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10 steps to becoming a professional coder

10 steps to becoming a professional coder
Photo by Hunters Race / Unsplash

There are a lot of obstacles to becoming a coder. You need a ton of education and specialized degrees and at least a few internships to get your foot in the door for minimal career progression overall…

....Luckily, none of that is true, or well at least not for coding. The truth is that becoming a coder is more about your willingness to learn a new skill more than anything else. The barrier to entry to being a coder is pretty low, but it definitely pays off in the long run, even if you don’t pursue coding right away.

Through our experience with Altcademy, we’ve seen a lot of different career paths and progressions that professional coders take. In this guide, we’ll explore some of the crucial steps needed to become a professional coder and how to ensure you get the best return on investment when you decide to learn to code.

Step 1: So why do you want to code?

Before you embark on this journey of learning, you have to take a step back to identify your why. Without that, it’s easy to get discouraged and lose interest. Having clear and realistic goals will help keep you motivated throughout the process.

For example, you might want to learn it for personal reasons or pick up a new and engaging hobby, so something like “I want to be able to write interesting software myself” might resonate with you.

Professionally, your goal for learning coding could be to find a well-paying position or enhance your skillset and go for a promotion at work by adding a new skill to your resume.

Or it might be a more entrepreneurial reason such as “I have a business idea, and I want to be able to build it out myself ”or “I want to understand what my outsourced programmers are doing.”

Step 2: Define your end goals.

Okay, so now you have a broad idea of what you want. It’s now time to make it more specific because, again, that ups your chances of success. Abstract goals are the building blocks, but the details help ensure that you’re realistic about what you’re seeking.

So, for example, let’s take the reasoning for wanting a full-time coding career. What position would you like to be in initially? Internships? Full-time? Part-time? Freelance?

What is the expected initial pay for these positions? And of course, the big one, where do you want to live? Would you want to be remote or find a local position? Would you be willing to move to a tech hub like Silicon Valley or a big city for work? What is your timeline for making this all happen?

These are a lot of big questions, and it might seem overwhelming, but think of this as a mental exercise to help you understand what you’re prioritizing. Giving it a timeline enables you to stay on track.

So your end goal may end up looking something like this:

  • “I want to find a web development job in a big corp as a full-time employee in NYC after six months of learning.
  • “I’m hoping to find a mobile development job in a startup as a part-time employee in California after 12 months of learning.”
  • “I want to find freelance work while working remotely within the next two years.”

You can shift around the goals based on your timeline and needs, but this gives you an idea of how specific goals take shape.

This is also the time when you choose your specialization. What resonates with you, and what kinds of roles are you gravitating towards as a professional coder?

If you’re not sure, there are many different functions and roles where coding is needed. Some options include:

  • software developer
  • web developer
  • mobile app developer
  • game developer
  • data analysts

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, and there are many different opportunities for professional coders depending on your interests and professional development.

Once you have your specific goal, here’s a little tip: Post your goals visually on your washroom mirror, so you are reminded about your end goals every day! It’s a great way to remind yourself of what you’re working towards.

Step 3: Choose the right resources to help you achieve your goals

Becoming a professional coder is an investment, but it shouldn’t completely drain your resources. The goal is to find programs that help you achieve your goals affordably, realistically, and quickly.

When evaluating professional coding programs, some of the critical aspects to consider include:

  • Price: What is your budget, and do you have enough money to see you through your timeline?
  • Duration / Time Commitment: How long does the program take to complete on average? What kind of time commitment is needed, and will you be able to balance it with other responsibilities?
  • Location: Remote or in-person will be the big decision to make for this.
  • Curriculum: What kind of topics do they teach, and how much is practical versus theory? Do they offer mentoring, networking, and/or other resources to balance out the educational aspect?

There are many different approaches to learning how to code. Once you’ve decided what kind of program you’re looking for, the next step is to identify what type of learning paths are available:

Self-learning: On the surface, it sounds simple. You’ll learn through Googling, watching Youtube videos, and buying a few textbooks. It’s easy to get started, but you’ll find that it takes way too long, and it’ll ultimately waste your time. Without structure, it’s easy to lose focus and motivation.

Cheap online courses: Again, this sounds easy! Cheap courses are insanely low-priced and structured, so it’s a win-win...right? Unfortunately, with these courses, the price reflects its quality. The cheap courses are lacking in many ways: no comprehensive curriculum, no access to real-world coding exercises with mentorship guidance or mentorship support, and no guarantee for anyone to answer your questions.

Full-time coding boot camps: These are great for structure and motivation, but the price tag is a barrier. These types of boot camps can be incredibly expensive, usually ranging from $15-25k. It’s a big financial commitment that may end up demotivating you.

Online coding boot camps: Options like Altcademy are great for learning how to code in an affordable, structured way. We offer a self-paced, part-time friendly approach that will get you involved with comprehensive & real-world projects and provide access to mentors for support, advice, and guidance. A win-win!

Step 4: No self-doubt before you begin learning

It’s easy to psych yourself out, especially early on. Can you really do this? First of all, yes, you can. Secondly, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to learn, why wouldn’t you be successful?

