How to Level-Up Your Programming Career

We may not like to admit it, but recruiters and resume screeners see “tiers” in candidates. When they review a resume, it’s not just about matching a Java programmer to a Java role; it’s also about questions like, “Is this candidate good enough? Is he or she likely to pass our interviews? Would he or she be a strong performer if hired?” Note that these questions are not just about if you possess knowledge of the right languages and technologies. In fact, sometimes that’s not even a significant factor. You can debate all you’d like about whether or not recruiters should do this, but it’s barely debatable that they do. For example, an Amazon recruiter hiring for a team that works with C++ would likely prefer a Google engineer who’s been working with Java over a C++ programmer working for a small medical device company. Although the latter candidate has the right knowledge, the former candidate is bucketed – rightly or wrongly – as being in the right “tier.”

So how do you present yourself as being in a higher tier ASAP? It’s not about learning the right technologies (although that can help); it’s about doing the right things.

What is the right thing? Projects.

Yep, we’re going back to high school and college. You need to work on your [coding] extra-curriculars.

Spend your next free weekend building an iPhone app, a web app, or a desktop app. What you work on isn’t terribly important; it’s more important that you show that you’ve built a real, “meaty” project. A weekend or two is enough time to build something serious. This means that in just one or two months of work, you can have 3 – 4 major projects to show on your resume.

Projects demonstrate a passion for coding and an ability to go above and beyond. Even if your work experience doesn’t shine, your projects can. I’ve seen a number of candidates go from almost no interviews to countless interviews with just this simple change.

And, there’s an added benefit: diversification. If you have been pigeonholed as a Java programmer – or even as a tester -- and want to shift into being a Ruby on Rails developer, projects are a great way to get that experience.