How to Become a Software Engineer (and Thrive in The Process)

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A career in software development can be a fantastic choice in financial, professional, and even personal levels.

If there ever was a time to become a software engineer, it definitely has to be right now. A lot of people are saying that all companies will eventually turn into digital companies. Demand for software grows with each passing year. There are plenty of jobs available – and there’s even a talent shortage! And last but not least: being a developer has a median pay of more than $105,000 a year, 3 times the median annual wage for US workers.

So, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me you wanted to switch careers to start developing apps. A quick Google search can show you that a lot of people already did that same switch. Yet, if you pay attention to those people telling their stories, you’ll notice something common for all of them: transitioning to a software development careers isn’t easy.

Learning how to become a software engineer takes a lot of time and effort, sure, but also a lot of guidance. The software development field is so vast that you can get lost pretty easily and get discouraged even more easily. A lot of people that made the transition recount their experiences with the same spirit. They all want to share the things they all would have wanted to know before doing such a significant change in their professional lives.

That’s precisely why I’m writing this article. A career in software development can be a fantastic choice in financial, professional, and even personal levels. But you have to make sure you do it right. And though there’s no written formula as to how to make that switch, there are certain things that you need to know before jumping into software development. Here are the most important ones.

 

Start With a Goal – and Stick to it

Before taking online coding courses, signing up for college, or even reading about programming, you need to lay strong foundations for your new career. That’s why is better if you devise some sort of a plan as your first step.

What should you preview? First and foremost, think about why you want to make the switch in the first place. It may be because you want to build applications. Perhaps you want to work on a tech startup. Maybe you want to be paid well. It doesn’t matter as long as you make it crystal clear why you are doing this. You’ll need a goal on the horizon to keep going.

Then, you’ll need to define what language will you learn. This is where things start to get tricky. There are a lot of languages out there. It will obviously depend on which kind of things you want to work on. You can go for a backend development language like Python. You could choose to work on the front end with a language like Javascript. You could even learn one of the emerging languages like Kotlin or Go.

A lot of people will tell you that the best place to start is by learning Ruby. That’s because it is easily readable, efficient, open-source, and has a strong community around it. You can definitely start with Ruby but don’t feel like it’s the right fit for you only because other people say so.

To tell you the truth, there are no formulas here. You’ll have to read a little about software development and its different languages to see which feels more appropriate for you. There is a suggestion you can follow here, though. Stick to one language and learn it well because learning an additional language after that (something you’ll have to do eventually) will be far easier after you’ve mastered one.

It’s not that all languages are the same. But once you’ve learned one, you’ll already know how to tackle the learning process itself. In other words, you’d have put yourself in a developer’s mindset, an essential thing to go ahead.  

 

Study, Practice, Study, Practice

Once you’ve settled with the language you want to learn, you’ll have to start learning and practicing. And practicing. And then practicing a little more. You’ll only learn a programming language if you sit and work with it every day. Without a full commitment to learning the language, you’ll never ever become a software engineer. 

Now, there are several paths you can take to learn whatever language you’ve chosen. You can always go for a college degree, as there are even online master’s degrees that are as solid as choosing an on-campus alternative (and cheaper, for that matter). But feel free to learn to code by yourself. With enough discipline, you can take one of the many online courses on Coursera, Udacity or any similar platform. 

There are plenty of books, forums, and online communities that can help you learn, as well. And there are also conferences that give you the opportunity to listen to experts, get a sense of the software development world, and start networking (trust me, you’ll need this later on if you truly wish to work on software development).

Finally, your plan should contemplate the tools you’ll use. You’ll do a ton of reading, sure, but you’ll have to put what you learn into practice. Otherwise, you’ll never truly become a software engineer. It’s true that online courses offer test platforms and online exams for you to take, but it’s better if you learn to work with the real tools right from the get-go.

Working in your terminal, handling Git and GitHub, delving into test-driven development, and even taking part in group projects should all be items in your learning plan. I can’t put enough emphasis on group projects and collaborations. Developing (or learning to do so) along people with years of experience will let you learn how to read code and ask for help when you don’t understand something.

 

Pay Attention to Soft Skills

If you are coming from a job or career that helped you develop some soft skills, you might not need to worry about this. However, it doesn’t hurt if I point out that keeping them sharp is essential for software developers these days.

