Whether you’re an IT novice fresh out of college or someone who is “changing gears” by learning a different skill set mid-career, you’re likely to run into a Catch-22: how can you gain experience without a having a job, and how can you get a job without experience? College is one answer and there are plenty of options for both federal and private student loans. Internships are another answer, but what if the internship duration isn’t long enough (many employers look for years of on-the-job practice, not months)? And what if you’re not able to get your “foot in the door” with an internship at all? Worry not, for there are several routes to go to add valuable experience to your resume.
1. Volunteer for non-profit organizations
This is perhaps the best of way to obtain experience. Many not-for-profit organizations have a very meager budget for IT-related needs, so often their websites suffer (if they even have a site). That’s where you come in. Volunteer to build or improve their site for free. The amount of money you may “lose” will be more than made up for with the experience you’ll gain. And if the organization is actually a cause you believe in, you will help by furthering the cause. Plus, projects done for highly-respected, professional organizations look a lot better on your resume to future employees than work done on your friend’s cousin’s video game site.
2. Offer services on job boards
A great method to get side work is to advertise your services (which again, will be for free) on technical-oriented and career boards. Perhaps someone is just looking for a logo or two to be made. Or they might need assistance with a script. These small favors to others may seem insignificant on the grand scheme of things, but it’s another project you can add to your resume. Additionally, since you’re doing it for free for someone, you’ll have a grateful new associate who you could use as a tech reference.
3. Befriend more experienced developers
Making friends with older programmers and developers is a terrific way to gain knowledge not only in the skill set you’re in, but with other skills as well. This is especially beneficial when your pal deals heavily into server and networking technologies (something many novice coders find difficult getting exposure to). Have them take you under their wing. Offer your time and skills — however limited they may be — to them whenever they may need it as “payment“.
4. Network with other developers and share ideas
If there are local developer support groups in your area, join them. Attend conferences, lectures, and trade shows. Sign up for technology-based mailing lists. Sign up on social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook and see if you can connect with other developers, IT managers and recruiters. After you do all this, TALK. Participate. Introduce yourself to others. The reason is, the more people you network with, the more likely you can gain priceless insights on who’s hiring and for what positions; learn of new languages and technologies; tips and tricks for coding; discover events and projects that you can proffer yourself to; and you might just gain a few good friends on the way. The old adage is regularly true in the tech world: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
5. Form a symbiotic relationship with another developer
The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” philosophy works wonders in the computer world. Form partnerships with other developers to compliment each other’s strengths. If your partner specializes in back-end development and you focus on front-end work, team up to create a complete site or application. During the project duration, you could learn from your collaborator and he/she could learn from you. You’ll both gain valuable exposure, knowledge, and experience.
6. Offer low-cost or free redesigns for existing sites.
It’s a “win-win” situation. You get important experience while a site gets a much-needed makeover.
Offer to drastically reduce your fees (or eliminate them altogether) to sweeten the offer for your client and clinch the deal. Be careful in your approach, though. Don’t be an annoying, “ambulance-chasing” webmaster and aggressively badger every badly-designed site you see. A more polite, conservative, and non-intrusive contact approach is fine.
7. Stay current with the latest technologies
Sometimes it’s not enough to know what’s going on in your little “corner” of the development world. Find out the latest happenings in web technology in general: the up-to-the-minute trends, the newest languages, and how other technologies effect your skills. Baffled by the seemingly endless array of acronyms that are flooding modern computer jargon? Research them, study them, and maybe read a primer on what other languages and tools to which they pertain. Find out if there have been any changes to web browsers and how they might effect your coding. Read up on the newest server technologies. Investigate what is supposed to be hot one year from now, two years, three years, five years.
I’m not suggesting to spread yourself thin and thoroughly learn every language under the sun; there’s far too much to cover and most of it will be obsolete by the time you become proficient at it all. What I’m advising is that you gain at least a basic familiarity with technologies that one could theoretically come across in your field. You should set aside an extra 20-30 minutes per day to explore and stay current. By doing this, you’ll become more adaptable, flexible, and confident when newer technologies gain prominence in the IT marketplace, AND you’ll make yourself a more seasoned, experienced developer.