Learning how to code is about developing a skillset, and it’s possible as long as you trust that you can push yourself. We’ve written before about self-doubt and coding, and there are a few key things to discuss in this context.

Learning to code is about having grit, commitment, and perseverance, even when you get stuck. And for that matter, when you do get stuck, it’s an entirely normal thing that happens to everyone. It does not reflect on your skills as a coder, so don’t get discouraged.

Learning how to code is supposed to be challenging but no more challenging than learning math when you were 7. It’s unfamiliar, so it’s easy to feel discouraged but don’t let it take over.

Every programmer went through the same challenges and struggles as you did; they all did the hard work...and no one is a “genius.” It’s hard work and determination that are integral for learning how to code, not some crazy, unrealistic level of knowledge (despite what the movies show!).

Step 5: Start learning now!

The best way to learn? Just start now. There’s nothing more important than that in actually learning how to code. Don’t put it off until tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. Once you know what you want to do, go for it.

And once you start, keep going! Try to keep the momentum going; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Code every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes. A little goes a long way in helping you stay motivated and keep your goal in sight throughout.

Step 6: Improve your learning efficiency and effectiveness

Learning how to code is about gaining a skillset, but it’s also about adopting a certain way of acquiring knowledge. Don’t dive straight into the deep end by trying to solve a bunch of complex coding challenges. Get your foundation solid before learning the concepts first.

This is important and transferable knowledge. Concepts are agnostic of programming language so that you can switch between different languages in the future. It’s the base on which you’re going to grow.

Once you feel confident in concepts, it’s time to move on to real-world problems to solidify your understanding of the concepts. This is when you apply your learnings to write actual software and test your knowledge. You can pick any popular programming language because it’s about trying to learn the concepts, not just the programming languages.

However, throughout your learning, it’s crucial to remember that it’s about understanding, not memorizing.

With coding, it’s not about forcing your brain to memorize every single thing. Software developers always refer to “documentations,” which are essentially like dictionaries. You need to focus on the situation, how things are done, and how you apply your knowledge to building real software based on what you know, not what you memorized.

Step 7: Build a portfolio project with depth, not breadth

Alright, so now you’ve acquired the concepts and know-how, it’s time to put everything together. It’s time to build a project that shows off your skills!

For your project, you should be scoping a small project with technical depth. Working on a big project might seem appealing, but it’ll take too much time, and you won’t be able to get the details just right. With a smaller project, you can work on the details more, and it’ll highlight your technical expertise. It’ll give you opportunities to prove your skills by solving challenges.

Remember, solving a small but hard problem. By doing so, you demonstrate that you are technically capable of solving difficult problems without needing to dedicate an immense amount of time.

Step 8: Find your first junior developer job.

With the concepts and skills acquired, it’s time to start looking for jobs. Think of the specific goals that you laid out initially and use them as the benchmark to search and apply for positions.

When searching for positions, first pick your focus: do you want to work for startups or big corporations?

For startups, you need to demonstrate the following to be successful:

  • The ability to build a complete product
  • Your interest in the startup industry
  • Your willingness to take multiple jobs under one title

The pros of working at a startup include:

  • It’s an easier entry into the field.
  • The requirements for technical skills are comparatively lower.
  • You’ll get more experience in most parts of a project, so it’ll be more “full-stack.”

For big corporations, you’ll need to highlight the following:

  • Technical skills through interview questions and algorithm questions.
  • Previous work experiences.
  • Whether you’re a “fit” for the big corporation.

The pros for working at a big corporation include:

  • Well-paid positions with stable income.
  • The technical skills requirements are higher, so while it’s less junior-friendly, there are more opportunities for interesting challenges and work.
  • You’ll likely work on only one part of a project.

Where to job-hunt

Online portals such as AngelList, LinkedIn, and Indeed are usually the best sources. However, friends and professional networks can also help. Reach out to your friends and network to see if they are working on interesting problems at a company. Message them and see if they have an opening, and ask your friends to connect you with their other friends to expand your network at this stage. Networking events and job fairs are also excellent resources for job-hunting.

Step 9: Almost there! Specialize even after you’ve got a job

Even after you’ve succeeded in a position, you can take steps to remain competitive, but choosing a specialization in software can help accomplish this. Ideally, you should choose a specialization based on your interest because that enables you to persevere in the long run.

There are many different options for specializing in software, so it should be relatively easy to find something that reflects your interests well.

  • Front-end: You become good at HTML/CSS or React
  • Back-end: You become good at databases and APIs)
  • Machine learning: You use your programming foundations to learn a brand new field and focus more on artificial intelligence
  • Data analytics
  • Cybersecurity
  • Mobile app development
  • Game development
  • Blockchain technologies

Step 10: You might be done, but you should never stop learning

So you’ve made it this far, congratulations! It means you’re a determined person, and you’re going to be great at learning how to code. If you’re passionate about gaining new, exciting goals and striving for personal and career growth, this is the right path for you.

Even after you’ve learned how to code, you shouldn’t lose your drive to learn and grow. As you achieve your goals in the future, set more! You can do way more than you think you can, and this is just the first step in your journey!