You might believe that software engineering is mostly sitting around to write code alone in front of a computer. Yet, that’s not the case at all. Engineers work in teams, so they spend a lot of time talking and communicating with one another, with their managers, and even with their clients. So, communication and teamwork are essential abilities you’ll need for your new career.

 

 

Creativity, time management, decision-making, and open-mindedness are other soft skills you’ll have to develop if you don’t have them already. Since software development will often require you to find new ways of doing things, optimize old code, or develop products that only exist in theory, spending some time honing these skills is something you have to do while you prepare to work as a software engineer – and continue doing so after you’ve become one.

Fortunately for you, there are plenty of platforms and tools you can use to train yourself in all of that. What’s most important, you can adopt some habits that will surely pay off once you start developing. Things like creating tasks with due dates, taking notes of the work you have to do, and creating charts of processes are some of the activities that will help you while you study but that will become insanely important when you code “in the real world.”

 

Software Development isn’t About Coding

Say what? Yeah, you read that right. Whenever people try to make the switch to software development, they all imagine that they will be writing lines of code after lines of code, day in and day out. Blame that on Hollywood movies or stock photos crowning a lot of development articles. 

The truth is that, as a software engineer, you’ll spend most of your time reviewing, reusing, and recycling code rather than writing a new one. In fact, you’ll see yourself reading existing code and debugging it a lot of the time. And when you aren’t doing that, you’d probably be researching what can you do to add features or optimize your product without having to write more code.

That’s because we are at a point in software development that a lot of the things you’ll want your software to do are already developed. If you take a brief moment to look for online resources, you’ll see that there are literally thousands of frameworks and libraries you can use. Chances are that the vast majority of the time you’ll only have to use something someone else has done and only figure out how it can fit in your work. 

Though this all might sound as if coding is an afterthought, it obviously isn’t. To read code, debug, test, reuse, and review existing products, you’ll naturally know what you’re dealing with. Knowing how to read code, interpret the documentation, and learning the tools you have available to work will require a deep knowledge about the language or languages of your choice, so even if you won’t spend that much time working on new code, you definitely need to know how to do it to work in software development. 

 

Prepare to Land your Dream Job

Yes, projections might say that software development jobs will grow a staggering 21% in the next 10 years. However, don’t think for a second that such availability will guarantee you a software engineering career. It’s true that there’s a talent shortage but having theoretical knowledge doesn’t translate into an instant job.

As with any other profession, you’ll need to prepare for companies to see you as the development rockstar you aspire to be. That means a lot of things, apart from the more technical stuff. It means, for instance, that you’ll have to know how to market yourself to them. This means that you’ll have to learn how to reach out to companies looking for talent, prepare your social profiles (especially LinkedIn), and have an online portfolio to showcase your work.

More importantly, there’s networking. Remember that I said you should attend conferences to meet new people in the industry? Yeah, don’t take that lightly. Those conferences (and any software development events you can go to) are the places where you’ll probably meet your future employer. So make sure to go out there, introduce yourself, and talk about your prospects.

A lot of people go to those events with the same goal, so you might as well prepare for battle. You’ll have to learn how to pitch what you have to offer, have a strong knowledge of your capabilities, and, again, have some work ready to show to anyone interested. Your portfolio doesn’t have to include complex algorithms or anything like that. It’s enough if you can show clean products that show you know your way around coding (and that you do so following good practices).

 

Making the Switch: Tough but Rewarding

All of the above isn’t necessarily a comprehensive review of everything you’ll have to do to become a software engineer. In fact, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it means to turn to a software development career. However, you’ve probably noticed one thing – it takes a lot of work and effort to do so.

I’m not trying to discourage you here. That’s the truth. Software engineering isn’t easy and will frustrate you in a lot of different ways. But a lot of people have already made the switch and you can too. The main thing you should take away from this article is this: you have to find a way to learn that better fits you.

That might be taking online classes, attending college, or just reading books and coding your days away. Whatever path you choose to take, it’ll be a challenging one. Yet, remember that there are a lot of people out there that know how hard it is to become a software engineer and are eager to help you on your own path. Don’t hesitate to ask for help and don’t give up – the future belongs to software engineers. 

 

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