunity for improvement, or have an idea, do something about it! Your team will thank you for it, and your boss will be overjoyed. One of the sad things about moving into management roles is that you have far less time to do things yourself, so you really value members of your team who are proactive.

 Defining your narrative

As you develop your career, personal narratives are a great tool to use. This is a technique described to me by my stepmother, president of the Mind and Life Institute. Her career has been very successful, so she must know what she's talking about!

Using your CV, sit down and write out a story about your career. You could use the following prompts:

  • At university I decided to study... because I am interested in...
  • After graduating, I got a job doing...
  • In my job I developed an interest in... and became known for...
  • I decided to... because I'm really passionate about...
  • Next, I would like to...

Writing out your narrative like this has some great benefits. First, it can provide some helpful insight into how recruiters will see your career so far. Are there unexplained gaps? Does the narrative flow well, or do you seem to jump around a lot? The goal should be to have a narrative which is cohesive, and shows you as a unique person with your own passions and interests.

Second, you can use this narrative when applying for future jobs. Use your story to pitch yourself to recruiters in a way that is compelling and interesting. Try reading out your narrative to a friend or partner and get their feedback. Would they want to hire you based on this?

Finally, writing out your story makes it easier to see what the next steps for yourself might be. Think about yourself as a character in a film, or as if someone was writing a biography about your life. Having gone through these experiences, what would this person do next?

Find the next steps to make your career story into a thrilling epic!

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