There’s no doubt graduate schemes offer a brilliant chance for graduates in tech to network, develop a career plan and focus on learning and development. For better or for worse, they’re often viewed as ‘fast tracks’ to promotion. Unfortunately, if you find yourself in the position of being a junior developer without the kind of structured progression a grad scheme provides, it can be hard to know where to start in order to progress and succeed.
Apprenticeship schemes offer an alternative to this dilemma. An apprenticeship can be great learning and development opportunities, but the trade-off is a much lower salary and intense competition for places. If you’ve been through a bootcamp or a long journey on a self-learning path, an apprenticeship can seem like an odd fit.
Many of us, with or without degrees, will find ourselves in entry-level roles where we have to find our own way. I’ve drawn on my own experiences, and others, to provide some guidance on how to navigate the world of career development, learning and networking outside of grad and apprenticeship schemes.
Think breadth, not just depth.
As a junior in tech, you’ll have to nail the foundations of the job, whether it’s front-end web development, data analysis or UX design. However, job rotations and career plans for graduates and apprentices often provide the invaluable opportunity to diversify on-the-job experience by working across different teams. This often isn’t the case for those of us who entered into a company through a different route. The way to combat this as a non-grad or non-apprentice is to broaden your experience with a range of projects. Companies rarely look for specialisation in who they promote these days. A more generalist approach can serve you well, not only for your own career progression, but for understanding a range of technologies and strategic business goals. Along the way, you’ll build connections, business knowledge, and technical understanding quickly.
Doing this requires you to be proactive and outspoken about your goals. It also means you’ll have to look outside your comfort zone for opportunities. So…
Ask to be challenged.
When you’re new to a challenging field, it might seem ridiculous to ask to be challenged further. However, lots of us learn early on that one of the best ways to grow as in the workplace is to reach outside our comfort zone. Mekka Okereke made a great Twitter thread about ‘stretch opportunities’ — the kinds of projects that give you a little more to do than you’ve done previously, but don’t overwhelm you. It’s well worth a read.
Finding ‘stretch opportunities’ requires being honest with your manager when you feel under-stimulated at work, or even when you just want to try something new. Good managers will foster this curiosity in their junior staff, so seek out frequent one-to-one conversations about your career goals and interests. This kind of enthusiasm and self-awareness will set you apart from the crowd, and it will mean you learn more intentionally.
However, perhaps the most important part of asking for challenging work (outside the personal development benefits) is that it helps build your reputation. It can be difficult to get your name out there, particularly in medium/large sized companies where someone not working on a grad or apprenticeship scheme often has dozens fewer contacts than their other colleagues on these programs. Making a name for yourself not only builds your own confidence, it communicates to others that you’d be an asset to any team.
One of the many perks that come with being on a graduate or apprenticeship scheme is the network of peers you have around you. This is one of the hardest things to build outside of these schemes, but it’s a necessary step if you want to grow your professional profile. Building a network means putting the time in to foster connections both inside and outside of your workplace. One of the quickest ways I found to build an internal network was to tell my manager what areas of technology I was interested in. I mentioned wanting to work in customer/user experience and he gave me a list of names of people to reach out to. I then made enquiries about shadowing them for a day or how to go about one day getting a spot on their teams.
Yet, to build a really powerful network, you have to look externally too. There is a huge community online consisting of developers, designers and cyber experts. Tapping into this is often the best way to keep abreast of new job opportunities and new technical developments in your field. I find Twitter to be more lively than LinkedIn or Facebook. It’s led me countless brilliant blogs, newsletters, job boards, Slack groups and local meetups.
Speaking of local meetups, they’ve led to some of the most fulfilling professional relationships I’ve made in my first year as a software developer. If you have the time to get involved, they’re often the best way to broaden your horizons and see the different career options out there for you. Don’t limit yourself to professional meetups, either! I’ve met dozens of people in my local community, from business owners to librarians, who might lead me to future clients one day.
Invest in your own training and development.
Hopefully, any good company will have a learning and development budget. Unfortunately, it can run out fast. And sometimes, we just want to learn things that aren’t directly relevant to our everyday work. While apprentice schemes often have structured learning pathways, chances for everyone else to learn are often thin on the ground. After all the emails, Skype calls and meetings in a day, it can be tiring to even think about using more brainpower to learn something new, but I promise it’s one of the fastest ways to get ahead.
A really wise person once told me that ‘no-one can take your education away from you’. Time spent investing in your own development, even if it’s just a couple of hours a week, is time well spent. The hours I’ve dedicated to learning and working on my own projects have led to my growing professional confidence. It’s also provided reassurance that I can fend for myself with freelance work if I find myself out of a 9–5 job.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) find the time outside work to learn something new, talk to your manager about an 80/20 split where you spend 80% of your time at work on your day job and the other 20% learning. As they realise the value of an intellectually-engaged workforce, many workplaces are now encouraging initiatives like no-meeting Fridays to gibe their employees the time for learning and development.
Don’t be afraid to take a leap.
Not feeling fulfilled in your job role? If you’ve tried everything and your current company just isn’t taking you where you want to go, try looking further afield.
Jamie, a software engineer at J.P. Morgan, found this was the best strategy for her career development. After working in two small agencies, she managed to triple her income in three years by not staying in any position longer than she needed to. She’s now in a position where she’s has more knowledge and experience than some of her peers who jumped straight into a grad scheme.
“The biggest tip for progression is don’t feel you owe anyone anything.” — Jamie (@developerontour)
While this course of action might not be for everyone, it’s an example of how investing in your own learning and thinking broadly about your career goals can give you a leg up. The tech industry is so vast and, in many countries, tech skills are in very high demand. If you’re comfortable using that to your advantage, go for it!