How to Stand Out as an Entry-Level Software Engineer
July 16, 2020
Starting your career as a software engineer can be challenging, especially if it’s your first job. I was there eight years ago, starting at my first tech job after moving to a new city, speaking a new language. Books, experiences, and people taught me how to navigate the early part of my career, so I thought I’d highlight a few of those lessons I learned with this post. I hope that applying some of these will make you stand out and accelerate your early career as a developer.
Always be learning
You don’t stop learning after you leave college or your Bootcamp; learning is considered a lifelong journey in this field. Read books and articles, take courses, and participate in workshops and hackathons. Bonus Tip: Sometimes, companies pay for you to do all this, ask your manager if this is something you can expense.
Don’t assume existing code is untouchable
Well-intentioned code can have anti-patterns in it, be hard to read, get stale over time, and it can create bugs. So go ahead and suggest a change to the code, it may need it.
Healthy Habits = Good Code
Keeping healthy habits may sound obvious, but we don’t often apply it. We need to move, sleep, and eat well to have the energy we need to be great. For example, it took me a long time to realize that delicious but heavy lunch meals would make me feel tired every afternoon, which affected my performance and meant I had to work longer hours to compensate for it. Everyone’s different, but learn what your body needs and treat it well.
If in doubt, underpromise and overdeliver
This is especially true early on, but it continues to be right for me eight years later. If your goal is to match and exceed expectations consistently, it is best to consistently deliver on your goals and surprise people with your speed than to promise the moon but always be late.
Embrace the grunt work
See a problem? Volunteer to help fix it. See an area of improvement? Say yes to working on it. Being proactive has multiple benefits. As a result of it, the product improves, the productivity and morale of those around you go up, you learn a new skill, and you gain the respect of others. You can then use this goodwill and track record to work on more exciting things over time.
Code is social
It’s pretty standard for engineers to review each other’s code at software companies. Don’t think this is only something that only experienced engineers do, though. Review your teammates’ code and learn from it. Don’t just read it, but also comment on it and ask questions. Learn from how people write code.
Feedback = Improvement
Explicitly ask for feedback from your manager and teammates. Use this feedback to transform yourself continuously. Remember that one of the best ways to learn is by doing the wrong thing, realizing why it’s wrong, and then not doing it anymore. Rinse and repeat.
Take ownership of something
Work with your manager to find something that can be yours. Working on a project of your own gives you a way to be unique, learn about all the stages of development, and cultivate accountability.
Look for the low-hanging fruits
There are many small things in the codebase that you can do with your current skillset. Taking these on and showing off your skills right away is an excellent way to get noticed.
Don’t forget that experienced engineers have screwed up before
We made the same mistakes you’re making, probably even more of them. We just learned from them already, so we look better to you now x years later.
Show up every day to discuss problems, answer your teammates’ questions, celebrate wins, and provide the very least moral support when things go wrong. You want others to think that you’ve been at the company for much longer.
It’s a good idea to be humble in general, but you also want to communicate your thoughts, even if you lack experience. People like to see new people with different perspectives add to the conversation.
Talk to your teammates, not just the engineers. It may not seem obvious now, but your job satisfaction will likely have a lot to do how comfortable you feel with the people around you. You’ll spend time with them 40 hours a week, which is close to half of your waking life.
Rely on your manager
Ask your manager to help you plan out your goals and to keep you accountable. They’re there for you, use their time and support wisely.
You want to enjoy doing this because you’ll likely be doing it for many years. Find projects that connect with you, work on problems that excite you.
Have lunch, coffee with more experienced engineers, develop a rapport with them and ask them every question you have, most of them won’t mind it, and some of them will even love to talk to you (I find myself in this camp).
It’s a long journey, but I hope this can serve you in your first several years. Above all else, stay true to yourself.
Hi. My name is Xavier. I'm a software engineer living in NYC. I currently lead engineering at Heroic and previously worked at startups like Codecademy and Venmo. I write about my experience in the software industry, happiness, and productivity.
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