Monday, 30 April 2012

How to build a reputation in IT

There is well-known a skills-shortage for programming... but don't be fooled. There are a lot of programmers out there too. The skills shortage is about there being a lack of *good* programmers. Just rocking up with a bright new CS degree is generally not going to cut it for you. You'll just have shown up at the door along with the other thousands of new CS graduates in your city this year. So what can you do to stand out from the crowd? To prove that you are, in fact, worth being in demand? How do you build a reputation as somebody worth hiring?

There's no quick answer to this, but there is a reliable one:
It takes work.

It takes both time and effort - and the earlier you start, the better. Yes, you can (and should) start before you graduate (if possible). If you wait until afterwards, you'll be in the same pool as everybody else, hoping to be picked while you scrabble to make your resumé presentable. But if you've already been working on your reputation, then you'll be able to hit the ground running - and walk into a job as soon as you're free of university.

If you've already graduated (or you're not going through the higher-education system at all) don't worry. You can still do a lot to improve your rep - and the earlier you get started, the better you'll be.

Obviously, what you need to do will depend on your exact circumstances... so take what I say below with a grain of salt - as just one person's brainstorming session. Then figure out what you think will be good for you and just start.

Where do I start ? Should I start a blog?

Lots of places advise you start a blog... and they're kind of right. But if you're just starting out, you probably don't know exactly what to say yet. If you're just bursting with great ideas you can share (and I don't mean updates on what your sister said to you last week, or how cute your cat is), then great - go for it. A blog is a good way of showing the world you have something worth contributing... but be warned that a blog is not a get-hip-quick scheme. It generally takes about 2 years (minimum) to gain traction.

Sure, there are some notable exceptions - but they are very much the exception. Just like hundreds of attractive women coming to hollywood in the hopes of instantly becoming a star - thousands of new blogs get started in the hopes of becoming instantly famous... and most of them end up with the blog equivalent of a regular, average acting career after doing hours of work playing the dead body or acting super bouncy in hemorrhoid commercials.

So yes - start a blog if you like... but don't let that be your main focus just yet.

My best recommendation for you would be that you start out by actually coding something interesting.

Do some random side-projects and put them up on github.

Having a github account is an extremely useful recruiting tool. Much better (to the people that matter) than a plain-ole CV. You can actually show people your real code. Given that this is precisely what employers are trying to hire you for - it makes sense to have some available for them to see.

What's so interesting is just how few candidates actually bother to have any code samples at all... Most employers have to try to guess at how good a candidate really is by asking obscure technical questions - which are a second-hand guesstimation at coding ability at best. If you've got some actual code they can look at - it solves one of their biggest problems (ie whether or not the person is lying through their teeth about their programming skill). Even if your code isn't the world's best... and employer can accurately gauge your real ability... comparing that to the chance that a smooth-talker might be lying about what he/she can do, this is still a net plus.

Not sure what to work on?

Figure out something that you need yourself, or think would be cool to work on. It doesn't matter if it's been doe before - you're having a go to see how well you can do it - and show off to other people too. Yes, writing games is perfectly fine - it's how a lot of people get started, because it's fun as well as useful.

If you can't think of something yourself - have a look at the open source projects that are already out there. If you already use something (whether a tool or a game), go have a look at the code (it's free), look at the list of bugs for it (every project has one of these, though you may need to email the project owner to get a copy) and have a go at solving one of them. Then submit the code back to the project.

Another idea (if you still don't have any yet) are puzzle sites. Eg Project Euler or ruby-quiz. Work through them every week and see how far you can get. It'll tone up your problem-solving skills as well as building a back catalogue of code samples to throw at potential employers to show your mad skillz.

What about Startups?

Having a ago at a startup shows initiative and sticking power as well as all the other skills such as marketing ability. It also gives you valuable experience in the essential skill of "listening to what customers actually want"

If you have a cool idea for something you can build - try to find some like-minded friends who also want to build something, and team up. Extra people can help lessen the workload (allowing you to do more cool stuff in less time), or can flesh out areas where your expertise might be lacking (eg working back-end code if you're mostly good at front-end stuff).

Most importantly, though, is to just have a go at building something... and then shipping it!

It almost doesn't matter if you fail at a startup. You'll either have a) a product that is selling and making you money or b) some incredibly useful experience at working in a team with others and trying to get a product out to a market. As long as you aren't hocking the family home to pay for it, you can't lose.

If you don't have any like-minded friends just yet - I suggest going to hackdays and startup-weekends. A great example is launch48 - where people who want to try startups gather, and you get together to build one over the weekend. If that isn't near you, google for "(startup OR entrepreneur) internet" and your city and see what's nearby. You can also checkout the local internet entrepreneur groups in Finally, you could checkout MatchFounders to try and find like-minded potential-founders.

What else?

I'd also strongly recommend Stack Overflow - a question-answer help site for programming-related questions.

Solving other people's problems is a good way of showing you know your stuff. Even better is that you don't need to start with experience to help people out. There are a lot of newbies that post questions to S/O - and you may well have simply better google-fu than they do. Look through the latest-asked questions and see if you can solve any of the problems yourself by googling the answer. Then put an answer up. It doesn't matter if you're the first-answerer, as long as you get the answer right. If what you find out is helpful - you'll get voted up and will be literally building your reputation. If you get voted down - try to figure out why and do better next time. If nothing else - you'll have learned something new, and over time you'll learn the important art of effectively explaining things to others.

*Now* should I start a blog?

Only now, once you have been working on other things for a while, should you start a blog. Now, you'll have something to say...

What to blog about?

If you don't have a particular idea for your blog, I recommend you start out by blogging the solutions to problems you have in your other coding. This is a bit like Stack Overflow (and I recommend you submit your problems to both). However the approach you use on a blog is different to what you use on S/O. On S/O it's all about "here's the problem" and "here's the answer". A blog post is about the journey. How did you come across the problem? Why was it a problem for you? What did you try to solve it? How did that work out? People want to know about dead-ends too - as they want to know what to avoid if they find themselves in a similar situation. What finally worked? Who helped you? If you got help from somebody, or found a tutorial online - a linkback to them is a great way to give back.

Anything else?

So as I said - this is just my own personal brainstorming session, based on one person asking me about it... I'd love to know about other ideas for building online reputation. What worked for you? What have you heard working for other people? What did you try and backfired?

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